Spin the wheel, take a chance
Mario Party is the culprit behind many of the most infamous social gatherings in history. Much like Mario Kart, it’s known for placing random shenanigans before skill and practice. But applying that party game philosophy to a board game cranks the randomness dial 300 degrees, making both the cheers and the jeers all the louder. Mostly the jeers. Mario Party is defined by its ability to break friendships because the simultaneous reactions to seeing how the dice fall invokes so much tension and excitement, and that thrill can’t be easily replicated without that human element.
But this is where things get tricky for me. You see, I’ve played a lot of Mario Party games… but never with a full party. Only rarely with my sister, and she really did that to hang out with me more than to play video games. I had friends, but they were all mostly either not into games, or they were from the Internet. This means I had a very different Mario Party experience than most.
So I’m going to do something very different for this part of the retrospective. Instead of looking at the games as a whole, I’m going to summarize how it is to play their respective solo modes. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the USA who spent most of his Mario Party time on them. Maybe they don’t even actually exist, and I’ve gone so insane by playing Mario Party alone that I constantly hallucinate their existence. Either way, most people reading this will probably see something they haven’t before about this series!
The first Mario Party to introduce a single player mode was 3 for the Nintendo 64. MP3’s story mode alternated in between traditional boards and new duel boards, mixing up gameplay at regular intervals. The structure was simple -- beat a board with all CPUs, then beat a duel board against a CPU, lather, rinse, repeat. What surprised me most was to see this mode ended with a final boss fight of all things, enacted through an original mini game played with simplified 3D platforming controls. Final boss minigames like this would become tradition for most of the series’ single player modes, and I appreciate that! But wading through 6 traditional boards and 6 duel boards in a single campaign that requires 1st place wins each time gets exhausting. Duel boards may be shorter than normal boards, but they can still get very drawn out with dozens of turns and mini games. It all adds up to an experience I’d rather not repeat, except maybe sometimes playing the boss battle.
Mario Party 4 introduced a bit more of an incentive to its solo mode. By clearing story mode boards with more characters, players would unlock gifts available in a gallery. It was a neat touch, especially with the birthday theming, but it’s hardly exciting enough to justify multiple playthroughs. Thankfully, this story is also a lot shorter than 3’s because the duel boards are replaced with story-exclusive mini games, which are a more varied and brief challenge to cap off each board. From Mario Party 4 and onward, no story mode would require playing through more than 10 entire boards. But the boards still aren’t as fun as playing with actual players, only the boss mini games are any particularly positive highlight.
Mario Party 5 changed how story boards worked altogether, nixing stars and the traditional victory conditions. Instead, this mode pit the player against three Koopa Kids, literally fighting to the death… of their bank accounts. Anyone who loses all of their coins gets eliminated from the game. These boards are restructured to resemble arenas, with more frequent branches and smaller circuits to keep everyone in close quarters. The idea was to have more control over where you go, while still managing various risks with the uncertainty of dice rolls and items used. The player’s main method of attack was to land on spaces to challenge the Koopa Kids to mini games where the victor steals the loser’s coins… but the same goes for the player.
I appreciate this change of pace so much more than the previous story modes because this actually does something different a bit more creative and friendly to a single player experience. It’s something that can’t be recreated by playing normal boards with friends, and it provides a little bit more control to exercise skill and strategy… or at least, an illusion of control. But it was an effective enough illusion that I genuinely felt tense over the outcome of matches, and I remember feeling more responsible for those outcomes myself than I felt the dice were.
Mario Party 6 did something even more unorthodox. Its solo mode was less of a “story” and more of a side attraction for easily unlocking mini games and grinding shop currency, where you traverse original linear maps alone and play games after landing on spaces. It purely existed as an extra option to unlock things faster, which it was pretty good at since every map only took a few minutes at most! I’d consider this the best single player mode out of all the main Mario Parties. It’s non-intrusive, it serves its purpose well, it has a decent amount of effort put into its original boards, and it provides a lot of focus on the most fun thing you can do while playing Mario Party alone.
But if we’re looking at side games too? Mario Party Advance is the black sheep of the series by virtue of one simple thing… it’s an entirely single-player Mario Party game. The board is built for just one player, with a turn limit you constantly need to extend by winning mini games to keep playing. The mini games themselves are just for one player, excluding a few duels (which, thankfully, have Link Cable compatibility).
To its credit, all of this meant it had to be the best Mario Party for single player, and I honestly found it really enjoyable as a curious kid. Every single mini game is a score attack or time attack of some sort, encouraging replay value for setting new records. What I outright loved was that the board was less of a contest and more of one giant campaign, stuffed with unique missions and NPCs, accompanied with unorthodox challenges like quizes or robberies to solve. Even if you failed on the board, all of your cleared missions would be saved, keeping consistent progress across future attempts. It was all a simple affair, completing dozens of requests to unlock tiny gadgets to toy with, but I felt like whoever wrote the dialogue for the NPCs and player options had a lot of fun (e.g. there was a quest where you help a Shy Guy summon aliens, and your accept/reject options are "Call UFO" vs "Call VFO"). It’s the least Mario Party feeling game to be given the Mario Party name, but I found it pretty alright by its own merits!
Mario Party DS, on the other hand, was much more of a standard Mario Party game all around. In addition to having a solid multiplayer main mode (local only, unfortunately for the handheld), it returned to a story mode structure similar to 4. Just normal boards against CPUs with a boss mini game after each board. The same impressions I said on that one apply to this one.
Mario Party 7 also reined the solo mode rules in just a little bit, but not quite as much. Every solo mode board was slightly altered around various victory conditions with shorter goals than a full normal board, but otherwise played much like a normal party against CPUs. Again, the same impressions apply, except this game has only one boss at the very end.
Mario Party 8, unfortunately, doesn’t offer anything new to the mix at all other than making use of 1v1 board rules available in multiplayer. Each solo mode board is merely identical to a duel board against a CPU. Yet again, the same impressions as 7’s apply here. I’m noticing a trend here, and it’s a much less interesting one.
I can’t say that Mario Party 9 wasn’t creative, but… it wasn’t creative in the way I hoped it would be. To recap, this is the Mario Party that stripped away most player options and stuck everyone into a single car, making everyone rely even more on everyone else’s dice luck in addition to their own. This game’s solo mode was also more or less identical to the party mode. Not even any new story mode mini games like the rest of the series, this single player campaign was just normal board after normal board. Alone. Depending entirely on sheer luck just to pass each board. And you were graded on how well you did, even though you can lose or gain dozens of mini stars in a single dice roll.
Why grading? Why keep high scores? I don’t know! It’s so pointless! Just like sticking everyone into a single car, really. This mode did nothing new or interesting to make it the slightest bit worthwhile, it only accentuated all of Mario Party 9’s problems. Actually, it accentuated all of the problems of playing any Mario Party game solo. Every other Mario Party solo mode was very luck heavy, but there was at least an illusion of strategy and enough of a reward for doing well in mini games. In 6’s solo mode, I could guarantee I’d end a run with the best result possible by hoarding a Slow Shroom. In 5’s, mini games controlled the vast majority of coin transactions. In Advance, every quest had a definitive goal that I could achieve by my own decisions and skills. Mario Party 9 was frustrating for all the wrong reasons, and this solo mode just makes it all the easier to see why.
Perhaps that’s why Mario Party 10 nixed the solo mode altogether. At least, that’s what I’d like to think, but the solo mode in Mario Party: The Top 100 says otherwise. To its credit, that solo mode isn’t even an actual board game -- it’s just a giant gauntlet of mini games, as was the solo mode in Mario Party Island Tour. Also to their credit, I never played any of the games mentioned in this paragraph, so I can’t judge them very much. A gauntlet is far more interesting alone than a board, but I imagine playing dozens of mini games in rapid succession can get exhausting quickly, especially if you can only make so many mistakes before a retry. And being forced to do this mode to unlock all of the main content, rather than it being optional like in MP6… yeah, that can leave a bad taste in the mouth.
It’s little wonder why I haven’t played a Mario Party game since. These games simply aren’t built for a single player. They’re defined by agonizing defeat and ridiculous victories, but mostly in the context of a social experience. There’s a lot to love about this series, but growing up without anyone around me who really cared about playing video games, and without online play, I missed the cornerstone of its appeal. I doubt that’s going to change any time soon, given how poorly the series’s general design meshes with online play.
It’s kinda crazy to think how erratic Mario’s evolution is, really. For a while, he was experimenting a lot in everything he did. The time where these Party solo modes stagnated is around the same time the New series blew up. For a long time, it felt like Mario games in general were getting stale in some big areas. Most of them were still good, if not great, but it felt like many of them were missing something more daring. Perhaps there’s still hope for Mario Party, as Mario Tennis Aces is looking to rescue the sports games, and a certain Switch frontrunner recently made huge waves for the main platforming series.
Next month, we’ll put a cap on this series by visiting that game.