When Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games launched back in 2007, it was met with a fairly mixed response. Some people enjoyed it, others not so much; it still sold pretty well, though, netting more than ten million sales in total.
I was interested in picking up a copy at the time (due mainly to the fact that I used to love these types of games) and was legitimately saddened that I didn’t end up having at least a taste of what it had to offer.
So, when Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games (which I’ll shorten to just Winter Games here on in) was announced, I figured this was it. This would be the mini-game collection based on an Olympic event that I’d finally get around to playing.
The game is developed by Sega Sports Japan and, despite including a decent cast of Mario characters, feels amazingly “Sega” as a result. The overly-enthusiastic commentator is everywhere, blasting his cheeriness every time you select anything in the menus; there's the same kind rocking soundtrack you’d only ever find in a modern Sonic game; pre-rendered cutscenes that over-shadow and over-hype what you’re about to experience. Nothing could have prepared me for the rollercoaster of emotions I was about to feel. Joy, frustration, sadness, and woe… the game (and, by extension, this review) has it all.
The first thing that hits you is the overcrowded menu system that gives you a myriad of options without ever really explaining what everything is. Medley Mania, Legends Showdown, Single Match, Action and Answer Tour, and Worldwide Vs are thrown at you from the get-go. While Single Match and Worldwide Vs are pretty self explanatory, the descriptions for the others are fairly vague and require you to at least venture into them before deciding whether that was what you were actually after.
With ten Olympic Events (and their variations) as well as eight Dream Events (similar to the Olympic Events, but based in Mario's and Sonic’s independant worlds), there’s plenty to jump right into, and yes, to scratch my Nagano Olympics ‘98 on N64 itch, Curling is present. All of the typical Winter Games events are here, from ski jump and speed skating to ice hockey and bobsleigh - the game doesn’t skimp on things to do.
Sadly, there are also a lot of different ways to play. Winter Olympics requires you to have as many Wiimotes and nunchucks as you have players you’re wanting to play with; some events require the GamePad, but the majority require a Wiimote (some vertically, others horizontally), with still others needing both a Wiimote and a nunchuck. If you’re playing with friends, you’ll even come across a mix of all controls depending on what you have and what you’re playing. It’s messy, but thanks to the tutorials before every singleplayer event, you’ll eventually learn what you need to do.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of game you’ll be pulling out on a lazy Sunday afternoon when it’s just you and the summer sun trying to force its way through your drawn curtains. Winter Olympics was clearly created for multiplayer action, but - oddly - designed for singleplayer use. If you haven’t checked out an event alone beforehand, be warned that you won't see any tutorials when you play it with a friend. There’s the option to check what buttons do what in the pause menu, but the games are so specific in their actions that this just doesn’t help at all.
Along with most other multiplayer Wii U games, there’s no ability to log-in a second player with their Mii profile, so any of their individual progress is lost when they try to play alone later.
But nothing screams outdated tech or lazy design more than what happens when you do well and want to share your fastest time with the world. Gamers have had real-time updated leaderboards in their homes an entire generation now thanks to Xbox Live and PSN. The Wii U is Nintendo’s first proper attempt at capturing an online audience, and this title shows that they either have no interest in catching up, or no idea how to go about it.
When a new fastest time or record is hit you get asked if you want to add it to the world leaderboard. There's no automatic addition, and no option to only be asked once for all future records. So you think “hey, why not? It was a pretty decent time!” and select yes. You’re then left with a saving to leaderboard screen for a good 10 - 20 seconds before you can continue with your gaming session. Any urge to record my scores disappeared after I did this a couple of times; it’s just not worth the wait when in reality I probably only did averagely. I should be able to easily update and compare my times with the world and my friends…. but the system for this just doesn’t exist.
With games like this what you’re after is a good selection of franchise characters, each with their own unique stats, resulting in an urge to try each and every one. However, all characters are unlocked from the get-go, and with a quick perusal of their stats you’ll have a favourite or two without ever wanting to look at the others. With no unlock system, there’s almost no reason to try certain characters, and even less reason to keep the disc in your Wii U. Once I learnt I could play with my Mii character (and Miis look great in the game) I completely ignored the character select screen.
It won’t wow you with its graphics, but it isn’t a bad looking game by any means. They are precisely what you’d expect from a Wii U title, and nothing more. I wish I could say the same about the aural aspect of Winter Games, but I can’t. For the most part, it’s bearable, but there were certain moments where all I wanted to do was turn the game off. As much as I enjoyed the Ice Hockey event, the high-pitched looping cries of what I can only assume is agony coming from the crowds have stopped me from ever venturing into that section of the game again. It’s not all as bad as it is in that specific event, but it’s nothing to write home about, either.
Singleplayer is fine but boring without others, and the multiplayer is more fun but essentially confusing and frustrating due to the lack of tutorials. So you’ll play the games first, learn them before your friends, defeat them because you’ve got more experience, and then turn the game off after your friends get bored with defeat.
Winter Olympics looks like it wants you to have fun; the bright colours, decent roster of events and characters, and the chipper commentator all make it seem like it’s capable of creating entertainment. The poor online leaderboard, the confusing menu systems, and awkward control schemes, however, make the game a five-minute wonder that’ll make you fear the next time Mario and Sonic get their friends together.