Ah, the Olympic Games--what better way to embody the spirit of international goodwill than with formerly bitter console mascots having a friendly cross-cultural competition? That’s been the idea behind the Mario & Sonic at the Olympics series since 2008. Unfortunately, the games themselves have had a rather tough time living up to our childhood crossover fantasies, and are, to a one, best described as “mildly entertaining.” With new hardware and a new controller comes new opportunities, however, and Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games brings, if not a record-setting run, at least a bronze medal effort to the Wii U.
There’s a good variety of events on showcase here--Alpine skiing, speed skating, bobsleigh, ski jumps, figure skating, and curling, to name a few. The Wii U's GamePad is used to great effect, especially in events like Bobsleigh, where the controller's screen lets you see your sleigh ride from a first-person perspective as you tilt and weave your way through the icy tubes. Other modes, such as the ever-mysterious sport of curling, use a combination of the GamePad and Wii Remotes for aiming and placing shots. It’s not too tough to get the controls down for the majority of the events (the long and droning tutorials are altogether unnecessary). And while the variety in controls is nice and keeps players on their toes, the constantly changing input methods can be a bit of a hassle to manage if you’re playing through several different sports in a series, especially in multiplayer sessions.
The GamePad is generally the preferred control method because it’s easier to balance and precisely tilt compared to a Wii Remote. But, because only one GamePad can be connected to the Wii U at once, some players will be forced to settle for less accurate methods of input, putting them at a disadvantage when playing game modes. Ice Hockey springs immediately to mind.
Mario and Sonic 2014 excels at putting a creative spin on traditional winter events. Besides the standard-issue winter games, there are “Dream Events” that add some distinct flavor to sports from the respective Mario and Sonic franchises. Hole-In-One-Curling is a nifty mix of curling and golf in the Green Hill Zone, Snow Day Street Hockey puts Mario power-ups into play in ice hockey, and Snowball Scrimmage is a wholly original event that combines a third-person shooter and Super Mario Galaxy’s ball rolling sequences. There’s even series-themed figure skating with epic boss battles at the end.
Then there's the delightful Action and Answer Tour, a sort of game show that imbues standard Olympic events with unique challenges: aiming shots in curling so they carve a Mii face in the ice, looking for hidden background characters in Biathlon, scoping out the GamePad to find a hidden Boo in speed skating, and more. All the while, you’ll be unlocking a plethora of bonus content like Mii outfits and music (game music nerds will definitely want to get all the unlockable songs, as the set includes many classic Mario tunes rearranged by Sega’s skilled sound team). It’s no stretch to say that Mario and Sonic 2014 rivals Super Smash Bros. Brawl when it comes to sheer unlockables, adding incentive to replay events and modes.
There are other appealing extra features. Network functionality lets you share photos and your (hopefully) impressive records with Wii U friends and the greater Miiverse, and events that don’t utilize the GamePad let you set it to display everything from running commentary and gameplay tips to detailed stats on your performance over time. Additions like these create more of an incentive to actually compete in these games both solo and in multiplayer, rather than simply writing them off as one-and-done minigame affairs. The overall package feels like it’s had more thought and effort put into it than previous games--though there are still a few head-scratching omissions, like the lack of a dedicated story mode to let these two teams of gaming legends fully engage with each other.
But it’s not all a dream vacation. The quality of the events is inconsistent, with the Dream Events generally being considerably more engaging than their more realistic (and thus, more dull) counterparts. There are some questionable design elements within the events themselves, too. Why does the player-controlled character in Ice Hockey change constantly and without warning? How does the game expect you to keep all of the Wii Remote stunt motions in figure skating straight? Interface issues can prove annoying as well, as does having to recalibrate the Wii Remotes every single time you pick a new event.
Mario and Sonic 2014 certainly has its issues, but it’s definitely a step above previous titles in terms of event design and overall enjoyment. It’s a more complex and engaging than the usual minigame menagerie, and the distinct franchise twists in the Dream Events are a welcome bit of fanservice. It’s not a gold medal winner just yet, but Mario and Sonic 2014 is a stronger contender than it’s ever been before.