When Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games first stormed onto the Wii in 2007, it was the kind of radical mash-up that nobody knew they wanted. Not only were two of gaming’s most iconic rivals together in the same game at last, but they also blended the sensibilities of sports games and party games alike, whilst set amidst the majestic backdrop of the Olympic Games. It was mad genius, as only Nintendo and Sega’s combined manpower could possibly muster up!
Now, after various releases on the Wii, DS and 3DS, the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series is back for a fourth go-around, making its debut on the Wii U with Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. With publishing duties this time shifting to Nintendo over Sega (though Sega remains the developer), it’s unsurprising that the Big N is wanting to seize the opportunity to really evolve the series on its new console. Between the introduction of an online suite, cutting-edge HD graphics and the introduction of Wii MotionPlus controls throughout the various events, Sochi 2014 is easily the most ambitious series entry to date!
Unfortunately, it’s also the worst to date. Despite its noble ambitions and grand ideas, Sochi 2014 falls on its face right out of the starting gate, and never quite manages to right itself. In trying to be so cutting-edge and impressive, the game forgot to bring accessibility into the equation, and even worse, it forgot to bring fun into the equation.
The result is a clunky, frustrating first effort for the series on Wii U, one that firmly lacks the appeal of its friendlier, more enjoyable Wii predecessors, and will make you wonder if this once novel idea has now overstayed its welcome at this point. The final months of 2013 have brought some truly superb games to Wii U, but this is the one Wii U exclusive of the Fall that you’ll be better off bypassing this year.
For all of its flaws, you can’t deny the fact that Sochi 2014 at least looks great. The visuals benefit very much from their 1080p HD makeover, making the Wii visuals of the prior three games look positively geriatric in comparison!
You’ll see stray pixels and some muddy definition if you really scrutinize the characters up close, but in motion, Sochi 2014 is far and away the best-looking Mario spin-off and Sonic the Hedgehog spin-off to date! The environments of the various Olympic events possess an astonishing amount of detail, from the waves of snow that the characters routinely kick up, to the surprising glossiness of the ice that they sometimes ride upon with their skis and bobsleds. The actual Sochi 2014 location actually looks the part, even with most of the setting still rooted in cartoon sensibilities.
Even then however, the character models are superb, managing to give the likes of Super Mario 3D World and Sonic: Lost World’s Wii U build a run for their money! The animation on both the Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog personalities is very well-done to boot, making figure skating routines and hockey matches a true joy to watch.
Despite juggling so many snow effects and character animations, Sochi 2014 never slows down or stutters either. Even when playing online, the events remain wholly stable and completely smooth, really showing off what the Wii U can do as a powerful new Nintendo machine. It’s games like this that continue to prove that the Wii and Wii U’s lack of powerful specs compared to the competing PlayStation and Xbox consoles is really a non-issue when the right visual artists and programmers are on the job!
It’s really too bad that the visuals are the one thing that Sochi 2014 got right across the board, because the pretty graphics can only do so much to distract you from the gameplay’s constant flaws.
Triumphant Olympic-themed tunes predictably blare throughout most of the menus and prep screens, which are serviceable and get the job done. Occasionally, you’ll get to listen to some familiar tunes from the Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog franchises, and many can even be unlocked for scoring high rankings in the main single-player campaign. Skating for high scores certainly becomes more enjoyable when you can do it to the remixed tune of Flying Battery Zone from Sonic & Knuckles!
Sound effects are typical of Mario spin-offs in particular, with the usual cartoony effects playing when you knock opponents around and the like. The sound of skates grinding on ice and skis skimming along the snow is surprisingly realistic and well-rendered, and certain events will even play sounds out of the microphones of the Wii Remote Plus and Wii U Gamepad, most notably Skeleton, which ups the immersion considerably!
The familiar Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog voice actors reprise their respective parts, normally to exclaim the same old one-note lines that they’ve declared in any given Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games offering. Like the music, the voice clips settle for perfunctory and that’s fair enough.
The audio quality won’t wow you by any means, but it is cool that the events try for some surprising sound credibility as you ski, skate and snowboard your way through the competition!
For all of the efforts undertaken by the audio and visuals however, almost everything is undone by the mostly dull and horrendously tedious gameplay. All of the fun charm and accessibility from the prior Wii entries has been removed here, making for a game that despite all of its production polish, largely feels phoned in and unrefined in terms of the actual mechanics.
The game is divided into sixteen Olympic events, many of which return from the previous Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games on Wii. There are also eight new ‘Dream Events’, such as a sled race on Bullet Bills, or a mini golf-style curling course, but they aren’t that interesting, barely expanding on the mechanics of the actual Olympic events in any interesting way.
New Olympic events are naturally included for Sochi 2014, such as Pairs’ Figure Skating and Slope Snowboarding, but many just feel like variations of events that already existed during Mario and Sonic’s last Winter Olympic sojourn. In fact, Pairs’ Figure Skating actually goes as far as to demand that two partners of opposing sexes hold onto a Wii Remote together, which can be goofy fun if you have a spouse or partner nearby, and you’ve been drinking. If you’re a carefree bachelor or bachelorette however, the game will actually shame you by forcing you to pretend you’re holding your significant other that doesn’t exist, twirling and dancing around with nobody. Yes, this game single-shames you. You heard it here first!
Anyway, while many of the events aren’t difficult to figure out, they’re ruined by the often poor implementation of Wii MotionPlus. Some events give you the option of playing with the Wii U Gamepad or a Wii Remote Plus (Biathlon even combines the two in a reasonably clever way), but some events force you to play with a Wii Remote Plus, which is why it’s a good thing that Sochi 2014 offers a bundle that packs a blue Wii Remote Plus in with the game itself. The Wii U Gamepad-enabled events are mostly passable and can be clever in concept, especially when they offer the increased precision of buttons, sticks and a touch screen, but many of the Wii Remote Plus-mandatory events range from finicky to downright broken.
Sure, the prior Wii iterations in this series were very ‘waggle’-heavy, but at least they were accessible! In trying to add more precision and depth to the controls with Wii MotionPlus, the developers just end up making the events needlessly complicated and needlessly frustrating. Sochi 2014 often demands that you make movements that are both fast and precise, and the Wii Remote Plus just isn’t equipped to read such fast, furious movements that also must be perfectly-executed in terms of accuracy. It’s just asking too much of the technology.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that the A.I. is completely unbothered by the unreliable and too-heavy dependence on sloppy motion controls in most of the events. Even on the Easy setting, you’ll get routinely demolished by many A.I. opponents in some events, especially during some of the ‘boss’ encounters in the main single-player campaign, who seem to be playing in some parallel universe where they’re allowed to use a Wii U Pro Controller. This will make Sochi 2014 very frustrating for both kids and impatient adults, which is the complete wrong direction for this series to be going in!
The handful of play modes are mostly uninteresting and dull too, particularly when so many simply have you hopelessly try and thrust a Wii Remote Plus around trying to get the game to recognize what you want it to do. The main single-player campaign, Legends Showdown has you competing against shadow versions of the various characters in the game’s events, and is mostly a slog. Likewise, a Medley mode simply has you playing a selection of events either by yourself or with friends, for no real reward. You can also compete in one-off events for medals to earn for your home country.
The medals in all fairness are actually a solid idea. How they work is, players from countries around the world can collect medals by performing well in events, which are then shown in a global online leaderboard as sort of a faux-Olympic competition. In a better game, this would have been an amazing feature, as it’s a very clever way to immerse players in the Olympics experience, even when the Olympics aren’t actually happening at that point.
Action & Answer Tour is another reasonably-inspired mode for up to four people, having players play the events while also having to pay attention to mental challenges like patterns, trivia and other such surprises that will pop up while competing. It’s the one mode in the game that players may be likely to keep coming back to for local play sessions every now and again, assuming they have a very high tolerance for the lousy motion controls and the frustration they bring to gameplay!
Another frustration comes in the online play, which, as mentioned, at least does run very smoothly, allowing for easy competition between Nintendo Network friends and random players alike. Unfortunately however, only four events are playable online (Ski Cross, Snowboard Cross, Short Track Speed Skating and Winter Sports Champion Race, a blend of skiing, skating and bobsledding), which completely excludes the better events like Hockey and Curling. Why?! It just makes the online multiplayer suite feel like an afterthought, especially when you have to keep manually setting up every match again upon completing an event. The game couldn’t even be bothered with a proper lobby system?
Even with a huge heap of fan service to unlock, from Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog-themed gear for your Mii, to remixed music tracks from both franchises, to even an in-game achievement system that motivates you to master each event for almost 300 unique accomplishments, most players won’t be motivated to seek out these rewards. The game surrounding them just isn’t fun and isn’t friendly, and that’s when you’re not noticing cut corners in the design so that Sega could make a release date!
The fact that Nintendo and Sega didn’t even bother with a 3DS edition of Sochi 2014 in this case is telling. They couldn’t even make the Wii U gameplay enjoyable or interesting!
Sochi 2014 is a game that clearly reached beyond its grasp, ultimately undone by its overzealous attempt to turn heads with the Wii U and Wii MotionPlus technology, even with an obvious release constraint. The charming accessibility of the prior three games is completely absent for the series’ Wii U debut, instead replaced by fussy and irritating motion controls, along with tedious events that often overlap and fail to engage the player when they’re not struggling to read your movements. Despite the very cool medal-earning online metagame and some solid ideas for the Wii U Gamepad in particular, Sochi 2014 just isn’t fun to play overall, and even big fans of this spin-off/crossover series are bound to be disappointed by it.
It’s sad, but it makes you wonder if this is a series that has exhausted its appeal now. After all, there’s only so many Olympic events you can work with before they start repeating gameplay styles (as they often do here), and, while the series was a great idea for the Wii, the more ambitious design sensibilities of the Wii U just don’t seem to mesh with it. Perhaps Mario and Sonic have done all they can do at the Olympic Games now, and this series should be retired. If Sochi 2014 is any indication, this is a crossover running on fumes now.
Between the vastly superior Nintendo Land and Wii Sports Club, and even the reasonably enjoyable Wii Party U, Wii U owners have many better options for friendly competition. This one doesn’t even walk away with the bronze.
- Great graphics
- Smart online metagame
- Awful motion controls
- Not accessible or fun
- Only four online events