You’ll swear you’ve played the boards in Super Mario Party at least a dozen times before—Thwomp-riddled ancient ruins, Blooper-badgered islands, an underground labyrinth beset by Bob-ombs—and yet in the familiarity of these fluid, compact lands lies half of the achievement of the eleventh installment in the Mario Party series: A refreshing return to back-to-basics simplicity with a robust character roster and minigame repertoire, setting a new benchmark for the series (which has been in desperate need of one recently) and ushering the title into the era of the Nintendo Switch with remarkable success.
Smaller boards, streamlined items, and the game’s most charming new addition—character allies who throw a party within the Party, adding to your dice roll and lending a hand in the occasional minigame—only heighten the stakes in the primary Mario Party mode. With the simpler board landscape, players cover more ground and collect more assets, thusly escalating the tension to final-round heights almost as early as the fourth turn (in my experience, at least). You’re on top of one another and better for it—no one’s left behind, no one’s counted out, no one is aloof unless it was their mistake or mission to be. A lively batch of thoughtful and clever new minigames (one worth calling out in particular: Slaparazzi, a Bumper Balls for the Instagram generation) utilize the intuitive motion controls entirely contained by just one little slice of a Joy-Con controller; you won’t believe the game is played entirely on one at first, either, until suddenly you’re five turns deep and clutching one tiny piece of plastic and realizing that maybe Marie Kondo’s rules of minimalist decluttering can also apply to the asceticism of Mario Parties.
Beyond basic Party mode, Super Mario Party introduces a few fun cooperative diversions that offer novel additions for team play (be it locally or against the game’s usually-formidable AI). Sound Stage is a Wario Ware jubilee of rhythm-based minigames, and it’s a hoot, particularly with other human players. River Survival is similarly delicious for a group, sending your crew on an admittedly overly-lengthy paddle trek down a stream with co-op minigame benchmarks constantly adding time to a running clock. Partner Party tweaks the standard Party mode for a tempered free-for-all with shared dice rolls and uninhibited movement; unfortunately, eliminating half your opponents ends up lowering the stakes and making board travel a tad more tedious, but it’s nevertheless a fresh strategic concept that will hopefully find its groove on Mario Party‘s next go-round. The 80-level Challenge Road and necessary all-Minigame mode are also par for any course for solo players (who also have an inherent north star to follow in collecting gems, Thanos-style, for full game completion).
Two of the modes that make particularly hyped-up use of the Switch’s capabilities, however, are relatively disappointing. Toad’s Rec Room utilizes two Switch screens for a quartet of head-to-head face-offs; it’s a fine little thing that makes uses of the Switch’s portability, but only an old-school Mushroom Kingdom baseball minigame will demand more than a quick visit in and out of a warp pipe you’ll rarely use again. (An all-sports standalone Rec Room release may be the better idea here; in Super Mario Party, it’s eclipsed by nearly every other mode.) The game also makes a fairly large breakthrough for the Mario Party space: Online. Not in the way you might hope—there’s no online party, which seems like the obvious choice and would add an unforeseen level of replayability here—but rather, it’s you versus the world in a limited batch of minigames. It’s an underwhelming use of the network, to say the least, and one that’s already sparked quite the outcry online.
But don’t let the missed opportunities of peripheral offerings lead you astray from the real price of admission. Super Mario Party is the finest game in the series this decade, and its primary co-operative modes are inventive and damn delightful. The title hasn’t lost any of its staple sleepover sheen, but even without three Party-happy friends, you’ll find it’s a stunningly comprehensive solo endeavor (which, if you actually want to break through the real hidden block here, is likely how many of us will play in this loneliness-borne social-media era anyway. Oh anxiety, you great equalizer!). At eleven full installments and counting, Super Mario Party is proof positive that some parties may be worth going to, but dare I say, are even better if you stick around late. B+