What comes to mind when you hear the word Olympics? Glory, sportsmanship, torches, medals, drugs, Nazis, Daley Thompson... Well, now we can add to that hedgehogs racing dragons, Princess Peach holding a gun and sore breasts.
That's because we've been playing Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Much has already been written, not least by us, about how it's the first game to bring SEGA and Nintendo's mascots together, but who cares. More interesting is the fact that Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games is the best collection of mini-games for Nintendo's console since Wii Sports.
It's also a bigger collection of mini-games. There are more than 20 in total, with categories including track, field, gymnastics and aquatics (look out for the lovely bit in the opening cut-scene where Peach floats along gracefully like the mute fish girl out of Stingray). Up to four players can compete and most of the games can be played with the Wii remote alone if you're out of Nunchuks.
One of M&S's strengths is the variation in the complexity of the games. If you're playing with six-year-olds or simpletons you can pick a running event which involves straightforward shaking of the remote and nunchuk. If you're up for more of a challenge you can try something like archery. This involves lining up cursors using both controllers (fiddlier than it sounds) and taking account of wind speed and direction before you fire your shot.
Other highlights include the trampolining event. You flick the remote upwards to jump, and before your character lands you must perform acrobatics by twisting the remote and pressing various buttons as instructed. It's frantic and fun.
Fencing is also a favourite. There's something inherently hilarious about Luigi and Bowser poking each other with pointy sticks, but the game's real appeal lies in the complexity of the controls. You can parry and dash, perform special moves to leave your opponent open and shake the controllers to recover if they do the same to you. And poke them with a pointy stick.
Many mini-game collections consist of a handful of ideas with a load of different visuals slapped on them, but there's been a real attempt at variation here. The swimming game, for example, could have used the same controller shaking mechanism as the running event, but they've put in a stamina meter and an extra button press to change things up. In the relay, you'll also need to change how you move the controllers (from up and down to left and right, for example) as the characters in your team have different swimming strokes. Again, it's highly enjoyable.
For many players, the best bits of Mario & Sonic will be the Dream Events. These are regular mini-games with new twists, in essence, but what twists! Take the Dream Race, for example. The basic mechanic is the same as the 100m track event, but this time you're racing round a Mario Kart-style circuit complete with sand traps and prize boxes. Red shells, star power, lightning strikes - they're all here, and they're just as fun to deck other racers with as ever.
The only problem with Dream Race is you have to shake your arms about really hard for a really long time. It's absolutely exhausting, and if you're a lady or a fat man the high jiggle factor can result in discomfort. The just-one-more-go element is therefore missing here.
Still, the Dream Events are highly entertaining. Which begs the question, why aren't they accessible the moment you boot up the game? Why are they only available once you've played through a load of circuit challenges? These are groups of three or four events (you can't choose which ones, so if you're rubbish at the javelin or hate hurdles it's tough luck) where you compete against all the other characters. Finish in the top three and you'll unlock stuff, perhaps a Dream Event, or perhaps a regular event, such as the high jump, which was inexplicably inaccessible to begin with.
If ever a game was made for multiplayer it's Mario & Sonic. So why aren't all the events available in multiplayer from the start? Even worse, you only win stuff for completing circuit challenges if you're playing solo. You can play through them with a partner if you want, but you won't get any rewards for your efforts. So to get access all the content of the game you've inevitably purchased with multiplayer in mind, you have to unlock them in single player mode.
True, you can do this in under four hours. But that's four hours of standing alone in your living room shaking small white things at the television and getting sore arms. Some of the events are quite tricky and the level of difficulty goes up as you advance. It's hard to believe that many eight-year-olds will have the skills and/or patience to play through all the challenges and unlock all the games.
Keeping it real
That's the biggest problem with Mario & Sonic, but there are other nits to pick. The visual style of the game isn't quite appealing enough. As it's endorsed by the Olympic Committee the event venues are based on the actual stadia, but blue hedgehogs and talking mushrooms look wrong in real-world environments. Many are just plain ugly; it would have been better to abandon any pretence of realism and create a new kind of fantastical game world based on Sonic and Mario's home towns. Similarly, there's something fundamentally wrong about seeing Princess Peach or Luigi holding a gun, even if it is for skeet shooting. It's like seeing Darth Vader in Threshers. Buying Pimms.
At least the characters are well-rendered and there are some great animations. It's great to watch Dr. Robotnik (or "Dr. Eggman" as he's blasphemously titled) cross the finishing line with his John Cleese-style silly run. There are some odd additions and omissions - what's the stupid crocodile from Sonic Heroes doing here, and where is Donkey Kong? You can always import your Mii, a nice option to have if you've ever wondered what a cartoon version of you would look like fencing Bowser.
Extras include a selection of mini-mini-games, simple affairs which involve things like counting the number of Koopas on screen or using the remote to flick balls around. They're only for one player and they're dull. Complete them and you'll be rewarded with tedious trivia about the Olympic Games. For example, did you know that the Olympic flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, and flies for the duration of the games, and is lowered at the closing ceremony? Chances are you could have guessed this without having to spend four minutes counting koopas.
Medals of honour
Mario & Sonic's biggest flaw, however, is undoubtedly the unlocking nonsense. Challenge and reward is, of course, a key part of what makes games enjoyable. But with a game so obviously suited to multiplayer, why not allow players to share the experience?
Perhaps because one player could deliberately perform badly to boost the other's progress, thereby "cheating". However, anyone paying GBP 40 for a game should have the right to cheat if it's the quickest way to access all the content. Who cares if you cheat anyway? Are SEGA and Nintendo going to start going round people's houses to conduct random drug tests?
Anyway. There are plenty of enjoyable mini-games here and they're nicely varied. There are some stinkers but that's to be expected. Most of the mini-games are well-balanced, and some have enough depth to make you keep playing again and again. Many of them will make you laugh out loud. It's a shame you can't play all of them without having to complete hours of single-player challenges. But if you're willing to put the hours in, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games is a highly entertaining party game.
7 / 10