Monday, November 26, 2007

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Impressions (Wii)

I've been playing Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games with Eli 6.3 every day for several weeks. Our experience departs pretty significantly from the reviews I've seen of the game, so I wanted to explain how and why.

Initially, I was very disappointed. There are different controls for every event, there are many screens of instructions (though there's usually only a sentence or two on each screen), many of the events were locked, there were too many loading screens and too much loading time, and it seemed like there were way too many awards ceremonies that I was clicking through.

After an hour, I had zero desire to play the game any more.

Eli, though, asked to play again. So we did. And we played the day after that.

After four or five days, when we started to get used to how the game worked and what we could do, a funny thing happened. We really started having fun.

I don't mean "fun" in lowercase letters, really. I mean shaking the controller like mad, arms aching, laughing our asses off FUN.

I've only had that kind of feeling one time before, and that was with one of my favorite arcade games of all-time: Track & Field.

Track & Field was released in the U.S. in the early 1980s, and I spent many, MANY hours playing with a good friend of mine. In case you don't remember, the control layout consisted of two buttons that you pounded madly (to build speed) and a third button for jumping.

This game was famous for two reasons: one, it was totally, hopelessly addictive, and two, the pencil trick. The speed buttons were close enough together that you could rest your index or middle finger between them, rest a pencil on the finger, and tap one end of the pencil (like a seesaw) to hit both speed buttons.

I think that could be called the "technician" approach.

My hands would get fried playing this game, even using the pencil. The game was well-balanced and always challenging and it was one of the most fun arcade games ever.

There were six events: 100 meter dash, long jump, javelin throw, 110 meter hurdles, hammer throw, and high jump. They were all excellent, and the sequel--Hyper Sports--had seven more events, including the 100 meter freestyle swim, skeet shooting, gymnastics vault, archery, triple jump, weight lifting, and pole vault.

I still have incredibly vivid, fond memories of both games, and to have those feelings evoked again with Mario & Sonic is just great. Seeing Eli 6.3 frantically waving his arms and shaking his skinny little booty is absolutely hilarious.

All this game is missing, at least compared to Track & Field and Hyper Sports, are easter eggs. Both games had some outstanding easter eggs. In the javelin throw, for example, if you threw the javelin high enough, you would see a bird plummeting to the ground. In the high jump, if you took off at just the right moment, a photographer would take a picture. Both of these were worth bonus points, and that's really all that Mario & Sonic is missing.

If you're wondering how many of the thirteen events from Track & Field and Hyper Sports are in Mario & Sonic, the answer is twelve. The only event missing is weight lifting.

Many of the events consist of building speed, then throwing or jumping. All of them are fun, but there are a few other events that have a very cool and nuanced set of controls. The 4x100 relay, for example, is terrifically fun, particularly if two players are playing on the same team. When the runners are in the ready position, player one holds down the B button to build up the power of his start, then when the gun sounds, he releases the B button and moves the Wiimote down to start. To build speed, the Wiimote and Nunchuck are moved up and down as fast as possible. After about 70 meters, the speed is locked, and as the leadoff runner approaches the baton relay zone, the second player presses B to start his runner. The baton pass is executed by moving the Wiimote up. That same pattern gets repeated until the end of the race. It requires plenty of coordination and timing, but it still intuitively makes sense.

There are twenty-four events, and the only event where I really dislike the control is table tennis--it's just not responsive enough for my tastes. Almost everything else, though, is very, very good.

You can play single events, a pre-defined "circuit" of four or five events, or a "free" circuit that consists of events that you choose (either four or eight). You'll be competing against other characters from the Mario and Sonic universe, and it's all surprisingly well-animated and very faithful to the actual events.

This game will also wear your ass out. It's a very physical game, which has made it much more fun for both of us. I can't imagine playing this game with a regular controller--it would be missing a huge amount of its appeal.

So why did almost everyone who reviewed this game give it such poor scores? Well, based on some of the comments I saw in the reviews, many of the reviewers just didn't play it for very long. I know I'm beating the drum again here, but a mandatory element of every review should be how much time the reviewer spent playing the game. There's no question that this game seems kind of bland for the first couple of hours. It seems shallow as well. The more you play, though, the deeper it gets, and as more events get unlocked, it gets to be more and more fun.

Is it more fun when someone plays with you? Yes, just like Track & Field. This kind of game is tailor-made for playing with a friend or a family member. I've played it by myself, and it's still fun, but getting to see someone else going as crazy with the controller as you are is a blast.

If you have kids, or friends who game, it's a must-buy. And if it seems superficial at first, just hang in there for an hour or two. It's much, much better than that.

I've noticed one bug that you should watch out for if you're playing one of the circuits. If more than one of you is playing, the high jump event doesn't allow you to set your jumping height (it's predetermined), and if one of you can't jump a height, it automatically knocks out the other player as well.

The high jump is also one of the few events that doesn't conform to the standard event rules. In real-world high jump contests (if I remember correctly), contestants who have jumped the same height are ordered based on number of misses. That's not what's done in Mario & Sonic. Also, if a jumper misses a height, he has the option to pass on that height and move the bar up--he can't miss three consecutive jumps, but those jumps can be at more than one height. Again, in Mario & Sonic, you can't do this--you're locked into the same height after one failed jump until you either pass the height or miss three times in a row.

One more note: if you're wondering how to unlock more events, the way to do it is to win a medal on the different "circuits." You unlock additional circuits by medaling, and many of the new circuits will include new events.

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