The Mario & Sonic series is one that I personally have a lot of history with. I remember almost exploding with excitement when the first title was announced – my two favourite videogame characters, together at last! Sure, it wasn’t the ideal crossover scenario everyone wanted and the game itself wasn’t anything that special, but I lapped it up for sheer novelty value alone, alternating between the Team Mario and Team Sonic t-shirts that came as pre-order bonuses while I shook my Wii Remote around in glee.
Two years later came the first Olympic Winter Games title, which for me was a big improvement over the original – the events were more entertaining, new characters were introduced, and perhaps most importantly there was another pre-order t-shirt I could wear while I played. But come London 2012, the franchise lost some of its sparkle and things began to feel as if they weren’t fitting as comfortably as they had done before (and I’m not just talking about the pre-order t-shirt, which only came in a kids’ size). Regardless of the new events, it felt like too much of a retread, and with no show-stopping new features the formula was starting to grow a bit stale. So, understandably, people’s first reaction to this fourth entry in the series was a collective groan of indifference. With the novelty value fizzling out fast and no pre-order t-shirt for me to wear at all, does Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games come from Russia with love? Or should these two gaming icons finally hang up their skis and go into athletic retirement?
The most obvious difference between Mario & Sonic 2014 and the other titles is that this is the first entry on Nintendo’s shiny new Wii U system. There’s a lot more graphical oomph and it definitely shows, with character models looking great for the most part – there’s still a few jaggies here and there, and the audience is still primarily the same flat 2D texture we’ve seen three times over already, but they’re very minor quibbles in any otherwise eye-pleasing outing. In fact, it’s not just the visuals, but the entire interface that has undergone an overhaul with this HD makeover. The menus feel really fluid and easy to navigate, and there’s a much more personalised feel to proceedings, with your chosen Mii standing proudly in the centre of the main menu next to your country’s respective flag – something we’ll touch on again later. It makes for a positive first impression, considering the developers could have instead opted for a very lazy and clunky interface just to get the job done.
This is also the first Mario & Sonic game to make use of the Wii MotionPlus technology, and it is a very welcome addition. Controls feel a lot more intuitive and responsive than they did in the previous games – I actually played the original Olympic Winter Games just before this one for comparison purposes – and it’s a real relief that Nintendo and SEGA have finally moved the series forward rather than recycling the same exact control scheme again and again. This is not to say that the controls are spot-on and flawless – an alternative analogue control scheme would have been greatly preferred in some cases – but it’s an improvement over what has come before it, so the game deserves some kudos for that.
While the technological leap to MotionPlus benefits the game though, it’s debatable as to what the Wii U GamePad actually brings to the series. It’s certainly got its uses – pulling off tricks in Snowboard Slopestyle by swiping the screen is easy enough to do, and it’s an absolute godsend for planning your tactics in the oddly-addictive Curling – but there’s also a fair bit of questionable implementation, too. A lot of the time you’ll be forced to switch between the Wii Remote and the GamePad for seemingly no reason at all depending on the event you’re playing, and while there is some consistency in this (namely, snowboard events all require the GamePad), it seems like a baffling decision when you consider all you’re doing is tilting side to side like you could do with a Wii Remote anyway – and in fact you can do with a Wii Remote anyway if you’re in multiplayer mode. It’s not unbearable but it is an unnecessary fumble that needn’t be there in the first place. Outside of the events, the GamePad is used for providing running commentary on the events you’re playing – a neat concept but one you’ll never appreciate if you’re focusing on the TV screen – and also for taking photos when you set new records. Again, a nice idea, but one that never really adds much to the experience.
What really will determine whether Mario & Sonic 2014 is a good game or not though is the events themselves, and as ever, they’re slightly hit or miss. The likes of Ice Hockey (think a small-scale version of Mario Strikers) and Figure Skating are a blast to play, but they’re weighed down by more cumbersome minigames like the Parallel Slalom and Bobsleigh/Skeleton. They can grow on you once you master the intricacies of the controls, but they’re simply just not as interesting as the other ones. Another obvious issue some may have with the Olympic events is that they’re largely the same as those found in the 2010 game – they’ve been improved somewhat since then, for sure, but if you weren’t a fan four years ago then you likely won’t be now either.
As ever though, it’s the Dream events that steal the show, with arguably some of the most interesting ones seen in a Mario & Sonic game yet. There’s a genuine thrill to be had riding a Bullet Bill sleigh around Sweet Mountain from Sonic Colours or rocketing along Speed Highway in the Rollercoaster Bobsleigh, and you’ll find yourself coming back to these events far more often than their realistic counterparts. The absolute headline event though has to be the Winter Sports Champion Race – which, almost masterfully, manages to walk the fine line between the Olympic and Dream categories. This event sees you racing through an extensive course filled with multiple routes of snow and ice, giving you the chance to change your current gear (be it skis, snowboard, bobsleigh, or ice skates) at several points along the way so you can utilise different shortcuts. This is the one event in the game which can truly give you a unique experience every time you play it, and I hope we see more like this in any future titles in the series.
Winter Sports Champion Race does have one thing going for it that manages to extend into the rest of the game as well though – the music. Where oh where to begin! This is hands down one of the best videogame soundtracks in recent years, bringing together some outstanding original scores alongside incredible remixes of classic Mario and Sonic tunes, new and old (even including a remix of Windy Hill from Sonic Lost World!). In fact, the music is actually just one form of fanservice that’s on offer in a game positively crammed full of it. There’s so many little touches that will leave you smiling, even down to tiny details like unique character selection poses to reflect the event you’re playing or special victory animations (if you have a certain pair on your team when you win, they’ll do something charming like Mario and Sonic fistbumping or Mario jumping onto Yoshi’s back). Of course, in the grand scheme of things these are just the icing on the cake, but it all helps to engage the diehard in an otherwise casual experience.
If the fanservice doesn’t keep you coming back for more, there’s already a fair amount to do in Mario & Sonic 2014 anyway. The Olympic and Dream events can be played individually or as part of the Medley Mania mode (which ties together certain events based on a specific theme), and there’s also a multiplayer party mode in the form of the Action & Answer Tour – a quiz show hosted by Orbot and Cubot which sees you playing even mini-er mini-games to score points. It’s a nice distraction but it won’t hold your attention for long, and disappointingly that’s a feeling that can be applied to the single player Legends Showdown mode as well. What could have been a real opportunity to see the Mario and Sonic worlds colliding – especially after we’ve seen glimpses of it in the handheld entries for the 2010 and 2012 Olympic titles – simply boils down to a whirlwind tour of all the game’s events against shadowy computer opponents. There’s an odd appearance by the likes of Jet the Hawk and Birdo, but what qualifies them as “legends” – or why they aren’t unlockable characters seeing as their models are already in-game – is anyone’s guess. That’s not to say there’s nothing to unlock at all in the game though, as there’s lots of apparel to customise your Mii in as well as special skis, snowboards, and bobsleighs to be earned by completing numerous Special Challenges, showing up as a Super Smash Bros. Brawl style challenge board to keep you playing and playing again.
One feature of the game that adds to the replay value – and is simultaneously impressive and a let-down – is the online mode. It’s really refreshing to finally be able to challenge people across the globe, with the added quirk that you’re competing for your own country just like in the actual Olympics (linking back in with the personalised feel of the game mentioned earlier). The online matches are smooth and seamless, so it’s just a shame that there’s only four events on offer (though luckily, Winter Sports Champion Race is one of them). There’s also the unforeseen problem that, due to the game’s low sales so far, it’s often been quite difficult to even find opponents in the first place, but there’s a solid online mode here for those with the necessary patience.
All things considered then, Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games has a lot going for it, but also a lot that holds it back from reaching the potential it quite often promises. Let’s be completely honest with ourselves – the Mario & Sonic series will always be a missed opportunity based on pure concept alone and there’s undoubtedly a lot more that could have been done this time around. However, this entry does manage to make a few baby steps in the right direction. Maybe one day, eventually, we’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable Olympic game with intuitive controls throughout, a half-decent story mode, more robust online, and more characters on the roster. Until that day comes, the series will never exceed the standard of “merely good”, no matter what small touches each new title brings to the table. But missed opportunity or not, as someone who enjoyed the previous entries, I had fun playing this one, and I expect many others will too.
Unlike the Olympic flame itself, Mario & Sonic 2014 isn’t going to set the world on fire – but if you’re willing to put up with its flaws, it might just set off a little spark of joy in your heart.
+ Updated HD visuals
+ Incredible soundtrack of old, new, and remixed tunes
+ MotionPlus brings some welcome precision to the proceedings
– The feeling of déjà vu is unmistakable
– Lots of missed potential
– Controls can still be unresponsive at times