Preview: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games

Ten years ago and the thought of Mario & Sonic appearing in a game together was either a dream or sacrilege depending on how extreme your opinions were. Since Sega left the hardware business and Sonic games crept onto Nintendo consoles the dream started to take shape and were finally brought into crystal clarity in the guise of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. A sports themed minigame collection  might not have been what many hoped for when gaming greatest rivals first met but has proved a popular enough idea to shift over 10 million copies worldwide thus far. A sequel was inevitable and a ‘Winter Olympics’ theme obvious. Not wanting to disappoint Sega recently revealed the existence of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games. I was invited down to Sega’s London HQ to take a closer look.

Eager to capitalize on the success of the first game but not arrogant enough to think it perfect Sega have been hard at work improving things for the sequel. Very early on it was realised the DS version suffered in comparison it’s bigger brother on the Wii so there has been considerable effort going in to making each version feel like a different experience. The controls are also getting an upgrade with Sega trying to make them more intuitive and physical. Many sports in the first game had similar controls, especially those involving any sort of running. This time you’re likely to see things mixed up a bit and from what I’ve played I can say Sega are well on their way to nailing that.

A point they were keen to stress was that for multiplayer all events will be unlocked from the start avoiding the scenario of having to unlocking them all from scratch should you want to take the game over to a friend’s house for a knockabout. Apparently many players didn’t get as far as unlocking all of the Dream Events which is a scenario Sega wish to avoid this time round. Speaking of Dream Events Sega have been working closely with Nintendo and have been granted much more freedom with them meaning more items will appear from Sonic and Mario’s world to be used in whatever bizarre races they have planned this time.

The Olympic Committee has been keeping a watchful eye over things as well dictating that the game must be referred to as the “Olympic Winter Games” rather than just the “Winter Olympics”. The agreement is a two way street though and means Sega can feature real world places in the game. For example Speed Skating takes place in a cartoon approximation of the real Richmond Olympic Oval.

With all of the facts out of the way it was time to see the game in motion. The first thing to note before being shown ‘Downhill’ skiing for the first time by a Sega rep was a much improved tutorial that actually had a video detailing what you needed to do before setting off from the blocks. This was immeasurably more effective at getting the message across than reading sometimes pages of text in the original to get a handle on the event. Things only got better from there as it was evident to see the graphics have been vastly improved looking clearer and with more detail on screen. Spectators look a lot livelier and less like cardboard cut-outs and character animation in general has improved to allow more expression in the cast.

During certain races you’re given the ability to ‘boost’ by tapping the A button on the Wii Remote. The animation is different for each character but is usually a throwback to the past. Sonic for example does a spindash while Tails lifts a few feet from the air and propels himself forwards with his twin tails. Mario on the other hand has a spinning move as last seen in Mario Galaxy and Luigi appears to shoot himself forwards out of an imaginary cannon as seen in Smash Bros. As well as looking good tactical boosting could shave a good few seconds off your time.

Only eight characters were available to select but more were promised. On both Wii and DS versions only Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy were selectable from Sega’s team with Mario, Luigi, Peach and Yoshi from team Nintendo. Eggman and Wario features in the games CG opening though and Shadow was shown in a video for the DS but it’s a safe bet to assume all the summer Olympic crew will show up for some Winter Olympic action with the possibility of some new faces. Before I could even ask who the Sega rep in charge said she couldn’t comment on that. I can tell you it won’t be Espio and Charmy of the Chaotix as they resumed their job waving flags and firing the starting pistol at the side of the track.

Two events were playable on the current build for the DS and three were available on the Wii. On the DS the Skeleton and Snowboard Cross; the former being controlled by the stylus alone and the latter using the DS’s face buttons. The Skeleton involves your chosen character hurtling head first down a chute similar to bobsleigh but a lot more dangerous looking and on what appears to be an expensive baking trey. The run up at the start is performed by you frantically waving the stylus horizontally back and forth on the screen until you enter the chute. Then you guide your character left and right, avoiding the walls which slow you down and swiping the stylus up when your character glows yellow for a speed boost. Snowboard Cross couldn’t be more different with you following a course with the d-pad and holding ‘Y’ to lower your character when you want to move at speed. You can drift by pressing the shoulder buttons and do tricks off ramps with ‘B’.

Sega’s goal for the DS version was to try and simplify the controls over the admittedly complicated original but still retain enough scope for skilled players to excel. The DS version will also allow for full 4 player action using just a single cart. To separate it from its big brother further the DS version will feature an ‘Adventure Tour’. A picture was shown of an island a little like the one shown in Sonic Rush Adventure but with more snow. Other than that Sega weren’t giving away any further information about it.

The first event shown in the Wii version was Downhill skiing. It could be played with a variety of control schemes suiting every Wii owner. You could simply use the Wii remote on its own, tilting it to turn your character down a course in-between flags. Add a nunchuck and you have to turn both but crouching with them or holding them low brings your character to a crouch affording them some extra speed. The ultimate combo was with Remote, Nunchuck and Balance Board. I’d never been on a balance board before but it was easily the most fun of all the options even if it was the most difficult to get a handle on. I might have looked like a fool in front of everyone but I didn’t care as my mind was focused on shifting weight to get my character to move in the desired direction. It was an honour to sacrifice my dignity to get into the spirit of the game to give a better insight here.

The fairly simple objective of following the track and staying on the course won’t get you the best time though as more skilled players will venture towards the flags on the inside of the course gaining more speed for their daring. Get it wrong and miss a set of flags and you get a three second time penalty which is instantly added to the clock. Its risk vs reward but if playing on split screen multiplayer it’s very hard to resist taking a few chances to stay ahead or catch up. You can’t fight on the track though as Downhill skiing is usually a solo affair. You opponent appears on your screen as a ‘ghost’ so you can see them as you play at the same time in split screen but you can’t interfere with their race. You can however press ‘A’ for a boost to try and catch up. Be careful though as you only have one so use it wisely.

Speed Skating; 500m was next and the sole control input was a Wii Remote. Again the event looked deceptively easy with you moving the remote from side to side each time making the character on screen put another skate forward. The keyword this time was rhythm. Madly swish your remote from side to side as you do in the sprint portion and you’ll haphazardly move forwards but not very fast. Instead the game informs you if you’re moving the remote too fast, too slow or with a ‘perfect’ in multicoloured letters if you hit the sweet spot. Again you can boost with the ‘A’ button but while it speeds you up it’s easy to mess up the rhythm directly after. Due to a love of rhythm action games this was easily my best event and as ArchangelUK can vouch for me I kicked ass at it on multiplayer.

The final event, the Bobsleigh, was easily the most elaborate. Using the Balance Board in single play or just a single remote in multiplayer it also ended up being the most enjoyable. Bobsleigh was aptly demonstrated by three Sega reps and AAUK sat in a line of chairs. If you’ve ever seen the movie Cool Runnings you’ll know the start of a Bobsleigh race is imperative. Firstly you run, achieved by waving the Remote up and down and in multiplayer. Secondly you need to get in the Bobsleigh itself one at a time, pressing ‘A’ in the right order. Once inside the idea is to hold the Remote to your chest and move from side to side to steer the sleigh down the course. In single player this is fairly easy and if you’re using the Balance Board you can even sit on it for added authenticity. With up to four players in multiplayer things can be a lot more difficult as I can personally attest to. It looked way too much fun to pass up having a go.

All of the events in the first game were competitive in multiplayer but the Bobsleigh is cooperative. You all have to lean in the right direction at the right time to move where you want to go. Sticking to a yellow glowing racing line for long enough yields a speed boost but with three other players can prove a lot more difficult than it sounds. Watching groups of four people playing this on chairs in their living room is going to be hilarious.

So who would win in a competitive competition between Team Sonic and Team Mario? The outcome of the summer Olympics was kept ambiguous but for the Wii version of the sequel Sega is panning a ‘Festival Mode’. This mode pits the two teams against each other in two separate campaigns to decide an ultimate winner of the Olympic Winter Games. 

Both versions of the game were very early in development and its long term success is going to depend on the variety of different sports and how intuitively the Wii’s various controllers are used. Sega can’t afford to rest on their laurels and simply release a Winter Olympic mission pack because this time the novelty of Mario and Sonic together is no longer a unique selling point. Sega are only second to Nintendo in coaxing out the graphical power of the Wii so that’s not going to be an issue. Fortunately on the evidence presented the game is looking good with every chance to eclipse the original in quality and commercial success. It’s an encouraging start with a number of different events each with their own different and fun control schemes. If only other developers put this much though into how to use the Wii’s controllers things would be a lot brighter on Nintendo’s console. So will it be two gold medals in a row for the Olympic duo of Mario and Sonic? Time will tell but on the evidence I’ve seen so far I wouldn’t count it out.