Charting from the ancient days of penny arcade cabinets to the modern era, decades of game designers have carefully deliberated and pined over the concept of punishment in video games. After the raw cruelty of arcade games—mathematically designed to be as unfair as possible to milk precious quarters from the wallets and pockets of arcade patrons—failed to meaningfully transfer over into home console releases of the ‘80s and ‘90s, gaming entered a brief period of time in which challenge and difficulty were no longer primary goals of designers working in the mainstream.
Eventually, the commercial and critical success of ruthless sweat-inducing action games like Dark Souls and precision platformers such as Super Meat Boy demonstrated a significant interest among consumers for difficult games, opening up the gate to developers everywhere to be as sadistic as possible.
However, despite the tidal wave of difficult “Souls-like” action-RPGs and nostalgia-fueled throwbacks inspired by the immensely difficult games of the NES era, none of these games would truly manage to capture some sense of absolute evil inflicted upon the player.
Indeed, only one franchise—with a bubbly aesthetic carefully designed to deceptively hide the evil that lurked within—has managed to capture the cruelty and evil that the human species is capable of. If you dare to, gaze into the eyes of the devil and you will see Mario Party Superstars.
In many ways, Mario Party Superstars—the twelfth mainline installment in the 23-year running series—represents the ultimate evolution of Mario Party as a game. Rather than trying and failing to successfully innovate upon the game’s mechanics like the last few games in the series did, Superstars hones in on the best parts of the series’ history by lifting content from prior entries and refurbishing it for the Nintendo Switch. The game boards are curated from the first three games on the N64, and the 100 minigames are selected from the franchise’s entire history, allowing for a significant amount of variety between them.
Between the resurrected boards and the remastered minigames, Superstars evokes the feeling of a greatest-hits Mario Party game more intent on acknowledging the balladic simplicity of the series’ earliest entries than it is on attempting to reinvent the wheel.
Unlike the far more middlingly-received Mario Party 10 and Super Mario Party, Superstars reduces the complexity of Mario Party’s board game-inspired structure into a simple yet distinct setup. While having only five boards, each board feels extraordinarily unique in the way that it plays. The complexity for each one varies as well, ensuring that playing on different boards radically changes the play experience.
The boards are each individually distinguished with a specific difficulty, allowing you and your friends to curate play sessions depending on the amount of cruelty you are planning on dispensing. Mario Party is, after all, a game of sabotage, theft and moral vandalism. Once a match is started, the cards are off the table and the players off the chain, as all prior allegiances and friendships are discarded and tossed away.
What makes Superstars even more masochistic than the series’ reputation would lead you to believe relies largely on the exceeding polish that the game presents. Like most Nintendo games, Superstars is presented with a near-flawless sheen. Every minigame feels resoundingly more responsive than its original counterpart did, and the slickness and satisfaction that come with each one fuels the desire to gain skill and familiarity with the game’s mechanics.
The game’s only blemish is Nintendo’s consistently poor support for online play, as even a single player having a bad connection can cause the match to become unplayable with the lag induced by the awful netplay, causing frustration and failure during minigames.
Outside of that, the game is so disgustingly fair that any mistake made or punishment allocated to you is either entirely your fault or the result of the borderline-unethical barbarity of your fellow players. Even the most certain victory can be robbed, stolen and beaten out of you at the last minute by a star-pilfering Boo or sly Chomp Call. Hell hath no fury like a Luigi scorned, and that Luigi will most certainly do his best to betray and deceive those who have wronged him.
As the match pushes onwards and the turns pass quickly, all goodwill is abandoned as the savage ruthlessness of the players kicks in, desperately clobbering one another in hope of reigning supreme in the competition.
The anger induced by such moments ensures that matches are not simply a competitive endeavor but also a social experience. Mario Party Superstars is like a steam engine powered by this anger, with moments of levity or peace few and far between. The urge to stop playing is intense, but nonetheless, you will return to it for just one more game in a foolish attempt to regain your dignity.
Superstars’ candy-colored shell just barely obfuscates the hellishness underneath, cracking to reveal an exceedingly cruel and masochistic exercise in suffering, sabotage—and triumph. It is a game whose very shape seems to be possessed and defined by entropy, rearing chaos and disorder. A game that transforms the kind into the cruel, the weak into the tyrannical and the bold into the stupid; a game where friendships, allegiances and regimes can wither away at the snap of a finger; where the mighty are humbled, desecrated, torn apart and shamed—and where the most unholy of unholy thoughts are manifested into action and inhumanity.
Hearts will be crushed, minds will be shattered, controllers will be broken and friendships will be dismantled. But, in the end, Superstars, in all its beautiful and horrible glory, is an acknowledgement of what Mario Party has always done and always will do best—making friends into enemies and enemies into friends amidst a battlefield of supposedly family-friendly catastrophe and destruction.