Mario Party has an odd legacy among Nintendo’s many franchises. While in most cases, the company seems happy to release one or two entries in a given series for a console generation before calling it a day, they released 10 Mario Parties over the course of eight years -- quite a number by any standard, but especially for Nintendo.
As a result, it’s no wonder they ultimately decided in 2007 to give it a five-year break before releasing another installment for the Wii. When Mario was finally ready to party again, the hiatus seemed to do the series some good, bringing some fresh -- albeit controversial -- new ideas in the 2012 release of Mario Party 9.
Mario Party: Island Tour is not only the first new release since its return, but it is also the first portable installment not saddled with the name of the platform it’s on in the title. Could this indicate a continuing effort to inject more creativity into the series, or is it merely a simple cover for another title that falls back on old habits?
Mini-games lie at the heart of every Mario Party, and Island Tour is no different in this regard. You can play them as part of the series’ board game, in a pseudo-gauntlet of challenges through the single-player Bowser’s Tower, with a hot air balloon race-themed "first to X wins" framework, or even a la carte in the "Free Play" mode. The 81 different mini-games included here are fun, but aside from a few unlockable boss battles from Bowser’s Tower (more on that in a few), they by and large return to the formula of being mini-games featuring Mario, rather than Mario-themed mini-games.
The distinction is subtle, but not insignificant: In many Mario Party games, including this one, there are many mini-games which simply seem to have Mario and his friends inserted as they do things like count the number of diamonds a Cheep Cheep has swallowed, or pulling back a rubber band to try to get a car as close to the platform’s ledge as possible without going over.
By contrast, Mario Party 9 felt like it was on the right track was by featuring mini-games which felt like actual Mario world activities, such as dodging Thwomps or bowling for Goombas with a Koopa Troopa shell against the backdrop of the stage-end fortresses from New Super Mario Bros. One might hope this sequel would continue along the same path, but many games feel like they could be completely interchangeable with those in Wii Party U. They're not bad, but they lack that little extra push to make them feel more Mario.
Nor are they totally devoid of charm and personality. A submarine race features craft which look remarkably similar to the Marine Pop of Super Mario Land fame, and you’ll notice amusing nods to Nintendo’s history in the names of such mini-games as "Mild Gunman," "Deck Hunt," and "Tile Savvy." And while there's no reason for it to specifically be Goombas to be the creatures you lasso in the corral mini-game, or to be the ones marching in a parade through a path full of dangerous plants, their presence adds a little extra fun to the proceedings.
The mini-games run a gamut of control styles, too: You'll use the Circle Pad and buttons, the stylus, the microphone, and even motion control. Fortunately, the options allow you to elect not to play the mic games. You’re not so lucky with the motion control games, which can be problematic, depending on where you’re playing. While playing solo can be fun, that enjoyment feels rather finite when compared to the multiplayer. And while playing with others is indeed more enjoyable, many people may find it difficult to get a full crowd of four together.
Of course, each player will need their own 3DS -- that's par for the course with portable games -- getting everyone together in one location is where things can become problematic. Online gameplay would really be a boon for Mario Party, but as with so many Nintendo titles, it’s not to be. We can appreciate Nintendo’s efforts to keep gaming social locally, but add the lack of online to the fact that there are mini-games and entire boards here that require three or four players (no computer-controlled players allowed), and you wind up with chunks of the game that some people may never see. Despite the lack of online connectivity, Island Tour still does well with what it has to offer players who fly solo. There are the traditional game boards, which instead of calling for collecting stars (save for one), are basically races to the finish. These can be fun, though if you wouldn’t consider yourself a lucky person, then you should probably stay away. Winning is a matter of not only skill, but luck as well, and if you only have the former, then the latter is going to crush you, which is why our Island Tour win-loss record currently looks like it belongs to Barry Horowitz.
In addition to the game boards, which each have their own unique requirements, lengths, and obstacles (such as Banzai Bills blasting you back to the start), there is also the new Bowser’s Tower. In this single player-only story mode (such as it is), you’ll go up many stories of the structure, choosing from one of two mini-games to compete in on most floors, with others providing boss battles which are unlocked in the Free Play mode when completed. If the game boards are too fussy for you, but you still want some sort of frame to tie everything together, this mode works great.
Ultimately, Mario Party: Island Tour isn’t a bad game, but it feels kind of average for the series, which is still pretty good. However, the choice of platform and the lack of online options may act as a bit of a hurdle towards being able to enjoy the game to its fullest. If you’re more of a wallflower than a social butterfly, though, then you can still have some fun with this.
The Nitty Gritty
Visuals: The visuals vary in quality across the board; while many of the characters and backgrounds look good, Bowser looks a little on the low-polygon side. Seeing the same artwork on the title screen of Mario and friends as what’s been featured for numerous games before it seems to indicate they didn’t quite go all-out here.
Music: The music isn’t bad, but most of it isn’t particularly memorable, either. You might find one or two tunes to hum along to, but then again, most of it is rather brief anyway.
Interface: The controls are responsive, and there are options to disable the microphone if you so desire. Just hope you don’t have to play a gyroscope-based mini-game while on a bus.
Lasting Appeal: If you’re going solo, there’s a fair bit of replay value, but you might tire of the mini-games sooner than later. If you can get some friends together to play, though, the enjoyment lasts much longer. That is, if you can get some friends together to play.
You might add a little to the score if you’ve got friends who are frequently ready and willing to play, but Mario Party: Island Tour ultimately feels par for the series’ course. It’s still good, but is mostly hurt by a higher barrier to entry for multiplayer, a lack of continuing the push towards truly "Mario" feeling mini-games, and the series’ ever-present dominance of luck over skill.