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Joystiq hands-on: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games (Wii/DS)

Zack Stern

Smash Bros. isn't the only place the mascot exchange program is thriving. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games pits Nintendo and Sega characters against each other in Summer Games challenges. Bowser, Peach, Tails, Robotnik, and others compete in triple-jump, swimming relays, velodrome races, and dozens of other contests.

I recently sampled the DS and WIi versions of the game. Sega mentioned that the IOC helped make sure that the stadiums and other settings accurately reflect the 2008 Beijing games. But another license requirement pitches the title at kids; other than real-world-based measurements of distance and time, don't expect accuracy within the events. Instead, Mario and Sonic plays like another mini-game buffet.

A few modes -- especially with four players and user-created tournaments -- are interesting, but the majority seem suited to a younger crowd. Gaming families may enjoy the humor, variety, and simple style. But sports enthusiasts should wait for a more realistic game.

Gallery: Mario & Sonic at the Olympics (Wii) | 40 Photos

Gallery: Mario & Sonic at the Olympics (DS) | 14 Photos

I tried several of the 24-total events in the Wii and DS versions of the game. The sports are generally the same between the platforms, although a few differ. For example, only the DS has a basketball game.

In the Wii events, different characters use different motion controls. My choice of Yoshi as a swimmer, for example, required me to dog-paddle with the Wiimote and Nunchuk, while Peach uses a more traditional swimming motion.

As I flailed my arms to move Yoshi across the pool, a heart icon quickly drained. I had to hit A to take a breath and refill the gauge, adding another timing mechanic to the gameplay.

While the dog-paddle characters were the slowest -- and least interesting -- I was most impressed by the effort to make each mascot unique. Their abilities differ with each event; Sonic is faster than Mario, but the plumber has more all-around agility. Even Miis, with full arms and legs, can compete. (It was unclear how their abilities would differ from the other characters, but in the swimming events, for example, I chose the motion type.)

Many of the other Wii events I tried required some sort of shaking motion. Players get their characters at top running speed by air-drumming the controllers. (Thankfully, they stay at top speed until they encounter a hurdle or other obstacle.) Other games, like Archery, avoid this repetitive scheme.

On the DS, events also sometimes seemed too reliant on wild stylus motion. For example, I scraped the stylus rapidly to the left and right to run. (I was even concerned about how much wear the DS touch-screen could take.) But other games use the controls more creatively.

The trampoline game presents gesture arrows that players have to mimic while in the air. And a down gesture off the trampoline bounces them higher. I tried skeet shooting by tracing over escaping clay pigeons and tapping L to fire my gun. These simpler, skill-based event were more entertaining than the wild foot races. They felt well-suited to the DS.

Some DS events even skip the touch-screen. The simple table-tennis game is controlled with D-pad and button presses. And biking uses L and R to peddle, and the D-pad to steer.

The games will succeed most in events with creative controls. A few, bonus, fantasy events, like a Mario Kart-style foot-race with power-ups, add more variety to the simple mini-games. Kids may even like the games that use flailing gestures, but I hope that the final release relies mostly on precise movements. The Wii version of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games will be released on November 6, while the DS game is due in the beginning of 2008.

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