My brother once described Mario Party as a storytelling game. Making a massive comeback by winning a high stakes minigame or falling from the top of the pack in the last couple turns are examples of its emphasis on dramatic changes of fortune. It’s a little soap opera about economics to play with friends. I think about this every time someone complains about how unfair Mario Party is or how loose the minigame controls are. These complaints, even when they are fair, dodge the substance of the game. In a good round of Mario Party, it feels like anything can happen, like the right roll or a good minigame play can force a new player to victory. Rather than funneling players towards micro-transactions or diluting a fair competition, all of the game’s unfairness fuels a shared experience. Mario Party’s core joy, in fact, hinges on giving every player a chance to win.
Mario Party Superstars captures the joy of that as much as any Mario Party game to date, primarily because it’s a repackaging of five maps from the first three games, plus minigames from the entire series. It’s a nostalgia vessel for the internet age. For the unfamiliar, Mario Party is a casual multiplayer game about collecting stars. To do so, players, after picking a favorite Mario character, traverse a board, nab coins, play minigames, and use items to outwit or outroll other players. Whoever collects the most stars by the end wins.
Different boards have different gimmicks. In Space Land, spaceships push players around the map and Bowser counts down until he can shoot a giant laser beam. In Woody Woods, little moles guard crossroads and magnanimous trees will give you magical fruit. The games reward familiarity with the board and winning minigames is the primary avenue to obtain coins. However, every board still offers its share of sheer luck. If you land on the right space and have enough money, you can steal a star from another player. Every board has its share of spaces which perform their own contextual action. You can sometimes manipulate the board to block off other players or get yourself closer to the star, but that will just as soon backfire on you. The minigames themselves vary from four player free-for-alls, two-on-two match ups, and one vs. three team battles.
All these elements ensure a constant redrawing of social lines. In short, it creates drama. If Mario blocks Yoshi from getting a star and then Yoshi steals it back… only for them to be allies in the minigame at the end of the turn, that’s a little story. The rules are clear enough for straightforward stakes and off-kilter enough for delightful unpredictability. Think of the game as an opportunity to participate in and share a dramatic adventure with loved ones, rather than a real competition. Mario Party would be terrible esports, but it’s a perfect casual game and a delight to watch other people play.
Online has its own engaging, if limited, social dynamic. In my online matches, we maligned our losses and celebrated our achievements with reaction stickers. Even as we jested and jeered each other, the playful emotes prevented anything mean spirited. It lacks the personal grudges and shared laughs of a local game, but it has a pleasure of its own. It’s also a smooth experience, especially for a Nintendo title. I lost plenty of minigames, but never thought lag was to blame. It would undoubtedly be a blast with the right Discord server.
The game also has a lot of tiny extra features. You can play minigames alone, online, or with friends on the inventively titled Mt. Minigames. Online modes, outside of just playing the regular game, include Survival, where you try to rack up a win streak playing against real human beings, or competing to see who can get the most coins in a set of five, 10, or 15 minigames. You can buy more reaction stickers, encyclopedia pages, extra music, and backgrounds for your Mario Party player ID. All of this is fine, and it’s certainly good for training up on the title’s plethora of minigames, but it cannot help but feel like a distraction from the soap opera core of the game.
The one thing this remix undeniably needed though was an accessibility update. Innumerable of Mario Party Superstars’ games involve button mashing or twisting the thumbstick, just like the games it pulls from for its library of minigames. This can be hard on any human hands, especially with the rather timid buttons on the Joycons, but actively excludes the disabled. It’s no surprise that a Mario Party, or really a Nintendo game, is ablest, but when the explicit intent is to make remixed versions of classic games available to a new generation, it stings all the more. There is no excuse for not taking disabled players into account. To be fair, there are slight accommodations. Minigames that previously only involved color recognition now include a pattern. Changes such as these are very welcome, but re-enforcing them would require a more robust accessibility menu—something this remix completely lacks.
Mario Party Superstars also flattens the blocky aesthetic of the original Nintendo 64 games into the sheen of modern Mario. It has much the same look as Mario Golf: Super Rush from earlier this year and Mario Tennis Aces from a couple years before that. While things might have been a little more in flux in the ‘90s, Mario is now a completely unified global brand. Even a side game cannot have too much aesthetic deviation. It’s a bummer scrolling through the covers of each of the Mario Party games Superstars pulls from and seeing just how strict and unified the look became over time.
Despite the series’ obvious staying power, it has been unfairly maligned. Its emphasis on luck, rather than being simply unfair, encourages a low stakes soap opera. Still, there is plenty to criticize. Nintendo makes much of being “gaming for everyone.” A game like Mario Party, with its wide open skill level and its ridiculous, charming demeanor should be a place where Nintendo can make good on that promise. Even here though, they neglect wide portions of their audience, and refuse to update the parts of their games that most obviously needed updating. Still, every charm of Mario Party is here, in full force. It’s silly, frivolous fun, a perfect way to waste away an evening with friends, local or online. That does sting a little, when one considers the $60 cost, and how much more it could have offered.
Mario Party Superstars was developed by NDcube and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.