In January 2013, Milton-Bradley began an online campaign called “Save Your Token.” They were discontinuing one of the game pieces in their long-running Monopoly boardgame and wanted fans to voice their favor. The response was immediate and fevered; people take their Monopoly pieces very seriously. Though the game has taken its fair share of derision as other, more complex (or streamlined) games grew in popularity, I still remember the heated debates as a child when picking who gets the top hat and who gets the thimble. I often chose the lonely, disreputable iron. Little did I know it was not long for this world: The iron only received 8% of the popular vote, even though it is far superior to the other bottom-dwellers, wheelbarrow and shoe, and is no longer packed in with the game.
Nintendo is no stranger to boardgames, though theirs is often the digital sort. But the most interesting addition to Mario Party 10, the thirteenth installment (three handheld versions didn’t get the numeral treatment) since 1999, is not what’s found on-screen but instead what you clutch in your hand.
If you’ve Partied with Mario before, you know what you’re in for here. MP10 maintains the standard of past games: You and friends roll a die, move # spaces down a virtual board, and collect coins, every once in awhile doing battle with your fellow players in non sequitor challenges such as counting Goombas as they stream by in a blur or inflating a balloon as large as possible without popping. The basic exercises are ciphers for social ignominy; by yourself, the task of leaping through an arc of jumping fish is listless, too simple by half. But when experienced with friends, some strange alchemy takes place and the exact same actions take on heightened significance. Now, as then, Mario Party transcends expectations and turns stripped-down parlor tricks into magnificent social explosions of magic.
But here is the most intriguing, and potentially divisive, change to the formula in years: the requirement to buy and use amiibo in order to access the entirety of the game.
Nintendo’s line of amiibo toys are handsome figurines with a Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip inside; touch the figure to the Wii U GamePad, which holds an NFC receiver, and certain games react in programmed ways. The move is a sly evolution of the toys-to-life category created by Activision and Toys for Bob with Skylanders. Disney jumped in with their Infinity games the next year. And in each case, the purchased game was more a shell to be filled; you had to buy separate figures in order to unlock them and other features. Somehow the marketplace has not punished such a merciless, ambitious withholding; both series have become massive success stories.
Into this cash vault walks Nintendo, whistling Dixie (Kong). But so far, they’ve treated amiibo not as physical embodiments of downloadable content, but as fun asides: In Smash Bros., zap a figure in and it becomes a trainable fighter; I took my fully-leveled Wii Fit Trainer to a party and watched with glee as she stomped on a room full of frustrated human players. Certain character’s toys unlock irresistible racing suits in Mario Kart 8: super-neat, but limited to aesthetics.
Mario Party 10 is more blunt in its requirements. The main screen showcases three main modes, each represented by a large rounded square. “Mario Party” is the classic video boardgame; “Bowser Party” is a twist on the formula, with a fifth player using the GamePad to control the eponymous King Koopa and ransack your friends’ efforts at playing the standard way. Both of these squares are full-color and filled in, with the appropriate text and visual flourish. The third major mode of the game is called “amiibo Party.” This square is drawn with a dotted line surrounding an empty, white space. A small animated icon shows you what must be done in order to play: tap an NFC-enabled figure on the controller. Only then will the other 33% of the game open up.
To be fair: The full-fat retail release, at the standard $59.99 price, includes a Mario amiibo. And though there are ten separate figures that unlock ten separate boards, you don’t need to buy all of them: Once inside the mode, you can earn tokens that unlock each of the additional boards. Economically, the math works out fair and square. But at first blush, that giant gaping hole on the home menu appears a bit diabolical, a kind of swindle in plain sight that irks with its sheer confidence.
But even more clever is how these toys come to life. Or, rather, how they don’t.
In Skylanders and its ilk, you see your plastic action figure fully animated and living, as it were, in the fantasy world in which it exists. Here, the Nintendo figurine remains just that: a toy, the same one in your hand. It becomes your game piece. Roll a die and the figure doesn’t move its legs or break out of its circular stand; it merely bops space by space, as you might move it yourself, counting off each square.
Using one of ten characters unlocks their specific gameboard, each the same basic shape but with tangential elements and superficial details specific to their character. But even this is less videogame-y than a mock-up of what a physical, real Mario Party boardgame might be: Each amiibo board is portrayed as a snap-on attachment to the underlying foundation. You see the board, digitized cardboard and plastic, click into place.
Everything shown could be sitting on your coffee table. On the Mario board, a plastic 8-bit Super Mario wags back and forth on a strip raised above a hilly backdrop, as if jumping. Power-Ups roll out of bubble capsule machines shaped like his iconic red hat, but only after the requisite coins are dropped into the slot. Players that don’t use amiibo figurines see their characters as flat, paper cut-outs, their bottom edge stuck into a plastic base. Dice rolls knock them over. Only when the board calls for a mini-game challenge do the emblems turn into the “real” versions of each; once returned to the board, though, Wario’s back to his svelte, sticker self.
In this way, Mario Party 10 is the purest embodiment of an actual board game yet seen in the series. The effort may be lost on long-time fans who play a videogame version for a reason. But there is something to playing on a screen while still feeling the weight of a toy between your fingers. Maybe this is why my poor Monopoly Iron failed to move the hearts of many: It was lighter than all the rest. With computers the size of business cards and a world’s information floating in something called the cloud, we crave tangible objects. Or maybe, taken over by the spirit of competitive bloodlust, it’s just more fun to hurl Luigi across the room at your buddy for stealing all of your coins. Either way: Choose carefully. Mario Party just got real.