Mario Party Foul (Or, How Nintendo Started Hating its Fans)

Another year, another Mario Party. I guess there hasn’t been one every year, but I’m still surprised we’re up to 9 already. Especially since no other Nintendo franchise has ever numbered that high.

If you know me, you probably know I don’t care for board games. The precise reasons might deserve their own post, but suffice it to say I don’t like victory conditions that are determined largely by luck. That’s why I play video games. I’ve tolerated Mario Party because it at least includes a strong element of skill in the mini-games that break up the monotony of the dice-rolling and space-hopping. However, as the series progressed it became clear the element of control over your destiny was just an illusion. The randomness factor was robust.

This comic says it best

So I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw a review for Mario Party 9 on IGN. Here is a choice quote:

…throughout its many generations, Mario Party has carried a fatal flaw, buried deep in its DNA: In spite of your proficiency at mini-games, or penchant for board game strategy, Mario Party is dictated by the dice roll. Randomness, which Mario Party 9 flaunts with a particularly annoying brand of euphoric abandon, ultimately ruins what could be a very good game. 

This sentiment is reflected in 1up.com’s review as well:

 No matter how many stars you may have accumulated throughout the game, a bitter Lady Luck will inevitably step in and level the playing field like some sort of Marxist phantom. Far too often it feels like winning in MP9 requires the same amount of strategy as a Rock, Paper, Scissors match. The game seems Machiavellian in its goal to screw you over at every possible moment via terrible dice rolls, Bowser’s hatred of first place, and arbitrary rewards to the player in last.

There’s a point I’m going to make here besides participating in the Mario Party hate, and I’m slowly working towards it. But first, a bit more detail. There have now been 9 Mario Party games (not including portable versions) spread out over three generations of Nintendo consoles, and every single one has had the same set of flaws. This series didn’t “jump the shark” – it never got good enough to warrant wheeling the shark out in the first place. The bubblegum presentation is as grating as an episode of Blue’s Clues, and seems to be targeted at the same audience. Characters are shrill and obnoxious, and for some reason they feel the need to wrap a one-sixth-assed storyline around it that you can’t ever seem to button through fast enough. And on that note – the way every game presents the initial tutorials suggests that you are A) new to Mario Party, B) new to video games, and C) just old enough to read. Getting into the meat of a Mario Party game is like waiting in line at the DMV.

Over nine games, the innovation seen in this series has been more randomizers, thrown into a game that was already too random to begin with. And finally, in the year of our Lord 2012, Mario Party, a game DESIGNED for multi-player, still does not include online play.

Here’s that point I mentioned before. The point that Mario Party as a series proves to me: Nintendo does not care about what its fans want. Ever since the Nintendo 64 came out, they have relied on their “tentpole” first-party franchises as the money-makers. Mario, Donkey Kong, Mario Kart, Metroid, Zelda, etc. For the most part these releases have been reliably solid, and often brilliant. However, we generally get only one or two of each in every generation, sometimes less. The Nintendo 64 had one “core” Mario platformer, as did the Gamecube. The Wii has two, if you don’t include New Super Mario Bros. Zelda had two releases on N64, two on Gamecube, and one on Wii (I’m counting Twilight Princess as Gamecube only since that’s the platform it was meant for). Metroid never came out on N64, had two on Gamecube, two on Wii. You get the idea. These are the games people want, and as good as they are, I know that they could be better. I’m sure there are people who disagree with me, but there hasn’t been a Mario game that was better than Mario 64. There hasn’t been a Metroid better than Super Metroid, and there hasn’t been a Zelda better than Ocarina of Time. Some have come close, but these 15 year old-plus games have yet to be topped. In many ways, Nintendo never evolved past 1998.

Remember this?

I’m not saying that Nintendo should fall in line with their competitors and start releasing Call of Duty games. Their stubborn refusal to conform to industry standards has a certain charm. But they are leaving too many great opportunities on the table. None of Nintendo’s characters seem to speak – robbing them of the ability to develop into characters we connect with and contribute to a mature, well-written story. Samus didn’t speak until Metroid: Other M, and that game failed to make good use of it. I guarantee, she’ll be mute again next time around. In 1992, Legend of Zelda’s text-driven, mute-hero, save-the-princess storyline was cutting edge. In 2011, it’s dated.

Nintendo’s response to the pleas of its now-adult fans has always been “we think focusing on gameplay rather than cutting-edge presentation is what makes truly memorable games.” And “we’d rather innovate and create something new rather than incrementally improve what already exists.” That’s all well and good, but look at Mario Party. A series that has existed since 1999, and still carries the same flaws it had since the first installment, all the way into 2012. It’s not the only example of course, I could point to other series, (Mario Kart has become awfully Mario Party-esque with its blue shell treachery, don’t you agree?) or I could point to baffling business decisions like using inadequate storage media for its games or the continually lackluster online service.

Nintendo as a company is simply lazy. They thrive by appealing to children, keeping their hardware prices low, dumping heaps of predictable crap upon us and occasionally producing a masterpiece. But one or two masterpieces a year isn’t enough for me, and nostalgia only goes so far. It’s time for Nintendo to surprise us again.

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