Arlene Foster factor helps put DUP in box seat at Stormont
The DUP is on course to maintain its Assembly strength with Arlene Foster returning as First Minister following a its electoral success.
And while Sinn Fein has consolidated its second-place position, its vote share was down and republicans sustained a bloody nose from People Before Profit in West Belfast.
But there was looming disaster for new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who only had four seats in the bag as counting closed for the day.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist comeback heralded by leader Mike Nesbitt appeared to have been stopped in its tracks, as he was only halfway towards his minimum target of 16 seats as the first day of counting finished.
The fallout from the election could make it more likely that the SDLP and UUP, or possibly both, will go into Opposition.
Alliance, meanwhile, had won just five seats at the end of the first day.
On the all-important vote share figures, the DUP had more than 29% last night, with Sinn Fein on 24%, UUP on 12.6%, SDLP on 12% and Alliance on 7% - all down on their statistics in the last Assembly election in 2011.
Sinn Fein was down the most, by 2.9 %.
The DUP plan to make Mrs Foster the focus of its campaign - derided by many commentators - appeared to have paid off, with the prospect the party could even exceed its 38 seats in the last Assembly.
Mrs Foster said it was looking "very good".
"Overall, I'm very content," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"We're very conscious that when it comes, in some cases, to the last seat, it can be down to a handful of votes, so we'll wait to see what happens," she added.
"But I have to say that, initially, it looks very good for the party and I have to thank people for putting their trust in the party and me as First Minister."
On criticism of the "presidential" style of the party's campaign that put her front and centre, she said: "I think the criticism probably came from the media.
"I think the electorate has given them their answer."
After topping the poll in her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency with more than 8,000 votes, she added: "I'm confident that I am going to be the First Minister and that's down to the people of Northern Ireland. They made their choice and I'm very grateful for it."
Despite Sinn Fein's vote share being down in initial statistics, Martin McGuinness - who scored a personal victory by topping the poll in his native Foyle, to which he had returned from Mid Ulster - insisted the party could still secure 30 seats.
That is the target because it would give the party the automatic right to initiate a petition of concern in the Assembly.
"In all probability all major political parties will go down a bit - not that significantly in my view," he said.
"At this stage, we can say with considerable confidence that the ball park figure of 28, 29, 30 MLAs is eminently achievable (for Sinn Fein), even at this early stage.
"I think that is a pretty remarkable performance."
The turnout was only slightly down on the previous election, with a day of good weather said to have been a factor in offsetting fears that apathy among the electorate would emerge as the real winner. In 2011, 674,103 people went to the polls out of an electorate of 1,210,009, a turnout of 55.71%.
On Thursday, 703,744 ballots were cast out of a possible 1,281,595 - giving a 54.91% turnout, the Electoral Office confirmed.
Among the day's main surprises, the People Before Profit Alliance was poised to secure two Assembly seats after Gerry Carroll topped the poll in Sinn Fein's West Belfast heartland, with party colleague Eamonn McCann on the cusp of joining him in Foyle.
High-profile casualties included independent John McCallister, who lost his seat in South Down after nine years.
Others are going the other way, returning to Stormont after an absence of several years.
They include the Alliance's Naomi Long and Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew.
Ulster Unionist Jenny Palmer, who quit the DUP amid allegations she had been bullied, took a scalp from her former party when she was elected in Lagan Valley, and her leader Mike Nesbitt admitted being surprised to top the poll in his Strangford constituency.
On the challenging slopes of politics, controversy-hit former DUP Health Minister Jim Wells was re-elected in South Down, while once-rising SDLP star Fearghal McKinney lost his seat in South Belfast.