Casting the die straight to the handheld.
Mario. Party. Ugh…. two words I don’t want to hear. If you have traded twenty coins for stars since Mario Party was on the Nintendo 64, then you probably know how I feel. How many times can you hit a dice block (instead of actually rolling dice), land on a blue space to gain three coins, land on a red space to lose three coins, and play minute-long mini-games before you get drunk and do something you regret even more. Like playing Monopoly. To the end. In a leather sling. Don’t ask.
So please excuse me for not getting my pants all up in a bunch when I heard Mario Party DS was hitting the handheld scene. I did not expect this miniaturized installment to change my mind about the series, and in many ways, the expectations (of a slapdash moneymaker, adapted from the remote-slinging Mario Party 8 on the Wii, to the stylus-swiveling Nintendo DS) were met.
Of course, the nonsensical story won’t reel you in. Something about a sky crystal falling near Mario’s feet, Bowser wanting to make amends by throwing a feast, the Mario gang getting caught in a trap, and Bowser miniaturizing the gang and throwing them onto a curb in what looks like a “Honey, I Shrunk The Gullible Idiots!” suburb. Obviously, the best way out of this predicament is fighting amongst each other in mini-games to become the Superstar and collecting coins to buy stars on outrageously themed game boards. Oh, pint-sized heroes, you must gather the remaining sky crystals spread across dangerous dice-hitting lands, such as Wiggler’s garden, Toadette’s music room, and Kamek’s library! Yeah, if you can make sense out of all this, I want whatever mushrooms you’re having.
Still, you’re probably not looking for a well-crafted premise, but a grand yet light-hearted multi-player experience. On that front, Mario Part DS delivers in ways that belie the pint-sized cartridge. It comes packed with the same amount of content you would expect from an installment on the console: a full story mode, party mode and mini-game mode both with variations on the rule set. Plus a puzzle mode for some single-player block-rotating distractions, and a multiplayer mode that needs only one cartridge to have up to a four-player game.
Beyond that, more than seventy mini-games are available, far more than the normal Brain Age or Hot Pixel. Many of them utilize the stylus and even the microphone ingeniously. As usual, you will compete in different types of mini-games at the end of a turn - 4-player, 3-vs.1, 2-vs.-2, and battle - in addition to boss battles and duel mini-games that activate on special spaces to spice up the action. It’s always satisfying to completely demolish opponents who not only chose to duel against you, but wager one or even two of their stars in the process. Thanks, sucker!
Mario Party DS also significantly benefits by being brisker than its console brethren, easing the pursuit of unlocking all the modes and knick-knacks. Aside from the established goal of gaining the most stars during a match, you are asked to accumulate Mario Party points to earn achievements and badges. The default setting for the duration of parties has been reduced to ten turns, which may seem as though it would make matches too brief and uneventful, but all of the game boards are thankfully compact. Turns frequently end with more than one player gaining a star, so you’ll feel more consistently engaged than Elizabeth Taylor. It also helps that item mini-games have been removed, duel mini-games between computer players instantly resolve, and up to three items can be carried. They keep the party alive without having to artificially extend anything.
The gameplay, however, does have its fair share of horrible party ideas. Game boards now include friend spaces, which give you and a lucky friend five coins. This might sound like a fittingly nice gesture, but the friend you "randomly" choose for the pick-me-up is usually the player in last place. It’s like deciding who gets picked last at dodgeball and then wrapping that person in broken Christmas lights. Computer bots are erratic as well, formidable in some challenges, idiotic in others, and extremely idiotic when you’re teamed up with them.
Though the graphics and music are appropriate and whimsically imagined, every character says “I am a superstar!” far too often. Just because you say you’re a superstar, doesn’t mean you are or that you’re not an attention whore that will only shut your hole for shiny objects.
Without any guilt, I must also award this game for the worst title for a mini-game ever: “Cucumberjacks”. Yep. You. Jack. Cucumbers. I’ll let your imagination wrap itself around that one. Regardless, the mystery of why Mario has had so many parties has been solved.
Releasing Mario Party to the smaller screen has turned many of its ho-hum qualities on the console into considerable assets. I initially frowned at the idea of all the dice-hitting madness invading the portable space, but with enough content to fill at least two cartridges worth of mini-games and modes, Mario Party DS is a surprise bash that everyone should attend. With or without cucumbers.