Star Rush Plaza is the place to be, with Mushroom Kingdom inhabitants great and small allowed to embrace their competitive spirit for a second time this year. After their sporting prowess was put to the test at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, an open invitation challenges Mario and the gang to secure a podium finish closer to home in the more quirky activities packed into Mario Party: Star Rush.
With Mario Party: Island Tour having arrived to a middling critical reception, Nintendo has thrown their rulebook out the window and challenged their party planners to produce an experience that is perfectly portable by design. That’s understandable given that Star Rush is the fourteenth game in the series, and even the mustachioed plumber’s creators would find it hard to argue against the fact that their party antics were in need of a shake-up.
That isn’t to say that they haven’t tried their hardest to come up with ways to do so. But, where Island Tour and Mario Party 10 suffer from uninspired boards and tedious pacing, Star Rush succeeds in letting players freely run amok before collectively plonking them into Boss Battles and minigames. Basically, all the good stuff.
This new approach is most clearly seen in Toad Scramble, which, somewhat conveniently, is the only structured mode that is available when you first start. Whether playing against CPU opponents or friends over Local Play, this mode sees each competitor play as a differently-coloured Toad. It is down to your plucky team to rescue Stars stolen by Bowser’s forces, competing with one another to see who can collect the most by the end of the game.
Every player rolls their dice at the same time to help speed up proceedings, then swiftly moving on to select the path that they will take across the board. It’s down to you where to run, whether that be to nab Coins, to pop a Coin Balloon to start a minigame, to recruit a Mushroom Kingdom character stood patiently nearby, or to dash straight for the Boss Battle. Each tactic presents its own opportunity, with gathered Coins being exchanged for Stars at the end of the game and your Mushroom Kingdom companions helping to secure more by rewarding you with extra dice rolls.
Those that reach a Boss Battle first will face the baddie alone, at least until the other players turn up. While you will work together to topple them, arriving early (especially with a Mushroom Kingdom ally) provides you with a competitive advantage to start scoring points before anyone else.
These gameplay ingredients see Toad Scramble amount to an unpredictable, fast-paced and manic experience that alone directly addresses criticisms directed at recent entries.
Everything that you do in Star Rush earns you points that steadily build your Party Level, unlocking new modes that switch up your time with the game. The first is Coinathlon, where players must take part in challenges to collect as many coins as possible to move them along the board, using items to slow down their rivals while keeping an eye out for Bowser later on.
That coin gathering continues in Balloon Bash, where bursting Coin Balloons will hurtle you into minigames and boss Battles. Mario Shuffle is a less memorable one-on-one mode where players are challenged to move their character pieces to the other end of the board, with spaces propelling them forward or punishing you by sending them back where they came from.
The fun doesn’t stop there, either. You can form a Mushroom Kingdom band in Rhythm Recital, which, as it sounds, tasks you with tapping out the beat, while Boo’s Block Party is a match-three puzzler where you line up dice numbers vertically or horizontally to break the blocks. And, last but not least, is Challenge Tower, a single-player mode that tasks you with edging your way up a tower one space at a time.
The selection of modes may be well-rounded, but they would fall apart if the minigames weren’t up to snuff. Thankfully that isn’t the case, and players will test their memory and reflexes in challenges across Free-For-All, Boss Battles, Coin Chaos, and Bowser’s Gauntlet categories.
Whether dealing more damage than the other players or grabbing more coins than them, there are plenty of memorable minigames within the 50 or so packed on the cartridge. The heat is on, with Bridgesaw Puzzle tasking you with building a Tetris-like bridge the fastest, One-Stop Toad Shop seeing players dash to fulfil customer orders, and Goomba Gold Rush sees you blasting cannonballs at marauding Goombas. There are some minigames that don’t quite hit the mark as well, but that has long been the case for the series.
It is in multiplayer that Star Rush truly starts to shine, and Nintendo has changed their approach this time around. Mario Party: Star Rush – Party Guest can be freely downloaded from the Nintendo eShop, and, as long as you have a single copy of the game, all players can access the full multiplayer experience in Local Play. It’s a ridiculously generous gesture with some single-player content to boot, with data (namely Party Level, unlocked characters, and minigames) able to be transferred across to the full game. Meanwhile, Local Play is the only option for groups that each have their own copy, while Download Play will let you play a handful of modes with a single copy.
It has been three years since Island Tour, and in that time Nintendo has clearly learned more about making the most out of their ageing portable. Mario Party has never felt more exciting, and, especially when friends are in on the chaos, Star Rush shows that the party isn’t over for the Mushroom Kingdom.