Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games
The tension is unbearable. As you wait on the starting line, head down, you realise that your entire life rests in the next ten seconds. Years of training and hard work all come down to this one moment. A quick glance to the sides and you realise that, instead of the toned, steroid-induced powerhouses that usually haunt the lanes next to you, you are rubbing shoulders with a new type of opponent. Surprisingly, these new opponents actually take the form of a blue hedgehog and a cheeky moustached plumber, something which immediately drains the tension you once had, and makes you realise everything is going to be wonderful in their wacky worlds. Yes folks, Mario and Sonic are back, this time pairing up to bring the first Beijing 2008-themed mini game selection to the Nintendo DS.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you mix the two most popular gaming characters into one title, the public are going to get excited, and most probably part with their cash. Combine these characters with the grandest sporting event on Earth, and the developers can hardly go wrong, right? Well sure, this is definitely a title that will bring great success to SEGA and Nintendo’s finances, but it is fair to say there are many aspects of this title that would fail to reach the podium, let alone gain a gold medal.
If you are looking for a lengthy single player campaign, this game should be bottom of your list. What’s apparent when turning this on for the first time is that there isn’t much to work your way through. The single player largely rests within the choosing of a single event or a number of tournament style competitions. These are points based, and winning each one means you quite obviously unlock the next. As you work your way through the first level of tournaments, something will become instantly clear. What first appears as an attractive and decent set of events quickly shows itself to be a much uglier set-up than first thought. It’s not that the events don’t work; it’s that many of them are hugely similar, quickly becoming predictable and uninteresting. Players can expect to compete in many of their favourite track and field events, backed up by the chance to try gymnastics, basketball, boxing, aquatics, and even table tennis. It certainly looks impressive on the surface, but once you get down to actually playing each event, a true sense of reality begins to hit home. Characters are given statistics in certain areas (power, speed, stamina and skill), but there is a distinct feeling that these values make little or no difference to the way they actually compete. Not even a tougher “Mission Mode” can rescue the feeling that this game offers very little, as each mission involves playing through a single event, often trying to reach a certain generic goal with any character you may decide to choose.
Before each event, players will be given the chance to see the controls that will carry them through. These are made up from using the stylus pen, the buttons, or a mixture of both. For events that need large amounts of speed to win (such as the 100m sprint), players can expect to rub the bottom screen as fast as they can in order to make their chosen character gather more speed. This basic movement (most often from left to right, although variations may occur depending on what stroke your character swims with) forms the basis of the large majority of events. It is expected that swimming and running will be similar when it comes to controls, that is acceptable, but it becomes extremely lazy when the other events only incorporate a slightly different approach. For instance, javelin events are exactly the same, as you primarily have to build up speed by caressing the screen from one side to another. The only difference is that you have to choose an angle to throw at and quickly mark it on the screen with the stylus. This is hugely disappointing as a linear trend is followed throughout the entire game, not to mention the absolute ease in which an event can be conquered aswell. The simplicity will attract many, but is also sure to diminish the interest of many more, as it is fair to say that the entire title is centred on the attention of the younger gamer. Unfortunately, after playing through each event a few times, the lack of depth begins to become all too familiar, and quickly begins to feel completely tiresome.
Although most of the gameplay is hugely similar, the developers have been sure to add some intelligent touches that spice up a handful of events. When beginning the long and triple jump events, players have the chance to motivate the crowd by clapping their hands in time with the character they have chosen. Of course, with the DS’s capabilities, players are expected to do this in real life. The microphone (situated below the top screen) will pick up each clap that the player makes, giving them a greater amount of momentum if it is timed correctly. This momentum then converts into power, meaning you can accumulate an advantage over your opponents if the task is completed effectively. This kind of interactivity is what the DS is all about, and should have been pushed further in order to create an even remotely memorable experience for the player. Also, once a number of tournaments have been beaten a selection of “Dream” events unlock. These events make up the best experience of the game as the developers begin to show they have a sense of imagination by creating a set of fantasy events. These are based on the real Olympic counterparts, but incorporate a number of different elements that utilise each character in a way that is not shown throughout the rest of the title. Just a simple change of controls, camera view, and the addition of Mario Kart style power-ups makes all the difference, as the game benefits from using the characters and their popular worlds, instead of a set up which is primarily based on athletics with the licensed characters tagged on for sale purposes.
Beyond the Olympic tournaments already mentioned, gamers have the chance to play through a set of non-sport related mini games in order to unlock trivia about the legendary sporting event itself. This is definitely a well thought out idea, as it encourages players to learn interesting facts about the past and modern history of the Games. As with most of the title however, the challenge is implemented in the most unsatisfactory of ways. As you work your way through each section (which at first seem to be of a reasonable length), you realise that most of the mini games are exactly the same. They only vary if you choose a different part of the Olympics’ history, ranging from ancient times to this year’s championship. As with the main bulk of events available to complete, there is little incentive to play on, as each fact is often hugely similar to the last.
Often with a game that has such a limited single player the multiplayer becomes the saving grace. Even if the single player isn’t up to scratch then the versus mode can add valuable points onto the final score of a review (Unreal Tournament III, I am looking at you). Unfortunately, the multiplayer for this title is very much like its control system; hit and miss. If you have a friend who owns the game then you are in for a few laughs, as you can play through circuits together and enjoy the limited variety the game so blandly offers. For multiplayer games though, longevity is absolutely key, as it must offer an experience worth coming back for. Rather unsurprisingly, Mario and Sonic does not do this, as it won’t be long before you will be firing up Mario Kart once more to get in some real entertainment. If your friend doesn’t have a copy of the game then there is only six events on offer to be played via DS download, a number that perfectly highlights the overall lazy feeling the game emits. It seems this is another part of the title that could have been better implemented, and is a crying shame that it doesn’t offer more than what is available. With a single player that is so limited, it is clear to see that the multiplayer was certainly doomed from the beginning.
Although the gameplay in this title isn’t hugely inspiring, the presentation is of an excellent quality. Individual character models look gorgeous on the DS’s vibrant monitors, and the whole atmosphere of the Olympic Games is recreated beautifully. Bright colours, excellent animation and great sound codes mean that this title isn’t totally one of complete frustration. At least it’s a pleasure to look at, and there are plenty of hidden nostalgic surprises throughout the gallery mode (most notably a jukebox which unlocks a number of classic SEGA and Nintendo soundtracks for you to indulge in), something that is sure to get the hearts of die-hard fans racing. The game would definitely benefit from more involvement of the elements that make Mario and Sonic most popular, something that is lacking terribly when you consider the overall feeling of the title.
So, as you cross the finish line, how does this title hold up? It must be said, not particularly well. If you are going to play this game, it will only be up until the Olympics are over, as it suffers from the same exhausted syndrome of any other sporting event tie in. It seems as if the initial feeling of illustrious wonder quickly evaporates from this game, as you realise that the product itself is only worthy of a snippet of your time. Much like the career of English sprinter Dwain Chambers, this title seems like a great opportunity missed, as sheer laziness becomes a huge enemy, and a lack of variation takes its toll.