It's E3 2010. Nintendo's booth is swarming with journalists and other industry types queuing for hours on end to gawp at a 3DS for all of five minutes, or to swing a remote at Zelda: Skyward Sword. A game of NBA Jam draws a small crowd, whooping and shouting as an eleventh-hour dunk earns the Lakers an unlikely victory. Others tap their feet impatiently, waiting to try out Kirby's Epic Yarn or Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Meanwhile a pretty blonde girl, complete with perfect tan and Hollywood smile, stands alone and bored, casually swinging a Wii remote. All becomes clear as she briefly moves to the side of the monitor and the title screen of the game she's demoing comes into view.
That's right: Mario Sports Mix.
The brunette beside the next pod along is having only a little more success in distracting the gaggle of geeks from the big names. She's showing people how to play Wii Party, as if anyone needed any assistance with a game this simple.
The title's announcement at Nintendo's earlier press briefing was greeted with a polite smattering of applause rather than the raucous hollering for Link, DK and company. Not that Nintendo should be concerned - more than 600,000 copies have already been shifted in Japan, where Wii Party is still riding high in the charts six weeks after launch.
This comes as no surprise given the popularity of the Mario Party series, Wii Party's spiritual predecessor. Why mess with the formula ? After all, the eighth edition of Mario Party easily passed the 7 million sales marker.
Perhaps Nintendo thought it was time for a fresh start, having noticed reviewers becoming increasingly unimpressed with a simple increase in the mini-game tally each year. The last game made pretty poor use of the Wii remote, too, though at least it wasn't burdened by the pathetic GameCube microphone peripheral used in the previous two.
So what does Wii Party bring to the table? Each Wii-branded title from Nintendo has introduced us to something a little different. Wii Sports heralded a brave new world of motion controls; Wii Fit got people to wobble around on a set of bathroom scales in the name of exer-gaming; Wii Sports Resort introduced finer control in the form of MotionPlus; Wii Music made millions of people instantly lose a little respect for Shigeru Miyamoto.
The thinking behind Wii Party is clear: Nintendo simply wants to create a fun party game for all the family. For once, it's not asking anyone to spend extra money on hardware - assuming you've already got three or four remotes. This is definitely a better game when more players are involved.
For the most part we're in familiar territory: around 80 new mini-games, several different modes... But this time round, Miis replace the characters from the Mushroom Kingdom.
This switch makes a surprising difference. A substantial portion of Wii Party's appeal comes from the simple appearance of Nintendo's charmingly rudimentary avatars. As well as your own creations, you can play with any you've downloaded from the Mii Channel. So instead of Mario and Bowser facing off yet again, you can pit Chewbacca against C-3P0 - or maybe your mother-in-law against Hitler.A pizza delivery scooter race has a more satisfying payoff when you see that it's Einstein who ordered the sloppy Guiseppe with extra peppers.
Miis are an often underrated weapon in Nintendo's armoury. They're put to particularly brilliant use here, dressed in jockey outfits for a horse race or a suit and bow tie for a Wheel of Fortune-style mode.
They punch the air with delight when they win and their shoulders slump in an amusingly sulky way when they lose. They pop up at both sides of the screen clapping and cheering when something exciting happens, or booing and shaking their fists when a player suffers some kind of misfortune.
They wiggle their bottoms, give each other high-fives, pull ridiculous faces and turn into babies, superheroes, astronauts and mermaids. One mode, which has you attempting to pair off Miis by uncovering matching shirts, sees a couple dance a hilariously camp jig that's silly and disarmingly cute. Who knew Lady Gaga and Stalin would get along so well?
Everything is still structured around mini-games but there's much more variety in the setup. Mario Party might have had multiple game boards for 1-4 players but one often felt like a mere reskin of the others. Here there's just one board joined by four completely different modes. The estimated completion time is helpfully listed for each, so whether you're looking to entertain guests for 15 minutes or an hour you can find a mode which suits your needs.
There are two co-operative modes for two players, including a great one where you both need to balance a boat by placing Miis in the right place on the mast. Perform well in a minigame together and you'll get a small Mii as a reward; do poorly and you'll get a ship-topplingly gigantic one.
The third option from the main menu offers a handful of modes which the marketing blurb will no doubt describe as "taking the game out of the screen and into your living-room!" One game tasks players with identifying animal calls through the remote speaker, the winner being the one who's quickest to pick up the controller making the right noise. Another has one player hiding the remotes from the rest as they wait outside before attempting to ascertain their position from the sporadic chiming sounds they make.
A last-player-standing variation turns a single remote into a bomb to be carefully passed around. Players have to ensure a given button is pressed down as they pass the controller, and an onscreen display monitors movement. delicate handling is required to prevent a premature explosion. For these modes more than the rest, three or more players are practically a requirement; they're simply not as enjoyable with two.
Tucked away in the corner of the screen is an option which takes you to another selection of game modes. Here you can simply play any mini-game you like (unlike Mario Party, you don't need to unlock them first) or try out a couple of simple multiplayer asides where you're not reliant on a lucky dice roll or spin of a wheel to determine your fate.
Nintendo has also squirrelled away three addictive single-player puzzle games, one of which – involving clockwork Mii toys and plants which need watering - is a particular delight, growing ever more fiendish as a new gameplay wrinkle is introduced every few stages.
Of course, most of this effort would be for nothing if the mini-games themselves were no good. The good news is Wii Party features the best selection since Mario Party 4. All use simplistic and intuitive controls that rarely feel clunky or awkward. Hudson had a weird knack of making Mario and co. seem sluggish at times, but that's never a problem here.
Thankfully, only two or three of the mini-games boil down to pot luck. You're less likely to lose ground against your rivals simply because you're rubbish at guessing stuff. The games are often genuinely funny, too; losing is less of an issue when failure brings its own slapstick reward. It's all very intuitive and accessible even in its Japanese form, with just a couple of games remaining unfathomable to those with limited knowledge of the language.
Simplicity may well be Wii Party's trump card. While Microsoft and Sony wage their own private motion control war, Nintendo's unassuming little game remains free from the constraints of expensive peripheral dependency, with the potential to quietly steal their holiday season thunder.
There might be better family games this Christmas – Sports Champions and the excellent-looking Dance Central are both shaping up as worthy contenders for that particular title. All the same, you'd be a fool to bet against Wii Party being the biggest hit of the lot.