Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games marks the third time that heroes Mario and Sonic have squared off against one another and their respective friends and foes in a series of Olympic sporting events. At one point, such a pairing would have been unfathomable, but now, no one even blinks. Sega's latest outing would have benefitted from a few more surprises, but it's quite enjoyable and packed with content.
There are a total of 31 activities, some of which are truly substantial. Twenty-one of the events consist of the standard athletic disciplines, though a handful of them are sufficiently similar that it feels like cheating to count them separately. Hurdles aren't that much different from the 100-meter dash, except for the fact that your character must periodically jump. The remaining 10 events are more distinct dream sequences and unlike any that you might see on ESPN. Characters run along clouds, ride giant whirling discs through a valley ripped out of Sonic Adventure, soar through the clouds toward a gargantuan piranha plant in a scene that wouldn't be out of place in Super Mario Galaxy, race ahead of a wagon carrying Yoshi eggs, and so forth. As much fun as such events are, though, perhaps the most important content comes in the form of the new London Party mode.
The London Party mode is an inspired attempt to tie familiar sporting events together in a meaningful new way. If you simply choose a single Olympic event and play through it alone or with up to three friends or computer opponents, it's entertaining, but there's little drama. London Party raises the stakes by placing each of four characters on a map that represents the streets of London. Your goal as you traverse the map is to collect enough stamps to be the first player to fill a stamp sheet. Before you start, you select the number of stamps that are required based on how long you plan to play. If you are trying to collect the minimum 16 stamps, the game suggests that the effort will take about a half hour. It's only an estimate, of course; if you avoid the longer competitive events, you'll quite likely finish in more like 15 or 20 minutes.
At first, the miniaturized London city streets may remind you of a game board from one of the Mario Party games. However, in this case, you don't simply roll dice and hop along spaces on a game board while gathering stars, coins, or special items. Instead, you're expected to control everything more directly as your opponents simultaneously do the same thing. It's possible to jump on your rivals, for instance, or to beat them to non-playable characters who might offer special events that quickly increase your potential supply of stamps. Competition becomes quite fierce, particularly if you're going up against similarly skilled players. Every chance to gain a slight lead over your opponents means something. You can never rest easy because chance-based events (such as a bonus event where you spin a wheel to try for bonus stamps) can chip away at even a commanding lead.
Sega also found other ways to make the actual sporting events engaging, even if you're not playing the London Party mode. Besides keeping a record of your best performance in each event, the game awards a special scratcher ticket for every completed match. You can carry up to 99 of the tickets at once and then scratch them off at your leisure to reveal prizes. These include musical compositions from Mario and Sonic games, silly clothing accessories for your Mii character (which can also be used in game), and full-body costumes for the same purpose. You can then set unlocked tunes to accompany your favorite sporting events.
Most of the minigames are engaging enough that you will probably be quite pleased to play them even without your preferred theme song, perhaps for longer than is in your best interest. If you don't force yourself to limit your play to sessions of an hour or two, you could be in for some serious pain, thanks to the simple but repetitive control schemes. For the most part, you need to hold the Wii Remote upright and then swing down periodically as required. Or you can press the A and B buttons to produce special bursts of speed or to jump. Sometimes, you hold the remote sideways like an old NES controller, or you can optionally add a nunchuk to the mix. A lot of arm jerking is required no matter what, which can wreak havoc on your body if you ignore your complaining muscles for too long. Occasionally, it can be difficult to tell what movement helps you to perform best in a game you are unfamiliar with, so you may also wind up pushing yourself harder than necessary to win a gold medal or break a record.
Fortunately, the game is easier to appreciate once you master its subtleties. Control repetition aside, the minigames that challenge you tend to do so in pleasant ways, which keeps you coming back to them to see how much better you can do. For example, the Synchronized Swimming and Rhythmic Ribbon minigames (which can be amusing to watch if you choose characters you might not expect to see display real grace) require you to move your arms into various positions in time with a musical accompaniment. It's easy to perform such activities moderately well, but a truly great performance requires careful timing that no amount of furious shaking can produce. The Team Pursuit minigame features a team of four cyclists who have to switch off to maintain their stamina as they race around several laps and maintain a lead over rival teams. The Pistol minigame presents you with a variety of moving targets, and you have to aim quickly and shoot precisely to score the most possible points.
However, some of the minigames are duds and outwear their welcome. Volleyball is fun for one round, but playing against two separate teams across multiple rounds can get old quickly. Football, Table Tennis, and Badminton suffer from the same flaw, plus your opponents can sometimes produce special moves that are difficult for a human player to counter. They can also easily counter the same move (whether that be a wicked serve in Table Tennis or a power spike in Volleyball) when you try to employ it. The good news is that you can adjust the difficulty level as needed or (even better) play with friends instead of against the computer.
Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games takes no real risks and perhaps relies too heavily on your fondness for its leading mascots, but it still manages to provide a wide variety of minigames and bonus content that should keep you busy for a long while (especially if you have a few friends handy). Mario and Sonic are both capable of providing experiences that are more memorable than these, but they also make good enough athletes to produce a worthwhile party in London.