Mario Party has seen a bit of a metamorphosis over the years. It wasn't that long ago that many critics and fans were growing tired of the series, bored with the same old, same old. When ND Cube was founded, the developers there became the new team behind Mario Party. Their first foray was Mario Party 9, and to its credit, the game did try to change things up, despite not being a fan favorite. Now, ND Cube is at it again, trying to shake things up to make what many had considered a stale series into one with new life. Mario Party: Star Rush is the second game in the series on the Nintendo 3DS, and after devoting quite a bit of time with it both alone and with friends, it's without a doubt my favorite Mario Party from ND Cube so far, and just a good party game in general.
Toad Scramble is the main mode of Mario Party: Star Rush, and it is front and center in the game, being the only mode available from the beginning. By playing games and finishing rounds, you earn experience points that unlock new pieces of content that range from new modes to unlockable characters like Rosalina and Donkey Kong.
The premise of Toad Scramble pits four Toads against one another on a grid-like board of which there are five "worlds" that are made up of three board designs each. This isn't your traditional linear board design of past Mario Party games. Also different in Toad Scramble and many other modes in Star Rush is the ability for all players to roll a die at the same time. When you've rolled, you can go from your current location and move spaces nearby on the grid in any direction you want. You just can't go back and forth between the same spaces, and that is pretty much the only limitation of movement.
Toads can land on item spaces to get items to boost their dice rolls, Poison Mushrooms to punish a player and stifle their roll amount, and a warp block to immediately transport to another Toad's space. In addition to item spaces, coins are littered on boards, serving as a means to buy items from special item shop spaces as well as giving players a Power Star for every ten coins they hold at the conclusion of the game.
Occasionally, several assist and support characters from the roster of playable characters appear on the boards in Toad Scramble. Reaching them and passing by their space puts them on your team. Not only do they give you bonus movements on your rolls, they also have unique dice blocks they can use and special abilities on boards. For instance, Mario and Luigi can sometimes find a Goomba in a patch of grass to stomp on, earning that player five coins each time it happens. When two Toads land on the same space and one or both of them have an ally on their team (each Toad can have up to four allies at once), a very brief ally battle ensues, where the winner takes one of the loser's allies. These ally battles range from picking a higher numbered card than the opponent or timing a button press so the player is the closest to five seconds.
The means to progress in Toad Scramble is to reach the current boss on the board. This is done by having a player roll the exact number needed to land on the boss space, initiating the boss mini-game. Once a boss has been defeated, the next boss appears somewhere else on the board. Some boards are quick engagements with only three bosses to contend with, but other boards with more expanses to them offer up to five bosses to beat. The winner of a boss mini-game earns a Power Star. Other players earn a varied amount of coins. The final boss mini-game is worth double the reward for each player.
The player or players who land on the boss space earn a five coin bonus plus the ability to play from the beginning of the boss mini-game. Depending on how far away the other players were from the boss space, they will have to mash the A button to reach the boss space and enter into the mini-game, so it's crucial to at least be near the boss space when the mini-game begins. The alternative is giving one player a great advantage. Another advantage one can gain from boss mini-games is the ability to have all allies on your team play with you as AI helpers. In games where each shot on the boss is worth a point, one can earn a ridiculous amount of points, making victory all but assured.
Toad Scramble is quite an engaging mode, and a fresh take on the Mario Party series. There is a decent amount of strategy to be found and actual skill seems to be rewarded way more than luck is. If you play smartly, you'll usually find yourself the victor, unless you totally fail at the mini-games being played.
After doing some playing in Toad Scramble, you'll unlock the Coinathlon. This mode features a multi-lap race around an oval racetrack, where how you perform in the mini-games determines how much you move. You're constantly cycled between three mode-exclusive mini-games, and each coin you collect as you play these solo games makes you move one space on the racetrack. After all three mini-games are played, you start at an upgraded version of the mini-games, playing as many levels of these as necessary until someone crosses the finish line. It's a fun mode to play against friends, but it's also rather rewarding trying to take on CPU opponents, attempting to win ten rounds against progressively harder foes.
Then there is Balloon Bash. This is also a mode where everyone moves at the same time, just like Toad Scramble, but instead of playing as only Toads, you play as any member of the cast of Star Rush. Balloon Bash, as the name hints, has players moving around small boards trying to collide with various balloons. Some offer coins that begin mini-games, which happens fairly often in this mode. Others offer up to three Power Stars if you have enough coins to buy them (it's 10 coins per star). After a set number of rounds, the game is over, and whomever has the most Power Stars is deemed the victor. While Balloon Bash takes on a more traditional board game style, it can be highly dependent on the luck of the dice roll. If you happen to get caught with low rolls, you might find you win all of the mini-games but end of with a limited amount of stars due to not reaching specific balloons.
Other modes include the utterly boring Mario Shuffle, where two teams of three characters try to reach the opposing side's end of the board through strategic rolls of the dice. The total lack of mini-games and little variety make for a game most players won't feel compelled to return to more than once. Then there's Rhythm Recital, a rhythm-based mini-game where you play one of four instruments, tapping the screen as triggers appear, while you play along with one of many classic Super Mario series songs. As you rank well, new songs unlock. Finally, two puzzle modes round out the package: one falling block game to play against a human or AI opponent, and a game where you have to plan out a route to climb a tower, trying to use logic to avoid spaces where enemies lie.
While Mario Party: Star Rush sports a smaller amount of mini-games than what most fans are probably used to, what games are here are quite fun. Very few are dependent on luck at all, which is great. Some use traditional button controls, while others make use of the touch screen and stylus controls. Whether you're using two jump buttons, one that jumps one space and one that jumps two spaces, to climb up a series of steps where some are hazards; racing through a series of haunted rooms to find where the exit is; or doing something as elementary as counting how many oranges are carried through a dining hall by Shy Guys, the mini-games featured in Star Rush are varied and mostly enjoyable. Like more recent Mario Party games, certain mini-games, like races, for instance, aren't over as soon as first place is determined. Instead, it ends when third place finishes. All mini-games award coins to first through fourth place, with obviously the winner receiving the most coinage and fourth place receiving a pity coin for their efforts.
The boss mini-games have different goals to them than the standard mini-games. These are all about beating a boss somehow or making the gauge reach maximum. For instance, in the Mega Goomba boss mini-game, the game ends when enough apples have been brought back to the starting basket, whereas with a battle against Petey Piranha where shells must be thrown into the boss to earn points, this game ends when Petey's health has been completely emptied. The player who scores the final "hit" in a boss mini-game earns a three point bonus, which can sometimes be the difference between a first place finish and a second place one in more heated matches.
Mario Party: Star Rush may lack an online component, as all the games in the series do, but it more than makes up for that with its local multiplayer offerings. One player with the full game can have other 3DS players use Download Play to join their room. With the free Mario Party: Star Rush Party Guest software, available on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, those who have a friend with the full game can join their lobby, getting access to play with that player and all of the content they have unlocked. The Party Guest software even tracks experience points and earns unlockables. So if you're sad that you can't play with someone from across the nation or around the world, there is some solace to be found in the fact that you can practically play the full game with anyone nearby with their own 3DS system, as long as one of you owns the full version of the game.
ND Cube has long tried to find a working formula for the Mario Party series. I think they have now found it with Mario Party: Star Rush. As the main mode, Toad Scramble is a brilliant shift to the long-standing rules of the series, offering less downtime and more entertainment compared to previous ND Cube-developed Mario Party games. Not all of the modes in the game are winners, but overall, Mario Party: Star Rush aims for the stars and doesn't crater by any stretch of the imagination.