Game review: Mario & Sonic At The Rio 2016 Olympic Games deserves no medals

It’s an Olympics year and that means it’s time for another crossover between gaming’s two most famous mascots.

This is the fifth time Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog have teamed up in the same game, and it still hurts that a bland Daley Thompson’s Decathlon clone is the best Sega and Nintendo can come up with to celebrate the occasion. It’s clear that both companies regard the whole concept simply as easy money, and the excuse that it’s aimed at the very young is no doubt meant to absolve them for putting in so little effort. But it really doesn’t.

If you went back to the ‘90s and told fans that Sonic and Mario would one day end up in the same game you would’ve been laughed out of the playground (well, escorted out – especially if your excuse for being there was that you were a time traveller from the future). But that’s the reality we live in today. And yet apart from these Olympics tie-ins the only other crossover has been Sonic’s appearance in the Super Smash Bros. games.

If there ever was to be a proper crossover game between the two characters, it’d require a significant budget and it’d inevitably be Nintendo shouldering the majority of the funding and developer burden. And if there’s one thing Nintendo hates it’s spending money, and so instead they merely lend out Mario and co. and have Sega make these games themselves. Since Sega happens to own the Olympics license and long ago found out that realistic tie-ins don’t sell.

Unfortunately, the corporate backdrop to how these tie-ins get made are considerably more interesting than the games themselves. Although the fact that there’s apparently going to be an arcade version is an eye-opener, considering Sega’s PC focus in recent years. There’s also set to be a Wii U version in June, but for obvious reasons this 3DS edition is inevitably going to be the biggest seller.

The game is divided into three main game modes: a simple role-playing game inspired story mode, a versus mode, and the option to play all the sports mini-games separately. A total of 14 sports are represented, namely: football, golf, 100m, 110m hurdles, long jump, javelin, swimming, archery, boxing, table tennis, beach volleyball, equestrian, BMX, and gymnastics.

Weirdly, your choice of which character to play as is limited to just six plus your Mii, which seems odd considering the other characters are in there. Although there’s so little practical difference between them all it doesn’t really matter from a gameplay perspective.

Admittedly there’s not much you can do with most athletics sports in a video game, but even more potential-rich activities like archery and table tennis are so simplistic that no one but the extremely young, or easily pleased, will want to play them more than once or twice. BMX, for example, comes across like a beginner’s version of Mario Kart, but what child can’t play the real thing already?

Football and golf are the best of the bunch, even if they’re the least associated with the actual Olympics, but again they’re so simplistic you quickly tire of them and start to think wistfully of Nintendo’s own more nuanced simulations of the same sports. Especially as there are ‘Plus’ versions of each sport that add in a smattering of Mario or Sonic-related obstacles and power-ups. But again these never come close to being as interesting as any of the full games they remind you of.

The story mode casts you as your own Mii, given the choice to join either Mario or Sonic’s gym as you train, enter preliminary rounds, and then finally compete in the Olympics themselves. Obviously, all the mini-games are still the same but you also get even simpler training games to up your stats. These feel like mobile games, and usually involve practicing a single ability, such as your stroke in swimming or how to power up a high jump.

On top of this is a very simple role-playing element where you try to level up and purchase performance-enhancing clothing. (Dressing up as a carnival dancer helps your stats immensely, although it is a bit easier for officials to spot than just popping a few pills.)

The multiplayer mode is, predictably, wireless only, but at least not everyone has to have a copy of the game to play. So your main problem then becomes finding anyone that actually wants to.

Particularly if you haven’t played any of the previous Mario & Sonic games this is a perfectly harmless timewaster. The presentation is occasionally charming, and there is a decent amount of content, even if it is all as shallow as a gnat’s paddling pool. But it’s really not a very fitting celebration of either the Olympics or gaming’s two most beloved mascots.

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