I grew up in what most Mario Party fans consider to be the post-Hudson hellscape: NDcube’s time at the series’ helm. By the time I was cognizant of the franchise, its formula had been handed to a new developer then upended and exchanged for something that the larger community viewed as demonstrably worse. I never agreed fully – I had plenty of fun with Mario Party 9 at friends’ houses, and Mario Party 10’s Bowser Party mode was a staple in my Wii U multiplayer rotation. I never found the games to be great, but instead I viewed them as a means to an end: fun with family and friends. I never saw Mario Party as more than that, but maybe I just didn’t know what I was missing. Enter Mario Party Superstars.
After 2018’s Super Mario Party revisited the classic gameplay style but ultimately proved too shallow, NDcube decided to simply quadruple-down on what made the classic games beloved in its follow-up. Mario Party Superstars isn’t really a “new” game, it’s a remake compilation of N64 game boards spanning Mario Party 1-3, joined by mini-games from across the core series, all put within the context of a lean, modern content suite. Superstars discards almost every vestige of NDcube’s experience with Mario Party in service of recreating bygone glory days. In doing so, Mario Party Superstars has become my clearest example of what Mario Party was, but I’m not sure if this is what Mario Party should be.
On one hand, the game is a beautiful encapsulation of that 90s era. The five classic boards included here have been stunningly rebuilt in the Super Mario Party engine with plenty of added flourishes. Pound for pound, this might be one of the prettiest Nintendo exclusives on Switch. Superstars is a marriage of Mario Party 1-3’s great art direction and 2021’s visual fidelity. This truly is a very pretty game, both in handheld and docked modes. As my older friends have attested to during our online sessions, Superstars genuinely does evoke plenty of nostalgia through its slick coat of paint.
a questionable package
But, I don’t come into Mario Party Superstars with that same nostalgia, so while I too love the presentation, there is no rose-colored padding upon these boards from a gameplay perspective. They’re fine. This speaks to my largest contention with Mario Party Superstars – it goes so far backward that it returns to the nexus of Mario Party’s success but not to its peak. I’ve played a bit of Mario Party 7, and have long heard the praises sung for the entire GameCube era of the series, spanning from 4 to 7. It only takes a perfunctory Google search of these games’ wikis to realize that they moved beyond the gameplay simplicity of the N64 era while retaining the same core design.
The sixth generation boards were more complicated visually and mechanically, and these games overall offered far more varied modes. If anything, Mario Party Superstars makes me want to play more Mario Party 7, because these games just added more to the formula and what makes it tick, whereas the N64 games simply laid the foundation. Unfortunately, that’s certainly felt here. While some of the later boards, Horror Land in particular, have a lot of moving pieces, the gameplay quickly boils down to “roll dice – play minigames,” but I suppose that all of Mario Party reduces to that.
Had Superstars at least drawn upon GameCube content as well as N64 content, there would’ve been more to boil away before reaching the core gameplay tenets. And, considering that the minigames are pulled from across all ten core entries, the decision to only use N64 boards is odd – particularly given that there are only five of them. This is the other component of the top-down gameplay structure that seems off – how little there is to do. Unlike, again, the GameCube titles, there really are not many side modes to experience here, and you can comfortably see all the boards within just a few hours. There is a fairly compelling progression system, where you level up and earn coins which can be spent on bonus unlockables, but I’m not playing Mario Party for its progression system. I’m playing it for evergreen multiplayer content, and neither the on-cart content suite or the largely superfluous unlockables are going to keep me returning.
I have to wonder whether that core gameplay is going to carry me forward either. Again, this probably speaks to the larger formula, but Superstars’ homecoming to the inception of the series does little to hide how stiflingly simple its gameplay is. Success in a mini-game doesn’t matter when the only reward is a coin payout – a similar payout to what can be gotten just from rolling around the board. The amount of Lucky Spaces and the imbalance of the per board coin economy means that all you really need to do is throw the dice and hope for the best. Maybe winning mini-games will net you a bonus star, but that’s totally random too.
The scant board gimmicks, which are charming, do little to address this. The quaintness of the N64 boards may service older fans, but they leave me wanting more creativity on a gameplay level that causes me to forget how little agency I actually have. I would’ve been happy exchanging depth of content for breadth also, but as I established, Superstars comes nowhere near addressing that point either. Sure, there is the Mt. Minigames mode, the only real attraction besides traditional Mario Party. But, that’s just a mini-game aggregate, and as we all learned with Mario Party: The Top 100, minigames in the absence of boards just doesn’t cut it.
trademark multiplayer fun
Whew. That’s a lot of criticism for that first bit there. But, things aren’t all bad. The fun factor here is incredibly high. When you get some friends together to shoot the breeze and play a few turns, there is a great watercooler experience here. The absurd emphasis on RNG here becomes a point of hilarity, both when it screws you over or your friend. Superstars is equal opportunity chaos, and it’s so unpredictable in its distribution of, well, everything, that everyone is engaged until the absolute last moment. In this sense, Mario Party Superstars unequivocally succeeds. Playing through its blend of mayhem and Mario iconography with three others is unlike much else on the market.
In spite of how fun the game is with friends though, I can’t personally excuse gameplay that’s this luck-based and this simple. Nintendo’s best multiplayer efforts have a low skill floor and a high skill ceiling. Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros.; the best of the best operate with this design philosophy. Anyone can play, but those looking to hone their abilities can find a lot of depth. Mario Party simply doesn’t operate in this way. With next to no control over movement, effectively no ramifications for winning minigames (beyond a steady stream of coins available elsewhere), and such basic gameplay modes, I can’t say that Superstars offered me the opportunity to, on a mechanical or strategic level, improve as a player.
Had this truly been a “superstar” package which remade the richer GameCube boards and modes alongside more of the N64 content, then I probably would’ve been more impressed. In that case, the game would’ve actually celebrated its franchise’s long, storied history. I would’ve had more vectors to engage with Superstars from, making my perceived issues with its lack of gameplay depth less noticeable. But, this simply is not that sort of collection. Superstars is far from it. For my cynical dollar, it’s a nostalgia-driven revitalization of Mario Party’s debut in an attempt to bide time before the inevitable and inevitably much more robust Super Mario Party 2.
building a better sequel
In that sense, I think Mario Party Superstars was nonetheless a worthwhile exercise for NDcube. Aside from being a bit too shallow overall, Super Mario Party’s largest issue was its anemic board selection and design. Hopefully the studio can take the fundamentals learned from Superstars’ N64 boards and apply them to far more engaged, complex modern ones. If nothing else, going under the hood with these classics should prepare NDcube to properly modernize the series in step with fan desire, without simply retreading the past.
But, if we’re going to speak about modernizations, we’ve yet to touch on Superstars’ greatest: online play. The online multiplayer here is so good that you never would’ve never imagined Nintendo had a hand in it. This stands in stark contrast to what we’ve come to expect from the publisher’s forays into online. The connection is smooth and matchmaking is quick. NDcube has thankfully accounted for rage quitting, too. Players who drop out are seamlessly replaced by bots. Not only does this suite facilitate the great camaraderie that Mario Party is known for, but it also allows solo players to party with randoms. In short, the online seems uncharacteristically good. Blink twice if you’re in danger, Nintendo.
Mario Party Superstars is a game I see through a jaded lens. It’s no series celebration, as it ignores every game post-3 from a board perspective. At the same time, it’s no content-rich N64 homage either. Superstars is a pared-down package that appeals to nostalgia without doing much more. The game looks great and sounds great. Mario Party’s trademark brand of anything-goes, luck-based mayhem still generates a ton of multiplayer fun. But, I can’t help but want more.
I’ll be playing plenty more Superstars with my sister and my girlfriend, and I’ll probably have a great time. But, I’ll be having a great time because I’m playing with them, not necessarily because the game itself pushes the envelope. This really didn’t feel like the restoration of the Mario Party formula that so many were touting it as. At least, not from the outside looking in. The game is fun, yes. The game returns to the N64 era, yes. If you like Mario Party, you’re probably going to really like Superstars too. But, this success is so narrow when contextualized against what came after it. This is less of a return to form and more of a nod to it, one that doesn’t quite justify why we went so far back in time at all.