When the first “Mario Party” debuted on Nintendo 64 in 1999, it ushered in a new wave of video board games. Since then, Nintendo’s inventive game has been replicated time and time again, with other developers copying the format and inserting their own mascots. While two more entries in the “Mario Party” series appeared on the N64, clones featuring characters from Crash Bandicoot to Pac Man followed, with minimal success. Now, “Mario Party” is back in its fourth installment, and it’s still the best game of its kind on the market.
This time around, Mario has relocated his party to a more upscale locale – namely, the Nintendo GameCube. As the first game in the series to appear on the system, “Mario Party 4” features greatly enhanced graphics and sound. The characters and environments are polished and look great while the music and sound effects suit the game very well. Although MP4 does not push the envelope technically, it looks great for what it is and makes good use of the GameCube’s hardware.
“Mario Party 4” retains the same basic gameplay that made the first three games popular – players control Mario and his pals as they advance around a board, challenging each other at a variety of mini games and earning the coins necessary to purchase stars. The player with the most stars at the end of the game wins.
What keeps “Mario Party 4” exciting is how quickly a game can turn around. The “Reversal of Fortune” board forces random players to swap stars or coins, and “Boo’s Crystal Ball” allows players to steal from their opponents, keeping things interesting all the way through the final turn.
For its first foray into GameCube territory, Nintendo has refined “Mario Party,” incorporating only a few innovations. Most significant is the addition of mega and mini mushrooms, which not only increase or decrease the number of dice used for a player’s turn, but also increase or decrease their character’s size, triggering special events on the board. Mega characters, for example, can stomp on their opponents in passing and snag some of their coins. Mini characters can pass through pipes and participate in mini games that normal characters can’t reach.
Aside from the mushroom update, few other additions have been made to the “Mario Party” formula this time around. Instead, MP4 is a tighter “Mario Party” than its predecessors, featuring the most dynamic level design seen in the series so far and 70 well-designed mini games, with filler trimmed down to a bare minimum. Few, if any, of the mini games fall flat and some, such as the “Tetris”-inspired Bob-omb Breakers, are even good enough to stand alone.
Unfortunately, “Mario Party 4” includes hidden features that can only be unlocked in the single-player Story Mode, which is just like Party Mode only without the human interaction that makes Party Mode fun. In order to play the final board with friends, a player must first finish every board alone, which is an excruciatingly boring and tedious task. While Story Mode does feature a handful of excellent single player mini games, playing through six full-length games against computer-controlled characters is not much fun. If locked features are a must, they should be accessible either through a better Story Mode optimized for single players or through standard Party Mode.
“Mario Party 4” may be the best game in the series so far, but it is still a party game and little more. Fans of the series or multiplayer gaming in general should definitely check it out, but it is doubtful that MP4 will keep lone gamers entertained for long. Creative groups of friends can also make “Mario Party 4” their own by spicing the game up a little. Raising the stakes by putting some cash on the line can add a whole new dimension to the game. Or, to make a “Mario Party” really interesting, why not turn it into a drinking game? “Mario Party” possesses nearly endless multiplayer possibilities, but without at least two players, it has little to offer. In order to get the most out of “Mario Party 4,” it is best to bring the party to Mario, not to expect Mario to bring it to you.