Monday, August 24, 2009

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games

My cousin had a Commodore 64 which was the highlight of visiting his house as a child. While we played a number of great games in those days (Bruce Lee, Spy Hunter, Microsoft Flight Simulator, etc.), I most looked forward to playing Summer Games by Epyx. It (and it's various sequels) had three obvious advantages:

  1. Geared toward multi-player. (Bruce Lee was an awesome game, but it's boring to watch after a while.)
  2. Accessible controls. (Mash buttons or wiggle joystick.)
  3. Considerable layers of what we now call polish. (How cool was it to have opening ceremonies with digital doves flying over the torch?!)

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Screenshot

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games follows the formula of the Epyx classics with three licenses as opposed to zero. Which means instead of stick-figure athletes, players control characters from the Sonic or Mario universes (or a Mii). And instead of a generic Summer Games, the characters compete at actual Beijing Olympics venues. The experience is a surreal, as charming as you might expect, but somehow not very epic. Rather than national (or Epyx) anthems during the medal ceremonies, we get sound bits from the characters exalting or lamenting their own performance. It's repetitive and a bit creepy.

For the most part, the events work the way you would expect using the Wiimote and Nunchuck. Lots of events involve shaking to build and maintain speed including all the track and field and swimming competitions. Despite the fact some events rely on nearly identical mechanics, each feels fairly unique. For instance, the 100m race starts with timing the start followed by shaking to gain speed and the long jump starts with shaking followed by timing the jump. To a bystander, these are virtual mirror image actions, but to the player they feel distinct. High jump, javelin, pole vault, and triple jump play around with the same core mechanic. I can't explain it, but slight variations combined with altered visuals keep these events somewhat fresh.

Other events use fairly unique mechanics. Swimming requires breathing and well-timed turns. Distance races do a pretty good job of simulating pacing and timing the final kick. Relays and hurdles add timed hand-offs and jumps to the formula. Hammer toss requires the Wiimote to be twirled rather than shook to build speed. Skeet and archery add deeper themes to the basic IR shooting mechanic found in Wii Play. Table Tennis borrows heavily from Wii Sports Tennis. Fencing takes advantage of the one-dimensional sport to create a bare-bones fighting game. Gymnastics events and rowing focus on precision button pressing and motions. Then there are Dream Events that add video-game wackiness to standard events.

Each character has unique attributes and are divided into Power, Speed, Skill and All-around categories. Each also uses preferred swimming style from crawl to dog paddle to running underwater requiring different motions to propel them. Apparently the stats for Miis are assigned on the basis of height and weight combinations. For individual events character selection can be a good source of handicap: let a less-skilled player take Sonic in 100m and chose Bowser for instance.

Unfortunately, the designers made a series of missteps that sabotage their own masterly event design. Most of the events are locked from the beginning with no immediate indication of how to unlock them. When you get a bunch of players together, the natural first step is to try out the single event mode to see what might be fun. But the best events are locked from the start and the events that are available tend to be the shaking the Wiimote variety. The only way to unlock new events once your group gets bored or carpal-tunnel is to sit down by yourself and play through all the circuits in Circuit mode.

Mario and Sonic really comes into its own in circuit mode, which should be the default playing option. (Single event appears to be the default, since it's the first option on the main menu.) Circuits work something like decathlons with different mixes of events. Points are awarded in each event according to finish and at the end of the circuit the player with the most points wins. To prevent run-away wins, each player has a bonus coin which can be used to double points for a top-three finish. If you take the option, but don't finish in the top three you get nothing.* Do you take an all-around character to do well in all events or pick a specialized character and go for broke on your best event? Nothing increases the excitement of a contest than taking a big risk to secure a come-from-behind win.

Did I mention unlocking events is painful? Shaking the controllers to beat a couple of friends equals fun. Shaking the controllers to convince the computer to let you play more interesting contests equal pain in the wrists. About half the events involve running, which requires moving the Wiimote as fast as possible. Since the Wii's controllers are accelerometer based, tight drum rolls represent the best chance of winning. And this sort of shaking starts to hurt after a while. The worst events are high jump and pole vault because they repeat over and over until all participants fail three times. It's realistic but until you know how high to set the bar winning involves ratcheting up slowly which means lots of shaking. And all of this is so that I can earn the right to play events that don't cause my arms to fall off.

Once you unlock the events, the experience begins to level out. Initially success seems possible through indiscriminate waggle, but as with Summer Games there are definite skills to learn. A variety of missions provide individual challenges for those who crave it. For multiplayer sessions, circuits can be customized so that you never need to run 100m again. All sorts of actions unlock various trophies and medals. Theoretically the game offers online leader boards, though in practice they have been thoroughly hacked. (A perfect skeet shooting score in less than a second? Yeah, right.) For the younger audience there are a handful of mini-games which are fairly pointless and easy. Finally, all the Dream Events are reasonably entertaining on their own. (So why does Sega force us to unlock them all?)

On the whole, I think the title does a good job serving the fans of the three licenses and has the potential to entertain open-minded gamers. But Sega seems to go out of their way to make the experience frustrating. Why should I have to work so hard to earn the right to play the best events? Games like Samba de Amigo or Super Monkey Ball have history on their side—previous iterations use unlockable content as a carrot. But Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games is a cross between sports and party games. Sega's model ought to have been Wii Sports or Wii Play, which use locking to direct players through modes in a sensible order. Neither requires you to be good at an event before moving on. Mastery of the game tends to be the best carrot for sports games and interactions for party games. Locking, especially requiring players to win playing solo, defeats the purpose entirely.

* The Bonus Coin works something like the doubling cube in Backgammon. For those not familiar with the doubling cube, it doubles the value of a game during match play. The opponent may refuse the cube, which causes them to lose the game at the undoubled value. Or they may accept the cube, which allows the game to continue and gives the accepting player the sole ability to double the game again. In essence, it provides an extra layer of decision in games that otherwise might become boring decisive victories.