Preview: Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games

Sonic and Mario, the unlikeliest of duos, have teamed up once again for a show of colorful mini-games, diversions, and zaniness to bring you Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games, coming to Wii and Nintendo 3DS. Previously the plumber, hedgehog, and all of their friends took off to Beijing and Vancouver, and it’s that time again to head out to London for another round of realistic sporting events, fantastical “dream” events, and daunting motion control that will test your skills as well as your patience. Okay, mostly your patience, as far as the Wii events are concerned.

We were invited to experience a number of said events at the massive Sega booth, sporting plenty of Sonic statues as well as memorabilia. It was easy to see who Sega was rooting for, so we figured Mario needed someone to get behind him. I chose Nintendo’s mascot to guide through my first of a set of Wii events: the Dream Long Jump, where all you need to do is stay on top of giddy little clouds in the backdrop of Yoshi’s Island. You need only hop from cloud to cloud, attempting to gain as much distance as possible. If you happen to fall off the cloud, which I promptly did, you should come back as a balloon in order to impede the progress of other players. As the Sega PR rep did her best to stress that this level should be fun for everyone, running down the controls (you need to hold the Wii remote sideways and “shake” for boosts occasionally) I failed miserably, noting that no matter how much effort I put into ground-pound and boosting, the game didn’t quite register my movements, and so I fell to, presumably, my death. I didn’t get a chance to come back as a balloon, as the demo “ended” there, restarting at its main screen, a hint, perhaps, to players that they should switch stations. But we kept at it, going from one event to the next. This wasn’t a great start.

We strode on to the more realistic and practical Equestrian event, where I decided to put Knuckles through his paces. Maneuvering the Wii remote into position as the reins of a horse, I was instructed to “giddy-up” to make the horse jump over obstacles and to turn the remote to steer the horse. Unfortunately, steering the horse felt more like allowing the horse to hit the invisible walls of the track, even as my exaggerated steering movements should have kept the horse from slowing down and heading more toward the inside of the track. Jumping over the several obstacles worked slightly better, though the timing seemed to favor waiting to jump several seconds after the “Jump!” notification appeared onscreen. I finished up fairly decently and made it to the goal in one piece, but couldn’t help wanting to play something a little less reliant on motion control steering and waggling to cleanse my palate. As a fan of the Mario Party series, I was drawing plenty of similarities between the two games, though this ultimately showed far less polish. 0/2 with the Dream Long Jump and Equestrian events. I noted there was an option to use the Nunchuk as well, though for some strange reason the Sega rep did not allow players to do so. Curiously enough, it may have made the events work much better, so inviting others to use only motion control was a little embarrassing from my perspective.

We soldiered on to the Badminton event, which loosely resembled Mario Tennis, except the focus was on, of course, batting the birdie left and right rather than up and over. This felt to be the most functional event so far, except with the Wii remote’s “serving” motion it never truly felt as if I was actually connecting with the birdie, only when shaking the remote to charge up a shot to sail over my opponents’ heads. As strange as it sounds, the entire event felt as though it were out of my control and had a much less tactile feel than any previous Sega or Nintendo effort at tennis, and this was a major disappointment. Still, I was able to do well with this event, likely because of the charge shot, though I was still vastly unimpressed.

Canoeing raised a red flag for me when the Sega rep announced you would need to pretend to paddle with the Wii remote in a paddling motion, just like with a real oar. My already sore shoulder screamed out in agony as I made desperate rowing movements with the remote, propelling Mario and Sonic in our canoes toward the finish line, though the rhythm required to do so was more than a little off. I could see children chomping at the bit to pretend they were rowing a canoe, but as far as engaging mechanics go, this was one of “those” games you’d prefer not to load up as it puts far too much stress on the arm.

Finally, it was time for what I considered the worst of all: Dream Discus Throw. After mimicking a frisbee toss with the Wii remote, it’s up to you to control via D-pad and horizontal Wii remote a discus that your character rides on, bumping others out of the way and collecting rings along an obstacle course that slightly resembles Kirby’s Air Ride, though without any real sort of tactile control. More often than not it felt as if I was just bumbling along at the game’s mercy, collecting rings and bumping into opponents, but it never felt like any sort of “real” event that required skill. Near the end you reached an area where you fell into a large bulls-eye, the object being to direct your discus nearest the middle for the most points. As I drifted toward the center for the win, I knew it was time to dub the London outing for the series an imminent critical failure, but likely popular choice for kids who entertain themselves by eating crayons. It’s a shame, too, because it’s so great to see these iconic characters coming together with a wide variety of events, but they feel so unpolished and rushed that it’s hard to see much improvement, even in the final release.

Luckily, the 3DS version is a vastly improved experience, and one that it’s clear was optimized for what the system has to offer. I barreled through events like nobody’s business, including an interesting twist on badminton where you need to determine if the birdie is in or out and react accordingly, a judo match that relies on quick button pushes, and my favorite, a walking event that corresponds to music, where you slide the stylus back and forth along the touch screen in rhythm to the tracks that play. It’s nothing terribly engaging, but of course the tangible controls make these minigames a much less frustrating experience and as these games are already best for bite-sized game time, I can see the 3DS edition being vastly more successful than the already obsolete Wii edition.

We’ll have a more in-depth look when Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games is finally released late November 2011 (Wii) and February 2012 (3DS).

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