Although carnivale looms neon bright on the horizon, the party may already be winding down for Sonic and Mario. From snowy peaks to sandy shores, these former rivals are back for another collection of sporting mini-games in celebration of the Rio 2016 Olympics, and while they won't have to deal with the political turmoil or controversy surrounding the event itself, they've still got a few difficult questions to answer in regards to how much life this series has left in it. We found the 3DS version to be somewhat lacking, but perhaps the plumber and the hedgehog can do better on a home console?
Stripped of its motion controls and brought back to basics, Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games aims to recapture a purer form of gameplay. It's the classic party game pitch, with 14 different events to play across a variety of different modes. These can be divided into either team sports or single events, and for the most part it's business as usual. Standard Javelin, 100m Dash and Triple Jump events are supplemented by a more interesting lineup that includes Archery, Equestrian and BMX racing. Soccer, Rugby Sevens and Beach Volleyball are the meatier team sports in question, and have a bit more depth to them with different options to switch around for further replayability.
The majority of these games only use two or three buttons, implementing a system that's more accurate and accessible while also somehow making things slightly more convoluted than it needs to be. As straightforward as mashing 'A' or timing your basic inputs might sound on paper, mini-games are regularly preceded by rather lifeless paragraphs of explanation, which are complicated further by some secret hints and tricks that can give you an edge before the competition even begins. Since very little of the general instruction carries over between games, even with some minor button prompts it kills the immediacy and makes for a lot of down time in between bouts of fun – especially when playing with an impatient group of friends.
At worst, certain events feel like they actually suffer from the lack of motion controls - Archery is crying out for some gyroscope aiming – but most of the selection still manages to offer up some pretty decent fun. In particular, Rugby Sevens makes its appearance for the first time and the welcome inclusion of scrums, conversion kicks and hard hitting tackles all make it feel like a substantial addition. Soccer feels a bit too thin unfortunately, with the removal of tactical power kicks and far less players on the pitch than there should be. Although both of these games are by no means perfect, especially when it comes to your team's AI, we found ourselves returning to these ones the most. Beach Volleyball with its awkward controls just didn't gel with us in quite the same way.
If anything, the whole package is a little too familiar, and while the mini-games are decent enough we found it difficult to get excited about the same old running and swimming we had experienced several times over. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that the alternate versions of these mini-games have been all but removed from the Wii U release, compared to the added special events from the 3DS version. Any semblance of Mario & Sonic-styled fun has been restricted to some underwhelming Duel variants of the three main team games. In this mode you can take advantage of items and special abilities during the game, keeping things frantic and silly in a new arena. We needed to see much more than this, especially when the series has provided such interesting Dream Events in the past.
Having said that, we are ashamed to admit that the tremendous novelty of seeing Bowser riding a noble steed has managed to lose its bizarre charm, and that cuts a lot of enjoyment from the roster. You can still choose from a sizeable cast of characters representing the obvious and the obscure from both series', but there's also a lot more emphasis placed on your registered Mii character. Copacabana Beach acts as the central hub for everything, and operates similarly to the plaza in Splatoon. Taking control of your registered Mii, you access menus by moving around the environment and speaking with NPCs in order to enter the different game modes. It's a charming idea that results in a few too many loading screens, but sets up a playful atmosphere that's more than welcome.
Everything is unlocked piecemeal as you progress, starting off with a few Single Matches to try out the events without jeopardising your records. After claiming a few awards there, you'll be briskly moved on to Tournament mode, where things get a bit more serious. The beach plays host not only to Chaos and Toads, but your competitors as well, represented by actual Mii characters from over 70 countries around the world. With direct online play still a baffling and unfortunate omission, these potential champions are all AI controlled as you compete in two elimination rounds before shooting for a gold medal. Frustratingly, you can only choose from a random list of three tournament events at a time, locked out from choosing whichever you like. Having these Mii characters populate the environment is interesting though, especially as they're all eager to tell you a little about their country and share those aforementioned tricks to ace the events.
In the absence of a story mode, Heroes Showdown is likely to be the next best option. In this, you join either team Sonic or team Mario and choose a squad of ten characters to compete in a range of challenges. As they all come with their own unique stats, it's up to you to choose the best fit for each event and eliminate your rivals by beating them in a head to head. Victory is sealed by inevitably taking down the opposing team's captain. It's probably one of the best ways to get an overall experience, trying out different games and characters in a structured setting. Regardless of the game mode, rewards come in the form of coins, rings, outfits for your Mii and stamps, but Tournament mode also gives the chance to unlock bonus characters for specific events only. For example, ace the BMX tournament and Wave from Sonic Riders can be unlocked for use in that game only as a 'guest'. It's a bit of a tease.
Having to play as your Mii in these tournaments is also a bit of a bummer, as their base stats are so vastly underpowered in relation to the Mario & Sonic crew and even the other Mii athletes. In order to improve you don't gain XP or hit the gym - those unlockable outfits are the best way to boost your stats and keep on top of things. From suitably sporty to...everything else, these can be changed on the fly to better suit the event at hand. The overall difficulty varies greatly, seemingly relying on sheer luck to some extent as the CPU characters either storm ahead or lag behind depending on the toss of a coin. When it balances out, it makes for a stiff but fair challenge.
For amiibo fans, the Sonic and Mario amiibo figures eventually unlock 'Special Tournaments' with twists on existing events, so that's an extra to shoot for if you're a collector.
Graphically, the game shines with excellent use of lighting, lovely water effects and a vibrant tone that distracts from a few anti-aliasing worries we had early on. There's an impressive level of detail to many environments, and the fact that information can be found on the history of competing countries - as well as the different Brazilian venues soon to be seen during the event itself - lends a legitimacy to the presentation. Festival-ready tunes keep the atmosphere going - especially when a carnival rolls by Copacabana Beach - but only two new Mario & Sonic remixes are available this time around, which is a shame. Stripping things back to the basics may have gone too far in a few places.
Of course, all of this is pretty much universally improved by playing local multiplayer with friends. Whether it's a co-op tournament or a fiercely competitive round of Heroes Showdown, there's still a lot of fun to be had if you see past the clunky design choices and don't mind the lack of new material on offer. Aside from a ranked Ghost trial, which pits you against high scores worldwide in a paltry number of events, the same kind of tension just isn't found in single-player. With Rio 2016 there's no real shortage of things to do, but it also struggles to entice you to stick around for long.
For every step Mario & Sonic At The Rio 2016 Olympic Games takes forward, it seems to stumble several steps backwards in the attempt. There are some solid new mini-games to try out, but at the expense of more memorable Dream Events. Motion controls are a thing of the past, only to be replaced by needlessly complicated new button layouts. There's no dedicated story mode, meaning that solo players will need to enjoy repeating Tournaments if they want a lengthy session.
That being said, the truncated list of features will still appeal to newcomers, and even Olympic veterans may want the graphical upgrade this entry brings to the series. It's not a bad game, nor is it a particularly good one; there's still some potential here, it just needs a proper jolt before the party really gets started. Maybe in 2020, eh?