At the halfway point in one of Mario Party: Island Tour's boards, there's a fork in the road. Taking the left path puts you on the road to victory, and gives an excellent excuse to pelvic thrust in your opponents' general direction. To the right is a long series of impossible nonsense that no one should ever have to deal with; a bunch of "Go back a space!" spots that doom you to pathetic failure. Why would anyone choose that? Well, you don't actually have a say. When you arrive at the fork, a bunch of goombas spin around in circles and pick for you, because Mario Party's game boards are lawless lands of debauchery and sin. With nothing more than a coin flip, the victory is either handed to you on a silver platter or ripped from your quivering hands.
When you approach it, Toad pops up and smiles a cruel smile, chortling about how "It all comes down to luck!" It was in this moment that I realized how remarkable it was that Nintendo seemed wholly uninterested in fixing Mario Party's biggest problem: its reliance on luck. After a dozen games over the course of 14 years, it still hasn't found a way to make the matches any more than a series of coin flips. What it has done, however, is find clever ways to disguise it under whimsy, wonder, and fun mini-games.
It's weird to see the franchise embrace luck as much as Island Tour does. Losing due to a random happenstance in Mario Party has likely caused more broken N64/GameCube/Wii controllers than Goldeneye/Smash Bros. Melee/Wii Sports combined. Island Tour acts like it's a bullet point to be proud of--it even ranks different boards on how much of your victory will be related to chance. It doesn't matter if you're playing Banzai Bill's Mad Mountain (ranked 5/5 for "Luck"), Rocket Road (given a 2/5) or Shy Guy's Shuffle City (with a 3/5)--you're still going to be relying on randomness in order to succeed, or feeling screwed when something totally out of your control undermines everything. And yet, despite that, it's handled in a way that makes it somewhat charming. Sure, being screwed out of victory hurts, but watching a friend have a sure win torn away is so funny that it more than makes up for the anger you might feel when it happens to you.
Mario Party's inclusion of four-player competitive play with one cartridge makes getting games much easier, and downloading the game only takes a few minutes. That said, we had several instances where the connection would be lost, even when the players hadn't moved apart. This caused the game to crash and lose all progress. What a party pooper.
Luck impacts each of the seven boards differently, making them feel like seven slightly different experiences. Rocket Road, for instance, gifts you Engine Boosters for winning mini-games, which can double, triple, or quadruple your roll to propel you to the finish line faster than your worthless friends. Banzai Bill's Mad Mountain's flavor of luck comes in the form of Bullet Bill himself, and forces you to decide to play it safe lest you risk being knocked back to the start. The matches here are considerably shorter than those in previous Mario Party games, making the handheld version feel well suited for short, portable sessions The inclusion of four-player multiplayer with only one cartridge is a nice touch (even if the lack of online multiplayer is a curious omission) and should help make long road trips speed by quickly.
Mario Party's signature charm is infused into the shorter game boards. You'll still laugh when your friends roll poorly, or fist-pump when you successfully grab a much-needed first-place victory in a mini-game. It's with these mini-games that The Fates lose their power, as skill will always let you outperform and defeat your opponents in the 80+ games included. Sure, you might be screwed out of your prize by a random question-mark block or a low roll, but you'll still know you wiped the floor with everyone when you were actually given some agency. Classic favorites like hey, roll around on this ball! and race your friends to a place while something happens! return, and are joined by a bunch of new, fun, competitive games that make good use of the 3DS' hardware for motion and touch-based challenges. But while they're enjoyable, the games aren't fun enough that you'll want to play them outside of the context of a board game, meaning the single-player offerings (most of which are just gauntlets of mini-games) aren't going to hold your attention for very long. Being able to play against friends in board game-less runs can be quite fun, though--so long as you're willing to give up on the die-rolling portion.
Seven maps might seem sufficient, but because they're so short you'll be able to blow through all of them in an afternoon, no problem. And though I know it was done to make for beiefer matches, I was still pretty heartbroken to see the classic "collect Stars and Coins for two hours and eventually get screwed over during the bonus round when your friend gets a pity Star" mode was nowhere to be found. There are flashes of classic gameplay scattered throughout the different boards, and some provide bite-sized instances of the game I played in my friend's basement in 1999--but none provide the full experience.
Ditching the lengthy matches of Mario Party's past in favor of shorter options makes sense, and it makes for more manageable experiences. But it's still saddening that the longest game of Island Tour that you'll ever play should wrap up in under an hour. Hell, a majority of matches will be over in half that time. Because of the randomness and the short length of the boards, it never feels like you have time to get the gist of the level's themes. Having one or two classic boards would've satiated old fans while still giving those interested in shorter matches an option; alas, you're stuck with what feel like miniature versions of the Mario Party levels you know and love.
And, honestly, that's sort of what Island Tour is: a miniature version of Mario Party. Making a handheld game like that might've made sense when Nintendo was trying to shove an N64 game onto the Game Boy Advance, but the excuse doesn't hold water anymore. Though you'll enjoy your time with Island Tour, it feels fleeting. Nintendo could have done so much better and made a portable version of Mario Party worthy of a huge gala, instead of a little shindig.
Island Tour isn't the Mario Party you remember, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. That said, there are definitely some missing pieces that keep it from being a memorable entry in the franchise.