Scotsman Games review: Mario & Sonic at Sochi 2014

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IN the unlikely event that Vladimir Putin is a Wii U owner, it is to be hoped that he picks up a copy of Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games - Wii U (reviewed) / 3DS

Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Score: 6.8 / 10

With the ongoing controversy over Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, it would be a delight to watch his reaction to Birdo, the pink, egg-firing dinosaur with the distinction of being gaming’s first, and only transgender character.

It seems a bizarre idea, but then once upon a time, so did joining Mario and Sonic under the auspices of the world’s greatest sporting spectacle. Sochi is the fourth Olympic-themed crossover title featuring both characters and the second devoted to wintersports. It is an awkward marriage of ideas which has never quite won the hearts of gamers, and the latest iteration, though fun in parts, is unlikely to change that.

There is a sense that the game’s designers are caught between doing justice to the sporting licence and creating an imaginative vehicle for the characters. Essentially a series of minigames modelled around Olympic events, the need to capitalise on the licence before Christmas is understandable. But arriving just weeks after Wii Party U - a title which is far from perfect, but offers a greater breadth of games - Mario & Sonic seems limited in comparison.

The requirement to re-enact a set roster of events has resulted in an imperfect control system. The game mixes and matches different approaches to a confusing degree, allowing players to wield a GamePad for snowboarding only to insist upon Wii Remotes for downhill skiing. Neither has any major problems; the frustration lies in the inconsistency. One attempt, the biathlon, attempts to combine the two, but is hampered in multiplayer mode, where the player with the GamePad is at a clear advantage.

There are some notable exceptions. Figure skating sees characters glide along a pre-set line, with the player’s job to wave and twist the Wii Remote to create a sense of rhythm and style. It also allows players to choose from Mario and Sonic themes as their soundtrack should classical scores like Ride of the Valkyries not appeal. Hockey, too, is a fine arcade experience, even if character switching using the touchscreen seems unnecessarily intrusive given the X button is redundant.

The game excels when it is allowed cut the Olympic sports adrift. The Dream Events mode is shot through with a playfulness we have come to expect from the game’s protagonists, combining the best features of each franchise. Curling is probably the best example. A cure for insomniacs disguised as a sport, here it is rebooted as a mini-golf game set in Green Hill Zone.

The roster of characters is extensive, but all too often serves as a reminder of less memorable figures from both series, a failing of the Sonic franchise in particular. Who, for example, can remember, let alone wish to play Bean the Dynamite, the erratic green duck from Sonic the Fighters, a brawling title released as part of Sonic’s Gems Collection?

In an echo of Wii Party U, the fast pace of the minigame concept is thwarted by overlong tutorials, a necessary evil given the the variety of control methods the game employs using the console’s range of peripherals. In a title supposed to embrace throwaway fun, it is all just a bit too muddled, satisfying neither Olympics fans or followers of Mario and Sonic. It sneaks on to the podium, but deserves no more than a bronze medal.