Everyone has a soft spot for Mario, even if it's a secret, guilty admiration that they'd never normally admit to. And heck, why not? We'd bet that the mustachioed porker has brought a smile to every gamer's face for the last twenty years at least once. So, well done on that. In fact, very well done. Against some tricky odds, the Italian has outlasted many other icons of gaming and provided us with some landmark moments whilst doing so, so PALGN doffs it's cap at the achievement. But - and this is a gargantuan, Bowser-sized 'but' - our love is not limitless. Particularly when the rotund plumber is shoehorned into a 'game' as patronising, as limited and as downright insulting to our intelligence (and yours) as Mario Party Advance.
Thing is, you knew it was coming. In fact, we were a little taken aback when - whilst researching this review - we were reminded that Hudson's Party series - which previously only appeared on the N64 and GameCube - hadn't yet been brought to any of Nintendo's handhelds. It was just a matter of 'when', we guess. But it's here now, and make no mistake: you should take a wide berth to avoid this next time you see it in your local games emporium.
'Shroom City' provides the backdrop for the title's main mode, and it's here that you'll have to start (whether you like it or not, as virtually everything else is locked upon starting the game). As in other Party titles, players have to choose who they wish to push around the Shroom City game board (in what looks like a giant sock on wheels, but what is actually - so we're told - a car), with Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and Peach available for selection. Each 'go' that players take uses up a mushroom (players start with five), though extra mushrooms can be won in challenges that are dotted about. On the board, there are four types of space you can possibly land on. A 'Dice' space lets you take another roll of the dice (thus saving a mushroom), a 'Minus' space deducts one mushroom from your stock, and a 'Mini-game' space - not surprisingly - lets you play one of the hideous mini-games. Then there's your everyday, common or garden space, which does nothing, except occasionally throw a mini-game your way to win some mushrooms.
Also placed around the map are various buildings or landmarks, all of which contain a character. Usually, entering said buildings would result in a quest being granted by said character. Some of these quests are mini-games, whilst others give instructions to go to other buildings to find other characters (so basically, you roll a die to complete a quest - move over Zelda!). Complete five of the fifty quests in the game, and you get to face Bowser, who's trying to take over the world or something - our eyes were glazing at this point - and you get to take part in a mini-game against the big 'B' himself. Such as a penalty shoot-out, where hitting the ball towards the middle of the goal results in a goal EVERY. DAMN. TIME. (Alright, go and take a lie down - Ed)
On the subject of atrocious mini-games, comparing any of the bland examples you'll find in Mario Party Advance with those of any other party title on the market is virtually pointless. It's not just that Mario's games are utterly devoid of humour and fun, but they're just so starved of a little imagination. Hitting 'A' to run up stairs? Alternately hitting 'L' and 'R' to be the first to saw your way through a chain? Hitting 'A' to win a sprint? Do excuse us if we don't keel over on the floor, frothing at the excitement of it all. This is vacuous, braindead gaming of the lowest possible order, and from the eight to ten tortuous hours we spent in the game's company, PALGN can truthfully, sincerely say that not one of the 50-odd mini-games on offer here truly engaged us. What is on offer here is a witless, unimaginative mishmash of button bashing, and little else.
Then there's the fact that many of the games are either based entirely on chance (a simplified roulette wheel, matching up cards) or are supremely unfair, throwing you in at the deep end with barely a hint on how the game. Yes, we're given a little menu that precedes each game, informing us how to play. And yes, the instructions we're given are so woefully basic that we can only presume Hudson gave their dimmest work experience lackey the task of writing them in his lunch break. There's just been such little care put into this project, and it shows in every direction you look. You can't even pause and quit from mini-games - you have to play until the end or hit the power button on your GBA (our recommended option, by the way).
Even the host of your forays into 'Shroom City' - a chap named 'Tumble' with a die for a head (Tumble? Geddit? Because dice 'tumble'? Brilliant!) - could have been designed and drawn by baboons. The dialogue between characters makes Home And Away look like Schindler's List, and the 2D art style is generic to the extreme.
'Why, you miserable curmudgeons!' we hear you protest, 'this is clearly all aimed at kids, not you fully developed adult types.' Well yes, that may be perfectly true, but a quick experiment involving the six-year old brother of this reviewer yielded the result we expected: abstract boredom, within minutes. When stood next to the surreal brilliance of the format's other party game, the excellent Wario Ware Inc.: Minigame Mania (which we gave a big, fat 9 out of 10), the gulf in class is laughable. The biggest tragedy of all is that Mario's repulsive game may well sell more copies.
But the game's biggest, most heinous sin of all is probably none of the above. See, in a move that is becoming worryingly familiar to Nintendo, squeezing any joy from the multiplayer on offer in Mario Party Advance will require you to pick up anything from two to four copies of the game. We're sorry we picked up one. Multiplayer is available for those paupers with just the single cart, but in true Nintendo style, it's the bare bones and nothing more. And considering that the multiplayer mode has always been the heartbeat of a good party game (and probably always will be), then that's just really stupid, kids.
So that's it. Possibly the worst game we've seen published under the proud Nintendo name for many years. It's badly designed, lacks ideas and generally feels downright shoddy. And sometimes, not even our admiration for one of gaming's own sons is enough. This is contemptible.