Here we go again.
It’s hard, if not entirely impossible, to begin a discussion about Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games without first talking about the two headline mascots advertised in the title. Mario and Sonic are iconic mainstays of the industry, and there was a time not so long ago when nothing delighted fans more than the idea of a crossover between the two franchises; there is a reason that I elected to write that sentence in the past tense. In the year 2013, Mario and Sonic crossing paths is nothing new; they have done it for every Olympiad since the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and they did it again on a more physical level in 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl. With the two heroes now being so well acquainted that they are practically roommates, Mario and Sonic 2014 will need more than just star power to legitimize its spot on store shelves. Thankfully for Sega, this year’s game marks the series’ first time on the Wii U, and accordingly, its first time with exciting new control possibilities courtesy of the Wii U’s GamePad.
The Wii U GamePad, despite what one may glean from its usage in most retail products, is a fairly robust piece of hardware in terms of its capabilities. Given that Mario and Sonic games are comprised entirely of mini-games, I don’t feel that it was unfair of me to expect Sega to utilize a wide array of the tablet controller’s potential features. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
While they do make some use of the second screen, using it in many cases as a literal second screen that displays the same action as that which is seen on the main screen, the most commonly used (or, in this case, abused) capability of the new controller is its gyroscopic controls. That’s more than a little disappointing when you consider that past games have used the same motion controls, albeit with the Wii’s staple combination of remotes and sensor bars, to guide the gameplay. The result of this adherence to tradition is predictable: Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games isn’t very good.
Motion controls alone aren’t the problem. In all honesty, I wouldn’t want this game or any game like it to use traditional pads and buttons; the events are so basic that to allow players to use age-old mechanisms to control them would be to create a game that is incredibly simple and easy. The motion controls used in Mario and Sonic 2014 may be simple, but they don’t make the game easy. Actually, they do the exact opposite. Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games is equal parts hard and unforgiving, largely because the game never behaves in a way that makes you feel like you are in direct control of your character. When you want to swerve left to get on the correct side of a flag in the downhill slalom, you end up swerving so far left that you can’t possibly hope to finish the event in a timely manner. When you want to ride the air currents in the downhill ski jump to maximize your distance, you end up sliding to the extreme right of the screen because the motion detection is so off that the game acts as if your controller has slipped into the Twilight Zone, a land where up is down, left is right, and simple actions are as trying as calculus.
Sometimes, though, the game does work, and when it does it manages to feel like an above average party game. The game is at its best when the amount of opportunities for its controls to prevent you from being successful is minimized. In other words, the game works best when it doesn’t require you to flail, swing, and pivot around the room like a wannabe Tonya Harding.
My personal favorite event in Mario and Sonic 2014 is curling, arguably the best emulation of the winter sport in video game history. It is equal parts Wii Bowling and shuffleboard, and it also happens to sport the best use of the Wii U’s GamePad in the entirety of the game. By turning the GamePad sideways, the screen becomes a map of the court that shows players where all of the stones are located and where their trajectory will launch their next stone. The touch screen can also be used to map out ideal plays, or it can be used like the “Ask Madden” feature in Madden that tells players where the best place is to aim their stones. Using the GamePad in this way turns what could have been an excessively dull mini-game into light, tactical fare, and it made curling the most fun that I had during my time with Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Curling, alongside the rest of the 18 events in Mario and Sonic, can be played as a part of Legends Showdown, a single player mode that attempts to contextualize the mascot madness that the series is famous for. All of your favorite Nintendo and Sega mascots (plus Silver the Hedgehog) are in Russia for the Olympic Games when their shadow nemeses appear to spoil the fun. To save the Olympic Games, the heroes unite to play every single mini-game under the sun against their murky counterparts.
The most that can be said for the mode is that it works and it at least gives players a reason to play through every mini-game, but that’s about it. All of the conflict leads up to a final, culminating mini-game that acts like a final boss by testing everything that the other games taught players. Since most of the other games taught players that motion controls are unreliable, it doesn’t take much imagination to contemplate how this final event plays out; what could have been an exhilarating race down a hectic mountainside instead plays out as an exercise in complete frustration. I spent three hours trying to best this last mini-game, and save for an impeccable burst of good fortune I would probably still be trying to polish off Mario and Sonic’s main campaign.
Like any mini-game collection worth its salt, there is more to Mario and Sonic than this single player option. The player can choose to compete with their friends in each of the Olympic-inspired events or they can participate in a new mode, the Action & Answer Tour. Instead of merely playing every mini-game for no reason other than to boost scores and break records, this alternative to standard play asks players to partake in a select number of events and answer questions based on those events. The game allows you to choose how long you would like to play this mode, and at the end of that time a winner is crowned based on who earned the most points from the mini-games and questions. Compared to the regular multiplayer modes, this is a quality alternative that might extend the life of this game beyond its first few parties.
This is the first Mario and Sonic game to incorporate online multiplayer, and for a first effort, it is surprisingly competent. When players first connect to the Internet, they are asked to select the nation that they wish to represent. Then, when players compete online, they earn points for their countries. Sadly, only three mini-games are available for online, so the appeal is limited, but it is a good start that could lead to positive returns in the future.
Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games is a bit of a bipolar experience. On one hand, I couldn’t wait to be done with it because the controls were often so maddening that I felt helplessly unable to compete with the decently challenging A.I. On the other hand, I did have some fun with the game. I liked playing curling mini-game, and a few of the motion control games grew on me upon repeated play. Bobsledding, in particular, was a strong example of how motion controls could occasionally be used to a game’s benefit. Regardless, it is impossible to overlook the staggering incompetence that is on display in Mario and Sonic. Year after year, Sega releases these games to the same complaints, yet here we are in 2013 with the same broken mechanics that plagued the franchise in 2007. Even with a new controller and a new console, the experience is stagnant while leaving little hope that anything will change.
Final Score: 2 out of 5