Version tested: Wii
In November 2007, the first ever videogame starring Mario and Sonic appeared on shop shelves. It was a huge hit, despite being a bit 7/10, so it didn't come as much of a surprise when SEGA and Nintendo announced a sequel.
But with years to go until the next Olympics (we're sorry in advance), what would the next Mario & Sonic title be about? Perhaps SEGA and Nintendo would adopt the tried and trusted strategy employed by so many of today's successful publishers and rip off someone else's idea. Why not set the game in a post-apocalyptic American city? Or, how about Mario Gear Solid: Sonic of Liberty? Who wouldn't want to play, say, Mario & Sonic of War?
Alternatively, why not come up with something totally fresh and new like Mario & Sonic Fight to the Death, Mario & Sonic Explore their Sexuality, or Mario & Sonic Bring Peace to the Middle-East? Because that would be weird and stupid. But also because fresh and new doesn't sell half as well as old and familiar, most of the time anyway. And so here comes that sequel: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games.
Cynics might assume all they've done is slap an extra word on the box, throw in some new mini-games, add a couple more characters and cover everything with a fresh blanket of virtual snow. Well, Mr Cynics, it's true they've done that, but they've also addressed some of the issues with the previous game. Plus, they've managed to make this Mario & Sonic more like ye olde video-gaymes of yesteryear, with proper objectives and skill requirements and rewards, while simultaneously making it more accessible. An impressive feat, so how's it been done?
Let's start with those new mini-games. Highlights include a variety of snowboarding and skiing efforts, where you tilt the remote to steer your character down mountains, through slalom gates and round half-pipes. You can attach a nunchuk and use the controllers like a set of ski poles, but all the mini-games can be played with the remote alone.
The advantage of this is twofold. First off, you don't need to invest in a load of nunchuks to enjoy the full multiplayer experience. Secondly, you don't end up inadvertently and repeatedly whipping yourself in the groin as with Namco Bandai's enjoyable but painful Wii offering, Communal Crotch Flaying.
The remote works fine on its own. The controls are responsive, with little lag and the level of sensitivity is just right, so it's easy to get back on track when you over-steer or veer off course. However, it does all feel a bit simplistic. There's not much subtlety involved and there's never a sense of having as much precise control as when, say, driving round a Mario Kart circuit. So why not throw in Wii MotionPlus functionality? Surely this is the kind of thing that technology was made for?
According to SEGA, the aim of leaving it out was to make the game as accessible as possible. In other words, to keep the controls simple and avoid making potential purchasers think they've also got to buy a load of peripherals to enjoy the game fully. Which is reasonable enough, but you can't help wishing they'd also chucked in an option for the huge number of Wii owners who have picked up one or two MotionPlus add-ons anyway.
At least there's the option to hook up a Wii balance board. As with the Family Ski titles, you stand on the board and shift your weight left and right to steer. Once again the controls are responsive and using the board does add something to the whole experience, certainly for those who get to watch you squat and wobble around like a tit. But once again, there's a slight lack of precision and subtlety. In short, having a board adds novelty value but is in no way essential to enjoying MSOWG.
If it's novelty value you're after then the bobsleigh mini-game is your best bet. It's played by holding the remote vertically up to your chest and tilting your body left and right to steer down the run. For best results, try getting players to sit front-to-back in a row of chairs or on a chaise longue. It all looks and feels very silly, just like a good multiplayer Wii mini-game should.
For a more relaxed experience, try curling. It's bowls on ice, essentially, with a bit of waggling thrown in to simulate doing the stupid thing with the broom. The game is turn-based and there are several stages to each turn - you have to get the power of your throw right, then adjust the angle, then watch the gauge on the right-hand side of the screen as you try to sweep your stone into the centre of the target. The fun really begins when players start knocking each other's stones out of position, which soon becomes more about annoying each other than actually scoring points. Excellent.
The mini-game most similar to ye olde video-gaymes of ye early nineties is ice hockey. It's a reminiscent of the NHL titles in the days when they were built with bits of Ceefax, except your top-down view of the rink is horizontal. Holding the remote sideways-on you press 2 to pass and use the d-pad to aim. Shooting is done by jerking the controller upwards. The character you're controlling switches constantly, depending on who's got the puck and the position of the players on-screen.
It sounds simple, and if you've played this sort of game before it is. However, casual types might struggle to get the hang of things. The action moves quickly, the camera flits around and it can be tricky to follow all the character-switching and the movement of the puck. Probably not one for grandma then, and certainly not if she's forgotten her glasses, but a treat for those who remember when games were good even though they looked rubbish.
As with any mini-game collection there are a few duds. In this case they're the speed skating events, which are played simply by swishing your arm around with the correct timing. It's surprisingly hard to get this right at first; there seems to be a lot of lag between your movements and the action on screen, and occasionally your character goes mental and starts whizzing their arms about madly even though you're not doing anything. With practice you realise it's more effective to swish the remote like a conductor's baton than try to mimic a speed skater's movements, and things get easier. But not much more entertaining.
All of the above events are unlocked when you first boot up the game. This is of course a Good Thing, as it means you can get stuck straight into a bit of curling come Christmas morning without having to spend hours unlocking stuff. A definite improvement over the first game, then.
There is a Story mode mind you, or as it's titled here, Festival. It's a bit like the World Tour in Virtua Tennis. You take part in a 30-day tournament and are assigned up to three training sessions and competitive events per day. There are also a few boss battles - Bullet Bill might challenge you to a bobsleigh race, for example. (He's tough to beat, what with being inherently aerodynamically suitable for this sort of thing.)
Festival mode is well-structured, rewarding and enjoyable, especially if you take the option to play through it co-operatively with a friend. It also offers an excellent way to try out all the events and get used to the various control systems. But best of all, playing through Festival mode wins you extra stuff.
That includes in-game currency which you can use to buy things in the all-new Olympic Village shops. There's a music store which sells tracks from MSOWG as well as classic hits from old Mario and Sonic titles. The Sports Shop offers decals and paint-jobs for your equipment. The Library is full of tedious books about things like "the vocabulary of the Olympic Winter Games", which might not be so tedious if you hadn't been to a press event where you were made to sit through an hour-long explanation of why they chose the colours blue and green for the logo.
There's also a boutique where you can buy clothes for your Mii - everything from woolly mittens and ski helmets to Halloween costumes and Santa hats. There are also some very cute unlockable cosplay-style outfits for those who fancy dressing up as Mario, Sonic and their chums.
But never mind all that, the real reason you'll want to play through the Festival is to unlock the Dream Events. As with the first game, these are real treats for SEGA and Nintendo fans but also offer great fun for casual players. Happily, there are many more of them this time round.
Favourites include Dream Alpine, where you ski round a Green Hill Zone-inspired track complete with loop-the-loops, turbo boosts, rolling boulders, prize boxes and rubber band AI. Dream Ski Cross is a similar affair except the track is a homage to the Mario Circuit - all white picket fences, big grey castles, blue skies, gold coins and giant koopas.
Dream Bobsleigh takes you on a psychedelic journey through 360 degrees of tripped-out tunnels. The tracks appear to be inspired by Dr Who, Seaquest DSV and those plastic ball ponds you find in Wacky Warehouses, with a heavy emphasis on the colour purple. It's not quite up to the eye-scalding standards of Rainbow Road, but the laws about epilepsy safety have changed in recent years.
Let's not spoil all the treats in store, suffice to say it's worth playing through the entire Festival mode just to unlock Dream Figure Skating. The Super Mario World tribute is brilliant - cute, hilarious and so camp it makes Dancing on Ice look dour and intellectual.
There are plenty more examples of attempts to appeal to veteran gamers in MSOWG. It's not just about Amy Rose outfits or red shells, either - even the regular events feel more like proper games than those in the previous Mario & Sonic. There's a lot less random arm-waggling and more of a sense that you have real control over the characters and the outcome of events. It is a real shame there's no MotionPlus functionality, though, because throwing that in might have pushed this to the next level and made it a more addictive, challenging, staying-up-till-4am-on-your-own-on-a-Tuesday affair, rather than a fun party game.
But sometimes all you want is a fun party game. My Mum's never going to get the hang of Mario Kart; she can't be doing with all that old-fangled button pressing and power-up collecting. However, she can handle twisting a remote to steer a hedgehog down a mountain. And when she's gone off to take the turkey out of the oven, my brother and I can remind ourselves how much fun NHL '91 was before having a huge row over a game of curling. In this regard, SEGA has done a great job of appealing to a wide audience.
They've also done a great job of producing a polished, impressive-looking game for the Wii. Environments are a lot prettier than the first game. This is due partly to the fact it's set in Vancouver and not Beijing - there aren't so many giant metal girders everywhere and the whole game basically looks like one big ice level. Very festive. But neat touches, like the picture-perfect reflections in the ice, show that real care and attention has been taken with the visuals.
There's no doubt MSOWG improves on the first Mario & Sonic in many other respects too. The unlocking system is better designed. The story mode is more fun. The Dream Events are more imaginative and there are more of them. With few exceptions, the mini-games are accessible enough for everyone to play yet complex enough to be worth more than a couple of goes. And you don't get to say that about Wii mini-game compilations often.
It's true to say that Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games is no Mario Kart. But it's a fun, polished party game with broad appeal, and a marked improvement over the previous one. Let's just hope the next instalment has a bit more depth. And is called Mario & Sonic of War, obviously.
8 / 10