I’m not the kind of guy who tends to play online games very often. Growing up as a Nintendo kid, couch co-op was the name of the game even during my teen years. While many of my peers were experimenting with MMOs or shooting each other in Call of Duty or Halo online, I was getting together with friends to play Smash Bros or throwing down with my mom, stepdad, and brother in Mario Kart or Mario Party. My brief flirtations with online play generally ended poorly because of Nintendo’s notoriously bad internet infrastructure. So even now as an adult when I have access to consoles with superior online and games that I could theoretically play online, I rarely utilize that functionality. It’s just not part of how I play.
This Christmas my family was kind enough to gift me with my very own copy of Mario Party Superstars, the latest entry in the series and for me a particularly exciting one. Superstars pulls boards from the original three Mario Party titles and minigames from across the numbered entries in the series. It’s a blast of nostalgia for longtime fans and in my first impressions, I shared that it finally captures what to me feels like the spirit of classic Mario Party. It’s the most fun I’ve had in awhile with a Mario Party game, so naturally I’ve been wanting to dive into it quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. But during busy holidays and in the middle of a pandemic, inviting over my buddies for some couch co-op isn’t a particularly practical endeavor. So I had to turn begrudgingly to online play.
Mario Party Superstars has two main modes of play. The first is the classic mode simply called Mario Party where four players play a board game together to earn stars. The second is a mode called Mt. Minigames where the focus is exclusively on the minigames that only take place between rounds in the main game. Here you can compete in these minigames in a variety of configurations in order to earn coins for the in-game Toad Shop as well as increasing your Mario Party level and possibly your online rank as well. I’ll be discussing both modes of online in this article after spending some time with each of them to see how they work and which I prefer.
Let’s focus first on Mt. Minigames. One of the features here that jumped out at me immediately was the daily challenge, three sets of three minigames based around a common theme. For example, some of the sets I tried involved playing sports-themed games, jumping-themed games, games that required precise movements or tracing, and games where you tried to shove opponents off of stuff. Each victory nets you a star and each star gives you some coins in the Toad Shop. It’s a nice way to jump in if you just need to kill 20 minutes and don’t have time for a full board or for a more involved Mt. Minigames experience. That said, the appeal of the daily challenge is mitigated somewhat by Nintendo’s infamous internet.
As I said, the daily challenge is perfect for a quick dip into the game to have a little fun during a break or to wind down before bedtime, something like that. It’s the sort of thing you would want to do in handheld mode. But in my experience, trying to play Mario Party Superstars online in handheld mode was an unmitigated disaster. Admittedly I started in a less than ideal format where I was far away from my router and other people were also using the internet. But moving closer didn’t do anything to improve the connectivity and it was normal for the game to slow down to single frame pace due to the poor quality of the connection. Now I’m not a supergamer with special internet but I think that’s the point here; Mario Party is a relatively casual game and I imagine that a lot of the folks who might be interested in playing it online may only have regular internet service rather than a special package. If you’re going to play Superstars online, at the very least you need to be in docked mode close to the router in your house, though of course a wired connection would be even better than that. This runs counter to the portable nature of the console and the drop-in drop-out appeal of the daily challenge mode.
Most of the other minigame modes are a bit more involved. Quite a few simply throw you into multiple games of the same type (2 vs 2, 1 vs 3, etc.) and you play until a score agreed upon by the players: 3, 5, or 10 wins. There’s also a coin battle mode where you play five rounds and whoever has the most coins at the end of the rounds wins. If you really want to put your minigame skills to the test and evaluate your skill against the world, the sports and puzzles pack or the survival mode are where you want to be. In sports and puzzles, you choose a game out of a specific list of six and can play matches in that game over and over again, building your rank as you win. In survival mode, you strive to have the most consecutive minigame victories and are given a global ranking based on the length of your win streak. Modes like this are not particularly my cup of tea but they are there for those who really want to test their skills.
I’ve never been much for the minigame modes in prior Mario Party games and this one is no exception. Where I find joy is in the main game mode: rolling dice, buying items, and competing in games to earn the most stars over the course of 15 or so turns. When you go to play Mario Party with others online, you choose what settings you are willing to play with and then search for other players looking for a similar game. This can be as broad as “literally just put me in any game of Mario Party that people are looking for right now” or as narrow as “put me on Yoshi’s Tropical Island in a 20 turn game with no bonus stars,” and everything in-between. I’ve found that at most times as long as I am not too specific about what I want (like insisting on a specific board), I can find a game on the first attempt. Based on what I have done so far, it seems like 15 turn games with bonus stars are the most popular format anyway, which makes sense given that this is the default setting.
So far I’ve played three different games online. Only during one of those games did nobody disconnect and our stack of four made it all the way to the end together. In one particular game, two of my three opponents dropped out almost immediately and never came back, leaving myself and one other human player against two CPUs for the majority of the game. This setup in which a CPU steps in for someone who disconnects is a pretty convenient one, as it is an almost seamless transition. I say almost because while the game is struggling to hold onto the poor connection, the associated player may just stand there not rolling their dice or not participate in a minigame. In my game where the two players dropped out, this happened during a 1 vs 3 minigame where I was paired with the two people who were about to become CPUs. Being the only person playing in a 1 vs 3 is a pain and pretty much guarantees that the minigame will go to the other person. But most of the time, an issue like this isn’t gamebreaking and you can move on once the CPUs step in.
One of the features that I like the most about the online experience is the sticker function. Nintendo infamously does not support voice chat through the Switch and instead uses an app, and even that only works for specific games. So instead of talking to other players verbally, you can send in-game stickers during times when it is not your turn and no minigames are in progress. The sticker selection is pretty solid (there are 67 total but each character has three that are custom to them, so it’s more like 40 stickers) and allows you to convey a lot of ideas to the other players. You can say hi to everyone as the game starts, give an eager “bring it on” just as a minigame loads up, toss out a “bad luck” when someone lands on a Bowser space, congratulate someone for getting a star – there’s plenty to work with while still staying within the confines of a family-friendly environment.
What struck me most about this system is that at least in the matches I have played so far, Mario Party Superstars has a generally wholesome and fun community of folks playing it online. When a board starts folks are saying “hi!” or “let’s do this!” A good roll or landing on a lucky space might be met with a “wow!” or “lucky you!” People will send the thanks sticker after someone congratulates them with a “good game!” or “nice!” There’s a sense of fun that comes from that shared community, even if the tools for communication do have their limitations. When someone lands on a chance time space and the screen fills up with stickers of Toadette crying or characters yelling “WHAT?!” you can feel in that moment the energy of the game and a sense of comraderie with the other folks playing. And while there is potential for abuse via spamming the more “aggressive” stickers (something like Bowser laughing for example), the toolset primarily encourages a vibe where folks are enjoying the game together and encouraging each other to succeed with a little playful banter thrown in for fun.
That I think is where Mario Party Superstars works best. Even in online matches where I can’t actually look at the other players or talk to them, I get a sense of their vibe as we go. In my most recent game, I was up against three very skilled players who knew both the board and the minigames very well. The person who ultimately ended up winning that game was a Daisy player who for the majority of the game was totally silent. Even when I and the other players were all sending stickers, goofing off, reacting to everything that happened, this person was quiet. I originally guessed they had the stickers disabled (which is an option if someone is being a jerk or if you just don’t like the sticker aspect of the game), but what I realized was that this player was in their very first online match. About three quarters through the game, they started to occasionally say congrats when someone got a star or “yes!” when something went their way. By the end, they were good-gaming with the rest of us and saying thanks for the great match. That process of playing with talented opponents who pushed me to try my best, seeing them warm up and start to interact, and building that momentary connection with another person to enjoy a fun game together feels how Mario Party felt when I was a kid.
Mario Party Superstars doesn’t have a perfect online experience. The connection can be rough if you’re not playing in ideal conditions and disconnecting from most of your group can be frustrating or lead to some issues during minigames. But even when these problems are present, the quality of the core Mario Party experience combined with a fun and flexible tool for safely communicating with other players creates an environment where you can have satisfying and enjoyable matches even when you don’t have friends on hand. The systems in place that allow a match to take a sudden turn keep the game competitive and generally prevent total blowouts, and the overall positive vibe of the stickers available to you encourage good sportsmanship and make it easy to react in enjoyable ways to the twists and turns of a match. Superstars is some of the most fun I have had playing a game online with random people, and some of the most excitement I have had with Mario Party since my mom and I would throw down in Shy Guy Says back on the Nintendo 64.