Hands on with Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games

Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games [iTunes link] brings a mobile version of the Sonic franchise to the iPhone for this timely-themed product. It is officially licensed by the Vancouver Olympic games. With it, you can try your hand at curling, figure skating, snowboard cross, and skeleton, i.e. sports you probably never thought you'd actually be playing on an iPhone.

If you're a big fan of Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog, and you like the way the Sonic games play on other devices, you'll be pleased that a lot of the same feel and gameflow have been ported quite successfully to the iPhone. As with other Sonic games, you select the character you want to portray and you are randomly matched against other characters in the Sonicverse. You can choose from single player one-sport events, multiplayer, and circuit mode, where you play all four events.

The graphics are superb and the user interface development is top notch. A lot of care and programming have gone into the tiny details that make up this game. Between the animated icons (info is a book with flipping pages, settings are a rotating gear on top of a building, game selection is a happily bouncing stadium), sound design, and small interface details like how menus slide onscreen, I was really impressed; congratulations to Sega for developing an interface that really matches and works with the iPhone platform.

I wish the actual game play could match the overall look and feel. Unfortunately, I found playing the events to be less thrilling and poorly conceptualized. Take the figure skating, for example. It was easily my favorite sport in the game, but the way the game you focus on tapping the right spot at the right time (you have to synchronize your tap to a shrinking circle) or tracing your finger along a given design (so you can perform spins and jumps), totally took away from actually enjoying the event.

Great iPhone interactive sport apps put you right into the middle of the action. You submerse yourself into experiencing the game play and your device interaction gets outsourced to your motor control as your eyes drink in the visuals . With figure skating, I could barely see the (beautiful!) graphics, let alone enjoy the music, because the game mandates that my eyes and fingers had to be working on locating, tapping, and drawing in just the right place and at the right time. There was a big disconnect. And because of that disconnect, the actual skating seemed to be taking place somewhere else -- somewhere I couldn't really enjoy.

The skeleton and snowboard cross events better offered submersive interaction. They more or less mimic every downhill iPhone game you've ever played. You ride downhill and collect gold rings. The controls are based on tilting the iPhone both side to side and front to back. For snowboard cross, you also get to ride through Mario-style cubes with question marks for special power ups. Both downhill events were pleasant enough to play.

At the bottom of the pack, I found curling tedious to the extreme, which is a shame. Because if Sega had designed this event with faster gameplay and the ability to keep playing over and over in one go, it could have been quite fun. The problem isn't pushing the stone and sweeping (those parts are actually enjoyable), the problem was waiting and waiting for a turn, as the opponent operated in real time, and in all the setup/take down time for each match. The fun bits are simply lost within the administrative overhead.

Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games offers a reasonable value for the money (it's a slightly hefty $4.99) but while the games were pleasant but none of them really made me want to play them again. I admired the work that went into creating the product but I can't really recommend it to anyone who isn't a big Sonic fan to begin with.