Version tested: Wii
So anyway, Beth Orton, Garfield the cat (he just hates Mondays, right?), former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson and I were racing around in little buggies, popping balloons the other day. Mark Lawrenson was in the lead for almost the entire game, but then he suffered a terrible bout of engine trouble and started spinning in harmless circles.
That was all Beth Orton needed – with her main competition out of the way, the winsome electro-folk singer leapt into action, finishing the game with an eight-balloon streak. Victory. Still, she blew it all a few minutes later when it turned out she was rubbish at chopping carrots.
For years now, Mario Party titles have leveraged the brand value of the Mushroom Kingdom to entice groups of friends into playing a range of oddball mini-games, strung together across a series of very light competitive campaigns. Wii Party does almost the same thing – almost. The big difference here is that Nintendo's latest uses Miis rather than Mario and Luigi to fill out its cast, meaning that it leverages the brand value of your own family instead. OK, and Mark Lawrenson.
The Mii integration is brilliant in a pantomime sort of way. Wii Party has a lightness of touch when it comes to detailing that makes other games seem a little overwrought. Sure, most of the front end, as with Wii Sports, looks like automatic check-in software for an Air New Zealand flight, but the important elements – the way that Miis jiggle around while dancing and deck themselves out for the various challenges – are enormously charming to watch. The game's also filled with generous touches players might actually need: things like telling you in advance how long any sequence of activities is actually going to last, for example.
Structurally, however, the various options for clumping mini-games together into campaigns is rather patchy. There are plenty of options available, and Wii Party caters for everything four players could want, from five-minute blasts to prolonged hour-long battles. But the frameworks themselves are often pretty uninspired.
Party Games are the main event. Ranging from the simple race to the finish line of Board Game Island to Globe Trot's round-the-world photo hunt, they're available for one to four players and present an obligingly colourful suite of activities.
Often, though, they're riddled with odd design choices. Board Game Island has a bad case of Blue Shell Syndrome, sending players in the lead straight to the back of the pack and generally reversing people's fortunes a little too often via special tiles. It's presumably implemented to make the whole thing appear competitive right until the end, but it actually feels random and faintly vindictive.
Globe Trot, meanwhile, has a wrap-around board that can be hard to read, and navigation and rules sufficiently complex to erode any kind of strategy. OK, it's hardly Civilisation, but it's significantly more fiddly than it should be.
Rounding off the Party Games are Spin-Off, a wheel-based game show, and Bingo – both of which are pleasant enough even though they're a bit stingy with the mini-games – and Mii of a Kind, a match-the-Miis game which actually gets rather tense, especially if I'm playing with my brother who, it turns out, is a git.
Beyond that, there's a trio of Pair Games, which tend to be excellent, including an enjoyable creepy compatibility checking game and the brilliant Balance Boat, which dumps Miis of varying sizes onto a rickety galleon depending on how you fare at mini-games, and tasks both players with ensuring the ship stays afloat.
There's also a handful of House Party titles, which use the remote in more imaginative ways, offering variants on pass-the-parcel and hide-and-seek, alongside other delights including a quiz about your friends and a game about identifying animal sounds. Was that a frog? No, it was a cow, and you're an idiot.
If Nintendo's latest was a deeply strategic board game simulator, the aimlessness and lack of proper balancing in most of the Party Games would probably be a huge problem. But it's not: Nintendo's latest is really just a Twister alternative for drunk people and very small children, so the muddlesome Globe Trot and the frustrating switchbacks of Board Game Island don't really matter - you just press a random button, hope you'll be given a mini-game to play fairly soon, and have another Ritz cracker. You could even make a case that exchanging strategy for cruel luck means you'll howl all the louder and up the trash-talking as the games get more and more bizarre.
And, besides, the meat of the event is still the 80 mini-games, which, thankfully, all come unlocked from the start and are available to dive into on their own should you wish. Wii Party's no WarioWare, certainly, but there are still plenty of gems to discover this time, including zippy reimaginings of football and snooker and mine-cart mazes, in amongst games about not getting squashed by barrels, games about being chased by zombies, games about swimming around and collecting pearls, games about photographing UFOs, and games about punching your rivals into the sea.
My personal favourite is a blend of Time Crisis and Luigi's Mansion I'll refer to as Luigi's Crisis, because it sounds pleasantly existential. It's an on-rails flashlight shooter set in a haunted house, and I could play it until the (ghostly) cows come home.
Ranging from all-out competitions to two-person co-operation and asymmetric games that see three players picking on the fourth, they're all clearly explained, colourfully implemented, and generally make good use of the remote, whether you're swinging it, pointing it, shaking it, or listening to its speaker. The worst are over before you know it, and there's a decent range of more challenging efforts on offer if you fancy a scamper up the hi-score table.
If I hadn't failed my art GCSE (my art GCSE) with an ill-conceived mixed-media sculpture entitled Things I've Found in Tins, this would probably be the point where I busted out a felt tip and created a flowchart to drive this one home. Party games always come with caveats for the traditional videogame audience, and it's hard to avoid the lapse into formulas like: IF you are genuinely having a party and IF you are quite drunk and DON'T have parties too regularly, and DON'T really care about the niceties of game design, you're going to have a lot of fun with this.
In a perfect word, the meta-games would be as good as the mini-games themselves. But with four people, Lambrini and deely-boppers (just me?), Wii Party's still a reliable, if fairly thin, source of entertainment all the same.
7 / 10