IGN Review of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games
Wii owners are no strangers to the mini-game genre. Now only a year after release, Nintendo's new system is being bombarded with simple, "everyone-friendly" titles that deliver en mass, but not always with quality in mind. Even looking at the top-tier titles in its category Wii is already pretty saturated, with things like Mario Party, Wii Play, Namco Museum, Wario Ware, Rayman (and its sequel), and countless others. Even Nintendo's own pack-in product Wii Sports gives off a similar vibe as well, proving time and time again that Wii is about innovation, but also about a generally simpler style of play all around - with a few exceptions, of course. So when we're met by games like Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, it's tough to get really pumped for what can often feel like just another waggle experience. At the same time, with enough style, innovative gameplay, and overall charisma even the simplest actions can still be extremely fun and competitive. Case in point, Mario & Sonic's first gaming mash-up.
Aside from maybe a few very specific instances, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games won't deliver any mind-blowing gameplay for Wii owners. With a similar format as the NES's own Track & Field, M&S divides the world of the Olympics up into a few key challenges, each based on speed, timing, and a little bit of strategy. What it'll boil down to, however, is a whole lot of controller drumming, and bit of semi-needless waggle, and a few more innovative experiences sprinkled in there as well. As the kicker though, we went in knowing exactly what Mario & Sonic was bringing to the table (strong characters, generally repetitive gameplay) and come out weeks later now having a blast with the game. It just goes to show you that the right mix of style and gameplay can change up even the simplest of concepts.
Mario & Sonic delivers 24 different events focused around 14 or so core mechanics (depending on how you classify things), and while it isn't a mind-blowing amount of mini-games, these events focus more on situational strategy than just one motion over and over again. You won't, for example, find a single event where you simply drum as fast as you can; there's always another aspect of it to work with. Each of the events split into nine different classifications, including athletics, gymnastics, shooting, rowing, dream events, archery, aquatics, fencing, and table tennis, with specific events fitting into each of those respective sections. In addition you've got 16 characters from both the Mario & Sonic franchises, as well as the ability to use your Mii on the field instead of a key franchise character. Not a bad mix of events, characters, and options.
Where Mario & Sonic becomes a success in our minds, however, is in the nuances of each competition. In running events, for example, you'll need to anticipate the gunshot if you want to get a starting boost; no easy task. While you set up at your footholds you can tap the B button as fast as possible to build up a potential boost, and then begin drumming the instant the shot is made, launching yourself into an easy lead right off the bat. In events like the relay race - where action can go for a minute plus at a time - this lead isn't a huge issue. Line up for the 100m dash, however, and your start will absolutely make or break your place. Other sections of the game do a great job of taking simple motions and running with the concept as well, as long jump will train you to sprint and then take off at the perfect point, using the speed and length of your "jump" flick to determine just how far you'll fly through the air. Motion too soft and you won't get any distance, but motion too hard and you'll also fail; it's all about finesse.
If the entire game was centered only on these 24 events it would have been far too thin, and simple more of the same gameplay you'd find in things like Rayman Raving Rabbids. Thankfully, there's more to the game than it initially suggests. You'll have the same circuit-based gameplay as something like Mario Kart, with new areas opening after you defeat prior competitions, each of which not only opens the next tier of difficulty, but also more events to rip through. While in either single or multiplayer competition, there's also a very welcoming token system that allows each player to bet on one event throughout the competition. Place high enough in the event and you'll double your points in it. Place too low, however, and you get nothing.
Another section we ended up sinking a ton of time into was the mission mode, which gave each of the game's 16 competitors six character-specific missions to complete. These can be as simple as having Bowser throw a specific distance in Hammer Toss, or as incredibly difficult as requiring the player to beat Mario's rival (Sonic, of course) in a 100m dash. In the main game each of the characters are balanced pretty well, though you'll of course have small changes such as Sonic's slight speed boost or Bowser's extra power, but in Mission mode the generally even feel of each character is thrown right out the window, so with Mario's challenge you're literally trying to catch a ridiculously fast Sonic in his best event; no easy task. Mission mode is a simple addition to the package, but it adds a ton to it. After a half hour of trading the controller off between players we still couldn't beat Sonic at his own game. Needless to say, we now have noodle arms, as well as a newfound respect for the fastest character in gaming.
It's also great to see online integration make an appearance, although it's a shame no direct competition could be included; something the DS version makes use of. Online leaderboards will allow new world records (obviously the biggest aspect of the Olympics) to be broken on a daily basis, so while those amazing moments occur in the game where you're swimming to the finish line literally watching yourself go neck-in-neck with a red "World Record" pace bar, now it'll be even more of a challenge to not only beat the game's default records, but also those of competitors around the world. Yes, it's simple, and of course we're disappointed that pure online couldn't be included this time around, but leaderboards certainly make sense for a game like this, and we can only imagine how competitive it'll get. As another simple addition to the game, players can also earn achievements for breaking records or winning specific events under certain circumstances. It's simple, but it's just another way to reward players for going back and breaking records time and time again.
In general most of the events in Mario & Sonic were fun to play, but there were also some misses too. In the case of track events, there are a good five or six that feel nearly identical, using only a couple minor changes to mix up the feel between 100m, 400m, 4X100m Relay, and the 110m and 400m hurdles. Obviously these events are similar in real life as well, but it's still a ton of drumming, and not a whole lot of diversity. On the opposite side of the fence, however, were things like archery, which is a nearly-perfect event in our opinion, blending IR control with a pull-back motion and nunchuk tilt for the bow's angle to make what ends up being an impressively deep target challenge. SEGA also changes things up with the Dream Events, which are basically repeats of four of the core Olympic events in the game such as table tennis or fencing, and these end up stealing the show, as it turns the generally straightforward feel of the events into true Mario Sports experiences, including super attacks, Mario Kart item blocks and speed boosts for foot races, and interesting spins on the general rules of the events.
Table Tennis ends up getting the best conversion overall, as matches are now scored based on how long a volley goes before being won, and with matches going up to 50 you could essentially be dominated by a better player over and over for short volleys, only to have an amazing comeback in a long-running back-and-forth to come behind for the win in one single point. In fact, should SEGA and Nintendo team up for a sequel we'd definitely want to see far more dream events, as they're easily the best in the package. Team that with online and more character missions and you'd have an extremely rewarding package.
As for the actual pairing of the two franchises, Mario & Sonic does a decent job of bringing the mascots together for the first time. You'll get some familiar remixed Nintendo music (or tunes that are obviously influenced by them), an intro video akin to Sonic's 3D adventures with extremely high production value, and some generally beautiful animation and modeling all-around. There are still some graphical oddities though, including some low frame-rates that make for some pretty uninspired instant replays, and a general lack of cinematic feel when playing through the events. You'll get camera changes and general shot set-up based on the event, but there's no over-the-top bullet time, larger-than-life visuals, or extreme "Mario Sports" style outside of the dream events. We were always waiting for that intense moment where the audio drops out, the gameplay slows down, and only the sound of the crowd can be heard as we make some dramatic, moment-defining action. Sadly, that type of in-your-face cinematic feeling is never really there, and it did leave us wanting more in the mid-event presentation department.
©2007-11-06, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved