Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games
Together at last.
For millennia, the Olympic Games have brought nations together in a celebration of sporting prowess and global harmony. Apart from that year the Nazis did it and the ones in the eighties with the Cold War boycotts. Now they are bringing the world's most famous videogame characters together in a glorious celebration of shaking small white objects really hard.
This is Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, marking the first time Nintendo and SEGA's mascots have appeared in the same game. It's SEGA demoing the Wii version for us today, but the rep is keen to point out that Nintendo's involvement goes right to the top. "Miyamoto-san himself is closely involved with the details," she explains. "Nothing gets out the doors of SEGA without his say so."
Miyamoto isn't the only one with a say in how M&S turns out. The game is officially licensed by the Beijing 2008 Olympic Committee, so all the events follow the same rules as their real life counterparts.
It's not yet clear just how many sports the finished game will cover. We're only being shown track and field events - 100 metres, hurdles, triple jump, hammer throw and archery - but SEGA says there will also be gymnastics, table tennis and more.
It's all set up in a straightforward way that's simple enough for tiny children and muddle-headed ladies to use. You can compete in a single event or a series of different ones, and there's a Mission mode which challenges you to win events with specific characters.
Again we're not being shown the full range today, but the character select screen is displaying Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Yoshi and Princess Peach. From the SEGA side there's Sonic, Dr Robotnik, Tails and Knuckles the Stupid Echidna.
They all have different skill sets: "It's very much like Mario Kart, it's all balanced and anybody can win. It's about your skill in playing." Bowser, for example, is slow but powerful so he's good at the hammer throw. Peach, tediously, is good at jumping, while Mario is an all-rounder. Sonic, as you'd expect, is fast - though not as fast as you'd expect.
"There has to be an even playing field, otherwise Sonic's going to win everything through speed. So we've made his acceleration slower." Makes sense. But still.
On to the events. Most make use of both the Wii remote and nunchuck. In the 100 metres, you charge up your character by holding down B. Pulling the remote up sharply gets you off the blocks and you shake the controllers alternately to run.
It's all over in less than 10 seconds and there seems to be an awful lot of menu navigation to go through before you can have another go, the bane of so many sports games. But the rep explains that in the finished game you'll instantly be able to select a replay option, so that's all right.
For the triple jump, you pull the remote up to hop, shake the nunchuk to step and repeat the remote move to jump. The challenge comes in getting the timing right. Hammer throwing involves twirling the remote around like you're controlling a lassoo. The trickiest looking event we're shown is archery, where you have to simultaneously line up two cursors using the remote and nunchuk.
Finally we get to have a go. It's the hurdles event, where you have to shake the controllers in time to run and press A to jump. It's knackering. Just one go makes your arms ache and women may want to consider investing in a sports bra. There is skill involved with timing the jumps exactly right, so while the controls are simple you'll improve with practice.
None of the events seem too complex, though, or as difficult as playing Track & Field with a dance mat. Mario & Sonic is undoubtedly designed to appeal to players of all ages and abilities, just like Wii Sports. And just like Wii Sports last year, this game will surely be making a popular appearance in living rooms across the country come Christmas day.
The simplistic nature of Mario & Sonic could come as a disappointment to hardcore fans. It's about casual gameplay and the appeal of the characters rather than their individual abilities. Those who have waited decades for our heroes to debut in the same game might have preferred a platformer, something which revolved around combining Sonic's speed with Mario's jumping skills.
They might also find the visuals in Mario & Sonic a bit unappealing. Each stadium is modelled to exactly replicate the real venues in Beijing, so instead of bold colours, giant castles and grassy knolls it's all concrete and iron girders. Of course, it could just be we're still smarting because Beijing won the 2008 Olympic bid; we were strong supporters of the 'Take a Torch to Catford' campaign (be sure to listen to the song).
In any case, SEGA and Nintendo have clearly worked hard to add their own flavour. The crowds are made up of Toads, hedgehogs and other peripheral characters from previous Sonic and Mario games. Some of them wave flags showing pictures of the characters. Lakitu floats out and measures your score for the hammer throw events and so on.
Mario & Sonic might not be the game old skool platform fans were hoping for, but it was never meant to be. It might disappoint Track & Field fans with the lack of button bashing involved, but it will appeal to those who are frightened of traditional controllers. In short, It's going to offer a casual multiplayer experience and it seems likely do that well.