Yes, I know Iím late to this party. Iím not exactly fashionably late, either; Iím the kind of person who arrives long after the candles have been blown out, the presents have been unwrapped and the fat lummock has chugged all the Fanta and unceremoniously passed out in the cat basket. Donít get snappy with me, though; thereís a perfectly reasonable explanation. The sad fact of the matter is that, until very recently, I hadnít as much as held a Wii remote in my scrawny, unwashed hands, having never been particularly enamoured with the apparent allure of motion-controlled gaming. But thatís all changed now. Finally, after years of being stuck in the stone age of traditional controller-based fun, Iíve joined the revolution. Better late that never, right?
Well, perhaps not, at least if Mario Party 8 is the yardstick against which I should measure the Wiiís stature as a compelling gaming platform.
For the uninitiated, the Mario Party series started out on the Nintendo 64, eventually making its way onto the GameBoy Advance, Gamecube and DS. Despite a veritable flurry of new iterations, the formula has always remained very much the same, pitting four players one another in a turn-based virtual board game environment, interspersed with a variety of different madcap mini-games. Of course, ďvarietyĒ is a term I use facetiously because the contents of Mario Partyís toybox have always almost exclusively played upon the age-old concept of frantic button-mashing and finger-flailing, with very little to break what quickly becomes a tiresome, tedious mould.
Have no fear, though, because motion controls are here to save the day. From this day forth, button mashing is a thing of the past, ushering in a new era of tactile controls befitting the moniker of ďRevolutionĒ that was once given to the Wii during its early stages of development. Instead of mindlessly pounding the face buttons of your controller into submission, Mario Party 8 allows you to shake your controller with all the vigour of a BBC Proms conductor warding off a swarm of angry wasps as your on-screen avatars vaguely mimic your increasingly uncoordinated body spasms. The fun doesnít stop there, either; there are a few mini-games that require you to carefully tilt your controller from side-to-side, and even one or two that test your ability to point at the screen and press a single button in a show of interactive immersion not seen since the heady days of Duck Hunt. And then thereísÖLetís see nowÖ
Absolutely bloody nothing. For a game purporting to boast over 60 unique mini-games, itís more than a little depressing when youíve seen all there is to see in the time it takes to cook a small omelette. OK, so the backgrounds may change a little and the characters may assume different on-screen positions, but the concept is always so uniformly unchanged. Just wave your fist in one of a paltry handful of different ways and balk when the same person wins every time because theyíre slightly more adept than you at shaking up cans of fizzy pop in order to antagonise their friends at social gatherings.
But games likes these thrive on accessibility, I hear you say, lest they slip agonisingly out of reach of pensioners and toddlers alike in Nintendoís ongoing quest to cater for a universal audience of suckers willing to buy their products. Thatís all fine and dandy, say I, but Iíd like to think that thereíd be a little more to a game still retailing for a hefty sum of cash than something that could quite easily be replicated during a particularly intense game of paper-scissors-stone.
Iím not even saying that accessibility in video games is a bad thing. Far from it, in fact. If the likes of Rock Band and LittleBigPlanet have taught us anything, itís that keeping things basic to start with offers a highly efficacious means by which to draw in new players, regardless of their previous gaming inexperience. The difference between those games and Mario Party 8, however, is that they ultimately provide players of every level of ability and experience something to enjoy and engage with, basically ensuring that thereís always likely to be something for everyone, as well as continued support for those wishing to embark on a new challenge as they gain in confidence, thus expanding their lifespans to levels suitable for their statuses as full-priced retail titles. With Mario Party 8, on the other hand, nothing ever becomes more taxing and very little ever changes, thus condemning you to the same shallow experience each and every time you deign to insert it into the disc drive.
The whole board game gimmick doesnít exactly make anything better. While thereís a little more variety to behold in terms of the half-dozen or so boards on offer, itís always damn near impossible to escape the feeling that theyíre all more than a little cheap when it comes to determining the winners and losers of each game. To emerge victorious, you must earn the greatest number of stars of the four players fighting it out on the board, with each star available for purchase in exchange for a set number of coins, earned through victory in the mini-games that crop up at the end of each turn. The stars appear in random positions on the board and, coupled with a dice mechanic that further thrusts the balance of power into the perilously depths of hit-and-hope anarchy, itís almost always a matter of dumb luck as to who ends up reaching them first. This could be enough of a pain in the proverbial backside on its own, but itís further exacerbated by the fact that, during the last five turns, chances are that two of the players will end up having to swap their coins or stars in the name of ďmixing things upĒ, roughly translated as ďbringing friendships to a premature endĒ. What this effectively means is that the mini-games are rendered almost completely irrelevant, which is a rather sorry state of affairs for a game claiming to built around the blasted things.
Surely itís not all bad news, though. The game does, as its title suggest, have Mario in it, yes? Right you are, and heís also joined by all of his good friends, ranging from Luigi to Toad to Birdo. Well, thatís positively splendid, or at least it would be if it werenít for the fact that it makes no difference whatsoever which one of the fourteen playable critters you play as. Thatís right; there are no perks or drawbacks attached to any of the little hooligans, and which one you decide to pick holds about as much weight as whether you played as the car or the shoe in your most recent game of Monopoly. Well, thatís not strictly true, as they each communicate in their own unique set of two or three distinctive grunting noises, but thatís about all there is to differentiate them from the rest of the pack. Again, itís probably all done this way in order to keep the playing field nice and level, but itís all for nothing when so many of the other elements of the game are so wildly unpredictable and unbalanced.
And thatís Mario Party 8 on its best day. Things do, believe it or not, get even worse if you donít happen to have three other human players available to plough through the experience with you. With each game stringently requiring four simultaneous players, youíre forced to play alongside as many AI opponents as it takes to make up the numbers, with every non-human player adding just one more sour note to whatís already a dour symphony. Not content just to saddle us with poor opponent AI, Nintendo has been so kind as to force us to sit through each of the non-human playersí slow, methodical dice rolls and decision-making processes, grinding what was otherwise a slow-paced endeavour to a shuddering halt with alarming regularity. And donít even try playing the game on your own, not unless youíve got a desire to see your life force slowly sap away like a decaying radioactive element.
I will say this, though: Mario Party 8 can be fun with three close friends or family members. Unfortunately, though, thatís not as much a seal of approval for the game as it is a testament in favour of spending time playing with other human beings, because there are literally dozens of Mario Party clones available for the Wii, many of which are cheaper and donít require you to listen to the incoherent squawks on Marioís pals. In essence, Mario Party is an experience that depends almost entirely on how strong your friendships are and for how long you can tolerate the company of your fellow players, which can also be said for more or less any social activity in existence. What Mario Party 8, then, is a quirky little toy that can pass the time at a social gathering, but it certainly isnít one thatís in any way necessary for a good time. Basically, you can just take it or leave it; it makes no difference to anything other than Nintendoís wallets, which could probably do with a rest in any case.