Ain’t No Party Like A Mario Party
Let me indulge you for a moment. Imagine a table top board game rendered on-screen as a video game. Then imagine beloved video game characters, both good and evil, fully playable as if they were counters on several themed game boards. An every-person-for-themselves scenario, and only one can come out on top. Sounds good, right? Well twenty years ago, that very concept became a Nintendo franchise like no other. Twenty years ago, Mario Party was born.
Mario Party was released this week back in 1999 in Europe for the Nintendo 64. It was a dark time when most European releases were released months, years (sometimes never) separated from the US schedule. The Nintendo 64 was white hot following Ocarina of Time’s release just 3 months earlier. Nintendo enlisted Bomberman creators Hudson Soft to develop the series. Given Hudson Soft’s success with that particular party favourite, they seemed the perfect fit. Now a franchise spanning 11 games across 5 consoles, 5 handheld spin-offs, and with almost 45 million copies sold across all its instalments, Mario Party is one of lesser-renowned Nintendo franchise feat. But a successful franchise nonetheless.
The premise is simple; players pick one of the several Mario-related characters each, up to a maximum of four for each session. The choice of game boards range from a Donkey Kong jungle to a Yoshi-themed tropical island, with spaces and events littered throughout. Each player takes their turn by rolling the dice, then that’s where Mario Party takes the board game concept to the next level: the mini-games.
This 3-on-1 is fun for all but one
Whether it’s pairs, three on one or everyone for themselves, the mini-games are the magic of the Mario Party franchise. Some test your reflexes, some your speed, but mostly your fingers as well as your patience as you desperately chase after those all-important coins. First you get the coins, then you get the stars, then you get the glory. Whoever has the most Stars at the end wins the game, with performance on the board and in mini-games also a factor in obtaining that sweet, sweet gold.
But the competition doesn’t end there. Anyone who has experienced any of the later instalments in the series will already be familiar with the above, but the original allowed for much stiffer competition. You may be competing for the most coins, ergo the most stars, but Mario Party gave everyone the opportunity to steal coins and stars from other players. This may well have been considered too harsh down the line for the developers of a family-oriented board game, but definitely served as its most competitive element. It’s a solid reminder of why none of the other entries have ever lived up to the original.
Live or die, make your choice
Let your imagination wander once again. It’s 1999. How did such a multiplayer concept, of which it was designed for, but not limited to, work in an era where online gaming was yet to exist? That’s right, no hiding behind headsets, and no shouting obscenities at strangers. Instead, as a group of friends sat in a room together, bound by the limitations of controller cables, and each other’s company, shouting obscenities in each other’s faces. As a result, the language was actually cleaner, but the rivalries were anything but. Ah, simpler times.
The Nintendo 64 was also blessed with controllers not costing £60 a time. Which is just as well considering Mario Party became that very controller’s nemesis. Many of Mario Party’s mini games required repeated rapid rotation of the controller’s central analog stick. Where there are competitors there is always competition; I remember having an imprint of the N64 joystick in my hand for days on end. It was a small price to pay to Pedal Power to that light. It became a higher price for Nintendo, who offered gloves to players following complaints back in 2002. To this day the original Mario Party has never been released on any form of Virtual Console, with ‘controller controversy’ likely having a huge say in that.
Lots of boo-tiful mini-games to test your dexterity
It’s clear that Mario Party was damaging for both the N64 controller and its players. With straining friendships and livelihoods in the pursuit of amassing the most stars, something had to give. My experience took on an interesting new dynamic: the red roulette controller. My poor red controller had taken the biggest brunt of Mario Party mutilation. The on-screen cursor had a mind of its own. Not to mention fighting against my character walking one way as if dragging a kid away from a playground. Even on a precious star space the cursor would move between yes and no so fast it was pure luck whether you got that all important star. It unleashed a furore outside of the typical Mario Party scope. It was frustrating but also a hilariously brilliant inadvertent twist that only enriched the party atmosphere.
Mario Party as a series has become somewhat derided over time, given the overall familiarity across all of its multiple releases. But the truth is it’s a series that has all the hallmarks of a true Nintendo series. For each console, the series offered something new in line with its technology; the motion controls of the Wii, the microphone capability of the Gamecube, and one of the few games to make true use of the Wii U’s portable gamepad.
Mario Party’s impact on the videogame scene of the time also cannot be underestimated. The Mario Party genre, if you will, paved the way for similar releases elsewhere. Crash Bash came to PS1 just a year later, and another main rival to Mario Party’s crown should have been Sonic Shuffle. However, the Sega/Hudson Soft collaboration simply turned out just to be a baffling board game with fun-hindering games dotted around. But none of these, even its sequels, will ever have the same impact as the original. That seems an obvious eventuality some 20 years on. But, Mario Party had all the right elements of competition to be just as it was intended to be: a party.