Publisher: Sega / Developer: Sega Sports / Price: $49.99 / Played on: Wii / ESRB: Everyone [Cartoon Violence]
Games like Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games are a particular kind of insidious presence in the video game market. It has all the outward appearances of a product that could appeal to a wide variety of gamers. Mario and his stable of characters have a solid track record in terms of their games’ quality, while Sonic and his friends have their own unique, devoted following. On top of that, the Olympic Games are a reliable source of competition and pride for the whole world. All three of these brands mean something to their fans, and that’s why it’s so irritating that they’ve been combined into this cheap, shallow package, clearly designed to part foolish consumers with their dollars and offer nothing of value in return.
Like all games of this ilk, you choose from a cast of 20 characters culled from Mario and Sonic’s franchises, as whom you play in different Olympic events. There are 12 event categories, such as Athletics, Gymnastics, Beach Volleyball, Fencing, and more, while certain categories have different subdivisions, like Track and Field’s combined seven events under the Athletics category, and so on. There are a total of 21 traditional events, and the game also features wacky “Dream Events,” such as Dream Long Jump, and Dream Hurdles, and Dream Spacewalk—basically arcade-style twists on the regular events. There’s also “London Party” mode, which has you competing in a Mario Party-style tournament, with random events connected by shallow mini-games, like tag and coin collecting. Wins are rewarded with stickers, and the person who collects the most stickers is crowned the victor. In any of the three modes, you can tackle events solo or with friends—though if you’ve convinced any of your friends to play this with you, get ready to apologize.
After selecting an event, the game offers you directions for how it controls. And because no two events are quite the same, each game has to be explained in detail—a task at which the game fails miserably. A sample of the directions from the discus event:
“1. When ring’s gone, swing left to swing. 2. Tilt to set angle. 3. When ring’s gone, swing left to throw.”
Another example, this time from synchronized swimming:
“Swing the Wii Remote when the Wii Remote mark reaches the arrow!”
I’m not sure if you noticed, but neither of those make any sense.
While the directions are accompanied by pictures that are supposed to be illustrating what you’re about to do, they’re about as clear as mud. Making use of these directions is like trying to pass a Chinese driving exam after having only been off the plane for 20 minutes: you don’t really know the language too well, but you’re expected to perform.
That’s one of the game’s biggest hurdles (boing): a poor use of visual, verbal, and physical vocabulary. When playing any kind of game, it’s important that everyone participating have the same understanding of the rules and basic moves—here, the game knows everything, but has no idea how to communicate that knowledge to you. I could be forgiving because of the game’s monumental task of inventing new control schemes to simulate each event, but WarioWare: Smooth Moves had the exact same kind of task, and pulled it off exceptionally well. Smooth Moves taught players its control-sets gradually, introducing each one with a memorable name and a clear explanation. With such a great example to follow (from a game that does it right five whole years prior!), it’s even more maddening to see how spectacularly Mario & Sonic fails in this regard.
Even worse, before and after each event there are interminable introduction and results screens that take their time coming on-screen, meaning that if you want to actually play the game, you’ll have to skip through little cinematics and intros of the competitors, animations for the judges to come out and inspect the event’s results, and pointless medal ceremonies…all the while, you’ll be hitting A like crazy to skip ahead.
And worst of all? None of the events are even any fun, and there’s little in the way of incentive to play them. There’s no structure to the game driving you forward, no game-board or event schedule, or actual nations competing for glory… just a menu with events you can select. London Party mode tries to impose a structure, but events seem to be randomly scheduled and accessed, interspersed with portions of “free time,” where you wander around a scaled-down, cartoonified version of London. This could be cool if you could interact with the city at all, but you can’t. You pass a landmark, the name of the landmark comes on-screen, and you move on. You might as well stick to cherry picking the events you want to play, so you can stop as soon as you recognize that you’d rather be vacuuming, or clipping your toenails, or staring off into space, slowly dying.
You play events by using the Wiimote (sometimes with, sometimes without the nunchuck attachment) to sort-of mimic the motions that an Olympic athlete would make, so games like table tennis and fencing are pretty straight-forward. But problems arise pretty quickly when you try to, you know, actually win any of the events. That’s because the controls themselves are, for the most part, clunky and counter-intuitive.
Some events, like javelin, require that you shake the remote to run, then hit B to set an angle for your throw… then start shaking again to run? Usually you’ll have to mess up a bunch of times before you start to get the hang of what the game wants out of you, but it doesn’t much matter: it rarely feels like you have any control over anything in this game. Each event’s control scheme feels disconnected from the action on-screen, and you’ll only succeed under the game’s arbitrary and un-communicated conditions. Even the aforementioned table tennis comes saddled with a weird power-hit that’s triggered when the ball is high in the air and you hit B, causing you to jump up and slam it down. But even triggering the move takes a moment or so to actually happen, making you feel out of control and disinterested.
There aren’t too many surprises here. London isn’t rendered realistically whatsoever, but the game doesn’t go all out with its video game licenses, either. The result is a bland, boring landscape of blocky, nondescript exhibition halls and athletic centers, or generic “cartoon” styled outdoor locations. It all begs the question: why does this game take place in “London” at all? Wouldn’t it be better to have actual levels from the mascots’ respective games serve as the settings for the game’s events?
Turns out the answer to that is also “no,” since the Dream Events do just that and still manage to bore. Dream Spacewalk, for instance, apes the levels of Super Mario Galaxy’s space-flying levels, only recycles the most basic of elements. Is there outer space? Check. Planets and stuff? Yup. Some dino-plant thing? Okay. There’s nothing interesting about the levels, and they have little to do with the gameplay. The main thing that popped into my head while I played was “lazy.” Oh, and also, “kill me.”
The game’s music is full of crappy rock guitars, endemic to the Sonic franchise’s “extreme” aesthetic. The tunes are all pretty annoying and repetitive. In fact, until I visited the Extras screen and was presented with all the different tracks, I was convinced that just about every level had the same song. Nope, turns out they all have just one thing in common: they suck.
The characters, too, only have a few voice samples on offer. The voice actors were probably hired to work for about 45 minutes and then sent home with their checks. There’s so little about this game that points to any actual time or effort being spent to make something memorable or enjoyable, so I can only imagine that the sound had a similar lack of attention.
I can see the grandparents wandering through the video game aisle in Target now, shopping for little Billy. “Oh,” says Grandma as she spots this game. “Billy said he likes Sonic, didn’t he? And I know that one—that’s Mario! This one has both of them!” And thus, Billy’s Christmas is ruined.
Bad games happen all the time, and so do brand-extending cash-grabs. But when a game is this blatant in how it wants to take consumers’ money—by mashing up long-standing franchises with mostly solid reputations—it’s cause for disgust. The real victims are the every day, “casual” buyers who don’t know a hedgehog from a Hammer Brother, who don’t know enough about video games to steer clear of this pile when shopping for their kids or grandkids. If you see an older lady holding this in the checkout line, do her a favor: slap it out of her hands, kick it across the floor, and say, “That’s for little Billy.” She won’t know how much thanks she owes you.