Mario Party works because it mixes the concept of having a group of friends sitting around a table and reacting to each other’s moves and actions with the craziness only a video game could provide
Checkers, Chess, Monopoly, and Clue all have something in common. Firstly, and most obviously, they are all board games; and despite their variety in terms of complexity and intricacy, they are widely beloved and undeniably entertaining, as if they tapped into some sort of pure transcendental form of fun that is impossible to resist and impervious to the effects of time. Likewise, all of them have, at some point, been translated to the world of electronic entertainment only for gamers, critics, and developers alike to notice that regardless of effort and hard work, there are intangible values these board games hold that just cannot be captured and sent to a television screen. It is a reality that has made their virtual counterparts fall somewhere between downright lousy, and decent but not as a great as the real deal.
Although pinpointing what exactly was missing in those video games is hard, singling out the reason behind such absence is easy, and it has a whole lot to do with the word adaptation. The process of adapting something entails modification; it requires adjustment. And it is in those slight shifts that the untouchable values escape between one’s fingers. For a video game of a board game to succeed – for it to be more than a simulation of the true act of playing – it had to be neither a translation nor an adaptation: it had to be built from the ground up with the thought that it would be played by groups of friends sitting around a console instead of a table. As it turns out, Nintendo was the one to figure it out before everyone else did, and the original Mario Party – the first installment of a lengthy franchise that has received more flak than fanfare – is the product of that realization.
Mario Party is not perfect; and it will never be. For starters, there is little to no value to be found in its single-player experience, as it makes as much sense (and it is supposedly as much fun) as playing Monopoly against oneself. Secondly, its reliance on luck, with boards that hold random traps that can send one towards disaster in the blink of an eye and a few mini-games that are as fair as a casino roulette, will certainly leave many players angry once they see a solid lead become dust. Finally, it has no desire to be technically flashy, as it features graphics that are far below standards and a soundtrack (save for a few remarkable tunes) that is more elevator music than worthy of a video game orchestra.
However, Mario Party is fun, and its first outings are especially noteworthy because the formula was still fresh, as its gameplay was quite a finding by the partnership of Hudson Soft and Nintendo. In it, four characters from the Mario universe take turns rolling dice and moving through the number of designated spaces around boards. As it happens in all games of the sort, the boards are packed with different kinds of spaces that trigger distinct events, and it holds one ultimate goal: reaching Toad and purchasing a star, given that by the end of all turns the player with the biggest number of stars will be declared the victor (with coins serving as a tiebreaker).
Despite the fact there is a great deal of satisfaction to be found in moving around the boards while trying to reach the coveted star and attempting to avoid passing in front of the villainous Bowser, who is not embarrassed to force players to buy absolutely useless items for a steep amount of coins, the real highlight of Mario Party comes at the end of each turn. That is when the game adds an explosive component to the board game format; one that could only be done in an electronic medium: the series’ famous mini-games.
These brief activities (which are divided into free-for-all; 2 vs. 2; and 3 vs. 1) are, quite literally, the life of the party, as winners get ten coins as a prize while losers leave the arenas empty handed and likely distant from the twenty coins that are required to buy a star. Mario Party has a solid collection of fifty mini-games, and although some are clearly better than others, the overall quality is spectacular, for the challenges are able to join simplicity, competitiveness, fun, and addictiveness into tiny packages.
What is most impressive about these mini-games, though, is how stunningly varied they are. There is basketball, bowling, bobsled racing, rope jumping, limbo dancing, instrument playing, mine-cart racing, mimicking, balloon bursting, hot potato, tug of war, diving for treasure, fishing for gold, block smashing, skateboarding, musical chairs, platform jumping, avoiding bombs on a tiny floating platform, trying to bump adversaries into the water while standing on a ball, and much more, all sprinkled with Nintendo’s charm and the wackiness of the Mario universe. Mario Party’s take on basketball, for instance, involves a bob-omb; and its skateboarding takes place over fiery lava with a collapsing floor and Thwomps that stand on the way.
Mario Party’s mini-games work because, in their simplicity, they allow even the least experienced players out there to get a hang of them quite easily; it is casual gaming before such an expression became a marketing fad. Moreover, even though the fact that the commands that must be used on each of them are limited – at most – to a couple of buttons, the mini-games mostly rely on skill. Therefore, although there is a certain leveling of the field of play (which is excellent because it makes parties and multiplayer sections thrilling beyond compare), practice and dedication will – most of the time – come out on top, which makes Mario Party one of the few games out there that can be simultaneously enjoyed by rookies and veterans, because the former group will feel like they have a shot pretty quickly (and that is indeed true because the mini-games’ learning curve is short) and the latter will never feel cheated.
The problem is that while the mini-games do a fantastic job in setting up the grounds for fair competitiveness, the boards tend to act against it, because on them randomness is the overwhelming ruler. For example, chance spaces, which are few, trigger a twisted game show in which players will roll three dice to determine the exchange of a specific amount of stars or coins between two players; similarly, happening spaces activate events on the board that can easily send someone who is well on their way to reaching the star right towards the beginning of the board or – even worse – to the clutches of Bowser.
Moreover, all of the game’s eight boards, which feature varied scenarios and clever themes, have built-in encounters with chance; and those encounters will most likely determine if one will be sent towards the star or towards Bowser. On Peach’s Birthday Cake, for instance, players need to plant seeds at a crossroad, and the fruit the seed bears will indicate the path that must be followed; on Wario’s Battle Canyon, which is formed by five separated circular platforms, moving between these islands can only be done through canons and the direction towards which they will shoot is chosen by a roulette; meanwhile, on Mario’s Rainbow Castle, Bowser and Toad stand on the very same tower at the end of the cloudy road, and every time somebody reaches it – or steps on a happening space – the character who inhabits the tower changes.
All of that means there is plenty of room for frustration in Mario Party. Instead of taking the path traveled by the mini-games (one in which parity between players is achieved through simplicity), the boards rely on devious methods to level the field. And even if they leave some room for strategy and reasoning through their design, luck remains the biggest player on this stage. Fortunately, to those who are way too annoyed by the random tendencies of the boards, Mario Party is kind enough to let players tackle a mini-game-only mode in which all that matters is coming out on top in those skill-based activies.
In spite of the punctual anger that will occasionally afflict some players when they see fate take a bad turn, and despite all conflicts that may arise when someone openly hires the devilish Boo to steal coins or even a star from one of their friends, Mario Party is mostly a bliss. Its casual value and its incredible simplicity make it – more than any game that came before it – capable of gathering people around a console. Mario Party does not quite capture what it is like to throw a party around a video game system because such a concept did not exist prior to its release; Mario Party invented the very idea of throwing a party in which a video game system was the main star, and the straightforward nature of its mini-games and – yes – the outrageous twisted evil tricks its boards play on gamers were the fuel for that fire. And that fun still stands even if the original game feels a bit archaic and stripped down given all good additions its successors would make.
Mario Party works as a virtual board game because it mixes the concept of having a group of friends sitting around a table and reacting to each other’s moves and actions with the craziness that only a video game could provide. By building something that leans on human interaction as much as it relies on the interface between players and machine it successfully makes the magic of Checkers, Chess, Monopoly, and Clue materialize in the electronic gaming world. It makes it clear that these games do not simply work because they are addictive or well-designed, but because they pair that prowess with the ability to gather people so that they can laugh, get angry, and shout together. That is the beauty of board games; that is the beauty of Mario Party.