On a whim, I took a bus trip with some of my senior friends to Six Flags Great Adventure. As part of a special package during Senior Week, it was supposed to be a part of our last hurrah before trading in four years of studying, drinking, student loans, and more drinking for Latin-laden university faux-parchment degrees.
Perhaps it was depression - entering "real life" does that - or that we were only allowed to be in the theme park for three hours, but I meandered through Fantasy Forest and Looney Tunes Seaport with very little cheer. Unlike most of the soon-to-be graduates-in-debt, I had been to this amusement park precisely four times before, so aside from a scattering of new rides and furry mascots, I was hardly amused.
Aren't carnivals supposed to be, you know, fun?
Unfortunately, this is exactly what I asked myself as I sludged through Mario Party 8. This time around, "Master of Catastrophe" MC Ballyhoo - a brightly colored, bow-tied, and wide-mouthed symbiote with his friend Top Hat - wishes us to enjoy the festivities of the Star Carnival by picking one of five fun-filled tents (err... modes). With Mario Party 3 on the N64 being my only hands-on experience with the franchise (coupled with recollections of gameplay footage and reviews from other Mario Party games), I feared I was getting in over my head (tents?), but long and behold, nothing much has changed:
You still move on a board by hitting a dice block (because rolling dice certainly doesn't make any sense), blue spaces give three coins, red spaces take three coins away, trading twenty coins on a star space earns you (well...) a star, collecting stars wins you the game - and after each turn, a mini-game normally worth ten coins is played.
Since one full game can take up to fifty turns (with most opting for twenty-five or thirty turns), you would expect this repetitive and long-winded process to be alleviated in some way. As usual, the mini-games fill this role quite easily, and with the Wii-mote, most of them follow the same simplicity and Wii-sensing creativity that made WarioWare: Smooth Moves so enticing - without all the beard shaving and nose picking. Shaking the Wii-mote like a soda can, swiveling it sideways to nudge a snowboard left and right, punching it forward to smash a Bowser statue, and anything else you can do to a three-dimensional object turns Mario Party 8 into an interactive experience of a higher order.
Shuffling in a new set of mini-games, however, has never been the problem; waiting has. What (would Cartman from South Park say) is the worst thing about rides? The lines, the lines... the lines. Having to watch each computer opponent hit their dice blocks, move around the board, and go through the necessary actions in claiming stars, buying candy, and sifting through menus adds artificial lag that more often than not exceeds the time it takes to play the mini-game at the end of a turn. Several new features such as being able to speed up the message text and skipping computer-only mini-games during duel matches show that the developers know this needs to be fixed, but the game can be accelerated further - perhaps, a fast-forward button. Anything that prevents me from putting down the controller and yawn is a good thing.
So what does this eighth iteration do to add interest? Candy. That's right - inedible, cutely wrapped candy. They're really nothing more than the purchasable items from previous installments, except they can also be found littered about the game board. For a turn, these bite-sized goodies give the player some sweet abilities like transporting to an opponent's location instantly, but they also cause a lot of cavities in where the focus should be: the mini-games. While it's nice to munch on a piece of Vampire candy and suck ten coins from each opponent, the ten-coin reward for winning a mini-game consequently becomes chum change.
And this doesn't end there: Bowlo candy steals ten coins from everyone you pass, Cashzap candy destroys half of an opponent's total coins, and Slowgo candy decelerates the dice block to the point that you can specifically land on "Lucky" spaces that net you loads of coins - and sometimes, free stars. Furthermore, as if luck doesn't already matter, candy also opens up a place for rubber-band AI to creep in. When you're in first place, don't be surprised to find your opponents just happen to get Thrice candy while you get only Twice candy. Supposedly, the key to making happy customers is to make waiting in line more complicated and aggravating than getting them to the ride.
On a better note, most of the new game boards actually add surprising twists in how stars are earned. Sometimes they wait at the end of an ocean-front boardwalk or the twisted hallways of a ghost house; sometimes they move with a train whose cars shuffle around; and sometimes they must be bought through real-estate investments. But none of these change-ups actually change the time it takes getting to the mini-games and, in most cases, make the wait even longer. Having to trade time for depth is certainly a hard bargain; still, this wouldn't have been an issue if turns made by the computer went faster.
The biggest party-pooper, though, is that none of your efforts really matter. Prior Mario Party games tallied how many stars and coins you attained at the end of a match, essentially rewarding you for smart and skillful play. Here, aside from the Test for the Best mode, how many carnival tickets you earn towards unlocking extra mini-games and modes is not based on merit, but on how many turns or mini-games you play. It doesn't matter whether you beat your opponents by ten stars or whether your opponents are on the hardest difficulty setting - you still get two measly tickets per turn completed. How this tidbit of game-making 101 was forgotten is unknown. Even Skeeball understands this concept.
Mario Party 8 is meant to be enjoyed with friends, who are as experienced in mini-game prowess and candy-filled strategies.(and the general embarrassment that they're actually playing this game) as you are. Unfortunately, being experienced also means realizing how slow and similar it all is, which only furthers the disappointment because the answer is in plain sight. Compared to the main modes, the mini-game-only battles from the Mini-game Tent (duh...) are fast and furious and straight to the point. Truly, why create a digital amusement park if you can't have complete, instant gratification?
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