The last time handheld gamers got a chance to join the Mario Party it was on the Game Boy Advance in one of the lamest iterations of the series: Mario Party Advance. It certainly had some merit but ultimately, even though it had the same development studio at the helm as the console renditions, it just couldn't keep up with the rest of the Hudson designs. Mario Party DS
, however, is a huge leap over the last portable rendition, bringing the on-the-go versions in line with what's been made for the Nintendo 64, GameCube, and Wii systems. And maybe that's what roots the DS game down into merely "decent" territory: it's just more of Mario Party, a decade-old tradition of varying quality mini-games strung out in a board game presentation¡Kbut now with touch-screen and microphone-blowing mini-games.
Mario Party DS, like the rest of the Mario Party bunch, is a series of Mario-themed board games where four players, either human or computer AI, roll the dice and wander the field scoring points and competing in challenges of action or chance. The Nintendo DS version is one of the first games to feature an overall "theme" to its universe: all the heroes have been shrunk down (by Bowser, of course), and the board designs and all of the mini-games put this idea to use. Players will wander around enormous gardens, libraries¡Keven a giant pinball machine and compete in challenges that take place in sinks, remote-controlled toy cars, kitchen tables. Watch out for the vacuum cleaner that'll suck you up like a little bug.
The release of the weak Wii version earlier this year might scare players away from this Nintendo DS game, but honestly, even with the "me too" sensation the Nintendo DS edition turned out the better, more fun party product. There's a wide variety of control mechanics, from the traditional D-pad and button platforming to the expected touch-screen tapping, dragging or drawing¡Kand yes, there are the few that require the played-out "blow into the mic" task to make players lightheaded before their next challenge. Over 70 games are at the player's disposal, and only when they're experienced in the board game at least once can they be played on their own outside of it.
Because the designers know that not everyone has the ability to play DS in multiplayer, the design team put a lot of focus on the single player aspect - the story mode can be played multiple times from the perspective of each of the eight different Mario characters, and each time the player finishes with a different character the game notes it with its own rendition of an achievement system. There's also a ton of unlockables, from silly trophies and collectibles to actual mini-games and puzzles that can be played outside of the usual board game environment. Most of the puzzle games are derived from existing puzzle games like Puyo Pop or even a variation of the Game Boy Advance game Dalhex, but these items are simple diversions that could never stand alone as a headliner game design. Even though these designs vary in quality (just like the rest of the package), at the very least there's plenty here to keep players busy.
Bowser occasionally comes to cause trouble, and poor Daisy suffers.
Of course, a party isn't a party without people. Plural. Mario Party's single player board game gets old playing against computer AI opponents, especially in the mini-games where the "Normal" difficulty is extremely easy to defeat and the "Expert" mode is next to impossible to win¡Kand in the two-on-two battles the computer partner behaves like a dumbass. Mario Party DS has full-featured single-cartridge multiplayer support where the whole game can be played with four players with only one copy of the game, and utilizing the Nintendo DS system's Download Play feature. Though the initial load time is a little long and there are bits of load screens throughout the experience, the developers did a fine job hiding a lot of the loading from the host system to keep the pauses between the board game and mini-games as minimal as possible. Nearly every aspect of the Mario Party experience is translated into the single cartridge environment, and we thank Hudson for getting this working smoothly¡KMario Party needs multiple players to be good.
But even though the game is a "good" Mario Party design with some of the most in-depth single cartridge programming seen in a Nintendo DS title, it's far from issue free. The same problems that plague most of the Mario Party games are still here on the Nintendo DS. First, there's the guarantee that of the dozens of mini-games made for the product, a good percentage are either bad, stupidly devised, or boring. There are some clever challenges here, but you can be sure that there will be a few where you'll say, "not this one again. It's inevitable.
Then there's the annoying "great equalizer." Perhaps it's even worse on the Nintendo DS version than in any other version. In pretty much all the game modes there are so many instances of the bad guys randomly leaping in and spoiling the fun by penalizing players. Any sort of forward progress can be removed with a snap of a finger, artificially extending a game longer than it should be played. And on a system that's battery powered - and one that has the occasional tendency of dropping connections in multiplayer for any number of technical reasons -- perhaps quicker sessions would have been better. But when all momentum is brought to a halt due to some random element, it can get a little irritating.
In contrast to the equalizer is the sometimes absurd instances of opponents pulling ahead. Because the boards are rather small, and the multiple dice powerups are everywhere, it's not uncommon for opponents to get, two, even three, stars in one turn, effectively screwing other players out of any chance of winning.
It's all about the stars.
I suppose I could also mention that Hudson missed a huge opportunity by omitting Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection out of Mario Party DS - the series hadn't hit online yet, and the DS game could have been a perfect chance to bring the series to the world of Internet play. But seeing how deep the wireless multiplayer goes, and after playing a couple of the game modes that requires a lot of social interactivity (like the two-on-two challenges), it's hard to fault the game design simply because of the lack of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service.
After ten years of playing board games with mini-games, it's honestly very difficult to get excited for yet another Mario Party¡Keven though it's the first time it's been made for the Nintendo DS system. What's here is a solid multiplayer mini-game experience with a lot of the flaws of the previous versions. It doesn't do anything truly special than create a bunch of touch screen and microphone-centric minigames (and even then we've seen variations of them in other DS titles), but it at least comes together as a better title than the last console Mario Party design.