The word underrated gets thrown around a lot when games are reevaluated in the past, often used to describe interesting games that were overlooked.
While Mario Party Advance likely sold several hundred thousands of copies as a late Game Boy Advance release, it certainly fits the definition of underrated. It was viewed with disdain by many critics while mostly having been forgotten or disregarded by many series fans. Reputatble outlets such as Eurogamer gleefully handed it a 1/10, their reviewer calling it “possibly the worst videogame Nintendo has had the misfortune to publish” while accusing developer Hudson of being party-poopers.
I’ve been having a blast with Mario Party Advance this month. I think Nintendo is partly to blame for the game’s mixed reception. While it does share plenty of DNA with the series, it is primarily a single player experience due to the hassle involved with GBA link-up.
This however leads the game in a completely different but still valid direction. Hudson decided to refocus Mario Party Advance around a story mode which shines a spotlight on Shroom City, a town inhabited by Mario characters from all corners of the series. Salvo the Slime, Mr I., Thwomp, Dolphin, Shroomlock (a detective Toad) and Penguin all feature in this game, and they are all given simple yet charming personalities and dilemnas for you to solve.
The Mario Party board becomes the town, then. Rolling the die costs mushrooms, which you can earn back by winning minigames. The objective is to travel around town and solve its inhabitants’ problems, earning Gaddgets and eventually unlocking a final showdown with Bowser.
I’m not ashamed to say that I was glued to this mode. It’s fun trying to make it across all corners of Shroom City without running out of mushrooms. I was hooked trying to see how Hudson wrote many of the Mario universe’s characters - this was before there were strict rules on how the Mario universe should be depicted. There’s a hilarious amount of pachinko parlours and depictions of gambling in the game that Nintendo wouldn’t go near within a nautical mile today, for instance, and gambling is often tied in with many of the game’s mini-stories.
The character ending roll encapsulates the adventure beautifully, describing how all 50 inhabitants of Shroom City got on after you resolved (or worsened…) their troubles.
Then there’s the unlockables - each sidequest nabs you a Gaddget to play with, which range from throwaway toys (faux GBA screen cleaner anyone?) to competitive minigames and useful tools like a rock-paper-scissors probability calculator.
And while most of the minigames come across as rather easy in the Shroom City mode, the mini-game
attack challenge mode ups all of their difficulty, giving you a chance to clear 15 in a row to earn 100,000 coins. That caught me off guard despite my assumed familiarity with every minigame.
There’s so much packed into this game that did not need to be here that it really feels like it was a labour of love for its developers.
One aspect of the game that really surprised me was the visuals - the sprite and background art is highly detailed and extremely varied. Something which really does make me question whether reviewers were ever going to give the game a fair shake. That Eurogamer review I pointed to earlier in this post somehow arrived at the conclusion that Mario Party Advance has “non-existent” animation, which couldn’t be further than the truth. It’s one of the best looking sprite-based games, with almost 100% of the sprites and background tiles being hand-drawn rather than pre-rendered, rare for the 2000s…
Did anyone play this game? Apparently it’s one of the worst selling Mario games ever, likely owed to its poor release timing, critical reception, and choice of format. I must admit I passed on it due to the reviews at the time, despite being an aficionado for post-DS GBA software.