Major video game characters don’t cross over nearly often enough for my tastes. There’s something exciting about two or more major characters from different game universes appearing together, showcasing their unique abilities and gameplay styles, along with their rogues gallery of enemies and other distinct elements from their game worlds. Sadly, there are few examples where this is done well; the Marvel Vs. Capcom games, Battletoads & Double Dragon, and the Smash Bros. series come to mind. More often, we get efforts like Sega Superstars Tennis, RoboCop Versus the Terminator, and that awful Spyro/Crash Bandicoot crossover for the Game Boy Advance. Two years ago, two of the biggest names in the gaming world brought their crossover onto the Olympic stage when Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog teamed up to bring us Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Naturally, the game was a huge financial success, and practically demanded a sequel. Sony has brought us that sequel, this time with a significantly chillier setting and a whole new array of Olympic events, in the form of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games.
The premise of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games is pretty straightforward; compete against friends or the computer in a series of realistically portrayed Olympic events with decidedly less-than realistic characters from the Sonic and Mario universes. Since this is the Winter Olympics, all the events are new to the series. Bobsledding, skiing, snowboarding, speed skating, figure skating, and ice hockey are all represented here, and are controlled with either the Wiimote, the Wiimote plus nunchuk, or, in some cases, the Wii Balance Board. Controls are almost entirely motion-based, making the game extremely accessible from the get-go. For some reason, the Wii Motion Plus attachment is not supported by the game. Given the game’s loose controls and child-friendly tone, this is excusable, but seems like an example of laziness on the part of Sega.
Despite the fact that there are a total of 27 different events in the game, there are really only a few different play mechanics at work here. Every ski and snowboard race involves holding the Wiimote and optional nunchuk like ski poles, tilting left and right to steer, and titling forward to build speed. Bobsleigh events work pretty much the same way. Speed skating is a waggle-fest where players are required to constantly shake the controller back and forth in rhythm. Figure skating tasks players with matching a predetermined series of controller motions. Curling, strangely enough, is probably the most strategic and enjoyable event, and works pretty much exactly how you’d imagine it would. Finally, Ice Hockey is an overly simplistic game of 3-on-3 hockey played over two very brief periods. While all the games are entirely functional, and some can even offer some multiplayer fun, repetitiveness is an issue throughout, and almost all of the games have been done better on the Wii in other games.
In addition to the real Olympic events, Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games features several Dream Events. These take the standard event mechanics and apply them to Mario Kart-style races through Mario and Sonic-themed levels. While the concept is sound, these Dream Events are pretty much the same as the regular games, meaning they don’t offer much variety, and they suffer from the same inconsistent controls as the other skiing and snowboarding events. Three mini-game challenges can be found as well. These seriously undercooked modes pit up to four players against each other in mini-games separated by randomly chosen Olympic events. None of the three games are in any way interesting, and add next to nothing to the experience.
With 20 characters drawn from the Sonic and Mario universes, there’s a good amount of fan-service to geek out at. Just as in the first game, however, seeing these cartoony icons in realistically rendered Olympic venues is jarring, and makes the whole affair feel awkward and ill-fitting, though the Dream Events help to mitigate this effect. New to the series is the ability to use your Mii as a playable character, and it works just fine. You can even unlock new apparel and logos for your Mii, adding an element of customization to the game.
Graphically, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games is as middle-of-the-road as a Wii game gets. Character models look exactly like they did in the last game, which is average, and despite the new venue, the environments feel very much like we’ve seen them all before. During events and brief pre-and post-event cut scenes, character animations are fittingly exaggerated, and help give personality to the various denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom and Green Hill Zone. A game like this doesn’t rely on stunning visuals, so its mediocre presentation is completely appropriate and satisfactory.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games isn’t going to surprise anyone with its gameplay, graphics, controls, or concept, but it’s a perfectly serviceable party game for the Wii. The few new elements the game introduces are underdeveloped and feel a bit tacked-on, but may end up improving the series in later iterations, and the core game mechanics, while a bit unresponsive, provide a decent amount of casual fun for families and younger gamers. Hardcore gamers need not apply, but for those with a taste for simple gameplay aimed at overstimulated kids and parents with fond memories of the 8-and 16-bit days, you could do much worse.