By Neil Merrett
Super Mario Party, released on Nintendo Switch in 2018, developed by NDcube
There are over six dozen minigames within 2018’s Super Mario Party on the Nintendo Switch.
Taking between 30 seconds to three minutes to play, each game asks either a single player or a group of people huddled together in person or online to compete in tasks that are Herculean and not so Herculean in nature. These tasks are intended to encourage competitive rivalry, and sometimes bitter resentments through challenges of physical and mental dexterity.
From Where’s Wally-style games tests of attention and memory, to motion-controlled races to fry a cube of steak in the fastest time, the games are intended to be light, entertaining contests in order to gain bragging rights and in-game spending money to better compete in a digital board game.
However, there is one game in particular that stands out. A minigame where each player must push, shove and jostle themselves in front of their opponents to literally get maximum exposure and attention. It is perhaps one of the finest pieces of social commentary and gaming devised within the medium and it barely lasts a minute.
A lesson from indie games
The indie-game scene has thrived over the last decade on creating smaller budget titles built out of taking a simple everyday or esoteric process and creating an interactive simulation for players to try and master or survive. The point of playing such titles can range from competitively competing online with friends or strangers in a specific task, to taking part in a kind of interactive joke, or perhaps even educating players about an otherwise impenetrable topic.
In their best form, indie games can be fun, surprising, profound, or a heady mixture of all three. They can range from a couch co-op party/puzzle game where a group of disembodied heads with arms must perfect clinging to surfaces and each other in the hope of forming human chains to lob the group to the end of increasingly complex levels.
Alternatively, they can be single player explorations of mental health and identity, or a simulation of the complexities and cynical politicisation of the thin line between sanctuary and migration in a troubled democracy.
In short, a game doesn’t need to try to be an expansive open world simulation to provide a technically or psychologically sophisticated examination of human foibles and whether sports such as football could be improved with upgradable superpowers, less racism, robotic duplicates and walled arenas.
Developer Ken Wong said in an interview for GameIndustry.biz in 2018 after delivering a keynote speech at the Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW) that the creativity of the indie developer scene, supported by the growth of mobile gaming, had seen the industry mature in terms of output.
GameIndustry.biz quoted Mr Wong as saying, “Games have grown up now, he argued, out of the countercultural vibe they had in the 1980s and 90s and into the mainstream. They aren’t rebellious as an art form or entertainment medium any more, but they could be.”
Mr Wong argued that the next rebellious route for games should be to develop an industry that is both more caring and empathetic to different experiences and stories.
He told delegates at MIGW, “The real rebels will make games that help us understand each other and make the world a better place.”
Outside of the realms of nimble, smaller developers, the indie games scene has been an important means of income for some of the world’s largest manufacturers and developers, especially for the industry giants such as Nintendo.
The house of Mario and Wario
Tech publisher Digital Trends noted that alongside publishing and porting some major AAA games to the Nintendo Switch console, the same system was also building a reputation for running indy games that had previously been developed exclusively for home computers or smartphones.
It said, ”The portability of the Switch and Switch Lite makes them ideal for indie games, and dozens of small developers seem to love releasing their games on the hybrid console.”
However, Nintendo is not a complete stranger to making use of techniques and approaches commonly associated with Indie-games in a range of its own titles. Games such as the WarioWare and Mario Party series are a perfect example of this.
Both titles seek to build competitive party experiences of out seemingly inane and sometimes nonsensical or ridiculous minigames, such as having to quickly insert a finger up an in-game character’s nose in the quickest time possible.
The Super Mario Party series of games, which are now almost a quarter of a century old, have attempted to create a traditional long-form multiplayer board game experience in video game format.
Along with replicating dice roles and relying on a mix of luck and skill, player success is largely built around taking part in both competitive and cooperative minigames to gain points and bonuses for the board game section.
Over 23 years, minigames have been made out of card and memory contests, button mashing challenges and simulated water fights. They often last no more than two minutes each, but are filled with rivalry and obscene moments of luck and dexterity.
Hundreds of these minigames have been created for the series and are occasionally repurposed or redesigned for each new iteration of Mario Party.
The respective quality and value of each of these will differ depending on personal preference of the ability to defeat your nearest or dearest at them on a semi-regular basis.
What makes a great minigame?
However, it is the ‘Slaparazzi’, a four person, ‘every player for themselves’ battle within 2018’s Super Mario Party that is perhaps the zenith of Nintendo’s efforts to perfect the one to two minute interactive experience.
Simple in its concept, consistently chaotic and entertaining to play, while somewhat satirical in scope, a minute-long session of this minigame alone feels like having a great Indie game distilled into a perfect bitesize package.
In short, the player must do whatever it takes to navigate a circular redcarpet area and ensure that when a cheerful camera-wielding Koopa paparazzi appears from outside of the screen – they are at the forefront of their lens. In short, just get to the front of the camera… whatever it takes.
The whole game is played out using only the direction keys and a single shove button that can allow you to fend off or punch your opponents out of the way to get the maximum points as the character getting the most attention within each photo.
Whoever gets the prime spot in a photo the most number of times – regardless of how they did it – is the winner.
Anything for attention
It matters not how the player themselves is poised within the final shot, or even if they are perhaps caught in the middle of landing an absurdly violent attack on the other player to ensure that they are the literal centre of attention. The player just has to be at the centre of the camera’s gaze. Sometimes, the most outright and blatantly antagonistic player will win, whereas other times the player standing back from the violent chaos may be best placed to sneak up and get the majority of the lens’ gaze.
On its surface, it is a simple and family friendly minigame about doing whatever the player has to do to be the star. But this simplicity is loaded with our own real-world awareness about the value, power and ramifications of getting a seemingly simple image.
As the satirical and dystopian passport-office simulator ‘Papers Please’ has shown, complex and compelling narratives can be built out of effective and simple gaming mechanics.
A talented developer could no doubt build a searing and entertaining critique on the modern media and our own societal appetite for salacious and intrusive images and coverage sing the mechanics of ‘Slapparazi’.
Yet in shoulder barging away another player that may be a beloved relative or partner in the real world to take away their attention for the purpose of your own in-game survival – it already perfectly encapsulates something about humanity.
This humanity remains, whether the player is controlling a hereditary monarch, downtrodden fun-guy, a skilled-labourer or a pre-teen tyrannical dinosaur.