It seems amazing to think that Mario Party DS has sold near half a million copies in Japan. Currently riding high in the Japanese charts, it seems our gaming cousins from the land of the rising sun can't get enough of the series, which has had so many sequels it puts Police Academy to shame.
It's even more amazing when you consider how each new addition simply rehashes basic, uninspiring mini-games and a tired, age-old snakes-and-ladders game format. Unfortunately the game's debut on the DS is no different.
For the uninitiated, the Mario Party series, which has been going for near enough 10 years now, sees all your typical Mario related characters battle against each other in a board game format. The DS game doesn't tinker with this format at all. It does, however, have a unique single-player storyline, which sees Mario and his mates shrunk to tiny proportions by an increasingly devious Bowser. It's up to you to battle your way through the games' various boards as you try to sort things out.
As you move about the board snakes and ladders style, with a dice block numbered one to 10, you regularly engage in four-player mini-games, divided up into free for alls, one versus three, two versus two, battle and boss types. These occur at the end of each turn, and reward victors with coins (what else?). There's other stuff dotted about the board too, from Bowser squares to shops and coin-giving flowers to transporters.
Your goal is to collect four stars, each placed randomly around the game board, and you use these to battle each board's boss. It's a race to see who can get the most stars before the turn limit, with one appearing after the other, rather than loads on the board at once. Having the most stars earns you the right to take on the board's boss.
While Mario Party's mini-games do indeed make use of the DS' touch screen functionality, they are, on the whole, boring and involve very simple strokes of the stylus or button presses. For example, Rail Riders sees you simply stroking the touch screen as fast as you can in order to build up as much speed as possible for a kind of skateboard bob sleigh high jump. Soil Toil, a two on two mini-game, sees you spin you car wheels by making circles with the stylus. Wicked.
The problem is, once you've worked out how each mini-game works, you realise there's little to no skill involved. In fact, some of them are completely random. Chips and Dips is just a game of chance where you have no bearing on the outcome at all. A good mini-game is one that's addictive, fun and breeds competitiveness. Unfortunately Mario Party DS's mini-games don't, on the whole, fulfil those criteria. Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass this 'aint.
Of course Mario Party is intended to be a multiplayer game, and from a technical point of view the game does an excellent job here. You can play a fully fledged four-player game wirelessly with just one game cartridge. You've got some long loading times as a result, but it's a wonderful effort to make this work. And it works well indeed, with no delay at all. Hats off to the developers for a job well done.
Problem is, because the mini-games are so uninspiring even playing against real people doesn't do it for us. There are absolutely loads of them, around 70, which is great for variety in theory. But so many of them are so similar it kind of ruins it. We'd much rather have seen less mini-games that had more thought and effort put in to them, so you looked forward to battles with other players instead of sighing whenever they kick in.
So while Mario Party continues on its inevitable course for world domination in Japan, we're left scratching our heads. We'd rather be partying with Wario Ware Touched! instead.