The long-running dispute finally ends the only way it ever could…with hostile canoeing.
Uniting two once-warring stables of characters, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games is the product of a Nintendo-Sega collaboration that, years ago, would have seemed so infeasible that it could only be announced on April 1st. In the reality of 2008 on Nintendo DS, Mario and Sonic's face-off evokes button-mashing athletics games of the past, with logical touch screen implementation injecting some much-needed variety to the format. However, limited multiplayer modes hold the game back from becoming anything more than a brief, mild entertainment.
Sixteen characters have been assembled for this meeting of the mascots (eight from each of the two franchises). These familiar faces are nicely conveyed by good character models and trademark voice work, though their repeated exclamations in some events will inevitably grate given time. Characters are grouped into four attribute classes: Power, Speed, All-Around and Skill.
With twenty-four gradually unlocked events of various types from which to choose, the contestants are more naturally suited to some events than others. Consequently, only a particular subset of the roster is really viable for use in each Single Match competition. Where character selection becomes more than a no-brainer (or a popularity contest) is in Circuit mode. Here, four contestants (someone has to finish off the podium, right?) compete in a sequence of events that typically mixes up which skill sets are most valuable.
This balancing within a circuit brings the all-around characters into play, as reasonable finishes in each event can be enough to win the competition overall. On the other hand, the "Circuit chance"—an option to choose an event where the points you earn are doubled—can favour specialist characters that maximise points in their preferred event, and hold on to win by performing respectably elsewhere.
However, the early circuit competitions are so short and unchallenging that they render any such strategic thinking completely irrelevant. Sadly, playing through these is mandatory to unlock higher-difficulty content and new sports outside of the circuits. Furthermore, while the Advanced Class circuits feature tougher AI opponents and more events, it remains true that neither a great deal of thought, nor skill, is required to take the Gold.
Outside of the structured circuit play, Mission mode tries to induce players to try out all the different characters by giving each one specific challenges, some of which deliberately work against the character's skill set. Single matches are simply a chance to get acquainted with a particular event, or set records. While the game is balanced such that Olympic and World records can be broken without difficulty, those who can go online with Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection can upload their personal bests to worldwide leaderboards. This is a good inclusion - especially for the ultra-competitive players out there - but the obvious lack of depth in the game's challenges is unlikely to inspire many to perfect their sprinting or javelin-throwing abilities.
The core gameplay across the various modes is primarily a matter of timing, alongside frenzied touch screen rubbing/button mashing. Rubbing to run is the most prominent input amongst the many combinations of stylus and button use employed, and will surely place a severe strain on the arms (and the touch screens) of highly committed players. The most basic games, such as the 100m sprint, are purely a function of how rapidly you can rub after you burst off the starting line. Other events avoid merely rewarding uninterrupted rubbing to the finish, but rather elaborate on the simpler events by placing a greater emphasis on timing, adding stamina bars and obstacles, and are mostly more successful for it.
Aside from rubbing, the touch screen implementation is largely functional and quite intuitive. Tracing your stylus along the touch screen can direct a reticule on the top screen for archery and shooting; swipes dictate the angle of jumps or throws, and tapping in patterns performs feats of gymnastics. This functionality makes the events more varied, and indeed more satisfying, than if they were executed purely with buttons. In spite of this, the inclusion of button-controlled games is probably for the best, both for expanding the game's variety somewhat, and for giving beleaguered touch screens a break every now and then.
The stylus-button combo control schemes featured in a few sports can be rather unwieldy, and seem to run counter to the rest of the game's uncomplicated control methods. Fencing is a prime example. While swiping the touch screen might seem theoretically well-matched to side-on swordplay, the actual result is basic, clunky, and simply not much fun.
This is doubly unfortunate as fencing makes up two of the game’s twenty-four events, due to it being repeated as one of the "Dream" events that put a Mario spin on Olympic competition. These events owe much to the design of existing Mario-branded games, with Dream table tennis borrowing from Mario Power Tennis for the GameCube, and a quite bizarre canoeing event resembling Mario Kart’s battle mode. Perhaps the most unsettling Dream event is boxing, which involves pummelling your opponent from a first-person perspective on the top screen. For some franchise fans, such up close and personal aggression against a character like Peach could evoke feelings of guilt, while knocking Shadow the Hedgehog senseless might prove cathartic for others.
Great depth or emphasis on skill cannot be realistically expected from this kind of game. Rather, its merit can be judged on its functionality, and the ability to inject enough variety into the proceedings to make it a fun experience (especially with friends) that can endure beyond just a few hours. The line-up of events is fairly good in this regard, if a little repetitious and mixed in quality. The Dream events add a Mario sports veneer with limited success on the gameplay side, but certainly offer the most complicated gameplay available with their inclusion of power-ups and special moves.
Where Mario and Sonic really falls short is with its multiplayer component. Firstly, though the game supports download play for single-card multiplayer, the options are so scant as to render this offering practically nonexistent. Only six of the game's events are available to play, and there is no opportunity to set up a circuit competition (which would likely be the only way for the game to hold your interest for any significant period of time). Playing a few one-shot games with friends is highly unlikely to convince them to purchase a copy of the game so that you can enjoy the full range of options available in multi-card multiplayer.
There are also major limitations as to how much fun can be had in multiplayer with all options available. All events are played simultaneously, even when they are completely solo games such as the hammer throw, the trampoline, or archery. While this might speed matches along, it also removes any tension from the proceedings, as you have no idea what marks your opponents have set, and therefore what you need to accomplish. The absence of pressure from multiplayer competitions really does rob them of much of their entertainment value; individually performing fairly mechanical tasks is only made fun by the anticipation of everyone watching and waiting to see whether you will deliver in the clutch or choke.
This problem could be regarded as an unhappy consequence of the handheld medium, or indeed the nature of the Olympic Games themselves to some extent. However, multiplayer modes could have at least been set up with the option to take turns, and thus players could watch their opponents' efforts on their own screens while they wait for their moment. Such an option would have gone a long way towards recreating the feeling of people gathering around the same TV set while playing on a console. What we have instead is a very disconnected experience for many of the events, and while the omission of online multiplayer is in itself a shame, under these circumstances the experience would have been so impersonal as to be almost completely redundant.
While Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games' design takes some notable missteps, it does many things quite well. But the singular failure to execute multiplayer effectively means that the game's merits are not capitalised upon, and therefore it struggles to provide any lasting impact. Franchise fans may get a kick out of seeing some of their favourites out of their element (I for one have longed to see Yoshi cross swords with Dr.Eggman, honestly!), but in the end, that kind of amusement is only slightly more shallow than the game itself.