If you'd have told us back in the heady days of the '90's console wars between Sega and Nintendo that one day not only would Sega games be on Nintendo systems, but that Mario and Sonic would feature in a game together we'd have laughed heartily. Fast forward to 2007 and Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games was released for the Wii, following Sega's departure from the console making business and a slew of Sonic games seeing release on the big N's machines. The original Olympic tie-in was a pretty big success, partly down to the novelty of the two mascots putting aside their differences and headlining a game together. Since then we've seen the pair compete in the Vancouver Winter Olympics and at London 2012, before heading off to the snow-kissed pistes of Sochi for the Winter Olympic games, for another mini-game collection, this time dusted with a layer of powdery HD snow.
With a lick of paint bringing the game crashing into the land of high definition, this is certainly the best looking Mario and Sonic game so far - but other than the fancier graphics, there's not a lot that's new on offer here. Like the games that came before it, Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is a no-frills mini-game collections. With a selection of playable characters to choose from, you'll compete in a variety of snow-bound events like skiing, snowboarding, the not as spooky as it sounds skeleton and even curling, using the Wii U's GamePad in tandem with the Wii Remote Plus. Many of the events have featured in the series before, which is to be expected, but it's still rather disappointing to see so many pursuits simply copied and pasted across.
Revisiting favourite events is fun to begin with, though, as you take to the slopes once more, tilting the Wii remote to zip between flags in downhill slalom, waving it like a conductor's baton to pull off some impressive moves in figure skating or making use of the GamePad's touchscreen to perfect your curling strategy. Unfortunately, though, while you mostly just want to get stuck into the sports, the game seems to want you to do anything but, making you sit through seemingly endless tutorials and instructions before every new event. Each individual aspect of each game is explained exhaustively, and you'll find yourself tapping at the A button to speed through it all as quickly as possible. It's all rather annoying, and worlds away from the pick up and play appeal (and single screen explanations) of titles like Wii Sports or Wii Party U. It's worse in multiplayer too, especially if you're playing with newcomers. At times we felt like we had to 'sell' the game to them, which is uncomfortable. The advent of motion controls was supposed to enable intuitive controls that were easy to grasp, so having to wade through page after page of instructions doesn't get proceedings off to the best of starts. What's worse is that once you finally get past the tutorials the events actually feel a bit shallow, and there's really not an awful lot to them. This isn't a grand reinvention of the series, it's simply more of the same, but prettier, which is a shame.
Events like skiing, while benefiting from the improved control offered by the Wii Remote Plus, are largely unchanged from the previous games, and ultimately it's still a case of 'waggle to win' despite conjuring up fond memories of N64 classic 1080° Snowboarding. The actual snowboarding here is basically the same as skiing, although using the GamePad instead. It feels as though Sega's tried to make use of the GamePad, but has kind of run out of ways to make it work. When it's used as a replacement for the Wii Remote (as in Snowboarding) we can't help but think that the Remote works better, and when it's used elsewhere (displaying rankings or 'TV coverage' from Anchorman Toad) it feels tagged on and a bit unnecessary. In addition, switching your view from the TV screen to the GamePad screen can be confusing (frequently you're told that there's 'Breaking News on the Wii U GamePad!', only to find there's nothing there except controller options). We can't help but think that if the game had been built around the GamePad at a more fundamental level the game might have broken free of its predecessors and found its own identity. As it stands, the GamePad's features are used just because they're there, and as such it fails to make much of an impact. Some games like figure skating use the remote in more interesting ways, requiring the player to follow the beat of the music, spin and keep the character balanced, and as such it's a richer experience than the simple downhill dashes.
So it's not all bad news for Mario & Sonic Sochi 2014. Some events are definitely more enjoyable than others, and new modes like the Action & Answer Tour spice things up a bit by adding new elements to existing events. For example while competing in downhill snowboarding, you'll have to dodge falling Spinies (perennially irritating Mario enemies) while keeping track of how many are flung your way. Get the answer right at the end of the course and you'll win points, meaning that just being the first over the line doesn't necessarily guarantee victory. It's a nifty inclusion, and provides a different way to play. We found that when playing with children the Action & Answer Tour was a good choice: even if players aren't the best at the actual event, there's an additional chance for them to accrue points, helping level the playing field.
Multiplayer in a party atmosphere is fun too. With a group of players who are familiar with all the games and controls there's enjoyment to be had, although there's not a lot here that hasn't been seen before. The returning events are as enjoyable as they ever were, and the few new additions are welcome. It's not going to dethrone Mario Kart or Smash Bros as the local multiplayer go-to game, but we enjoyed our time with it. The Mario and Sonic-themed Dream Events make a return too, and like the London 2012 game are unlocked from the start. Bringing a more fantastical flavour to proceedings, they're certainly more interesting to look at than the fairly generic standard events. Roller Coaster Bobsleigh and Bullet Bill Sledge Race channel Nintendo's seemingly forgotten racer F-Zero and Star Wars' podracing respectively, and are a welcome injection of more 'arcade' style games. Sadly though, they still rely on many of the same techniques as their more realistic counterparts and so you'll still find yourself tilting and shaking various controllers to win.
As you might imagine, as a high profile game released in 2013 the latest Mario & Sonic looks great. Tons of brightly coloured characters are available to play, and the courses and environments look clean and crisp. The Dream Events in particular look great, with Mario and Sonic's respective worlds being well rendered and repurposed as sporting venues. There are a few minor niggles though, such as there being no lip-sync when the characters speak or cheer which looks rather odd, and the stiff character animation feels a bit unnatural. Add to this the the annoying messages that pop up asking you to post your results to online leaderboards that interrupt the flow of the game, and the misguided use of the GamePad and you're left with the feeling that some corners may have been cut. The music is suitably grand though, and features some unlockable treats from the Sega and Nintendo back catalogues. Want to practice figure skating to a remixed Super Mario World theme? Mario & Sonic at Sochi 2014's got you covered.
Mario & Sonic's latest Olympic adventure is one of those games that needs a lot of time invested. If you're willing to spend the time perfecting moves and techniques or chasing high scores it's likely you'll be rewarded. Similarly, if you're coming to the game with like-minded friends or family in tow your enjoyment will be far greater than playing solo. A party game at heart, Mario & Sonic shines in multiplayer where players of similar skill levels can compete in entertaining mini-games. Single player feels shallow though, so it's tough to recommend as a solo experience. Online play helps to a degree, but it's not available for all modes, and feels like something of an afterthought. Ultimately, if you're looking for a fun mini-game collection this Christmas, you could do worse than Mario & Sonic 2014 although those who've followed the pair's Olympic exploits in the past may feel it's more of a replay than a record setter.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U