Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games

Ringing the changes.

Curling is up there with lacrosse, badminton, fencing and water polo as one of the world's most rubbish sports. It's not proper exercise, it doesn't appear to require much skill and everyone playing it looks stupid. Perfect if you're promoting a new Wii game, then.

So SEGA reckons. They've flown us to Vancouver to see Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, and to go curling. It's a lot different to the press event for the first Mario & Sonic, which took place on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in London and offered no opportunities to try out obscure winter sports. Although there were free biscuits. The point is, when you've sold ten million copies of a game, you can afford to splash out on promoting the sequel.

It's no surprise that Mario & Sonic has proved so popular - after all, it stars Mario and Sonic. It's hard to imagine a more lucrative pairing of videogame characters, although Lara & Chun-Li Do Scissors would probably sell. A sequel was inevitable. The twist this time is in the title: the second Mario & Sonic game is based around the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Which means of course it'll feature different sporting venues, events and control mechanisms. In the Wii version you'll be able to play as your Mii, and both the Wii and DS games will feature new playable characters familiar to SEGA and Nintendo fans. Our money's on Link, Donkey Kong and Ulala, but SEGA won't confirm or deny anything just yet.

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Surely Sonic should be hibernating? Why hasn't anyone thought of this?

Perhaps the best change being introduced in Mario & Sonic 2 is also the simplest: all the Olympic events will be available for multiplayer games from the start. You won't have to spend four hours unlocking them in single-player, as was the case with the first game. This is undoubtedly a good thing, as you're unlikely to be buying it with a view to having a quiet night in on your own.

SEGA's keeping the full list of events in the Wii version under wraps for now, but we're allowed to try out three of them as a taster. The highlight is Downhill Skiing, where you hold the remote and nunchuk like ski poles. You tilt your body (or just the controllers, if you're feeling shy) to guide your character down the mountain and through the slalom gates. Missing a gate incurs a time penalty of a couple of seconds. There's a horizontal split-screen mode for competitive play, and the event can also be played with the Wii balance board.

The controllers are highly responsive to your movements, and using the balance board makes the whole thing a bit more entertaining. It's a shame, though, that you can't use more than one board - true, you're unlikely to own two, but you may well know someone else who's got one. According to SEGA, the problem is the balance board takes up two Wii controller slots, and it's just not technically possible to create a game that uses two.

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Echidnas also hibernate.

But back to the gameplay. It's basic stuff; casual gamers will be able to grasp how the controls work in seconds, and if you're vaguely competent it's possible to get through all the gates on the first try. Even the power-up system is simplistic - you press A for a turbo boost, and each player gets only one per race. As with many of the other events, there's a mechanic designed to offer a reward for more skilled play; specifically, clipping the edges of the slalom flags gives you a small speed boost.

"We've tried to make the game more accessible and easier to understand for casual users, but we would also like to focus on core gamers as well," explains producer Takashi Iizuka. "So we're making it very accessible, but then putting in in-depth gameplay for the skilled player."

But what if skilled and casual players want to play together? Won't the core gamers go for all the speed boosts, and beat casual types every time? "That kind of situation could occur," says Iikuza. "We can't tell you the details, unfortunately, but we are thinking about a special mode to make it more balanced for casual and hardcore players, so they can play together and still have fun."

Onto the next event. Speed Skating involves racing around a circular track, swinging your arms in a rhythmic fashion to make your character go faster. It can be quite tricky to get the timing right, but messages such as "A little late" or "A little early" flash up to help you. The movement's less intuitive than with Downhill Skiing, so it's not quite as enjoyable.

The Bobsleigh race is one of the new co-op events being introduced in Mario & Sonic 2. Up to four players can take part and you only use remotes to play. The idea is to do a run-up by shaking the controllers about, and press A at the right moment to jump in the bobsleigh. Players then hold their remotes to their chests and lean left or right to steer.

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