Since its inception, the Mario Party series has consistently delivered enjoyable multiplayer party game action. While there have been many imitators attempting to cash in on the success of the Mario Party games, none have been able to fully emulate the series' balance of good pacing, endearing minigames, and solid production values. As the first entry in the series to appear on the GameCube, Mario Party 4 may represent a big graphical leap for the series, but the gameplay remains much the same. It's definitely a winning formula, but players who have already exhausted themselves on previous Mario Party titles may not find enough here to draw them back again.
As in the past three Mario Party games, Mario Party 4 is a minigame-based virtual board game with a strong multiplayer tilt. Instead of having a physical end goal to each board, the goal in Mario Party 4 is to travel around the board, collecting as many stars and coins as you can in the allotted number of turns. The number of turns in a single game is determined at the start of the game and ranges from 10 turns to 50. For some perspective, a standard 20-round game of Mario Party 4 will last about an hour. Players move from space to space across the board using dice rolls to determine how many spaces they'll move, and each space on the board has some impact on the game. Coins, stars, and other items are awarded and taken away, players are randomly moved to other sections of the board, and players are thrown into special minigames. At the end of each round, all four players will compete in a minigame, and the winner of this minigame is rewarded with coins. Once there are only five rounds left in the game, even more random factors are thrown in, some of which are so phenomenally powerful that a player in last place could potentially find his or her way into in first with nothing more than a little luck. Random chance plays a big role in Mario Party 4, which keeps everyone on their toes, but may occasionally prove frustrating, as it's possible for a player to perform spectacularly in the minigames and still not win the game.
And what would a party game be without enjoyable minigames? Probably rather boring, but thankfully Hudson has brought together a fun collection of diversions for Mario Party 4. The biggest strengths of the minigames are their accessibility and broad scope. Virtually all your core gaming skills will be put through the paces here, but very few of the minigames are too complex for a new player to fully comprehend the first time out. There are four-player minigames in which you'll have to dodge snowballs, outrun an avalanche, or race along a dangerously narrow path. There are also lots of three-on-one and two-on two minigames that require players to work as a team. You'll deflate giant thwomps with butt-stomps, score goals in a soccer shootout, and capture opponents using a giant crane. There are around 50 different minigames at your disposal in the party and story modes, which isn't nearly as many as have been found in past installments in the series. Though, really, this is probably a good thing, as it seems many of the less-than-stellar minigames and carbon-copy minigames have been stripped out, leaving you with a smaller but more enjoyable selection of games.
The minigame format is probably not the best way to showcase the technical prowess of a console, but Hudson has made fairly good use of the GameCube hardware in Mario Party 4. The character models are much more well-defined than in any of the N64 Mario Parties, appearing only slightly more simplified than their current-generation counterparts in Super Smash Bros. Melee, though some of their animations occasionally appear a bit lifeless. The boards themselves generally don't give you much eye candy to chew on, but the minigames show off some nice water effects, reflective surfaces, and cool lighting and particle effects. The aural presentation reflects the sunny disposition of the game, with some occasionally catchy background music and enthusiastic voice acting for all the different characters. The only peculiarity in Mario Party 4's sound is the incredible similarity between Mario, Wario, Luigi, and Waluigi's voices, which can sort of run together if more than one plumber is on the board at a time.
Since this is the fourth Mario Party game in about as many years, you'd think that the formula would have grown unbearably stale by now. But through incremental improvements and some subtle refinements, Hudson has kept the series going strong, and Mario Party 4 is arguably the most accomplished entry in the series yet. While more accomplished gamers may find some of the minigames too simplistic, this accessibility ensures that Mario's party is one that just about anyone can enjoy.