In 2007, something inconceivable happened: platform mascots Mario and Sonic joined forces as the champions of their very own crossover game, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games – a collection of sport-centric minigames. It did well enough to spawn an entire franchise; the thing is now a biennial staple to celebrate both the Summer and Winter games.
Next year’s games take place in Sochi, Russia and so too does this cartoony digital counterpart, which faithfully recreates the Black Coast Russian city – provided Sochi actually looks like the Russia that stereotypes (and Tetris!) have painted.
It’s filled, as you might expect, with all of those delightful Winter sports that you’re entirely indifferent about: bobsledding, skiing, snowboarding and that odd game where hot Swedish women throw stones and then furiously sweep the ice for some reason.
It’s been given a nice enough HD upgrade on the Wii U, but if you’ve played the last Mario and Sonic winter games before, you know exactly what to expect: games centred around winter sports, with characters from the Mario and Sonic universes replacing athletes.
You’ll now also have to do all of your waggling with a Wii Motion Plus capable remote; those older, inaccurate standard controllers are no longer supported. The very nearly 1:1 Plus adds a welcome bit of necessary fidelity in your movements, and it’s something you’ll quite appreciate in many of the games; adding just a touch of finesse to the waggling. Downhill skiing, for example, now controls quite wonderfully. You’ll hold a Wiimote as one of the poles and (preferably, though optionally) a Nunchuk as the other; moving them about as if holding on to imaginary skiing poles, you go dashing side to side, pushing forward to gain speed and momentum. Certainly fun enough in small doses. Snowboarding functions in much the same way, though it allows a greater library of tricks and flourishes to make it a little more interesting.
The ice hockey, which was inconceivably dull in the last iteration, has been given a wonderful overhaul – and now plays like a simple yet enjoyable blend of Blades of Steel on the NES and Mario Strikers and is worth a couple of plays on its own, with its overpowered, charged shots and general arcade mechanics. Speed skating requires infuriatingly precise rhythm, and was one sport I just could not quite get to grips with.
In spite of that, it is a little familiar – not least of all because a handful of the activities you’ll play are taken, with their overall mechanics intact, straight from the last Winter Games…game in 2010.cause a handful of the activities you’ll play are taken, with their overall mechanics intact, straight from the last Winter Games… game from 2010. That’s not its biggest problem though: for a game series that’s always been jumping in and having fun, just about everything in this game is prefaced with frightfully long and dull tutorials due to over-complex gameplay mechanics, particularly where the Gamepad is concerned.
What could have been a mechanism for giving the core gameplay an overhaul is now just used to add confusion.Take for example, the curling event: the GamePad is used to map out strategies by drawing lines to the target before brushing them there. It even sullies the otherwise fantastic ice hockey, by forcing finger-sliding goal shooting mechanics – but only for the player with the Pad. There’re some odd choices as to which games even use the pad: Skiing, uses the Wiimote, but snowboarding, which has very much the same mechanics, uses the Gamepad’s built-in gyroscope.
There is one interesting use for the Gampad; when not in use for actual game’s the display is used as a TV channel, showing highlights and reels through a faux show presented by Mario’s Toadstool and Sonic’s Omochao. It’s cute and endearing – though largely pointless, especially if you’re playing alone – because it’s impossible to watch that and focus on the game at the same time.
Dream Events make a return, providing the sorts of games that would be impossible in real life. They’re honestly a bit flaccid this year; mostly silly spins on pre-existing events – like street ice hockey, or a version of curling that has you trying to score holes-in-one like a game of golf. The bobsledding dream event does feel a little bit like a Mario and Sonic themed Wipeout though, so it’s fun for a while.
There’s an attempt to add more value through some modes. Legends Showdown functions as the game’s solo campaign, but all it does is run you through every one of the game’s events against shadow versions of characters, punctuated every so often with a cutscene and a boss battle against really random or obscure bosses from either universe, like King Boo and Birdo from Mario and Jet the Hawk from Sonic Riders. It’s both dull and annoying, and requires a 1st place win on every event making it unnecessarily frustrating.
Medley Mania is similar, but groups events together under a theme – like Mario specific events – events without any sort of narrative baggage. Action & Answer Tour is the most bizarre, adding an element of a quiz show to individual events. Presented by Dr Robotnick’s terminally unfunny Cubit and Orbot drones, the mode mixes up pre-existing events by having you guess pathways or answer questions to win points. It’s all a little baffling in its execution.
Lastly, there is some modicum of genuine online play here – and you can compete in four different events with the world at large; freestyle ski cross, snowboard cross, and short track speed skating, and the rather fun Dream Event winter sports champion race. There’s a pretty cool international metagame; winning events ranks up your chosen country, with an entire rankings database for each locale.
Much like Wii Party U, it’s exactly the sort of game that the Wii U needs to entice families and friends to play together – but like that game, it’s haphazardly implemented. With a group of friends, there’s still some fun to be had, but with so many events lifted wholesale from the previous entry and some baffling design choices, Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games is terribly difficult to recommend.