Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games is the follow-up title to the Summer Olympic release of a similar name from two years ago. Co-published by Sega and Nintendo, it's the only joint effort to feature both flagship mascots from the 16-bit era of video games (aside from the recent Smash Bros. release), and it's certainly a wish come true for Nintendo and Sega fans. The game even gives Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario creator) a developer credit, so this isn't some simple cash-in attempt with the Olympic license attached. Keep in mind that while this is obviously not a super-realistic interpretation of the actual Olympics, it still makes use of the city of Vancouver, Canada, and contains some real-world settings and info for fans of the upcoming event in February 2010.
Like the previous entry in the series, this title takes characters from both franchises. There are more than 20 different characters in all, so if you have a particular favorite in either series, you should be pretty satisfied with the available selection. On the Sonic side, you have characters like Amy, Metal Sonic, Robotnik, Tails and so on, while on Mario's side, you've got Bowser, Donkey Kong, Luigi, Princess Peach and a handful of other favorites. Other characters will make appearances as well, including rival events that pop up on occasion, which I'll delve into more in a bit.
There are four different classes for characters to fall into: All-Around, Skill, Speed and Power. The explanations here are pretty self-explanatory, but the game gives you a little more detail when selecting a character, in the form of bars that let you know how they perform in each of these descriptions. Someone like Mario will have pretty even stats, while Bowser will be far ahead in the Power department but less talented in Speed. The attributes definitely fit the characters, and I didn't notice anything particularly out of place with the descriptions. There are definitely differences in control between each character; Sonic is noticeably faster at events than Mario but sacrifices some of that control for speed, while Bowser's power means that he is less likely to be impacted by running into walls. It's worth the time to check out characters in each class, but I didn't see a great deal of control variation with characters of the same class.
For controls, Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games uses the one Wii Remote setup, but you can also toss in Nunchuk support for a lot of events, and then there's the optional Wii Balance Board for those who own Wii Fit. The standard setup works well enough; all the controls are motion-based, aside from a few button presses here and there. When you toss in the Nunchuk, it's mostly for ski-related events to add a little sense of realism to the game. It's not at all necessary for what you need to do, but it's nice to see the option. With the Balance Board enabled, you can perform some basic jumps for the ski jump event by squatting down and rising up, or keeping your balance in line during the jump. You can also make use of it in events like the Skeleton, which requires you to sit down on the board and balance your weight to turn right or left. It's not used in every event, so I'm not sure I see the benefit of dragging out the board for a handful of events, but it's nice to have the option for the players who own the device, so I can't fault the game for including the functionality.
As far as how well the actual controls work, I can't quite say that I'm totally on board with the game here. Most events — like the bobsled, downhill, large hill, moguls, skeleton, ski cross and snowboard cross — make use of the Wii Remote as a vertical steering wheel of sorts. You hold the Remote in front of you, straight out like any other game, and tilt it to the left or right to steer, forward to accelerate, and backward to slow down or brake. It's a really simple control scheme, but the game doesn't give you a great deal of leeway to allow for much human error.
My issues with the controls were entirely my fault; the game even warns you at the beginning that you don't want to oversteer or tilt the control too far in one direction or the other. Doing so will fail to register as any movement at all, or might go so far as to register as a movement in the wrong direction. Instead, you need to make small adjustments, which go a long way in turning direction, accelerating, etc. This becomes really evident in the snowboard cross event, which requires a series of jumps on a downhill, winding course. It's easy to get off track during the jumps so that when you come down, you tend to overcompensate to fix your direction, which in turn leads to you actually going nowhere and losing a lot of forward momentum. I had a heck of a time getting used to the controls for a handful of events, enough so that I found myself pretty frustrated and starting to wish for some type of standard control setup. If the game allowed for sensitivity adjustment in the controls or just a slightly more forgiving range of motion, I think it would have helped my frustration immensely. Instead, I constantly fought against my urge to turn far to the right or left, so I had a very difficult time on a few events — more so than I'd anticipated.
Speaking of events, the game features pretty much every major Winter Olympic event that you might hope for, right down to stuff I thought they might exclude, like figure skating. How do you even tackle figure skating in video game form? To their credit, the developers certainly gave it a good shot, and while it's not nearly as "artistic" as the real deal, it works surprisingly well here. In addition to previously mentioned events, there's also curling, ice hockey, a snowboard half-pipe event, two speed skating events and the very interesting Dream events, which make a return from the previous Mario and Sonic title.
Figure skating was an interesting obstacle to see tackled, and it plays out well here. Your character will follow a predetermined path along the ice rink. Certain points along this path will be highlighted, requiring you to perform specific movements to nail the highlights along the way. Some of these movements are simple up and down gestures with the Remote, or swinging it upward to perform a jump. Others will be spins that require you to furiously spin the Remote until you're given the OK to stop. You also need to nail your final pose, which is detailed by the shape of a body at the top right corner of the screen, by holding the Remote in a certain way.
Speed skating will involve the use of the Remote by moving it back and forth, mimicking the movement of a skater's hands as he shifts his weight from foot to foot. It's a simple event that's all about timing, and while it's easy enough to get the movements down, each time you move the Remote, you're given a notification of either fine, good, great or perfect. If you're able to nail a series of perfect movements in a row, you'll get a great speed boost, but it's far harder to pull off than it sounds. I love the idea of a timing-based event like this, and it's handled quite well. Speed skating and hockey are probably my favorite events in the game, and I think they're events that everyone will enjoy due to the great mix of simplicity and complexity, which make it easy to figure out but difficult to execute.
As I mentioned, the Dream events make a return from the previous title, and they're the stars of the show once again. If you're unfamiliar with the first game, Dream events were variations on standard Olympic events, but with a very video game-influenced twist. For instance, one of the earliest events you'll unlock is a downhill ski event that mimics the Marble Garden Zone aesthetics of the first Sonic game. There's a series of block textures that look like they've been torn out of other 3-D Sonic titles, complete with speed gates to propel you along when you touch them, and loops in which to circle around. The track is also littered with little item cubes — much like the power-ups you'll receive on tracks from Mario Kart titles — that contain familiar items like red shells that you can use to fire at opponents. These Dream events are a blast to check out, and while two are unlocked from the outset, there are many more to see over the course of the game.
Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games features a variety of modes for players to try out. There's your Single Event mode, which is basically an exhibition mode with no need to save progress or track any story events. This is what you'll want to jump into if you just want to check out events, and each event comes with an explanation, in case you've never played it before. Most of the events are unlocked from the beginning (some Dream event courses aside), so you can check out a majority of the game from this point. Since the game supports up to four players locally (sorry, no online mode here), you can opt for a versus match, team versus or co-op play. They're pretty standard options for multiplayer games by this point, so there's nothing particularly exciting about their inclusion, since they're pretty much expected. For the Single Event mode, you can also choose to race against ghost data, provided you've previously recorded some. This is good for training against your best times in events like skeleton, and it's nice to see it included, especially since most of the game events are timed like a racer.
The real meat of the game comes from the Festival mode, which is the equivalent of a story or campaign mode in other titles. It takes place over a number of days, from the opening ceremonies to the closing ceremonies, and you'll select a single character to compete in all events. Each day, there are a certain number of events to compete in or training exercises to finish. Depending on how you place or how well you perform in training, you'll gain Star Points, which can be spent as currency in the small town shops that you can visit during your days off. The event layout doesn't seem to adhere to any particular pattern, so you could take on training for the downhill ski on the same day that you have a practice ice hockey match.
After you finish certain events, you're notified of a Rival Match, which pits you against a new character (outside of the core set of 20) so you can compete against them one-on-one on a specific event. Winning these matches allows you to unlock a special item or other incentive, so it's worth it to do well. For every event and training session you complete, you're also awarded standard points that are tallied up against those from the other competitors, so you'll know whether or not you're winning the festival. The goal is to have the most points by the closing ceremonies, so although you can place below first or second in events, you certainly don't want to make a habit of it.
Finally, there's the Party Games option, which is a series of mini-games that surprisingly don't have much of an Olympic basis but require you to compete in them. One game is a balloon-popping event; you have a set number of balls to fire at oncoming balloons within an allotted amount of time. There are various balloon types; some award you with the much-needed points to win, and others attack your opponent or make the game harder for them. The second mini-game allows you to select a character and spin a wheel to determine a "leader" to compete against. There can be various rewards for winning the matches here, but it's a fairly stale mode in comparison to the other two. The final mini-game is called Panel Flip, which has players competing against each other to claim all the panels within a small game board setting. This is done by moving from piece to piece and competing in events. There are a certain number of moves given to each player per round, and you can store up those movements to get some kind of tactical advantage over your opponent or formulate a plan. This final mini-game is pretty involved and interesting to check out, and it's certainly the highlight of the three.
The last thing to check out in the game comes from the shops, where you'll spend the Star Points that I mentioned previously. There's a music shop, so you can unlock various tracks from the game to check out; the Sports shop lets you purchase decals, paints, and banners for your in-game gear (skis, snowboards, etc.); and the Boutique lets you find unlocked costumes and other gear changes for your Mii characters, which you can also use in lieu of the standard Mario and Sonic characters. Finally, there's a library, where you can unlock real-world info about the upcoming Olympic events, Vancouver and prior Olympics. It's a little bit of edutainment that will probably make parents happy to see, so it's interesting to see it included here.
I found myself enjoying Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games far more than the previous Summer Olympic title. This is partially because I enjoy watching the Winter Olympic events more in real life, but I also think it's because the game has better presentation this time around. Whereas the first title felt like a loose association of well-known events, this version feels far more structured, like an actual video game should, instead of a series of events that have merely been taped together.
The Festival mode is much more realized this time out and definitely a blast to play, even as a single-player experience. I found the game's controls to be a minor hindrance, and I think the ability to adjust the sensitivity of the motion-based controls would have gone a long way to making the game a better experience for everyone. We don't all control movement in the same way, so being stuck with one default setting feels a little contrived. Fans of the original Summer Olympics title will definitely enjoy Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games. At the same time, those who didn't care for the original iteration might want to check out this title; I think there's been enough of a presentation improvement to warrant a second look.
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