Review: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games: Sochi 2014 (Wii U)by Ryan Bloom December 2, 2013
Not a competitor
This has not been the best holiday season for Sonic. Both versions of Lost World turned out to be a bust (Wii U video review here, and 3DS review here), and now we’re at Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games: Sochi 2014, a game that left me scratching my head as to whether or not I was the intended audience. The last Mario & Sonic game I reviewed was Vancouver 2010 for the Nintendo DS, a game that seemed like it would have had potential if it was not stuck on the DS. That eventually lead me to try its console big brother for the Wii, a game that seemed alright enough for what it was (an olympics themed minigame collection). Unfortunately for us, Sochi 2014 is not that game, and I’m starting to wonder why they’re still making these things at all.
The first thing I noticed about Sochi 2014 is that the game seems a little light on content. Most previous Mario & Sonic Olympics games contained a little over 30 events, whereas Sochi 2014 features just 24. Many from Vancouver 2010 return to the roster, like snowboarding, curling, and figure skating, but where the omissions are truly felt are in the “Dream” events. Dream Events are the first thing I investigate when I come to one of these games, as they are usually where the more fantastical Mario and Sonic influences are the strongest. The Mario & Sonic games I’ve played have an equal or greater number of Dream Events versus the “real” events, but not here. What few Dream Events do exist don’t seem to have much variety, either, as nearly half of the roster is taken up by generic races to the finish. This is presumably to feed in to the big “Winter Sports Champion Race” event, which sees snowboards, skis, ice skates and bobsleds come together to compete on the same track. It’s kind of an interesting idea, as everyone is constantly switching between the four at random, but it’s also another race in a game full of races.
I would’ve expected that, as a society, we would’ve agreed to stop using motion control in situations where traditional controls would be the more logical option. Mario & Sonic games have always relied heavily on their specific technology gimmicks; on the Nintendo DS, a lot of events involved the touch screen, and on the Wii, you typically get things involving tilting or swinging the Wii remote. That trend continues with Sochi 2014, but the control ends up significantly worse than it has been in previous iterations. I got stuck for almost an hour in its “Legends Showdown” mode, trying to complete a Speed Skating event that demanded I shake the remote in a specific rhythm that the game completely failed to detect, causing me to lose the event even on the easiest difficulty. Even worse, on multiple occasions I found that the remote had completely lost its calibration. Sochi 2014 is smart enough to show a virtual Wii remote on screen for most events, allowing you to see when it stops being able to detect which direction it’s pointing in. It’s easy to re-calibrate the remote from the pause menu, but by the time you get to the point where you’ve noticed the problem and fixed it, you’ve most likely already lost the event. The frustrating part is that none of this ever happened to me in previous iterations of Mario & Sonic. After failing to do the Speed Skating event half a dozen times, I returned to my file in Mario & Sonic Vancouver 2010 only to complete its nearly-identical Speed Skating event on my first try. I spent the next two hours revisiting Vancouver 2010 only to discover a game that was not only easier to control, but more feature-rich, to boot. Even its race events were better: Vancouver 2010 features a legitimately fun snowboarding Dream Event with Mario Kart items and trick system, neither of which are a part of any of Sochi‘s boring, straight-forward race events.
The controls aren’t especially consistent, either. Some events will require you to use the Gamepad, while others will ask for the Wii remote, and still others will require a combination of the two. That last one is especially bad, as handing off from one to the other always seems a little awkward. Not only that, but not all control types are created equal: particularly confusing are the handful of snowboarding events. All of them revolve around the same concept of tilting to steer, but sometimes you’re asked to use the Wii remote, and others the Gamepad, even though you’re doing (mostly) the same actions on both. Plus, even when you’re not asked to use a Wii remote, the game will still occasionally ask you to turn one on. Most of the menus refuse to function unless they detect a remote, even if you’re going to play an event that does not necessarily need one; more than once I was required to power on my remote only to set it back down again for minutes at a time. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate batteries; especially perishable batteries like the AAs demanded by the Wii, so the thought of this game forcing me to turn on the remote just so it could sit there and drain its battery annoyed me to no end.
Sochi 2014 also marks the first Mario & Sonic to feature online multiplayer, though calling it a feature might be a bit of a stretch. Rather than support all 24 events online, only four are available for you to choose from, with your performance contributing to your country’s overall ranking in the global leaderboard. There’s a whole slew of other features attached to this as well, including personal stat-tracking. That is, unfortunately, about as much as I can tell you about the game’s online mode, as every time I tried to find other people playing it, I was left hanging at the matchmaking screen. For all I know, I am the only person to ever try playing this game online. Other social features new to this game are also the unfortunate victims of this game’s lonely community, such as the “Mario & Sonic Channel”, available from the gamepad on the main menu. From here, you can view your own stat growth, see unlockable content, and get updates about how people on your friends list are doing in the game… assuming you actually have any that play Sochi 2014, that is. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the M&S Channel is. It’s only available from the main menu, and only ever shows up on the gamepad, stealing focus from whatever’s being displayed on the TV. Maybe it would’ve made more sense if the M&S Channel was available on the gamepad at any time regardless of what was happening on the main screen, but that’s simply not the case. Instead, it’s just a separate tier of menus hidden on the second screen, and doesn’t really feel like it belongs.
It doesn’t entirely make sense to me to see a game replicate so much content from its previous iterations only to somehow make it worse. The developers had already set examples for themselves; you would think that they could simply look back at what they did right in Vancouver 2010 and copy from that. Yet, here we are. Perhaps that explains why Sega themselves almost seems to be hiding their involvement with Sochi 2014: for the first time in the history of this franchise, the Sega logo is nowhere to be seen. If it wasn’t for the credits explicitly naming their development teams, you would never know Sega had anything to do with this game, which is ironic, given the Mario & Sonic franchise is among one of Sega’s most profitable. Sega should be proud of this franchise, and this time around, they apparently aren’t. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games: Sochi 2014 isn’t an outright bad game, but it is certainly frustrating and underwhelming. Given that the Wii U is backwards compatible with original Wii games, you’re better off picking up a copy of Vancouver 2010 on the cheap than deal with this.