By Neil Merrett
Super Mario Party, released on Nintendo Switch in 2018, developed by NDcube
Games can be as meaningful or throwaway an experience as we choose for them to be. As such, it can be wise not to put too much thought into a single player game of Super Mario Party and the value of digital dice.
A single player session of Super Mario Party should be an oxymoron.
This long running video game series takes the aesthetics and general appeal of Nintendo’s well known mascot and crams it into a digital recreation of a board game. This board game however, requires each player to compete at the end of every turn in a randomly selected mini-game that ranges from the confusingly charming, to actually quite playable.
A paparazzi-themed mini-game, one where you have to use your respective physical in-game strength and presence to muscle your fellow players out of a picture, is a notable highlight of the minute-or-so long games thrown at you. It can be both a fun throwaway lark, as well as a stinging rebuke of modern society and our image-led culture.
All of these mini-games are built to be played by four players, either as some sort of chaotic free-for-all, or contests that must be played in teams of two, or the occasional three-on-one pile up.
In between the mini-games are sections where the player hopes to land on certain spaces on a specially-themed board level. This must be done while avoiding traps and getting items to sabotage your nearest and dearest, or the computer – if you are not very sociable. So far, so classic board game.
Unlike most classic board games however, a single player can have their own Mario party, even if it is just in a figurative sense.
What is arguably most fascinating about the Mario Party games is how Nintendo has tried to make an experience that can be viable for a person without physical friends to play with.
One obvious way to have done this would have been to introduce an online element. But online play is only slightly realised in the latest Mario Party on the Switch. Here you can play a selection of mini-games competitively, but not an entire board against players online.
The simple truth is that if one lonely individual is looking for some Mario Party on a cold January night, then they can only do so by going up against the awesome processing power of the Nintendo Switch.
Man vs machine
Videogame adaptations of board games are decades old and arguably date back to early computerised chess systems. These chess machines have themselves become a staple in the development of cutting edge AI over the years, technology that may one day take responsibility for decisions vital to human welfare. If this wasn’t significant enough, computerised chess has also been the basis for a musical from the blokes in ABBA.
It is also fair to say that videogames and board games have mutually developed over the years to try and use both simple, and complex play mechanisms in the attempt to create much more engaging and immersive simulations of the human experience.
One example is a number of digital iterations of the classic property game Monopoly.
Some videogames have meanwhile sought to adapt the classic and complex turn-based strategy of something such as Risk and turn in into a unique videogame such as Into the Breach. This is a game that merges the appeal of tile-based board games into a dynamic and interactive title that requires a player to try and think several steps ahead of a computer opponent.
Into the Breach is not trying to slavishly recreate that tangible appeal of a board game, with its strict rules, play pieces and the need for a dice.
Mario Party on the other hand has spent decades trying to perfect a Nintendo-ised version of a board game in a similar way to the company’s attempts to put its colourfully unique stamp on kart racing or freestyle street football.
But as board games and tabletop games have evolved and developed in the real world to match and compliment videogames, Super Mario party is a throwback to a seeming more simple era of gameplay and entertainment
This is one dictated by dice rolls, luck and friendly human rivalry that can sometimes and suddenly tip into a more spiteful contest and personal grudges.
There is a more slow-paced, collaborative appeal to the game. In Super Mario Party, everyone is equal. The luck of the dice decides success or glory – even if you are a player skilled at mini-games.
Yet as a single player taking on the computer, you can never quite shift the nagging sense that this digital dice is ultimately a construct of a computer. A computer that – in the case of competitive solo-player Super Mario Party – is the enemy. Your foe to be vanquished.
A dice should always be fair, lulling a player into thinking there is some element of skill in consigning their fate to the random whims of gravity and motion. In reality it is a one in six chance of success.
In the case of a digital dice, there is no reason for a computer not to create the same sense of fairness.
In Super Mario Party for instance, the dice numbers rotate in a fast paced, random order and the player tries to hit a button or pump their motion controller in the air to try and hit a specific number or bonus at just the right time.
It’s still a one in six chance of getting the number you need, albeit it with the added hope afforded from being able to see the numbers shift and roll around at high speed. But somehow, every bad ‘throw’ of the digital dice is no longer your fault, it’s the computer. Cheating to deprive you of victory.
Irrationality tells the player that the digital dice is itself a sham,. A sneaky programme designed to rob you of the fairness of human-made chaos. But then the player may roll a five, allowing them to get a much needed bonus, or even win a game by getting a random reward for collecting the most money, or hitting the most number of bad spaces. Then suddenly you are the winner. It is theoretically no fairer or crueller than a tangible, run of the mill dice.
Like any good board game, success or failure in Super Mario Party rests on the thin line between luck and skill, a heady if intense means on which to determine success. In fact, success in mini-games can at times allow a player to buy handy items such as a one use dice that can be used to roll a specific number as required by the player. You don’t find that in a game of Monopoly or Cluedo.
What the game does do however is highlight the perilousness of consigning too much meaning, or indeed personal wealth to the concept of a dice.
Beware the dice, man
The Dice Man, a novel written in 1971 by Luke Rhinehart, a pen name for an English Professor called George Dockcroft, was built on the principle of an individual opting to battle existential dread by deciding life changing and life shattering decisions on the basis of a dice.
The book is a tale of the limits and responsibilities of freewill and morality, of what could have been had you just rolled that bloody five and not landed on Mayfair. The eponymous ‘dice man’ finds them self undertaking violent, sometimes sex-charged, misadventures by allowing the dice to absolve them of the moral weight of their actions.
Likewise Mario Party can find a player using an in-game cursed mushroom on a rival player to sabotage their success. Morality can appear relative at times
Thankfully, a round of Super Mario Party is never for keeps, even if it can at times sour an evening of multi-player gaming session.
To this end, like any good game, Mario Party and the roll of the dice have as little or much meaning as one might assign to them.
A single player may begin to realise that it is best not to dwell on the situations they can really influence, and ensure they treat as important the things they do control and influence.
But then of course, Monty Mole, a computer-controlled rodent with a cold calculating demeanour, somehow roles a game winning six. In such circumstances, it can be comforting to believe the odds are never in your favour. Otherwise, one might get the suspicion that ensuring happiness is a lot harder than a random dice roll.