2021 may not have been the biggest year for Nintendo in recent memory, but the Nintendo Switch did come out swinging with a few titles fans had waited many years for: Pokemon Snap finally received a sequel after twenty-two years in the form of New Pokemon Snap. The patience of Metroid fans was rewarded with the brand new 2D entry they’d been waiting nineteen years for in Metroid Dread. And last but not least, Mario Party finally listened to its fans and returned back to glorious basics with Mario Party Superstars, which is essentially a greatest hits collection of Mario Party’s golden years.
To be fair, 2018’s Super Mario Party was already a huge step in the right direction, ditching most of the more cumbersome gimmicks of the past several entries in favor of the more straightforward “board game and mini-games” setup of the earlier entries. But Super still had some issues that held it back, with unmemorable board designs, motion controls that weren’t always reliable, an inability to play in the Switch’s handheld mode and – bizarrely – the game didn’t get online features until nearly three years after release. And as cool as it was to have a wide variety of characters who each had their own dice, said dice weren’t always balanced.
Mario Party Superstars has left most of Super’s quirks behind, instead opting for a love letter to Mario Party’s earliest (and greatest) installments, making it the best entry in the series since the beloved Nintendo 64 years.
Mario Party Superstars utilizes five game boards, each returning from the first three entries from the Nintendo 64 era, as well as 100 mini-games from throughout each of the numbered entries in the series’ history (meaning Mario Parties 1 through 10, omitting the handheld entries and Super Mario Party).
The rules are back to basics: each player takes a turn moving across the board. Blue spaces give coins, red spaces take coins, with various Event Spaces interspersed in between, and item shops that let you use your coins to buy items to help yourself or hinder others. If you pass Toadette, you can spend 20 coins for a Star, with the winner being the player with the most Stars by the time the game ends. And as a final curveball, there are a few endgame bonuses that award last minute stars, which can turn the tide of the game at the very last second.
It’s the same Mario Party formula you remember, at the height of its powers. Some may lament that Mario Party Superstars doesn’t do anything really new for the series, but after so many years of needless gimmicks and superfluous additions, getting back to the core of what made the series fun to begin with is what fans have been begging for for years.
Superstars features ten playable characters: the original six Mario Party characters of Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Donkey Kong and Wario, as well as the two additional characters from Mario Party 3, Princess Daisy and Waluigi. To round things off are the welcome inclusion of Rosalina, and the more questionable inclusion of Birdo. Every character plays identically this time around (no character-specific dice), so it’s really just about picking your favorite.
The five aforementioned boards include Yoshi’s Tropical Island and Peach’s Birthday Cake from the first Mario Party, Space Land and Horror Land from Mario Party 2, and Woody Woods from Mario Party 3. Each board contains most of their original gimmicks (Woody Woods has paths that change between turns, while Horror Land switches from day to night, and Yoshi’s Tropical Island sees Toadette and Bowser swap between two islands when players land on a green Event Space). Some of the boards have seen alterations to be more up to date (the boards from Mario Party 1 now include item shops, whereas the items didn’t initially appear until the second game). It’s actually a great selection of boards, but it’s a shame that it’s limited to only five. The original Mario Party had eight boards total, and Mario Parties 2 and 3 made six boards the series’ standard. So even one extra board really would have made a difference here (particularly an extra board from Mario Party 3 to even out the playing field).
As for the 100 mini-games, it’s a mostly solid selection of the best mini-games from Mario Parties 1 through 10. You’ve got fan favorites like Bumper Balls, Hot Rope Jump and Eatsa Pizza, as well as less popular but equally great selections like Honeycomb Havoc, Cheep Cheep Chase and Dungeon Duos. Even the lesser known mini-games selected are still mostly good.
There are, however, a few questionable mini-game choices. And even a few selections from the N64 games prove that even Mario Party’s best entries had a few stinkers.
First thing’s first, very few of the 1 vs. 3 mini-games are any fun. While stacking three players against one already seems unfair in concept, there are a couple of decent mini-games in the category that prove it can work (such as Tube It or Lose It, which feels pretty balanced for either the single player or the team). But for the most part, the 1 vs. 3 mini-games feel like they heavily favor one side or the other. There was never any reason why Tug o’ War shouldn’t have been a 2 vs. 2 mini-game, as the solo player almost never wins against the three-person team. Meanwhile, games like Archer-rival feel like they overcompensate the single player by giving the team players almost no chance to win. Then there’s Piranha Pursuit – arguably the worst mini-game out of all 100 – in which the three-person team doesn’t seem to actually do anything. With very few exceptions, the 1 vs. 3 mini-games just aren’t fun, and you hate to see them pop-up at the end of a turn.
Then there are mini-games in which it feels like the players have little input on the outcome. I can forgive Bowser’s Big Blast (in which players push switches and hope it doesn’t blow them up), since that one at least has a nice sense of tension. But then you have games like Trap Ease Artist – which sees players simply drop cages and hope their’s fell over more Goombas than the other players’ cages – where you just kind of hope the Goombas can be bothered to head in your direction (which they often don’t). Granted, Mario Party games have always favored luck over skill, and are more about having a good time with friends than they are deep gameplay. But because the mini-games are (usually) more interactive than the board game portion, it is kind of annoying when the luck-based nature of it all falls onto the mini-games themselves.
Finally, despite there being 100 mini-games in Mario Party Superstars, it seems like I encounter the same small subset of mini-games all the time, with only a few switching things up in every game. I don’t know why they would make some mini-games so much less common than others, but I all too frequently find myself wishing I could see a wider variety of the mini-games.
Going back to the game’s luck-based nature, if you’re someone who has taken issue with the series for this aspect in the past, then Mario Party Superstars isn’t going to win you over. Because that sense of luck is as prevalent as ever. Players can randomly find hidden blocks that can award them with extra coins or even a free Star out of nowhere. You could be thinking up a strategy for multiple turns, only for someone to land on an Event Space and immediately halt whatever you were planning. Then there’s the dreaded Chance Time Space, which sees players spin a few roulette wheels. Chance Time can be harmless (like one player giving three coins to another), but it can also completely upend the game in an instant. Things like these can be frustrating, but again, it’s all part of the fun of Mario Party. We all take video games a bit too seriously these days. Not every game needs to be some deep, intricate experience that requires constant practice just so you can master a single combo or whatever. Mario Party has always just been about having a good time with friends, and part of that includes watching everything descend into chaos. With that said, Chance Time can go to Hell.
Speaking of playing with friends, that’s where Mario Party is at its best. Having a full group of players in the same room would be ideal, but thankfully, if you can’t get a group of your friends together, you can play any mode of Mario Party Superstars online. So if you and your friends have the time you can do a full board game or just compete in a series of mini-games on Mini-Game Mountain. And if you’re concerned about Nintendo’s continued lack of online communication, Mario Party Superstars has a fun way to work around that. Players are given different “Stickers” they can use to convey very basic message (things like “Congrats” or “Bad Luck…”), each one coming with its own image of a different character. Nintendo has utilized something similar in other games, but it’s much more effective here, given the nature of how Mario Party works.
Since Mario Party loses much of its appeal when playing solo against computers, it’s also great that you can still play the online modes even without people on your friends list, which makes Superstars perhaps the most readily repayable Mario Party entry. And with few exceptions, I’ve had mostly very smooth online games. Maybe not as smooth as Mario Kart, but certainly more consistent than most other online Nintendo games. The online mode is where I’ve spent the majority of my playtime in Mario Party Superstars, but it isn’t without its drawbacks.
When playing online, the board games are automatically set at fifteen turns. I can actually understand this, seeing as the games in Mario Party are already pretty long, and who knows how long some random person from the other side of the world will take just to roll their dice. So even though part of me wishes you could vote for the number of turns in an online game, I understand this. What I don’t understand is that, when playing an online match without friends, the endgame rewards are completely random.
As mentioned, just before a game ends, players are awarded additional Stars at the last minute. When playing locally or with friends, you can choose to have the traditional endgame rewards from the N64 era (one for whoever won the most mini-games, one for whoever had the most coins during the game, and one for whoever landed on the most Event Spaces), or you can choose to have random rewards, or no rewards at all. Personally, I prefer going with the N64 rewards, since the mini-game and coin stars are something you can potentially aim for. But when you play an online match without friends, the endgame rewards are automatically on the random setting, so you don’t even know what they are until they’re awarded at the end (it’s like how Dumbledore randomly awards points to Gryffindor at the last minute, despite the hard work of the other Hogwarts houses). Not only does this mean you can’t actively try to earn these awards, but some of the bonuses don’t even make sense, like an award that goes to whoever landed on the most Bowser Spaces or whoever moved the least on the game board. Why are those things to be rewarded?
At first I thought maybe the actions of the players during the game dictated the random rewards (maybe if someone landed on a notable amount of Bowser Spaces, that would activate the Bowser award). But that’s not even the case, since I’ve done at least two online matches where they announced the Bowser Award when no one landed on a Bowser Space, so no one even got the Star. So why even have it?
The random endgame bonuses were one of my big gripes with Super Mario Party, so it’s unfortunate to see them return, especially in the online matches when you can’t change them.
Another issue I have is how the boards maybe have too many item shops, item spaces, Koopa Banks and (in terms of the Mario Party 2 and 3 boards) stage gimmicks that slow the player down. All these things on their own are fun additions that add to the game, but each board has perhaps too many of them, which not only makes rounds go much longer than they otherwise would, but also makes these elements feel less special with how frequently you come across them. It seems like only the first round of any given game can ever go uninterrupted.
These may sound like a lot of complaints, but they ultimately aren’t party poopers. Because for all the frustration and tedium they may cause, Mario Party Superstars is the best entry in the series since Mario Party 3. By removing all the fluff the series added over the years and going back to basics, choosing boards from the N64 titles and plucking mini-games from throughout the series’ history, Mario Party Superstars feels like both a return to form and a love letter to the series at the same time. Superstars even plays up the nostalgia in fun ways, with the main menu being an exact recreation of that of the first Mario Party.
To top it all off, Mario Party Superstars is very easy on the eyes and ears. Though the character models don’t look any newer than they did in Super Mario Party, the old school boards recreated on the Nintendo Switch look stunning (Peach’s Birthday Cake looks especially lovely, and really makes me hungry). You can even switch between the original musical scores or modernized remakes. Mario Party may never have had as strong of soundtracks as other Mario games, but it was always appropriately fun and bouncy. And it’s never sounded better than it does here.
Mario Party Superstars is like a dream come true for Mario Party fans. It could have used an extra board, not all of the mini-games represent the series’ best, and it’s as frustrating as ever. But it’s also the same Mario Party we all fondly look back on and have been begging to return to, despite its faults. How much fun you have during a game may be a bit circumstantial, but few things in gaming are as joyous as getting your friends together for a round of Mario Party, and watching how everything unfolds.
Now if only Nintendo could do the same for Paper Mario…