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Mario Party 9 Review

Game: Mario Party 9
Platform: Wii
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Genre: party game
Players: 1-4

Rating: B

What's Hot: Brand new rule set and mechanics; more tight and focused experience; consistent and fun aesthetic.

What's Not: Too many mini games rely on chance; somewhat less strategy involved; lacking in unlockables.

Mario Party was the Game of Thrones of N64-era video games. Deceit and betrayal were commonplace. Your friends and allies could in an instant become your most hated enemies. And the enemy of your enemy was, most likely, also your enemy; whomever was in the lead at any given time was sure to receive the brunt of other players' attacks, and the tables could turn more quickly than you could say "Red Wedding."

For the most part, that's not the case in Mario Party 9. In many ways it's tailored to the generation of gamers growing up with iPhones instead of Game Boys, and with Angry Birds instead of Pokemon Red. This generation wants games to be easy and intuitive to pick up and play. They want games that you can quit just as easily as you started them, and they crave the types of semi-extrinsic reward systems that cause 12-year-olds to drop out of the sixth grade because they play too much Call of Duty multiplayer. Mario Party does an admirable job of living up to those demands while not losing a shred of the series' spirit.

Considering how similar most Mario Party games have been, it's quite refreshing to play one that's so fundamentally different. In the past, each player would travel the board separate from his or her opponents, meandering around in search of stars for a set number of turns. Branching paths allowed for shortcuts and double-crosses, while special items and spots on the board encouraged you to steal stars and coins from your friends.

This time, though, players are on a mostly linear road trip from one end of each level to the other, and they're stuck together in a car, boat, or other vehicle. It feels like a very different kind of board game. Now a branching path can present a unique opportunity to set your opponents up for failure, and the new 1-6 blocks (the old ones were 1-10) make it easier to predict where the group will land on a given player's turn. Yes, a lot is left to chance, but that's always been the case with this series. And the experience overall is more tight and focused than any past games.

The old coin- and star-based economy is gone, replaced by the dozens of mini stars available on each level. You can earn them by winning mini games, defeating bosses, landing on special spaces that let you steal them from your friends, or simply by passing over certain spaces when it's your turn at the wheel. Past games' focus on hoarding coins while trying to reach a star vendor—and much of the resulting frustration—is thus alleviated, although games are often somewhat less tactical as a result.

Quick, straightforward levels with clearly defined endings mean sitting down down for a friendly competition is far less of an investment than it used to be. Several other core design alterations, like more freedom to choose which mini games to play and level-specific events and mechanics, ensure the game doesn't get dull. And having one bad game won't piss you off nearly as much when you know it's only going to last 30 minutes or so. Besides, even losing a match (in multiplayer, at least) will earn you Party Points, the currency of that extrinsic reward system I mentioned. You can use them in between games to purchase new vehicles and stages, sound test packages (like "character voices"), and constellations to gaze at in the night sky (seriously).

Mini games, on the other hand, remain mostly unchanged, besides that they're now activated randomly rather than at the end of every turn cycle. The games themselves run the full gamut between imaginative fun and frustrating tedium, with a few in the middle of the spectrum that probably exist only so Nintendo could make the total number a nice, round 80. The best ones do a decent job at mimicking elements of popular games like Doodle Jump, Peggle, and even Nintendo's own 2D Mario games and Mario Kart. The worst rely entirely on chance, and there are, admittedly, an excess of those.

The chaotic boss battles in particular stand out as the best of the bunch, with players competing to cause the most damage to giant bloopers, dry bones, wigglers and more. And for every game that calls for quick reflexes, there's another that requires nothing more than a sharp eye, so even players with minimal hand-eye coordination should be able to win at least some of the time. These games bear few similarities to the lightning-quick events found in games like Wario Ware and Rhythm Heaven; they're often more drawn out, and many even require at least a modicum of strategy. Keep in mind that they're only mini games and you'll have a fine time; if they were as nuanced as core Mario games, half of Nintendo's target audience would be completely alienated.

Most Wii games live or die by their controls, and you'd be forgiven for assuming the same would be true here. But even though some mini games force in motion controls where the d-pad would have likely performed better, the Wii Remote is usually more than adequate. And aesthetically, Mario Party 9 is as consistent as any first-party Nintendo release. Sound clips straight out of Super Mario 64 and 3D models of sprites from Super Mario World will cause that familiar nostalgic pang—and how convenient is it that you can simply hit the home button to head to the virtual console and download them on a whim?

In the end, Mario Party 9 remains what each game in the series has been: a party game. There are even free play and time trial modes so you can get straight to the mini games. And you don't have to be drunk or a child to enjoy it, although it doubtless helps. Part of me wants to berate Nintendo for making nine Mario Party games in little more than a decade, but I've got to applaud them in this case. There's no flashy new control scheme or extraneous microphone peripheral in Mario Party 9. No, in lieu of any fancy new hardware, Nintendo simply gave the old gang the keys to the company car and actually changed the rules of the game for once—and it works surprisingly well.