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.
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.
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.
Character icons appear at the bottom of the screen, indicating which way each player is leaning and whether they're in synch with everyone else. The best possible racing line is shown on the track as a line of shiny chevrons. It's fun trying to follow it and shouting at your team-mates when they fail to keep up. Whether you'll want more than a few goes is questionable, though - the gameplay is extremely simple and there's no potential for comedy crashes, so it all becomes familiar very quickly.
Plus, as with the other events, you can't help wondering why they didn't include any Mario Kart-style power-ups. Wouldn't it be great to trip up the skier you're racing against with a banana skin, for example? According to Iikuza, that's what the Dream Events are there for. As in the previous game these will feature all manner of weapons and power-ups to muck about with. There's no word on what Dream Events the sequel will include, however.
So it's on to the DS game instead. This time around, it's set to be quite different from its Wii counterpart. There are separate development teams following separate design plans, and the idea is that more consumers will be incentivised to buy both versions.
SEGA is also hoping to boost sales of the DS game by changing the download sharing options. With just one cartridge, up to four players can try out all the Olympic and Dream events. Which is very generous, but aren't they worried everyone will just share instead of buying their own copies?
"Actually I wanted to make all the events available for free download last time, but because of time constraints it was difficult," says producer Eigo Kasahara. "With this version, maybe players will bring the cartridge to school and play with their friends. Then kids will go home and ask their Mum to buy them a copy... So it's a kind of viral marketing almost."
As with the Wii version, the complete list of events in the game has yet to be revealed. But we're allowed to try out Snowboard Cross, a racing game played using the DS's buttons and d-pad. It's tricky to get the hang of taking corners at first, and more advanced players have the challenge of learning how to drift and pull off fast starts. However, it doesn't take more than a couple of goes to start winning races with ease.
The other event on show is Skeleton Board. This involves racing down a bobsleigh run on a body board-style sledge. You scrub the stylus backwards and forwards on the touch-screen to get a run-up, then swipe upwards to jump on. Touching left and right steers the sledge, and if you're feeling fancy you can keep the stylus held in place then swipe upwards again for a speed boost. As with the Wii bobsleigh game it's all about finding the best racing line.
It's clear that there's an even greater emphasis on accessibility and multiplayer fun in both the Wii and DS games. The instructions preceding each event are simpler, and you can skip information about the more complex gameplay elements if it's likely to confuse people. The ability to play all the events from the start is a definite plus, as is the option to play all the Wii mini-games with remotes only if you don't have enough nunchuks. It's also great that just one DS cartridge is required for the full multiplayer experience.
The question remains as to whether there's enough depth here to appeal to more hardcore gamers. The events may be designed to work on two levels, but it's hard to tell how effective this will be in practice having played only a handful of them, and only with other experienced gamers.
The fact is that gaming has changed, like it or not, and not everybody is looking for a serious challenge. Some people just want to muck about for a few hours with a game even the very young, old or drunk can play without getting frustrated. And here's what we discovered about curling: it may not be proper exercise, and it may make you look stupid, but it takes real skill to be really good at it. What's more, even if you're completely rubbish, it's fantastic fun.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games is due out for Wii and DS this coming winter.