If Mario Party 9 were an actual party, it'd be a high school reunion. You turn up, look around, see all your old friends, and think "Hey, you guys have changed!" But within five minutes, you realize that beneath the flashy clothes or new facial hair, they're much the same people. That is what playing Mario Party 9 feels like. There are changes, sure, and frequently, they're for the better. But the improvements are largely superficial. There's no getting around the fact this is the ninth console iteration of a bunch of minigames in a board-game wrapping, and after this many entries in the series, the formula feels tired.
Mario and friends traverse a series of themed boards, as usual.
The goal is to collect the ministars that can be picked up while moving around the board or won during minigames. Up to four players travel around the boards together on a vehicle. The player whose turn it is (the captain) controls the vehicle by way of dice rolls and can reap the rewards (or punishments) for being in charge. Each of the boards has a theme that comes complete with unique benefits (such as dolphins that lead you to bonus areas) and hazards (such as a hot potato bomb that drains the unlucky captain's stars).
Boards are littered with ministars that award either positive or negative points, depending on their color. Because the captain reaps all the rewards (or suffers the punishment) there is strategy involved in setting yourself up for a windfall. However, as is customary in the series, chance is the ultimate decider of who wins and loses. The luck factor is even more apparent when you land on a square with Bowser's picture emblazoned on it. These squares shuffle up the standings, potentially destroying any progress you've made. Random chance having such a huge impact on who wins is a serious detriment, and your tolerance for this unpredictability goes a long way toward determining how much fun Mario Party 9 is.
The minigames are where Mario Party 9 shines, and in the heat of competition you'll bump your opponents out the way to catch thrown hula hoops, chase each other down in a variety of vehicles, or leap across moving platforms. There are some more thoughtful, slower-paced challenges, too: memory games, jigsaw puzzles, and pattern-recognition tests. The majority of the minigames are a free-for-all, with every player for himself or herself, but sometimes the current captain has to face off against the other players working together as a team. These can be particularly rewarding, especially if you're the captain and manage to evade three friends all gunning for you.
The minigames can provide frantic fun for you and up to three others.
For the most part, the minigames rely on traditional directional pad and button controls, with the remote held sideways, though there are some exceptions. Those minigames that feature gesture or pointer controls are usually easy to get the hang of, so there's little to prevent inexperienced players from joining the fold. The single problematic minigame is one where you have to turn the dial of a safe--here, fussy controls needlessly complicate things.