Do people only care about the mini-games in Mario Party? In my recent attempt to look up reviews on the latest Mario Party game, Island Tour (a game with surprisingly few reviews, by the way), I stumbled upon this little snipet in IGN's review of the game: "But the meat of any Mario Party is its minigame menagerie ..." I've often heard friends and various other folks talk about how the mini-games are what makes a Mario Party game great (or, at least, somewhat amusing). And, to some extent, this is true. In a game where mini-games make up roughly half of the play time it's certainly important that they be fun. However, I feel like people often overlook the importance of the boards themselves. For me, the Mario Party series as of late has been a string of disappointments, each one worse than the last; and I think that's a pretty unanimous opinion. However, reviewers seldom seem to give a really good reason why. Well, I'm here to tell you why: the boards suck. There's no way around it. Let me offer you a bit of comparison to explain what I mean.
The original games had a series of increasingly intricate and difficult boards to hold the mini games together. The boards themselves were as much a game as the mini-games at the end of each round. Each board had a gimmick of sorts, from trains, to hotels, to giant death lasers. The boards were exciting, challenging, and even offered a bit of strategy.
Here you can see an image of Space Land from Mario Party 2. The board offers multiple paths, and features a countdown timer in the middle. When the timer reaches 0 the laser fires, wiping out the coins of every player in its path. There are also speeding Whomps that chase you around the board, and blockades that can be set up to get other players even further away from the star. It's both challenging and gives players a satisfying number of options.
Here we have Koopa's Seaside Soiree from Mario Party 4. This board has the Koopa Kabana in the middle of the map that builds up over the course of the game by gathering coins from all of the players. There are also various side games scattered throughout the board itself that can allow individual players to earn more coins. There's even a dolphin that will taxi you around the map if you have the coins for it.
Again, these boards are fun because they offer players multiple ways to play the game and different strategies to help them out-play their friends. Now let's look at a couple maps from the newer games.
In Mario Party 8 there are not one, but two levels that are literally just a straight line. Goomba's Booty Boardwalk, wherein you walk to one end of the map, grab a star, then get sent back to the beginning, and Shy Guy's Perplex Express, where you walk to the front of the train, get a star, then walk to the back of the train. I suppose in the second one there is a chance for the cars to be rearranged, but it only occurs when players land on Happening Spaces, so it's entirely random. These levels aren't challenging or satisfying at all, they simply serve as a thing to do in between mini-games. The boards have gone from being the "second half of the game", so to speak, to simply being the glue that binds the actual game together. Don't get me wrong, the mini-games in Mario Party 8 are fun, but the boards are so bland that it leaves little desire to play them.
Mario Party 9 went a step further in de-funning the boards by, again, making them straight lines, only this time all of you move at the same time, in the same car. To the left you can see a picture of the level Bob-omb Factory. The only challenge here is hoping that you happen to be the one "driving" the car when it passes the mini-stars scattered throughout the board. Another odd thing this game did is removing the mini-games at the end of each turn and instead having them only when the group lands on a mini-game space. So now the boards are not only not fun, but they actually impede your ability to play the mini-games. It's a bizarre occurrence where the board becomes less fun but also somehow becomes the focus of the game.
In what little I was able to play of Mario Party: Island Tour, it seems like they haven't entirely dropped this concept. The only level I played was one where you have to hide in caves to avoid a big Bullet Bill that shoots any time someone rolls its icon on the die. In this one, for some reason, you only play a mini-game every four or so turns, and the reward is moving forward a few spaces. So the goal here is literally just to get to the end of the level.
It seems odd that, with everyone saying that the mini-games are what make this series fun, and Nintendo often advertising how many exciting new mini-games there are, that the series seems so focused on emphasizing the boards and yet making them so bland. For a long time I have argued that the boards are what make a Mario Party game truly fun. After all, the mini-games throughout the series have largely been derivative of the ones in the previous games. And it actually seems like Nintendo almost understands this, just not enough to realize what it is that makes the boards really fun. I admire Nintendo for being brave enough to experiment with the formula, but when that experiment doesn't work you shouldn't keep putting it in your games. Here's hoping that they might realize their mistake and make Mario Party 10 a return to the roots of the franchise, or at least that they'll come up with a new way to make the boards fun again.