by Jay Ackley
Every time I sit down with a new Nintendo game, I experience a spontaneous surge of joy and familiarity as I re-acclimatize to the Mushroom Kingdom. The delightful procession includes all the usual suspects: helpful/spectating anthropomorphic toadstools, the fairy tale architecture and landscapes, the protagonists communicating in half-articulated expressions of surprise and wonder, the aimless mythology of a benign monarchy and its variously antagonistic banana-crazed apes and mean-spirited dinosaurs. It’s enough to make a cynical bastard laugh aloud with sheer euphoria. If you have similar feelings of affection for outdated Italian stereotypes, then you probably know whether or not Mario Party 10 is for you—it certainly does the trick for me. But before this descends much further into fanboy gushing, some annoyed nitpicking:
First of all, Nintendo doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing with hardware.
After deploying the truly revolutionary Wiimote way back in 2006, they have completely failed to develop a coherent strategy for how people are supposed to interact with their games. The Wii U game pad is a cumbersome beast that mostly takes movement-based actions back out of the system, the nunchuck attachment goes unused in this generation’s games, the pricey “Motion Plus” attachment was apparently only necessary to get Link onto a cumbersome dino-bird, the fact that handheld and console devices occasionally need to be blown on inspires spittle-flecked fury, the 3D feature of the DS is headache-inducing and completely pointless, the power controller doesn’t work with most games, and the GameCube extension…what? All this is to say that it was super annoying to have four friends in a room with four controllers all purpose-built for the Wii U and then still have to run to Gamestop to spend $80+ on two more controllers for which the technology was developed a decade ago.
Despite all that, Mario Party 10 itself is totally polished and wonderful. Have you gotten your hands on a Wii U? It’s gorgeous, and it’s breathtaking to see just how successfully the Mushroom Kingdom has been brought into an HD world previously dominated by carjackers, exaggerated secondary sex characteristics, and jingoistic battlefield simulators. Everything from character voices gurgling when they’re underwater to the lovingly detailed backgrounds heightens the pervading sense of giddy joy. SOMEbody *cough cough* mentioned that the aesthetic of Bowser’s castle seemed uncharacteristically jarring and “slapped together out of a variety pack of digital textures,” but we later determined that Bowser reproduces asexually, so he doesn’t have anybody to please but himself, thank you very much.
But beyond griping about money wasted on useless controllers and gushing how pretty it is, you might be interested in how it actually plays:
For those unfamiliar with the premise of the Mario Party franchise, it is…silly. Essentially structured as a Nintendo-branded adaptation of Candy Land, players choose from standard avatars and roll dice to land on different colored spaces; either “here’s some stars!” or “here’s a minigame where you can win stars!” or “this bizarre ghost/dinosaur/piranha plant/weird mole person is going to take some of your stars away!” Once you reach the end of the game board, whoever has the most stars wins! There are nifty twists to the game, like bonus varieties of dice that only roll either 4-6, 1-3, or 0-1 and give you an appropriately fleeting sense of control in a cheery but ultimately arbitrary universe. Another good twist is that, once each of the numbers 1-6 have been rolled by anyone in the game, Bowser ‘breaks free’ from the Wii U gamepad to wreak devastation on the board world (honestly, having him constantly fuming behind jail bars on the otherwise unused gamepad is one of my favorite conceits of the game).
After about an hour of gameplay though, it becomes clear that the board game and overarching worlds are merely a surreal but lovely framing device for the real heart of the Mario Party franchise, the minigames.
Whenever somebody lands on a “Vs.” square, or when the game otherwise contrives to pit the players against each other, a slot machine-inspired graphic randomly determines whether players are put in a free-for-all, 2v2, or 3v1 competition for stars. Mario Party 10 offers a truly abundant variety of games, but generally they boil down to some iteration of an obstacle course race, a memorization challenge, a competition to jump on/capture the most bad guys, or a mad scramble to knock each other off of a platform. There are usually a couple of obfuscatory sentences of “instruction” and a cue about how you’re supposed to hold the controller, but the real mechanism of each game is rarely obvious in advance. To give you a visceral sense of gameplay, I can tell you that, at least ten times during an afternoon’s worth of play, the following frantic conversation happened:
Liz: “What’s going on?!”
Jay: “None of us know!”
Becca: “Just hit A!”
One of the reasons I’ve been such a fan of Nintendo over the years is that through countless hours of play, it really becomes clear that, more than anything, Nintendo just wants you to have a fun time with your friends. The minigames are remarkably well balanced between honing reaction times, processing visual cues, and just totally delightful absurdity. Whether you’re dodging flying squirrels while jumping on a giant Goomba, figuring out how quickly you can spin your avatars before you get dizzy and fall over, or even just trying to be the first one to swing at a golf ball that might be a bomb that knocks Waluigi on his skinny butt, this is the perfect game for sitting around laughing with friends for a few hours on a hazy afternoon. Mario Party is designed to develop playful rivalries and camaraderie; by constantly shifting alliances depending on the type of game and having a perpetual rollercoaster ride through star-rankings, it’s easy to forget who’s winning.
Additionally, in the spirit of keeping things fun, Nintendo maintains its historic insistence on never kicking anybody when they’re down (i.e. the kind of benevolent sadism best exemplified in Mario Kart’s infamous Blue Shell). Mario Party provides consolation stars for whoever rolls the lowest total dice, lets the hindmost person choose the minigame, and forces Bowser to give stars to the last-place player when he would take them from anyone else. The whole thing’s chock full of mechanisms to keep the game competitive and fun.
ON THE OTHER HAND:
For those who don’t necessarily have a deep-seated association of pure joy with color-coded monogrammed hats, I can see how the game could get grating. Nintendo’s playful spirit is so compelling and formative in part because they have always made their games “all-ages” and often explicitly target children with their marketing and game design. While the emphasis on joy and wonder is a huge part of the reason I’ve always been drawn to these consoles rather than the gritty militaristic awfulness peddled by Sony and Microsoft, it sometimes trips over the line into infantilization. The difficulty curve of their franchises has taken a noticeable drop with games like Link Between Worlds and Captain Toad (both of which I adored, but the latter definitely should have come with a “for audiences 10 and under” warning), and it can be insanely frustrating to only have one button to press for most minigames but still lose simply because other players already know the premise. Similarly, the water level gameboard is perpetually giving players hand-outs in the form of stars in random boxes, and it starts to feel like a totally arbitrary hallucinatory ordeal based entirely on luck. Also, you know, there’s the perpetual alliteration.
ALSO: I had heard good things about the five-player gameplay variant where one character plays as Bowser trying to chase the other players around the game board, but this was the worst part of the whole experience to me. Without ever-shifting allegiances, the game settles into a kind of dull race, and the 4v1 minigame battles are a step down in sophistication from the rest of the game. More than anything, though, playing as Bowser made me feel like a horrible monster trying to spoil my friends’ fun. So…points for realism, I guess?
There’s another Amiibo-based gameplay variant they boast about, but that would have necessitated bringing my overall expenses on this over the $100 mark, which struck me as ridiculous (not in the good way).
Overall, if you’ve got three willing friends, all the hardware, and sometimes catch yourself saying “Wahoo!” in tandem with your Mario Kart characters, then this is a game you’ll sincerely enjoy. A lot of the time it seems like Nintendo just really doesn’t know what the heck they’re doing as a company, but with games like this, they demonstrate a consistency in being willing to actually take a step back and think, “Well, what would actually make this fun for people playing in a room?” which frankly is a lot more than I expect from most video game experiences. Then the crazy Miyamoto-trained bastards try and figure out how many pre-existing characters and gameplay designs they can cram in and move quickly on to the next hare-brained, entirely nonstrategic project. I sincerely look forward to decades more of absurdity and joy from the Mushroom Kingdom, and with Mario Party 10, Nintendo’s given me every reason to think they’ll continue as preposterous stewards of this arbitrary mythology that’s found such a deep seat in my (and quite possibly your) psyche.
Mario Party 10 is available now for the Wii U.