Have you heard the one about the Nintendo characters and the minigames? More unlikely, have you managed to avoid it? Unless you haven't had access to electricity for the last ten years, you'll probably know all about Mario Party, which is one of the most successful and imitated casual games series.
It has had its ups and downs over the course of at least nine sequels, some of which are barely distinguishable from one another beyond the title screens, but it's never less than popular - explicably or otherwise.
The format, for all but the poor GBA version, is exactly the same. Four players take turns to roll dice and travel from space to space on a mazelike board. After everyone has had a go, it's time for a minigame, which will involve teams of two, a three-on-one fight or a free-for-all. The prize is a bagful of coins, which can be used to buy special items that will spoil the other players' chances. The ultimate aim is to collect stars - there's one on the board at all times, and only players who land on its space get the privilege of buying it.
Once somebody has a certain number of stars or you've played for a certain number of turns, a winner is declared, and the minigames you played get added to a stand-alone minigame mode that you can play at any time, without the board game bit.
And that's that. Minigames were fairly unusual when the original Mario Party came out, but they've long since become standard features on an enormous variety of titles. Whether as bonus modes in the likes of Super Monkey Ball or as the entirety of Rayman Raving Rabbids, we're so familiar with those bite-size snippets of character-based fun that they've become easy to take for granted.So Mario Party DS was always going to have to do something pretty special to grab the attention.
Its big attraction is that it works in multiplayer with just the one cartridge. In fact, it's exclusively a single-cart game, and it doesn't strip down the experience like most other download games do. You get the full thing on three empty handhelds, with the host DS sending data to the others between rounds. It means there's a loading pause before every minigame, but that's entirely excusable when you consider that the alternative would be to limit four-player games to groups who had spent £120 on cartridges.
Technological generosity aside, it's going to take a dedicated Mario Party animal to feel the benefit of the latest addition to the family. This time, the story involves the gang being shrunken to tiny size and somehow forced to play the same old board game, except it's now set in giant environments.
You get to shuffle across pieces of furniture, and the traditional bobsled minigame now sees players sliding on spoons through the furrows left by a normal sized sledge. It's quite sweet at times, although we didn't always notice the recurring theme because so many of the minigames are barely any different from the hundreds we've played in the past.
Better bring a bottle
Some of them are downright boring. There's one where you have to spin a wheel to make cars trundle through a turnip field, in what must be the slowest and dullest motor race ever seen. It made us groan to see it pop up a second time.
Most of them aren't of such a poor standard, of course, and there's a nice mixture of stylus controls, the traditional Mario Party buttons and the odd bit of blowing into the microphone. Previous versions have included some truly dire voice recognition on GameCube, but - thankfully - the restriction of having to keep the game small enough to be shared speedily between players seems to have forced the developer to exercise a little restraint with what may otherwise have been an obvious feature to stick on a DS title.