Mario. Luigi. Yoshi. Waluigi. Wario. Toad. These aren't just names, they're cultural icons. Nintendo have not only managed to dominate the platform scene over the past couple of decades, they've re-written the concept of video game marketing with bright, vibrant characters in impossibly dramatic situations.
Mario Party DS is not immune from this formula, as Nintendo's cast of energetic trademarks join together once more in this latest installation. As the story mode will tell you, five Sky Crystals have fallen to earth, and the nasty Bowser wants them all for himself. After trapping the hapless Mario crew in his castle, Bowser then manages to shrink them, at which point you take over the challenge to acquire the Sky Crystals by defeating a host of mini-games and indeed your own team.
The first thing you'll notice about Mario Party DS is the sheer level of complexity they've managed to squeeze out of such a small platform. Bowser's castle is essentially a game board, and as your chosen character moves around this board (by tapping a spinning dice) you'll encounter a myriad of bonus tiles, combat levels, mini games and general mayhem. Every input method of the DS is tested, from the microphone to the stylus, as you compete to secure enough coins to purchase stars that randomly appear around the board. If you're one of those people who don't enjoy looking like a twit in public, fear not! The microphone challenges can be excluded.
The coins you pick up can also be used to purchase various bonus attributes that can be applied to your toon, such as the option of using two, or even three dice, or planting some kind of trap on a square near you that other players will hit. There's a nice learning curve with Mario Party that will see you lose challenges just often enough to encourage you to try harder, and therein lies the hook that any good video game should have.
It's hard to express just how addictive Mario Party DS actually is. Most of this is driven by the diversity of the challenges - there are a staggering 70 mini-games you can compete in, and these can be against any number of your three opponents. It's also refreshing that this game is not a walkover; I'd like to think of myself as somewhat experienced in playing video games, yet it still took three full games and around two hours to actually beat the final boss on the very first level, and get one of the five crystals. Just when you think you've made headway in the game, you unlock another type of challenge, or scenario, and you realise just how much game play there is left.
If you feel you need a break from the story mode, you can choose between party, mini-game, puzzle and multiplayer. These are all fairly self explanatory, although it's worth noting that the puzzle games are all pretty much variations of Tetris-styled block games. Still, entertaining enough for any bus trip, but it's unlikely you'll spend much time with these as the main story board is so compelling. The multiplayer mode can see you battling up to three of your friends, each with their own DS, and only one copy of Mario Party is required. Alternatively you can just take turns using the single console.
There's so much to like about Mario Party DS, from the mini-games that vary between easy and impossible (you'll be using the practise option a lot..) to the zany random events that can have you winning outright one minute, and losing miserably the next. The people that made this game must have had a blast, the creativity expressed is nothing short of fantastic - you actually feel good about beating the DS-controlled characters just to see the look on their faces!
If there is a better title out there right now for the DS, I haven't played it. Hours and hours of fun!