Every four years, the world gets a Summer Olympics. This means that every four years, we get a spate of games capitalizing on the Summer Olympics. Toward the end of last year, Sega decided to get a jump on the 2008 Olympics by releasing the first of the games based on those Olympic Games…in late 2007.
Why so early?
There are likely many reasons that Sega saw fit to unleash Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games way back in November ’07, almost a year before the actual event. Perhaps most obvious of these reasons is the unholy union of Mario and Sonic. Modern gamers in their 20s have vivid memories of a gaming scene in which Mario and Sonic were seen as bitter rivals, two sides of a contentious Nintendo/Sega divide. The Super Nintendo vs. Genesis debate divides gamers of a certain age to this day, and for that population, seeing Sonic and Mario alongside each other in the same game is a synapse fryer along the lines of seeing Mickey Mouse guest star as a cadaver on CSI. Something about it just…ain’t…right.
Of course, as we all know at this point, the big news was that Sonic ended up in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Chances are, that was the original plan. Still, for Sonic to appear in a Nintendo game, it only made sense that Mario should appear in a Sega game…thus, the Sega-released Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games gets to claim first dibs on the union, knowing full well how much bigger a deal that same union would be come the release of Brawl. The incredibly early release of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games has far less to do with the timing of the Olympics themselves than it has to do with the timing of Brawl‘s release — Sega’s title had a full couple of months in the sun as the only union of the two once-sparring publishers before Sonic was officially unveiled as a playable character in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a distinction it doubtless benefitted greatly from.
The other reason for the early release could simply be the looming presence of the actual Olympic Games. As the trek of the torch so recently put on display, there is a very present and growing cloud around these Olympics, and this year’s iteration of the event has the potential to be the most politicized Olympic Games in some time. The Olympics, for the first time in many of our lifetimes, is becoming less about the athletes than it is the ideologies; Russia has been displaced by China as the arch-enemy of choice in these Olympic games, and it just so happens that China is hosting the whole shebang. By releasing Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games almost a full year before the Games actually happen, it can be made less about the country vs. country dynamic that the Olympics so often inspire, and simply be about a bunch of athletes — or, in this case, mascots — giving it their all against one another in a number of given events. It’s “may the best man/hedgehog/robot/echidna/radiation-enhanced-fox win”, rather than “may the best nation win”.
It’s telling, when examining this possibility, that China isn’t even an option when you get to choose your nationality in the game. Sega obviously wanted all of the cachet of the Olympics as an athletic event, with as little of the troublesome political and ideological issues that go with it as possible.
So…is it any good? Well, whether you think it’s any good depends largely on how you feel about Wii minigames, particularly Raving Rabbid-type games that make you look and feel utterly ridiculous as they are taking place. Some of the games are about speed and stamina: pump your arms as fast as you can to run, clap your arms together to do the breaststroke, spin the Wiimote as fast as you can to build strength for the hammer throw. Some of the games are about finger dexterity: trampolining requires combinations of button-pushes and Wiimote twirls on each jump to perform tricks. Some of them are even old-school style contests of skill and anticipation, like the twitchy fencing game. None of them take all that long to complete, and almost every single one of them is a blast to play with three other people around, whether those people be college roomates, dinner party guests, or grade schoolers. This isn’t long-term gratification, it’s quick doses of speed that are reliably good for a few laughs before being put away until the next party.
Still, for those who can’t help but be addicted to unlockable content (this is where I sheepishly raise my own hand), there’s a ton of it to be found in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. You unlock trophies, events, and tasks. There are missions for each character, the completion of which unlocks both more missions and emblems (little achievement badges) for the characters with which those missions were completed. Completing event circuits unlocks more event circuits, which unlock more events, which occasionally unlock “Dream” events. It is these Dream events, really, that are the grand prize to be won, as the Dream events enhance the Olympic experience into realms of competition that can only be compared to the Mario Kart games. Races are suddenly enhanced by power-ups on the tracks, one-on-one games are given new rules, and the games suddenly feel like the fantastical sorts of experiences that you would almost expect that they should be when the Sonic and Mario universes collide. If Sega could put an entire game together based around these Dream events, rather than some loose conception of reality, they might truly be on to something.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games will never be hailed as a truly great game, nor should it — its scope is limited, and its execution a little bit uneven. Still, it’s one of those games that really, for the most part, accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. Mario and Sonic coexist, Mario even outruns Sonic occasionally, and the world doesn’t end for it. While it may not be quite as satisfying to the typical gamer as taking your mascot of choice from those early-to-mid ’90s console wars and beating the hell out of your adversary à la Smash Brothers, it is actually more suited to the Wii than Smash Brothers (you can even use your Mii in these events) and more likely to entice little Timmy and Grandma Rose to play some videogames together. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games will be seen by history as simply yet another of the Wii’s myriad minigame compilations; as those go, however, it truly is one of the best.