Few games companies understand the allure of local multiplayer like Nintendo. Almost all of their most popular games are at their best when you can get a group of friends squeezed on the sofa, laughing along as Pikachu plummets to his tenth death at the hands of Captain Falcon on Super Smash Bros, or as Toad passes the hundred continues mark on Super Mario 3D World.
Really, nothing beats a blast on a Nintendo game with friends - and for those wanting something a bit slower paced, board game staple Mario Party was always the go to game on a lazy Sunday afternoon, doing circuits of the Koopa Cabana in pursuit of stars.
Ever since the sad demise of original developer Hudson, Nintendo have done their best to keep the series going, but have somewhat struggled to recapture the magic, chopping and changing bits and pieces in every iteration since. And it's a pattern that continues with Mario Party: Star Rush, a game that brings with it a whole host of new modes and additions - some good, some… not so good.
First off, the good stuff - there's still plenty of mini-games on offer here, and plenty of modes to take on too. Better yet, the game comes with full support for single cart Download Play too, so four people with four 3DSs can join in, even if only one of them owns the game.
While Nintendo's multiplayer 3DS games have sometimes been a bit hit and miss when it comes to the inclusion of Download Play (a nifty feature which lets those without a copy of the game download a demo version for multiplayer sessions), Mario Party: Star Rush has not one, but two different ways of getting your friends and family involved. First is the bog standard Download Play, which will give you access to the Toad Scramble, Balloon Bash and Coinathlon modes, as well as every mini-game. To play the remaining modes however, you'll need to head to the Nintendo eShop and download the free Mario Party: Star Rush - Party Guest Edition, a handy download that lets you play Rhythm Recital, Mario Shuffle, Boo's Block Party and Challenge Tower too.
So, as you can see, there's a wide selection of modes on offer - it's probably about time we started explaining how they work. Star Rush offers two "main" modes, alongside a variety of smaller, quicker modes you can sink your teeth into - we'll start with the two main courses.
First up is Mario Party: Star Rush's flagship mode, Toad Scramble. Forcing everyone to play as different colour variants of the Mushroom Kingdom's most generic character, Toad, you compete in an every-mushroom-man-for-themselves, dice-rolling, mini-game-filled board game, as per Mario Party tradition. But that's about where the similarities to past entries end, as Toad Scramble likes to shake things up a little too much.
Boards are no longer linear loops with branching paths and shortcuts, but rather a larger, open expanse of squares - and while initial maps are pretty barren and boring, later ones add spikes, switches and different heights to the mix. Never ones to shy away from a good party, Mario, Peach and co pop-up periodically, and if you manage to walk over a square they're sitting on, you'll recruit them as an 'ally', netting you extra dice rolls each turn and a 'helping hand' in the mini-games too.
As you play, 'bosses' will appear at random locations around the level, touting a star or two to lure you in, and you'll have to get there as fast as your little Toad-y legs will carry you. Which, if you have our luck with dice rolls, will be a single, slow, square at a time. As soon as someone reaches the boss square, a boss fight will begin, with the stars on offer to whoever wins. Longer and more drawn out than your average mini-game, these boss fights will see you stuffing bombs into cannons, carrying lights across rotating platforms, or bopping a ball to the beat. Allies will join in too, giving you an extra pair of hands or three in your quest to amass the most points, win the mini game and get your paws on those elusive stars - providing they don't manage to scupper you instead, anyway, as often your AI companions can be more harm than good.
But perhaps the biggest injustice, not just for Toad Scramble, but the game as a whole, is how Nintendo have done away with 'turns'. Now, rather than watching your fellow player's rolls and the misfortune they encounter along the way, you'll instead all roll the dice and move at once. On the surface it may not seem like that big a deal, but when things get close - when you're closing in on a star for example - it can make things a bit hairier. If you roll a 1 and your friend rolls a 2, you both might end up on the same square, but the one who rolled the higher number somehow moves 'faster' and beats you to the boss, ally or whatever. It also means that once one person gets a few allies on their side, and as such, gets a bonus to their rolls, it can be near impossible to catch up with them, as they pinch every coin, pick up and ally going. Coins which can be traded in for stars at the end of the game, meaning the winners win more and the losers get left behind.
Moving on, Balloon Bash is a mode with a bit more of a hint of the classic Mario Party formula we've come to know and love. Letting you play as your favourite Mario character (including Toadalina), it's up to you to race around a more linear board in pursuit of star-shaped balloons - pop one (by passing through the square it's on), and for a measly 10 coins, you can get yourself a star, bringing you one notch closer to victory. Other balloons with coin bonuses in litter the map too, and popping one will trigger a mini-game, with players facing off against each other bowling over moles, ramming each other in giant caterpillar 'Wiggler' mobiles, and slicing up cakes. Everyone still rolls and moves at the same time, with the same issues as with Toad Scramble still present here, but now with more on the line - manage to beat a friend to a star balloon because of the way the strange turn system works, and you'll definitely be off their Christmas list. At least with Toad Scramble, you had the chance to claw back a victory by beating them in the ensuing boss battle; here they basically snatch victory from right under your nose, somehow arriving at the star balloon space before you.
For shorter blasts, Mario Party: Star Rush has five other modes to keep you entertained, but much like the previous two, they're a bit of a mixed bag. Coinathlon sees players legging it around a circular track, powered by the coins you win from the back-to-back mini-games you play - each coin moves you one space, and when playing against competent human players, or even some of the tougher computer-controlled ones, it can be a bit of a nail-biting challenge.
Rhythm Recital meanwhile takes the best bits of Guitar Hero, Rock Band and the like and steadfastly ignores them, letting you tap along to a variety of Mario tunes to 'play' your instrument in a rhythm that bears very little resemblance to the actual song - and, weirdly, the only rank you'll ever get at the end will be a B, no matter what.
Mario Shuffle, however, is actually pretty great. Here, each player has three character counters at opposite ends of the board - and it's up to you to roll the dice to move your piece down its lane, head on towards your opponents, with the aim simply being to get all three of your pieces to the other end. The beauty is, if you land on the same space as one of your opponents, you'll send them back to the start - pass over them and you'll knock them over and make them miss a turn.
Boo's Block Party is a Puzzle League-style match three game, where making horizontal/vertical lines of like-numbered/coloured blocks makes them disappear, and you can fling 'junk' Boos at your opponent to clutter up their screen. Finally, Challenge Tower is a vertical take on Minesweeper, where you need to make your way up to the top, dodging the hidden bombs - although, in all honesty, we couldn't really make that much sense of it...
Which neatly segues into one of Mario Party: Star Rush's biggest problems - a lack of explanations for modes and mini-games alike. Given that it's the kind of game that aims at a much more casual audience, and one likely to see parents, grandparents and other non-players roped in, you'd imagine it would be a given that a game like this would include ample, helpful instructions before each game mode and mini-game - but Star Rush has hardly any.
Past Mario Party games were always really good at talking you through each mini-game, listing the controls and explaining what to do, but for Star Rush, a vague "Connect the pieces to build a bridge" or "Find the apples" is all you have to go on, with no controls whatsoever. That first description is from a game called Bridgesaw Puzzle, which is one of the trickiest games on offer. Here, you have to pick a shape to complete your bridge, choosing your bits from the same pool of pieces as everyone else - although when the game begins, all you'll see is a random series of shapes that keep flashing and disappearing, seemingly at random, while you're left without a clue what to do.
Lack of instructions aside, the mini-games themselves aren't that bad, with a decent mix on offer - and while there's a fair few that rely on luck alone, that's always been the case with Mario Party.
While Mario Party: Star Rush may not be the best Mario Party that ever graced our consoles (that honour probably still goes to 4 on the GameCube - honourable (spin-off) mention, Wii Party U), it's not exactly a train wreck either. A mixed bag of mini-games and modes, it's arguably the changes that have hindered the game, with the new "everyone moves at once" format not really working that well, and the lack of instructions before mini-games making it a bit less accessible than it should be. Still, if what you're looking for is a good mini-game collection with some board game fare, there's fun to be had here. But next time, Nintendo, can we please just have a pure, traditional Mario Party game? Surely it's about time...