Mario Party is, at this point, a 20-year-old Nintendo franchise that feels like a constant staple of every system. Along with series like Mario Kart and Mario’s various sports outings, a Mario Party for Nintendo Switch felt inevitable. The game’s contents feel inevitable, too: You play on a digital board game with your friends as Mario universe avatars, and you all end up possibly disliking each other at the end. Despite — or maybe because of — the predictable formula, Mario Party hasn’t been an essential purchase for Nintendo console owners for many iterations.
But Super Mario Party adds enough to the formula to feel like a must-buy for the Nintendo Switch, which is fitting for the social gaming powerhouse that the console has become. The base formula is one you definitely know, but small touches to the main game and standout side experiences offered me plenty of surprises in a series that can sometimes feel one-note. While the Switch has already had some fantastic single-player experiences, this is easily one of its biggest party game highlights, which the system felt like it was really lacking until this fall.
In Super Mario Party, up to four human players can traverse a game board, rolling dice to progress from space to space. (The game’s return to the original formula is welcome. Mario Party 9 and 10 were particularly boring, as all the characters were locked in one cart together, traversing around the map as a unit.) Star collection is the ultimate goal; they’re purchased from Toadette, who travels around the map to random spots each time a player buys a star from her. You can foil your fellow players, but the map has plenty of its own obstacles: an angry Blooper smashing a bridge, or a Thwomp that will only move for coins. And, like always, each round is punctuated by a minigame, culled from a new collection.
A handful of changes add just enough depth to improve the formula. Characters each have their own custom dice blocks, which they can choose to roll instead of the traditional 1-6 block. The dice offer their own advantage and disadvantages. Bowser can roll a 10 with his special block, but he can also lose coins and not move at all. You can unlock additional blocks through each play session by earning allies, who also add small numbers to each of your rolls on every turn, a mechanic borrowed from the handheld-only Mario Party: Star Rush. Not only is it cute to see all your allies — a who’s who of secondary Mario characters — but accumulating a squad is a good strategy to push yourself ahead.
If you’re tired of competing with each other (and having your friendships ended by the game’s arbitrary distribution of star rewards during the final award ceremony), Super Mario Party’s River Survival mode is a breath of fresh air. The cooperative mode sends four players in a raft down river rapids, which they have to navigate using motion controls to pump the oars. While it may be shocking to hear something positive associated with the phrase “motion controls,” the act of padding a boat cooperatively — and attempting to communicate effectively — had my crew rolling with laughter. The mode’s minigames, which are triggered by navigating through balloons floating on the river, are also cooperative, and emphasize strong communication skills. They’re also critical to adding time to your run, as your main foe in River Survival is the constantly ticking timer. Each win had us all cheering for our victories, helping each other along and relishing at the in-game group high-fives you can perform each time you succeed.
Motion controls extend to the game’s rhythm-based Sound Stage mode, which feels like a second cousin to the Rhythm Heaven franchise. It’s a dizzying series of minigames aimed at testing your rhythm while performing certain offbeat activities. But what I found most amazing was how much the Joy-Cons have improved motion control technology. Yes, your forearms may still get tired from relentlessly pumping an imaginary baton. Go against your Wii Remote instincts and avoid flailing with large arm motions, and this mode becomes a lot more fun — though maybe only for short amounts of time.
The Joy-Cons are standout controllers for the Mario Party franchise. The huge variety of minigames in Super Mario Party harness them in creative ways, like using the accelerometer to fly an aircraft or bring a magnifying glass into focus. Nintendo seems intent on still trying to pack in features that rely on the controller’s vibration, which have mixed results. (In a game where we had to identify creatures based on the vibration patterns each had, we usually struck out.) What’s clutch for all these creative Joy-Con implementations: You can now practice each minigame in its introductory screen, before each player readies up. There’s no longer a separate menu, so hopping into an unfamiliar minigame feels seamless.
Super Mario Party is built completely around the Joy-Cons — you can’t play solo with your Joy-Cons attached to the Switch, and Pro Controllers aren’t allowed — so your enjoyment may hinge on how much you enjoy holding the diminutive controller. But it’s nice that every base-level Switch owner can already play this game with one other person. Despite the (initially jarring) lack of a handheld mode option, two of the Switch’s three modes still work smoothly. You can prop up the Switch tablet (or two of them) on a table with friends, or gather around a TV as a larger group. Either mode looks crisp, though some of the more detail-oriented minigames are probably best enjoyed on your TV.
On a console that feels like it’s starting to overflow with third-party releases, Super Mario Party is an essential party game to win over family and friends during the upcoming holiday season. This Mario Party goes back to what makes the series so captivating, and it feels like I’ve rediscovered why I enjoyed the first title almost 20 years ago. This is the first Mario Party title in a while that’s worth your time and attention — and even the additional $80 to pick up an additional set of Joy-Cons.
Super Mario Party was reviewed using a final “retail” Nintendo Switch download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.