Some would say Mario Party has been in a tailspin since its second instalment on N64. In truth, the downward trajectory of Nintendo's minigame mainstay began in the GameCube era, with the late Hudson Soft called upon to trot out four games in four years, to increasingly diminishing returns.
The fourth game was fine, within the self-imposed limitations of the format, but by number 6 Nintendo had us barking into a cheap plastic microphone that failed to interpret your commands with any kind of consistency (a rudimentary precursor to the original Kinect, you could say). If it's a straight fight between 2 and 4 for the title of best in the series, then, Island Tour is definitely languishing in the relegation places.
It's not an ungenerous package, however. There are plenty of minigames here - over 80 in total - and Nintendo has made the sensible decision to allow four players to join in the fun (if that's the right word) from just a single copy of the game. Yet if the process of Download Play is reasonably quick and painless, the same can't really be said for the game itself.
The board game format remains, with seven different boards to tackle, each one rated out of five for strategy, luck and minigames. You're given an idea of how long it'll take to play through them, and rarely will the duration fall far outside those estimates. If you don't have the full complement of four players, computer opponents will fill in to make up the numbers, and you can set their skill rating for the minigames.
What you can't affect, however, is how brazenly they cheat. Our very first game saw us race ahead on the Perilous Palace Path board, perhaps the most traditional Mario Party experience of the seven boards. At the end, you'll face off against a Whomp with 6HP, the idea being to whittle his health down through dice rolls. Having rolled a three on our first turn, we prepared to face him once more, with two dice - one earned by winning the previous minigame, our eighth triumph in a row. Needing only three to win, we somehow managed to roll a double one.
To compound the misery, second-place Luigi, nine places back, and rank last in five of the eight minigames, earned a bronze die to supplement his regular one. The bronze die can only roll a maximum of three, which meant Luigi would need to roll the maximum score from both dice to face the Whomp, now on 1HP, and facing certain defeat from his next opponent. You can probably guess what happened next.
Such frustrations are part and parcel for a game determined by fortune as well as skill, of course. And luck can be a great leveller for younger and less experienced players competing against more advanced gamers. Complaints about the random nature of a handful of minigames are a little off the mark, as they help give everyone a shot at victory, even if it be by accident rather than design.
"Even if you set aside moments of apparent scripting, the minigame selection is disappointingly weak"
Yet so frequent are these misfortunes that you begin to suspect foul play. Rocket Road, one of the shortest boards, offers 'boosts' for winning minigames that multiply dice rolls. Yet as soon as one player gets ahead, you can guarantee that a 4x roll will end with the dice landing on 1 or 0.
Even if you set aside these moments of apparent scripting, the minigame selection is disappointingly weak. There are occasional highlights: an arena battle in tanks made from giant Koopa shells, for example, or a game which crosses skydiving with musical chairs as you shove opponents aside to land on an ever-dwindling mattress of bounce blocks.
But in the main you'll have played many of these games before, or variants thereon. The 3DS's feature set is used in its entirety, from gyro-based activities to stylus-controlled asides, while the circle pad and d-pad are both included. And despite the folly of Mario Party 5, there are even microphone-based minigames. The kindest thing to say about those is that they function as intended.
And that's Island Tour in a nutshell: functional. There's a distinct lack of character and charm here, with unimaginative writing, flat presentation, and repetitive animations and soundbites. It's saying something when the reliably ebullient Charles Martinet sounds vaguely bored, and the most amusing moment in the entire game came when Luigi lost a minigame, laid down, and began to kick his legs in an oddly adorable tantrum.
Even that began to pall by the fifth time I'd seen it. What's more, it's plagued by myriad tiny annoyances. Like unskippable animations, constant reminders of a never-changing order of play before each turn, and a character select screen that bafflingly asks you do 'undo' your previous favourite before choosing another.
It seems to think that references to other Nintendo games is enough, that familiar characters, enemies and snatches of music will suffice to keep you entertained. And yet all these moments do is remind you of better games you wish you were playing instead.
"Mario references remind you of better games you wish you were playing instead."
Take the Rocket Road board as a case in point: it's a Mario Galaxy-themed race soundtracked by an anaemic remix of the Good Egg Galaxy theme. Rosalina shows up at the end in what can only be described as the game equivalent of a decent actor putting in a cameo in a dreadful film, picking up their paycheque and hastily exiting before their reputation can be irreparably tarnished by association.
There's a sluggish, tilt-controlled version of Super Mario 64's Frosty Slide level, and a feeble take on the plumber's ball-rolling interludes in Galaxy, complete with the music slowing down or speeding up to match your pace. Meanwhile, King Bob-Omb pops up in the Bowser's Tower mode (where Mario's nemesis is threatening Party Land with a supposedly terrifying bubble machine) in a boss battle that you win by playing a sliding tile game.
That lack of imagination is pervasive. People talk about the Nintendo difference, that almost indefinable sprinkling of fairy dust that's found in the company's best games. It's almost entirely absent throughout Island Tour, a game seemingly designed for nothing more than to bolster the 3DS's software library, a slot-filler at best.
And yet 3DS doesn't need it. 2013 will be remembered as the year when the much maligned portable truly established itself with an array of brilliant games: Luigi's Mansion 2, Pokémon X and Y, Animal Crossing New Leaf, Fire Emblem: Awakening (and, spoiler alert, the forthcoming Bravely Default is a bit good, too). So to close things out in this way - in the US, at least; EU players have to wait until January - feels like a riotous party brought to a messy end by the final guest throwing up on you on the way out.
A tired and lacklustre end to a great year for 3DS, Island Tour is one of the most tedious parties you could ever attend.
- A clutch of fun minigames
- Download play
- Flat presentation
- Weak unlockables
- Repetitive and dull