Mario. Sonic. Olympics. Motion Control. Minigames. Fall of 2007 and the Nintendo Wii were the perfect time and perfect place for Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Six years and two more Olympic mash-ups later and one might expect the gas in this supersonic tank might be empty. Thankfully Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games has the added benefit of being born to a different platform – one with a promise of stepping beyond tired motion gimmicks. If Nintendoland lit the torch for Wii U’s GamePad in a multiplayer environment, Sochi 2014 seemed primed to carry it further along the way. Unfortunately it seems Sega never considered the GamePad as anything more than an accessory, leaving Sochi 2014 running in familiar circles.
Sixteen different Olympic events comprise the breadth of Sochi 2014. Downhill sports involving skis and snowboards, ice sports like speed skating, hockey, and bobsleigh, and even delightful oddballs like curling and the biathlon make an appearance in Sochi 2014. Sports can be enjoyed (and properly learned) in a one-off events or arranged into contextually appropriate collections in Medley Mania. Sochi 2014’s campaign mode, dubbed Legends Showdown, runs each character against shadow versions on themselves with uncomfortable cut scenes and (probably) intentionally weird boss battles. Who I thought was Bean the Dynamite was actually Jet the Hawk, which says all you need to know about how far down the rabbit hole Sochi 2014 use of franchise lore goes.
Sochi 2014’s exhibits a manic insistence on a revolving door of hardware. Alpine Skiing Downhill, the first event I tried, required a Wii remote with Wii Motion Plus, and (optionally!) the analog thumb stick plug-in. I held the Wiimote and analog attachment like ski poles and almost had a neat time pretending they were really ski poles. A bit later I got into the Snowboard Parallel Giant Slalom event, which was almost the exact same thing except I had to use the GamePad. The motions were the same, the rules were almost the same, and the general goal was the same. Only, for whatever reason, Sochi 2014 insists player one should use the GamePad when it comes to snowboarding. There’s no reason for its inconsistency.
Here the thing; other players in the same event due to both potential expense and general logic use the Wii Remote (with motion plus) for the exact same event. With the exception of Four Man Bobsleigh which offers a different perspective and responsibilities for the leader, there’s rarely a great reason to use the GamePad in Sochi 2014’s suite of Olympic events. There are certainly options for it in events like Hockey (pause time and swipe a direct hit to the goal) or Curling (map your strategy ahead of time), but it’s rendered wholly inessential by the presented context. Gone is the integration desired by those who dared to dream for a new experience and in its place are thoughtless swiping and tired motion controls.
I’ve never understood why a game would opt for motion control over proper directional or analog control in situations that would obviously be better with traditional control. Figuring skating, with its wide variety of motion based actions, and curling, which is practically ice bowling, make sense – but in events like downhill skiing or snowboarding slaloms we’re still forced into ineffective waggling over direct control. It’s added because it’s there, because it’s on a Nintendo platform, and due to the legacy created by its predecessors. There’s no reason for it to exist other than it’s probably difficult to add any sort of panache to routinely boring Olympic events. If it weren’t for motion control they’d only be marginally interactive.
Motion control is Sochi 2014’s game plan and it takes its time to make sure the player knows it front to back. Each Olympic event is preceded by a laboring tutorial that goes out of its way to educate the player toward every last detail of a particular event. Communicating an abstract idea is tricky, especially when it’s related to motion control and Sochi 2014’s odd spins on traditional events, but it’s poison for a party atmosphere. Children won’t have the patience for this, and when I tried to play with my wife the wind went out of her sails every time we had to spend five minutes prepping an event that we didn’t want to play a second time.
What’s more disappointing is how much time the tutorials waste on events that lack any semblance of depth. At first, freestyle ski cross seems like it might have some legs due to its live competition, merging of jumps with turbo boosts, and even slipstreaming behind opponents. But then you discover, with the exception of Hockey, each event is restricted to one course or area. There’s often nothing to it, and when Sochi 2014 cranks out a creative spark, there’s nowhere for it to catch fire.
Thankfully Sochi 2014 is self aware enough to practice its talents outside the realm of traditional Olympic sports. Dubbed Dream Events, these special events incorporate ideas from traditional sports and applies a thick layer of Sonic and/or Mario lore on top. Mario and Sonic, for example, each have special figure skating courses plopping them through Super Mario 3D World assets or a Sonic Colors (?) inspired rink, respectively. Hole in one Curling turns curling into mini-golf, and Snow Day Street Hockey mixes hockey up with disappearing coin blocks and different arenas in Mario Sunshine’s Delfino Plaza.
The Dream Events feel like the development team clawing their way to creativity. It’s like the normal Olympic Games were a passive obligation, and the Dream Events were what they worked on during lunch or weekends. From seeing Metal Sonic and Daisy in a figure skating duet to using Bullet Bills in a chariot race to a bizarre snowball 3rd person shooter, to bobsledding down Sonic Adventure’s Speed Highway, my eyes and ears were filled with joy. With tons of classic remixed music tracks as unlockables and references abound, nostalgia is never in short supply in Sochi 2014.
For the first time in the series, legitimate online play is a viable option. Unfortunately it’s restricted to just four events; Snowboard Cross, Short Track Speed Skating, Freestyle Ski Cross, and the Dream Event’s Winter Sports Champion Race. The latter is probably Sochi 2014’s most dynamic event, allowing each player to select between skis, bobsleigh, snowboard, and ice skates all on the same course. There’s only one course (of course), but it gave me joyous flashbacks to ESPN Extreme Games, itself varied vehicle version of Road Rash. It’s a bummer hockey or the biathlon couldn’t make it into online play, but at least with Winter Sports Champion Race Sochi 2014 got the best one across the finish line.
While there’s not much to actively do with the Wii U’s GamePad, Sochi 2014 does have a few neat ideas for its sideshow. Perform well enough in an event and you’ll be interviewed by (with Espio as a camera-chameleon) regarding your performance, subtly influencing your potential impact on the Miiverse. The GamePad also functions as a live sports desk with Toad and Omachao, though I was typically too wrapped up in actually playing the game to pay attention to their silly antics.
Unfortunately it’s playing that matters. Even in the case of the Dream Events, playing was never as fun after all the references had passed. They’re just as fleeting as their Olympic counterparts, lacking any sort of depth beyond their introduction. For kids in might not matter, and for a party hockey, at least, is probably good for an hour of fun, but Sochi 2014 doesn’t feel like I game I’ll keep returning to. Walking the line between a faithful obligation a creative indulgence makes for a predictable and boring experience.