Mario Party DS benefits from the fact that a single-player game of Mario Party makes more sense on the Nintendo DS than it does on a home console.
The gift and the curse of Mario Party being Mario Party is that the basic formula is so engrained into the series that by now nearly everyone who would be interested in it already knows whether they'll enjoy it or not. Mario Party is essentially a board game in electronic form, where your fortunes can change in an instant, where the next roll of the virtual die could mean another all-important star or a solid bashing from Bowser himself. It's this dependence on luck that the hardcore gaming community can't stand. That hours and hours of practice won't necessarily make you all that much more likely to win a game of Mario Party just doesn't sit well with those willing to do so.
Of course, given that Mario Party DS is the eleventh iteration of the series (counting the unnumbered Game Boy Advance and playing card versions of the game), and that the tenth -- the tenth! -- game in the series was one of the shining stars of Nintendo's software division last year, it's obvious that there are plenty of people who simply don't care that much about the "purity" of the game. Luck is OK, as long as there's something fun to do and something appealing to look at. Mario Party is, in fact, a ton of fun, particularly when there are four people involved, and even more particularly when there is alcohol to be had. Lots of alcohol.
In this way, Mario Party DS is no different than the previous console versions of the series. Four players roll their dice, move to their places, maybe pick up a star along the way, and then there's a minigame.
It is in the minigames where the various iterations of Mario Party get their flavor, and the use of the stylus and touchscreen gives Mario Party DS a unique spin on the series -- or at least as unique as Mario Party ever gets. In an obvious homage to the wonderful Cooking Mama series, one of the minigames has you slicing cucumbers. Another one offers the Monkey Ball-esque task of rolling around on beach balls and knocking your opponents off of an all-too-small platform. Simon Says is a constant source of inspiration, as is the old fashioned footrace, itself most effective in an isometric race to the top of a course featuring myriad disappearing platforms. Besides chopping cucumbers, the stylus is used to trace, to color, and even to drum. Even the most maligned feature of the DS, the microphone, gets into the act with the occasional blowing exercise.
Surely, none of it is all that revolutionary, and none of it is enough to make you forget that you are, in fact, playing a Mario Party game.
Watch out for those pesky green spaces!
Given this unchangeable trait of the Mario Party formula, single-player run-throughs are actually more akin to time-wasters than immersive game experiences. If you're playing a game on a home console, chances are good that you're expecting the game to be absorbing, to draw you in and keep you going for hours on end. If you're playing it on the subway, well, not so much. A colorful, fun, silly little diversion is exactly what you're looking for in a casual situation, and Mario Party DS fits that particular bill quite nicely.
The move of Mario Party to the DS may use the capabilities and the utility of the DS to solid effect, but it's not perfect. The most egregious of the omissions in Mario Party DS is the lack of Internet play. Granted, the prime appeal of Mario Party is that of a social setting -- four people in the same room talking trash in the context of cartoon plumbers and mushroom people -- but it would seem that such a game would be tailor made for an Internet experience as well. At the very least, even if random Internet play wouldn't be available, friends should have been able to somehow connect up and get a game going.
There are also a couple of modes that don't quite connect. For one, by playing the game you can earn "Mario Party Points" and complete certain things to collect trophies and badges, which is cute but kind of pointless. You can also play the minigames outside the concept of the board game, but outside the context of the larger game they're thin and, quite frankly, not all that fun. Even so, in the big picture Mario Party DS is a very well-done version in the series. If you've loved any of the Mario Party games before now, you'll love this one, too. If you hated them all, you'll hate this one, too. If you're on the fence, Mario Party DS might just be the one that converts you into a fan. The DS is the perfect venue for this particular Party, and this version is surely the first of many for Nintendo's little portable that could.