This article was originally published at Kombo.com on November 20, 2007.
Gamers who grew up during the 16-bit console wars always wondered if Nintendo's Super Mario and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog would ever appear together in the same game, and while everyone at the lunch table had his or her own idea about how the two titans may someday clash, very few people would have predicted the setting of the battle to be Beijing. Nevertheless, here we have it, Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games in which heroes and villains from both franchises come together to compete in the Games of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Characters such as Mario, Sonic, Princess Peach, Tails, and "the rest" mix in up in such thrilling events such as the hammer throw, javelin toss, 100m dash, hurdles, trampoline gymnastics, skeet shooting, and many more. Dig deep enough into the mini-game experience to unlock the Dream Events in which traditional Olympic rules are set aside in favor of Mushroom Kingdom madness with power-ups and super moves that one would expect in a Mario sporting game.
Mario & Sonic is quite impressive from a visual standpoint. Everything is rendered cleanly and crisply and the beloved characters haven't looked this good in a long time. A wide variety of events are available for play either solo or with up to three other players, although some events and characters must be unlocked before becoming playable. Even those lovable Miis are playable, although it seems odd to play as a personality-deprived Mii when the other characters are so cheerful and outgoing with their woo-hoos and yee-haws and what-not. Brief instructions for each event can be reviewed before play begins, too. Game modes offer a variety of options including playing just a single event, competing in a circuit of events (compare to Mario Kart's cups of tracks), a mission mode for performing events with certain criteria, and a collection of Olympic trivia and factoids presented in mini-game (micro-game?) format. Rounding out the experience is the concise Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support in that high scores can be uploaded to online scoreboards.
What we have here is yet another collection of mini-games for the Wii, and that's really not so bad when the segments are done as well as Mario & Sonic pulls them off. Competing in an event is as simple as waving the Wii remote around really quickly or pressing the A button at the right moment. That's really all there is to it, however, and that leaves the gameplay feeling shallow when playing in the game's single-player mode. With friends, on the other hand, there's a definite competitive party aspect to the whole experience.
There's also a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding the events themselves, meaning that before one can play an event there's the whole ceremonial aspect of one's chosen character entering the arena/stadium, optional clapping and cheering with the Wii remote and nunchuk, a review of the rules for those who need the refresher, and then finally the event can begin. Then the event ends in twenty or thirty seconds or so. Follow that up with the scoreboard and then awards screen where the winners pose and say something comical. That's a lot to go through just to jump over a few hurdles by flicking one's wrist for half a minute.
This is a minor point, but considering that this is the first official meeting of two video game legends one would think that Sega and/or Nintendo would want to play this idea up during gameplay, but there's little interaction between the two rival camps. There's really no story here and no explanation at how the two groups came to compete in the Olympics. Such a thing isn't a dealbreaker, of course, but it just seems unusual not to exploit the meeting in-game. There's also the contempt that anyone could beat Sonic in the 100m dash or that Mario wouldn't dominate the competition in the long jump.
The real Mario/Sonic event comes next year with Super Smash Bros. Brawl. In the meantime we have Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, a fun distraction when playing with friends and an exercise in skipping animated clips of characters cheering when playing alone. Those looking for a fun solo challenge won't find it here. Add some friends, some snacks, and maybe a drink or two and suddenly it's fun for all. Go figure.