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August 12, 2016

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games

The 2016 Olympics in Rio are in full force! Many TV channels are talking at length about the many, many competitions that have been taking place since August 5th. Obviously, there’s money to be made with the Olympics in the video game industry as well, and thus Nintendo jumped on the occasion in 2008. After all, the Wii’s motion-detector controls would certainly allow the gamers to get more active, right? There are many other games out there that force the player to get up and exhaust themselves in front of the TV, but this one managed to separate itself from the others by featuring already-famous video game characters: The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series. With one game released every two years, for both summer and winter Olympics, this had to be a winning decision!

But wait… why Mario and Sonic, exactly? Well… there can be many reasons to bring the rivalry between these two mascots into the Olympic Games. For starters, Mario and his crew have always loved to play various sports, from the NES era to now. Golf, go-karting, tennis, baseball, soccer, hockey… The list goes on. As for Sonic’s franchise, it’s a lot less prone to make spin-offs based on sports, and they practice very few sports outside of those that requires speed – like the Sonic Riders series. However, the characters of the Sonic series are a lot more active, in a way. They explore, they climb walls and jump left and right all the time, Sonic almost does parkour in some games… The Sonic crew is physically active, even the less action-oriented characters, which makes them perfect for a sports competition. Doesn’t explain how Eggman’s body allows him to keep up with everyone else, though.
Can't get more symbolic than this. Remember, kids:
Mario and Sonic encourage good sportsmanship!

Then, there’s also Mario and Sonic’s rivalry spanning decades already. This is a clash everyone wanted to see, the battle to end all battles… as a 100-Meter race, a trampoline skill match, a javelin-throwing competition…. Hey! Where’s the Fight To End All Fights between these two giants of the gaming industry? Oh, you’ll get one… as long as you don’t mind it being a fencing duel. If you want to see these two duking it out, pop in Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS, or Brawl. These video game mascot Olympics will be as friendly as can be. Probably as a way to avoid tipping the balance on a side or another, seeing as both the Mario and Sonic fandoms would be convinced that their side steamrolls the other in an actual fight. Never underestimate the power of fanboys to argue all day on who would win in a hypothetical scuffle. Everyone here has been given stats preventing them from reaching the full potential they exhibit in their home series – in particular folks like Sonic and Shadow, who were considerably slowed down. You can lose a 100-meters race while playing as Sonic here, how unbelievable is that?

Alright, enough discussion, let’s jump right into the game. There’s not a plot to speak of, so I’ll mostly go over the different modes and competitions. When you open a save file, you type a name and then choose a country of origin, the country to represent at the Games, and then we get to the menu.

Knuckles is determined to get some medals.
Or at least retrieve the Chaos Emeralds
You have many choices here: Single Match, Circuit, Mission, Gallery, Records and Options. Circuit is the closest to a Story Mode there is in the game, and even then, it’s only various series of competitions with your overall performance counting for the final ranking, after all competitions in a Circuit have been completed. It’s the main mode where you unlock new sports. Of course, this means that you can’t really practice these new sports until they come by in a Circuit, which is kind of a problem. However it won’t usually be much of a bother until the final Circuits, where the abilities of CPU opponents are improved and it becomes quite difficult to rank in first place. Not to mention, it becomes exhausting for one’s arms. I’ll discuss Circuit later.

Single Match mode is split in nine categories: Athletics (Track and Field), Gymnastics, Shooting, Aquatics, Fencing, Table Tennis, Rowing, Archery and Dream Sports. The latter three must be unlocked through Circuit mode. When you play for the first time, there are 12 sports available.
Athletics, Track: 100m, 100m Hurdles.
Athletics, Field: Long Jump, Triple Jump, Hammer Throw, Javelin Throw.
Gymnastics: Trampoline.
Shooting: Skeet.
Aquatics: 100m Freestyle, 4X100m Freestyle.
Fencing: Individual Epée.
Table Tennis: Singles.

As you move forward in Circuit mode, you unlock 12 additional competitions.
Athletics, Track: 400m, 4X100m Relay, 400m Hurdles.
Athletics, Field: High Jump, Pole Vault.
Gymnastics: Vault.
Rowing: Single Sculls.
Archery: Archery (Of course; did you expect knitting?)
Dream Sports: Dream Race, Dream Platform, Dream Fencing, Dream Table Tennis.

"I am in a dream! So I can go and be faster than
everyone else!"
Since there’s 4 of those, I should explain the Dream Sports. They’re basically what happens when you apply the Mario Sports formula to these real-life events; items get added, character get special abilities, that sort of thing. In Dream Race, you can collect items to speed yourself up or slow others down, as an example. In Dream Table Tennis, hitting back the ball fills a gauge and when it’s full, your character can unleash a special talent that the opponent may not be able to reply to. Still, that makes a total of 24 sports, which is more than enough to satiate one’s desire to do some exercise in front of their TV.

Yes, I know, Pokémon Go exists now, we can actually go play video games outside and exercise. But Pokémon Go will make your feet and legs sore, and besides Pokémon Go sucks. The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series will make your arms very, very sore. This game is extremely demanding to your arms, as very frequently what you’ll be doing is this:

Point and laugh at this overweight idiot pretending
to be doing sports in front of his TV.

That’s three very different sports, but they all need the same thing: That you move your arms up and down very quickly. All sports that require running or swimming for part of it will demand these movements. Long Jump, Triple Jump, Pole Vault, Aquatics 100m and 4X100m Freestyle, all Track Athletics… I think this game is more exhausting than any Just Dance game in that regard. I will probably talk more about this problem later.

Circuit Mode is divided in 16 courses, split over three classes (difficulties): Beginner (5 circuits, 3 sports each), Advanced (5 circuits, 4 sports each) and Master (6 circuits, 5 sports each). You need to be good at every sport if you want to get the gold medal, as you get points based on your ranking after each sport and your total at the end defines your overall ranking for that circuit. It’s similar to Mario Kart in that regard, except with various sports instead of go-kart racing. You can also build your own circuit out of all the sports unlocked thus far, or have one created at random

Sonic is ready to win it, or lose and never live it down
for the rest of his hedgehog life.
Luigi is already setting his death glare into motion.
Another advantage of this game is that all 16 playable characters are available from the beginning, with equal representation from both sides. The Sonic series has Sonic, Shadow, Amy, Tails, Blaze, Knuckles, Vector and Eggman. The Mario series has Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Wario, Waluigi, Bowser and Yoshi. This extends to the cameos, with characters from both series acting as referees, like Cream, Charmy, Espio, Lakitu, Toad… That’s a nice touch. Of course, if you prefer, you can use a Mii…

As for why all 16 characters are available from the get-go, it’s fairly simple; some sports in this game need to put the characters in four teams of four; among others, this applies to the 4X100m Freestyle, which is available as soon as you start playing, or 4X100m Relay, which is unlocked in Circuit Mode. A competition cannot be played with less than the required number of participants, after all! Other events pit eight characters: The one you chose and seven picked at random among the roster. Some others, mostly the ones that are arranged like a mini-tournament (like fencing or table tennis), only star your character and three more.

When you’re about to play a sport, before the competition you may choose to check the instructions again. It’s a nice touch, since very few sports work exactly the same way, and there are definitely some things you don’t pick up on your first try. You’ll also notice that many sports can be played either with the Wii remote and Nunchuk, or with the Wii remote alone; personally, I prefer using the Wiimote-Nunchuk combo.

You’ll also notice that in many sports, mostly the ones about running or swimming, there’s an additional rule; on the starting line, you must hold down B to build up speed before the race. I guess it’s a good idea, it may allow you a better chance at winning… the problem is that, when the “Go!” signal appears, you need to shake down the Wii remote, then start shaking your arms. If you miss the timing, you can be at a disadvantage, so the start of a race is always risky. I can see though why they implemented that, as having a good start is also extremely important in real-life Olympics. Not a big fan of that, but it could be worse.

Stupid Exhaustion Meter. Even if I understand the
idea, it still annoys me.
Similarly, longer racing sports have a second gameplay mechanic in which the character you play starts feeling tired after a few seconds. Let's call it the "Exhaustion Meter". A heart-shaped gauge appears, and it depletes slowly or quickly depending on the speed at which your character is running. If you let it get completely empty, your character will have to stop for a moment to catch their breath, costing you precious seconds. In footraces, you have to slow down on shaking the remotes when your heart is close to being empty, while in aquatic competitions you can press B, which will refill the gauge a bit. I don’t like that gameplay mechanic, but I can kinda understand what they were going for: After all, it’s so unrealistic for animated characters to never get tired, am I right? It’s justified here, we’re talking about the Olympics after all. Still, this thing proves to be more of a bother an actual help, especially because of the short time window you’re given and how easy it is to completely empty the gauge. I also found that I largely prefer the way it’s done in aquatic races than in footraces.

Another issue with the controls in the game is how some sports demand near-perfect precision in when and how to press buttons or move the remotes. I mean, it requires rhythm game reflexes in order to work. An example of when: In High Jump, when your character is jumping over the bar set to at least 2.20 meters, you have to move up the Nunchuk so that the character pulls their legs upwards to avoid hitting the bar. Problem is, as the bar rises, the time window to accomplish this becomes smaller and smaller, and it does so far too quickly. Same goes for the Long Jump and Triple Jump, both competitions in which much of your success lies in jumping at exactly the right moments, jumping a first time without stepping over the line (or else it’s a foul), and then jumping twice again in Triple Jump. Damn do I hate those. Weirdly enough, I have no problem with Pole Vault and consider it one of my favorite sports in the game, because it has next to none of these strict timing issues forced on the gameplay. Same goes for sports where you have to raise the Wii Remote at one point, except you can’t raise it too quickly or else you get a penalty.

Those are actually Knuckles' missions. But once again,
Mario can't help but be a goddamn show-stealer.
Beating the game requires completing the final Circuit, titled Big Bang Circuit, after which you see the end credits. But wait, that’s not all! If you want an additional challenge, pass by Mission Mode. You select a character, then a mission; every character has six missions appointed to them. These range from simply ranking first place at a sport with that character, to beating another particular character in that competition. Other missions include beating a Hurdles race without knocking down any hurdles, to making a perfect jump from the foul line in Long Jump… It’s a total of 96 missions to complete, I hope you’re ready to exhaust yourself even more – and swear quite a bit, too.

If that’s not enough, in Gallery Mode you can play five mini-games; beating a mini-game in that section teaches you some nice bits of trivia about the Olympic Games., whether it’s the games overall, the recent Olympics, the 2008 Beijing Olympics precisely, the Olympics of the Greek antiquity, and info about the athletes. It’s all very interesting, as long as you don’t mind playing mini-games that have nothing to do with the actual sports. Hey, did you know the original Olympics forbade women from participating and all participants were completely naked? We’ve come a long way since Ancient Greece, haven’t we?

Of course Yoshi is the best! He flutters!
He cheats!
And if you’re the completionist type of person, go down to the Records Menu, which will remember everything you’ve done in the game. To truly complete the game, you have to beat all 96 Missions, all min-games in Gallery Mode, and win at every sport and Circuit (get a gold medal) with every character (that means playing every sport 16 times and winning every time… that’s 384!). But that’s still not all; on top of that, you also have to collect all Trophies, all Emblems and all Crowns. As an added challenge, try to beat the World Record in every sport!

The Options menuy has only three options: Change name, change flag, change icon. The icon is selected among the trophies you’ve won while playing through Circuit Mode.

Alright, that’s all there is to this game… Do I like it? Heck yes. It’s a challenging game that offers good workout for one’s arms, seeing how often you have to shake them quickly. At the base, it’s a very good idea that offers more spotlight on the Nintendo characters for the Sega fans, and more spotlight on the Sega characters for the Nintendo fans. Show of hands, who among you Mario fans knew about Vector? Who among you Sonic fans knew about Daisy? Giving both franchises an equal chance to shine is exactly how it should have been done, and that’s what they did. That was the right way to go!

Offering a wide range of sports allowed for a multitude of gameplays, some very similar, some very different. Some sports start with the same basic controls, then switch it up. Some sports require pressing a lot of buttons, while others can be won without ever pressing a button. A lot of creativity there.

Granted, as I explained higher, there are some gameplay mechanics that bug me here or there. Many sports with an “exhaustion” meter, as I would like to call it, tend to be annoying. The opponents’ AI can also be quite infuriating as you cannot set a difficulty for them anywhere. That would have been a nice touch as, in some sports, the AI characters are really good, often too good for a human player, even with practice. This may become a problem in the later Circuits, where your overall performance depends on your ranking in every sport of the Circuit. Eighth place in Triple Jump? Tough luck! Power through, or start over! Thankfully, most sports are enjoyable and don’t have these issues, so you can enjoy them without any problem.

It offers a nice selection of characters (though a few more could have also been nice), and contains great bonus material. Enough medals, trophies and crowns are there to be earned for the people who love to put their all into completing a game. If it weren’t for the gameplay issues, I would absolutely love this game. That’s one reason I don’t play it as often as I could, the other reason being that it hurts my arms more than any Just Dance game ever has.

In the end, it’s just the first one in the series. Another Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games would be released for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, one for the 2012 London Olympics and another one for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The game for the 2016 Rio Olympics came out in June this year. I read on the Mario Wiki that Birdo, Donkey Kong, Rouge and Silver were planned for this first installment but were removed. The following installments would add many more characters from both sides, with all of them available for the Rio games, either on the Wii U version or the Nintendo 3DS version. The editions after this one contained many other sports, such as boxing, BMX, Equestrian, football, volleyball, discus throw, uneven bars, rhythmic ribbon, synchronized swimming, and of course many more Dream Sports. So if you don’t want to check out the first Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, I understand; as the first in the series, it has flaws. It’s really good, but flawed. I do suggest that you check out the next games in the franchise, they’re worth it! Do check this one too, if the franchise ends up interesting you enough.

Well, that’s all I had to say for this one. Next Monday, I’ll post a list that describes the 12 sports I don’t like in this game… and then, a second list that describes the 12 sports I really like! Don’t miss that!