I’m a big fan of digital board games. Sure, it’s fun to get together with friends, crack open a cardboard box, set up pieces and props on a board, and clean up afterward. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun having everything set up for you and watching charming characters move on their own across multiple boards. Yes, the genre has become a bit messy with recent entries of Mario Party, focusing too much on random happenings and luck than actual skill, but as far as board games in video game form are concerned, let’s just say I still fire up the old Nintendo 64 every once in a while and have a blast playing the first three entries in the long-running party game franchise.
After a somewhat lengthy hiatus, the once annual series is returning to the Wii with Mario Party 9. Longtime enthusiasts are undoubtedly excited to play the game, and even though Mario Party 8 was hardly fun, I’m excited to try out the ninth home console entry in the series. Of course, Mario Party 9 isn’t the only board game in town. Making its debut in North America later this year is Fortune Street, known as Itadaki Steet in Japan. The game will feature Monopoly-like gameplay and characters from the Mario and Dragon Quest worlds. Is this fresh new board game going to dethrone Mario Party? Or should the West just stick with the fun yet predictable mini-game fest?
There’s no denying the charm and familiarity that Mario Party brings to the table. After releasing annual entries across all Nintendo consoles since the Nintendo 64 days, it’s obvious that Mario Party is a household name as far as party games go. After being out of the spotlight for the last four years, Mario Party 9 has generated a high degree of anticipation. As previously stated, I wasn’t a fan of Mario Party 8. The game was … well, it was absolute crap. The board maps were weak, the charm fell short, the mini-games were a pain to play, and the constant reliance on luck to get ahead was ridiculously frustrating.
Nintendo hasn’t released much information about Mario Party 9 (or any, for that matter), but the next entry in the series needs to go back to basics in order to succeed. I loved the first Mario Party because it was challenging and fair. You had to work your ass off just to collect coins and stars and make it as the top dog on every map. The second Mario Party stayed true to this design for the most part, but the game went easier on players who lost in mini-games (no more lost coins in team and two-on-one mini-games). The third entry was also decent, but the board map design was lackluster. From there, the series went downhill more and more with each iteration.
Gamers don’t like kicking ass only to lose all of their coins and stars because of a stupid move on a single space. It’s this type of design choice that made Mario Kart Wii a total pain in the butt to play. Sure, the core racing was fun, but I wasn’t too keen on dominating a race all the way through only to be taken out by multiple blue shells, resulting in an ugly seventh place finish. Mario Party has become too reliant on luck, making it less fun with every consecutive game. Nintendo shouldn’t be afraid to challenge players by letting them fend for themselves. If Mario Party 9 is even loosely inspired by the first game, it could very well be the best party game to come along in years. If it follows with the trend of its recent predecessors, though, gamers should expect no more than an average to mediocre party game.
That’s where Fortune Street comes in. Because I’ve never played previous games in the series (due to their Japanese exclusivity), I don’t know what to expect. All anyone knows is that the first North American release will be slightly based on Monopoly, requiring gamers to purchase property and become rich little hooligans. Already this sounds like more of a challenge than Mario Party, and it’s this straightforward yet demanding gameplay design that makes Fortune Street a potentially awesome Wii game.
Judging from the gameplay footage that has circulated the internet, Fortune Street appears to be a much more traditional board game experience. Unlike Mario Party, which has a bunch of crazy events and happenings on each board, Fortune Street is a to-the-point party game that will likely rely more on skill than luck, which is a good thing. That means players will have to earn their victories. While I’m not ruling out the possibility of some wacky event spaces that can turn things around for the underdog, the game’s Japanese-based design could ultimately mean a much tougher but highly rewarding gameplay experience.
Of course, the familiarity of Mario Party could either help or hinder the success of Fortune Street. People often stick to what they know, and even if Fortune Street provides stellar board game play, it could easily fall under the radar as a “Mario Party clone.” Then again, because North America doesn’t know much about the series, it could spark interest in gamers. I know I’m highly intrigued by it because I’ve never played it, but it’s been around long enough, so it could be a kick-ass game. The unfamiliarity could easily be good or bad, but if Fortune Street is an enthralling party title, let’s hope its mystique helps it garner a base of interested gamers.
Mario Party has been letting the core gamer down for the past several years. It’s a shame that the series went downhill the way it did. Make no mistake about it: the games have certainly been fun, but the level of enjoyment has worn thin in a big way due to the overly haphazard design of the board maps, the tired mini-games, and the daunting influence of luck that seems to screw the most deserving players out of victory. Still, Nintendo can turn things around and change them for the better. Fortune Street, on the other hand, is an entirely unfamiliar franchise in the West, so you can bet it’s a risky contender. The game will definitely offer something different from Mario Party 9, though. Ultimately, the game’s change of pace and overall newness make it easier to recommend over Mario Party 9. I’m not bashing the upcoming game in Nintendo’s storied party game line just yet, but Fortune Street has the edge because it looks a lot more challenging and rewarding in the long run. And I think by now, gamers want to try something new.