Mario Party has been around the block a few times. It started off on the Nintendo 64 and was developed by Hudson Soft, but this second entry on the Wii was developed by Nd Soft. That change isn't quite as significant as it sounds, as a number of Hudson developers jumped to Nd Soft after Hudson's demise, and I'd say that's pretty much reflected in Mario Party 9.
The ninth entry in Nintendo's long-running minigame party title isn't without some changes. While it's still a four-player scramble to outmaneuver and outplay your human- or computer-controlled opponents, the manner in which you do so is a little different. For starters, while you still pick a character culled from the Super Mario universe, you'll no longer control that character as an individual. Instead, all characters sit within a vehicle, and when moving, all characters move at once.
It sounds a little off-putting, doesn't it? I certainly thought so at first, but I found that it gave way for a little more backstabbing and planning than the series has seen in the past. Previous games have you moving around a game board, trying to obtain enough coins to purchase a gold star before everyone else. Mario Party 9 is a little more focused than that. While you still have branching paths and things to collect, you're constantly moving toward a goal, which features a boss battle at the end — also a first for the series.
To win, you need to have the most ministars of the group, after everything is said and done. To earn ministars, you need to either come out on top in minigames, win the boss and miniboss challenges, or collect random ministars scattered about the board. To collect those random stars, you need to be the Captain, or controlling character, of the vehicle. Even though you're all moving across the board together, the character in the driver's seat will see the effects of the spaces on which you land.
Aside from the spaces that instigate minigames, you'll occasionally land on random dice blocks, which bestow five dice types, ranging from a die that features just zero and one as numbers, to a gold 10-sided die, which features four more numbers than the standard game die. In addition to the random dice spots, you'll come across a number of board-specific events. One board features Boos that chase you around the board, moving three spaces every time a full turn is completed. If the Boo catches up, it'll take half the ministars from the current Captain. Another similar encounter occurs with Bomb-ombs, which will land on the front of your car and count down every time your group moves a space. At the end of the countdown, the Bomb-omb explodes, taking half of the Captain's ministars.
As you can kind of see, there are ample opportunities to stick it to your opponents over the course of a game. It's certainly a departure from the previous entries, but as I grew accustomed to the changes and played through more of the new stages, I found myself enjoying the new format more and more. While there's still a heavy element of luck in play, I liked that I had more control over what could happen when compared to the previous titles. There's still the occasional nasty twist, usually stemming from the Bowser tiles that'll take half of your ministars or force you to give them to another player, but overall, this feels like a better game than in years past.
In addition to the main Party mode, which features a series of themed boards to explore, you have a couple of other things to check out. One is a Solo mode, which has a light story element and allows you to move through all the boards with computer-controlled opponents. The number of opponents will vary; sometimes, you'll be pitted against one other player, and sometimes, it will be a full group. However, the only requirement is to beat the Bowser-planted minion, either Shy Guy or Kamek. Even if you lose a match, you'll still advance to the next round as long as those two didn't win.
As far as I can tell, the Solo mode's reason for existence is so you can unlock Shy Guy and Kamek as characters. Other than that, I can't imagine why you'd want to play through it, as Mario Party isn't nearly as much fun by yourself as it is with friends. You can adjust the difficulty, which you might want to if you want some challenge because the normal difficulty level is pretty laughable.
If you want to jump right into the minigames, there's also a mode for that. You can play against other people or computer-controlled characters, and can choose three, five or seven minigames to play at a time. The only thing I didn't care for is that it forces you to choose categories, so you can't mix and match the minigames as you see fit. Other than that, it's a nice, quick way to experience the fun of Mario Party 9 without some of the more tedious elements of Party mode.
My complaints mostly focus on what isn't in Mario Party 9. For one thing, why are players forced to play Mario Party offline? The Wii isn't considered an online powerhouse for gaming, but plenty of developers have made their titles work online, and I really feel that Nintendo and Nd Soft dropped the ball by not trying to implement online play with this entry. I was more willing to let this slide with Mario Party 8, as it launched only a couple of years after the Wii's release, but not including online play with your second Mario Party title on the Wii just seems lazy.
Another thing that's bothered me about the series for years is the lack of unlockable content, or content in general outside of the minigames. Where are the characters or game boards? You only get 10 characters and even fewer boards. With every new Mario platformer or Nintendo-developed series, you get a handful of new characters introduced to the Nintendo universe, and games like Super Smash Bros. don't shy away from an expansive roster. Why, then, is there a need to limit Mario Party so much? Mario Party 9's smattering of unlockable content, which can be purchased with in-game Mario Points, can barely fill a screen. Providing more unlockable vehicles instead of characters is a pretty poor idea.
Mario Party 9 feels like the series took one step forward and two steps back. The idea of putting all players in one car and forcing them to move together sounded awful at first, but it really worked out well. It's certainly a plus to give you a little more control over the outcome and determining who gets the short stick and when. However, I'm getting tired of Mario Party titles being devoid of content and online play.
If you have a dedicated group of friends who are ready to toss down on some Mario-themed minigames and game board shenanigans, then you're probably good to go with Mario Party 9. I don't think there's enough material here to warrant purchasing what is essentially the same game we've been playing for years. Nintendo's proven that it has the formula down to a science, and the minigame action is as fun as it's ever been, but the overall package has grown incredibly stale. If Nintendo wants to earn your hard-earned money with Mario Party, it will need to try a lot harder than this.
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