How many games does the tubby plumber and his dysfunctional friends need to star in, exactly? Not content with his burgeoning Soccer career, reviving his side scrolling glories and planning an unlikely future as the leader of a hip hop gang (probably), his family now want to own the party scene on the handheld and it's a Mario game too far that is interesting only in its stunning ability to bore the pants off even the most ardent Mariophile.
Developed once again by party-poopers Hudson, the terminally long-running series has been roundly ignored for half a dozen incarnations on Nintendo's home systems for seemingly forever - and for good reason as it happens. Its first mistake is that it's possibly the only Mario title designed as a safe little suite of party games for kiddywinks. Anyone vaguely aware of what makes a good videogame can move swiftly on, as you'll very quickly discover that most - if not all - of its hundred odd mini games are among some of the most insultingly undemanding and badly-designed efforts you'll ever see associated with the beloved franchise. But after the brilliance of the WarioWare games we were somehow hoping the irreverent humour and quirky charm could translate to its first GBA outing. How wrong could we be?
Crimes against gaming parts 1 to 29
The premise is simple but cripplingly limited in scope and falls foul of repeated crimes against gaming. You kick off by having to select either Mario, Luigi, Peach or Yoshi with the general idea to chip your way through 50 'quests' that reside around a reasonably large game board. Depending on which character you choose you start in one corner of the board armed with four 'mushrooms' or lives, and a spinning dice to determine how many spaces you can move. At this stage you'll be looking to plot a passage to the nearest Quest while trying not to lose too many lives along the way. Land on a dice icon and you get a stay of execution and can roll again, but land on a no-entry sign or fail to crack one of the mini game challenges and you'll lose a life. On the other hand, if you beat a mini game you earn extra mushies, giving you the chance to push on and work your way through the Quests.
Quests and mini games are essentially one and the same in terms of the fact that they're based around short burst of very simplified gameplay; and it's here where the game never once comes close to being an engaging experience. While the hugely endearing WarioWare microgames are wonderfully cute snatches of irreverent brilliance, a typical game within Mario Party Advance is often tedious, badly designed and completely lacking in any endearing qualities at all.
The examples are practically limitless, so we'll pick out a few examples that spring to mind. One such horribly crippled task involves timing a baseball bat swing in order to whack a home run, but so pathetically inept are the controls that there it's simply a matter of luck whether you'll time it right. There are literally two frames of animation on the bat, and the service is hideously unpredictable to boot. Elsewhere you might have to play bomb volleyball with Peach, and wrestle with turgid controls to haplessly try to outdo an unerring opponent that almost always manages to return the bomb just as it's about to explode. Elsewhere you might have to solve a stupidly dumb multiple choice crime scene quest, play a succession of chance-based gambling games or just fetch one of a number of objects back to their owner to win a 'Gaddget' that you can fiddle with elsewhere. If the minigames were any more tediously unengaging you might suspect Hudson was doing it on purpose, but after several hours of this unrelenting tedium it's just patently obvious that Mario Party Advance has no intention of being even close to fun. It's practically the dictionary definition of awful.
Not for us, not for anyone
Apologists might attempt to jump to Nintendo's defence by claiming that this is 'not meant for us', and is somehow meant exclusively for young kids, but don't buy that excuse for a second. As we've noted countless times in the past, party games have a limitless capacity to appeal to literally everyone, and the only possible way someone could extract enjoyment from this is if it was their very first videogame and they had no context. But bad games are just bad games whatever their age group targets are meant to be, and we'd be utterly amazed if even a six-year-old encountering this as their first videogaming experience couldn't express compelling reasons why this fails in its mission to entertain. No one likes to repeatedly lose through no fault of their own, yet Mario Party Advance seems to delight in doing just that.
What's even more galling is that it's not even just the standard of the mini games that's to blame. The entire board game structure is appallingly bloody-minded to the point of it being a rancid waste of your time. In a game where you lose a life just for the sin of moving one turn around the board and not being lucky enough to land on a dice roll icon, you'll soon tire of having to repeatedly restart the game from the beginning just for the 'reward' of possibly reaching a Quest you've never come across before. The chances are, even when you get there it'll tell you to sod off for not being the right character, or be some sort of pointless fetch and carry quest that involves blind dice rolling luck in order to pull off. Honestly, whether you play the game for ten minutes or ten hours, the main game never ever gets any more fun - and the only reason we played it further than the first handful of minigames was as a duty to our readers (as well as needing to kill time while waiting for a flight). No sane minded person would physically choose to engage in such videogaming torture when there are so many other better offerings out there.
In terms of the game's technical prowess, it's similarly ho-hum from start to finish. Its visual style and humour quickly reveal the extent of its appallingly limited ambition extend. Hudson never tries to make the game look more than the most generic Mario title possible, which isnt to say it looks bad; just that it comes across exactly how you'd expect any other loveless franchise extension to look with the 2D art style just the same as has been for the past few decades. Animation is virtually non existent, the tedious chatty exchanges that take place between characters lacks any imagination at all and the whole project just smells like something thrown together to meet a contractual obligation. No Mario fan needs a game like this in their collection, and it strikes us as all the more insulting for being so depressingly generic at a time when Nintendo is having a whale of a time experimenting and pushing the boundaries like no other. Next to something like WarioWare, it's hard to believe the two products come from the same company.
Spread the pain around
Of course, the hardest thing to come to terms with is that anyone would want to extend the pain into a multiplayer arena. With Nintendo pulling the usual stunt of requiring multiple copies of the game to access all but a few superfluous modes the chances of actually playing the game as it was intended are practically zero. Sure, there are a load of minigames that can be played on one GBA (with each player taking a button and maybe trying to become the first to smash a rock or something equally pointless) and you can swap unlocked Gaddgets and minigames with others, but, truly, the odds of ever finding other players to engage in Multi-Pak Penguin Races, Duels, Mini Bowser Battles, or even the single cartridge multiplayer attacks are incredibly remote. On paper there's loads to do, but you'll not feel compelled to do very much of it - even to try it out. After a few hours roaming around Shroom City playing minigames and quests you'll have seen more than enough.
And if you haven't got the message yet, Mario Party Advance is possibly the worst videogame Nintendo has had the misfortune to publish. Avoid at all costs; this is disgracefully bad.