As far as Nintendo consoles are concerned, Mario and sports go hand in hand. The portly Italian plumber can play baseball, soccer (or football, for those outside of the U.S.), tennis, basketball and golf, and he can even drive go-karts. It seemed like he could do anything as long as his friends and some enemies went along for the ride. A few years ago, though, the powers that be decided that he wasn't big enough to handle the Summer Olympics on his own and thought that he needed some company. Enter Sonic, Sega's mascot and rival for a good part of the 1990s. Much to the surprise of some, Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games was a fun game that proved the Mario sports formula to be invulnerable to failure because of extra stars being added to the fray. Now that the Winter Olympics are fast approaching, Sega thought it would be wise to bring the duo back together for a repeat performance. Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Winter Games ends up being a much better game when compared to its summer counterpart, thanks to some overall improvements.
The game is split off into several different modes, most of which feature sports from the real Olympic Games. The single-player portion gives you the opportunity to select a character and participate in a selected event. There are a total of 20 characters to choose from, half made up of the good and bad guys of the titular characters' game franchises that specialize in either speed, skill or are balanced overall.
All 20 characters get to participate in eight different Olympic disciplines, with some of them containing sub-disciplines. In total, there are 15 different Olympic events ranging from curling to bobsledding to figure- and speed skating. On top of that, there are also dream events that the player can participate in that either add some variation to a traditional event (such as rocket-powered ski jumping) or are completely different (snow machine fights come to mind). While the events may vary wildly in type, they all share a tough level of difficulty that may take players several tries before they can master the event and achieve a place that isn't dead last. For the most part, the events are fun enough that frustration from losing doesn't set in for quite some time — always a good sign for any sports game.
Party Games mode treats the sporting events as mini-games to a larger and more traditional game. There are three different games, each with its own objectives and playable for four participants in total. Wild Card has you trying to win the chance to exchange cards with other players by coming in first in each randomly chosen event. The first one to get a four-card matching hand of the same character wins. Bingo Bash randomly hands you a bingo card, with the objective of getting bingo by using the icons called out by the machine. Winning an event gives you the opportunity to punch out the space, but if you lose, you're blocked from punching out said space. Lucky Spin gives you three chances to spin a wheel for points, with the winner being determined by who scores the most points by the end of the game. Party Games mode is pretty good, but all of the games share one thing in common: They're a bit too long. Bingo Bash is a decent length, but the two other games can eat up a considerable amount of time. Unless you know that you have some time to kill, you may not spend too much time tinkering in this area of the game.
Adventure mode is where a bulk of the single-player game is located. At the start of the Olympic festivities, Dr. Eggman and Bowser are upset that they haven't been invited to compete. To take their revenge on the committee that has slighted them, they capture the snow spirits and melt all of the snow in the host city to ensure that no one can participate in the games until they feel good and ready to do so. Enter Mario and Sonic, who learn of the occurrence from a snow spirit that has managed to escape. In order to save the Olympics, the duo travel to the last snowy place on Earth to recruit some help for their quest and free the snow spirits so that the games can go on as planned.
The best way to describe Adventure mode is that it is a very light RPG. Both Mario and Sonic travel through towns, gathering items, uncovering treasures and talking to the inhabitants. Battles have been replaced with specific events that have goals tied to them as a mark of victory, and your enemies end up being other participants in the games or the clock itself. While you initially start with the titular characters, you will amass a party that will also participate in the given events. The Adventure mode is a fun way to waste time, but it should be noted that the opponents here tend to be easier to defeat here than in the single-player events. The Adventure mode is rather short, but it is necessary to plod through it if you want to open more of the fantasy events.
Multiplayer has often been the hallmark of a good sports game, and this one is no different. With the exception of the Adventure mode, all of the unlocked events and party games are playable with up to three other players. Better yet, while the game supports multiplayer with multiple cartridges, it can also be done with just one cartridge transmitting data to three other DS consoles. Despite being touted as a major feature for the handheld, few developers utilize it, so it's great to see it being implemented once more. Of course, load times are lengthened if you're going with the one-cartridge setup instead of using multiple cartridges, but it's a small price to pay for some multiplayer action on the cheap. The only issue here is that there's no online multiplayer. The Wi-Fi option only allows for score comparisons via Friend Codes; although that's nice, the ability to have global scoreboards and online people to compete with would've made the game even more desirable.
The controls have been improved greatly over the previous title. One of the major criticisms of the original Mario & Sonic title was the dependence on the touch-screen for controlling all aspects of the game. While it was fine for menus and certain events like archery, other events like the 100m dash became cumbersome to control. The Olympic Winter Games takes care of those issues by making use of the touch-screen only when necessary and leaving the buttons to handle more mash-worthy events. Events like speed skating and cross-country, which rely on the player to mash buttons for speed, feel much better when using physical buttons as opposed to the touch-screen since the buttons are more responsive and you don't have to constantly worry that the event will wear down your touch-screen more that it should. The events that do use the touch screen, such as figure skating and curling, rely mostly on precision rather than speed and are very responsive as a result. Not all of the given control methods are perfect (hockey, for example, would have been better served if traditional controls were used as opposed to touch controls), but overall this is a much better control outing than the summer Olympics version of the game.
Graphically, the changes to The Olympic Winter Games are small and, some might say, unnoticeable. Character models come off nicely and, in some cases, sport some good details, such as facial expressions when winning or losing. Environments may all be covered in snow, but they are rendered well, and the textures on every object don't come off as being too blocky. The frame rate holds up, especially with effects such as falling snow and sparks filling the screen during these events. Overall, it looks as good as the previous game, which was no slouch to begin with. The only real complaint would have to be with the crowd. While the crowd is animated, it doesn't seem like the stadiums and tracks are filled with spectators. It's a bit odd to see big events like figure skating occur with a crowd that has patches of empty seats all over the place. It gives you the feeling that the Olympic Games aren't as big as they should be.
The sound, like the graphics, is just as good as the last game. Sound effects are nothing special, but they come in clearly, even on the system's tiny speakers. The same goes for the voice samples, and even though the system has previously displayed the capability to deliver speech, it's still amazing to hear several different vocal samples come from the system. The music, for the most part, is generic but good enough that it feels like it fits well with the featured athletic events. The score really stands out when it comes to the figure skating events, though. The traditional figure skating features four classical tunes that come out nicely, while the fantasy version has three medleys that feature music from both the Sonic and Mario game series. You won't be turning down the volume while playing this game.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games does a great job of making Track & Field-style gameplay fun on Nintendo's portable console. The graphics and sound may be the same as before, but the controls are much better and make the game more enjoyable. Both the traditional and fantasy events are well thought out, and there's plenty for both the single-player and multiplayer modes to deal with. In short, fans of casual sports games will find plenty to love about this title, which manages to be just as good as the home console version.
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