Review: Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games (Wii U)

Back on the slopes and going nowhere fast

Unless you’re an enthusiast or currently living in Sochi (that’s in Russia, by the way), there’s a good chance you aren't aware that the Winter Olympics are almost upon us. Yes, it’s time for all your favourite winter sports to hit the screens again; sports such as skiing, skiing off a cliff, bob-sledding and... that one with the stones. It’s probably safe to say that the Winter Olympics are the lesser of the two global sports celebrations; yet undeterred by an indifference to the four yearly snow-fest, Mario and Sonic are back to renew their new found sporting rivalry in the creatively titled, Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

Fresh from a rather lacklustre visit to London, Mario and Sonic 2014 marks the series’ début on Wii U, with the potential to invigorate an increasingly stale franchise with new ideas. But what could have been a reinvention ultimately becomes a handful of underused new ideas mixed in with largely the same game that was released in 2010, leaving it feeling like a job half done.

But let’s start with the setup, because like any good Olympic athlete, you’ll need the correct tools for the job. For the single player, there’s a mandatory requirement of the GamePad (no off-TV play here) and a Wii Remote Plus (plus optional Nunchuck), while further players will also need a MotionPlus enabled Wii Remote. So far, so good, but it’s the seemingly random implementation of these controls that will soon begin to annoy.

Take, for instance, Skiing, which is controlled using the Wii Remote, with motions resulting in on-screen actions. However, the almost identical snowboard event uses the GamePad as its controller, with the same motions to move your character. This seemingly random usage of the GamePad is particularly jarring when playing alone, resulting in random switches between GamePad and Wii Remote control, leaving you unsure of what you will be using next.

And it’s a shame it doesn’t just use the GamePad as a secondary screen, as when it does, the results are pleasing. Straight from the main menu, the GamePad is used as a new Mario and Sonic TV hub, which offers high scores, online leaderboards and friend rankings in the palm of your hand. For events not using the GamePad, this TV idea is pushed further, with Toad and Omochao (and a couple of Mario Penguins) presenting live event coverage from a TV studio. It’s a charming use of the second screen, but it being on the GamePad introduces a big problem – visibility.

Throughout the event, the studio panel will commentate on the proceedings, with comments displayed on the GamePad only. The problem is immediately obvious – if you’re alone you’ll be watching the TV, and if you’re with friends no-one will be paying attention. The fact that the studio guests idea also takes advantage of player tips from Miiverse makes the lack of visibility of this clever feature all the more disappointing. The big question this will leave you with is why — in a game that often feels so dry and humourless — is this charming presentation method not used throughout?

The Miiverse functionality is something that should be commended though, and it ties in, again, with the TV aspect of the game. After setting a high score, you’ll be interviewed by Omochao, who asks you for tips for other competitors; these tips will ultimately be fed into other player’s TV feeds. You’re also given an opportunity to use the Wii U camera to take a photo of your victorious self, which will be shared with your friends next time they load the TV hub.

But that isn’t to say the presentation of Mario and Sonic 2014 is bad, far from it. Taking a less is more approach, the menus are slick and easy to navigate, with options easy to find and access. The audio work is also brilliant, with remixes of various Mario and Sonic tunes making up the most pleasing of the game’s selection. However, with inside events the audio work leaves something to be desired, with the crowd noises in the Ice Hockey arena likely to make dogs start barking, and the same audio cues being recycled from past games.

And that feeling of wishing there was something a bit more is what pervades the whole of Mario and Sonic 2014, with the events themselves proving to be overly simple or just plain boring. But perhaps that’s more indicative of being handcuffed by the Winter Olympic events themselves, as unlike the summer games, winter events largely consist of putting on skis and going down a slope.

Events such as Skiing, Ice Skating, Snowboarding and Bobsleigh all make their expected returns from the last game, and control almost exactly the same as their 2010 equivalents, albeit with more finesse afforded by increasingly accurate motion detection, a welcome addition particularly in the figure skating events. The bobsleigh event does make some effort to make use of the GamePad by giving player one a first-person view of the track, and akin to Nintendo Land, uses the camera to show their intense concentration to the rest of the team on the main screen. Likewise, the Biathlon event uses the GamePad as the rifle for the first player on the shooting range – an obvious advantage when you consider the small amount of space on the TV.

And it’s in events like these where being on Wii U makes sense, with the GamePad adding to the experience. It’s a shame then, that the vast majority of the events opt to ignore it, and events such as Ice Hockey shoehorn in ‘draw on the screen to shoot’ style gimmicks — although it should be noted that Ice Hockey does scratch that Mario Strikers itch nicely.

Other events, such as Curling, feel incredibly out of place among the rapid and simplistic events that surround it, with the game insisting on using the GamePad to map out strategies before brushing the stone to the target, when really all you want to do is hurl stones down an icy track.

If these events sound overly familiar to you, then you’re right. Aside from cosmetic changes, the Olympic events are largely the same as the 2010 game, with all the faults and tedium that existed in them four years ago. Simply put, sliding down snowy mountains isn’t that much fun. But move away from the Olympic license, and things become much more interesting.

Spread across eight disciplines, the Dream Events let the creativity flow, and take the existing dull sports and add the Mario and Sonic licenses to them. From racing around Sonic Adventure’s Speed Highway in a bobsleigh to snowboarding around Mushroom Bridge, the Dream Events are where the game stops taking itself so seriously and gives players a blast of nostalgia while you compete. Winter Sports Champion Race is particularly clever, putting you in a race using various modes of winter transport, while the Snowball Scrimmage event is the closest you’ll ever get to a Mario and Sonic shooter.

While you can play any of the events individually, Mario and Sonic 2014 sees the welcome return of the Medley modes, allowing you to play events in succession with friends. There’s also the single player “Legends Showdown” to tackle, a rapid-fire visit to all the events, including boss battles against the likes of King Boo and, for some reason, Jet the Hawk.

The game also makes an attempt to claim space at parties with the “Action and Answer Tour”, a mode that can only be described as painfully dull. Ditching the enjoyable London Party mode from 2012, this new party mode puts you in a game show hosted by a surprisingly unfunny Cubot and Orbot, who spend more time talking than you do playing events. Once you eventually make it to an event, they are incredibly simplistic, and often task you with simply answering a question – Ice Hockey, for example, is a five second event where you put the puck in the correct answer net. It’s an ill-thought out mode, and one that is unlikely to win many people over this Christmas.

Mario and Sonic 2014 also marks the series’ online debut, but with only four events on offer it’s a surprisingly limited début. While it’s understandable that Curling would make for a boring online sport, it makes no sense to not include ice hockey or even high score events such as ski jumping, and with a limited selection this is ultimately an underwhelming inclusion.

The move to Wii U has however yielded a big graphical improvement, and the character models in particular look better than ever (although there are no newcomers to the roster, sorry Espio fans). The Sochi Olympic Park has (presumably) been faithfully recreated, but the biggest draw will be Mario and Sonic locales in HD for the first time – Isle Delfino in particular looks glorious in HD, and is also curiously the perfect fit for a game of ice hockey.

Conclusion

Mario and Sonic 2014 feels like a minor progression, and not the huge leap you might be expecting. Taking a lot of its cues from the 2010 game, and ignoring the rapid-fire party experience of 2012, this latest edition hits some of the right buttons, but they’re the same unremarkable buttons that were hit four years ago. The inclusion of online is certainly welcome, but too limited, while the inventive TV idea used on the GamePad is never taken far enough. But that said, with a group of friends, there’s still a lot of fun to be had here; it’s just hard to shake that feeling that you’ve done it all before.

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