Mario Party clones are a dime a dozen. Any character, franchise, or mascot that has a mini game collection owes a lot, if not all, of their design elements to what Mario and company did on the Nintendo 64 back in 1999. Sonic the Hedgehog had his Shuffle on the Sega Dreamcast, Shrek had seemingly countless shindigs back in the early 2000s (all of which were kinda garbage), and even Pac-Man had his own Party (which, not gonna lie, is legitimately a great game). Jim Henson’s Muppets are without question one of the most recognizable brands of the 80s and 90s. If you grew up around that time it’s hard not to get some joy out of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and those old guys that made terrible puns up in the audience balcony night after night. But that was then, and Muppets Party Cruise released in 2003, well beyond the peak of their popularity. My skepticism was overflowing when I popped it into the tray…
… but what I got to play was surprisingly solid. So much so we’ve actually played it more than once, and I’m kind of looking forward to finding time to plug in that multitap and play it again. Muppets Party Cruise does a great job adapting its source material to a new type of media, and one that’s way past its prime. This is thanks in part to the game not trying to be more than it needs to be by reinventing characters, trying to garner new Muppet fans, or being so tonally different from the original series it becomes foreign to everyone.
At its core Muppets Party Cruise is a multiplayer focused minigame collection. The ties to Mario Party and other jams like that are readily apparent: pick a character, choose the longer play option (more on that later) or the mini-game play option, and start playing some silly games with your friends. Fozzie, Gonzo, Kermit, and the rest of the stalwart crew give their whips and puns throughout the games, which is at first charming, but eventually becomes kind of obnoxious. I can only hear Fozzie tell me about winning so many times before it becomes irritating beyond measure. Regardless, what is here is solid. The games are fun to play and last a decent amount of time, which is one of my bigger grips with the later Mario Party games: it’s no fun to load a level for 15 seconds to play a game that lasts 10 seconds, and then load back into the menu. At least the Muppets respect my time more than the Mushroom Kingdom’s soirees.
Speaking of the minigames, I think it’s time we bring up the meat and bones of Muppets Party Cruise and talk about them. Namely there were a few games that truly stood out as quality minigames. I have to draw special attention to Speed Bingo, which was by far the freshest take on the game of Bingo I’d ever seen. Imagine the intensity of having numbers called out with zero gaps or time to mark your card: hope you get them marked before your opponents do, or in our case before we all laugh too much to even remember what we’re doing. Second, I have to mention Shuffle Chalk, which was basically digital shuffleboard but a bit more aggressive. Then there’s jumping around on trampolines in Cannon Fodder, absolutely decking your opponents with tomatoes in Stage Fright, nailing bank shots in Ticklin’ the Ivories, and so much more. The games were, for the most part, fleshed out and complete. They felt like true minigames, and not just one little gimmick that you did twice and then it was over. With this in mind, it was actually a little competitive between players and not solely luck based, which I appreciated.
Other party games include a mode where you play a larger game accented by the minigames. In Muppets Party Cruise, that is the Long or Short Cruise options. In Long Cruise, you move your character along a free-form board, collecting Party Favors and playing minigames, which eventually leads to someone collecting the most party favors and winning. It’s a somewhat unique spin on the standard for the genre, but moves kind of slow and doesn’t offer a lot of excitement. Running into another player and playing a small game with them is cool, I guess, but doesn’t offer anything significant to the strategy or gameplay, so it’s better if it just weren’t there. Which is precisely where the Short Cruise option comes in. This mode is basically a mini-game only version of Long Cruise: you play a game, get some points, and then once a requisite number has been met, someone is declared a winner. To be honest, neither of these games modes are all that exhilarating, but are a necessary evil, as the game hides a majority of its content behind unlockable rewards you can only obtain from playing said modes. I certainly understand why this was (and in some cases still is) a thing, but when I just want to play a game with friends some 20 years after release, I just want to play and enjoy it all and not have to spend literal hours unlocking content. Game Shark, please save me.
I’ve gone through a good variety of old PS1 and PS2 multiplayer games. Most of these were played much MUCH later than original release. A majority of these were one-time plays, as once we were done with a few races or rounds, there wasn’t really any reason to keep going. With Muppets Party Cruise, our friend group genuinely wanted to play again. This is thanks largely to the game’s unique minigame options. Though not all heavy hitters, some are just the right amount of fun it’s hard to say no to playing them. Speed Bingo only lasts maybe 2 or 3 minutes per round, but that’s enough to make us all laugh and want to play another round. Do that a few times for several games, and you’ve just spent an hour having a great time with Kermit and your friends.
Is Muppets Party Cruise better than Mario Party? No, probably not (at least when talking about the more well received MP games). Is Muppets Party Cruise more fun than Sonic Shuffle? 100%. Would I recommend Muppets Party Cruise to retro gamers looking for a party game for friends? Most definitely. It’s up there with other unlikely heroes of the minigame multiplayer genre like Pac-Man Party thanks to fun games, an easy way to play, and recognizable, fun characters. I’m happy to have found the game and to add it to our rotation of games that answer the question, “Hey, do you want to play something?”