Disclaimer: This review is for the Wii U version of Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. There is also a Nintendo 3DS version of the game which this review will not cover.
Having not played a Mario & Sonic title since the Wii’s very first Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, released over 8 years ago, I figured it was high time to delve back into the sports-simulating world where past rivals can put aside their differences and go for gold. We’ve seen an iteration of the Mario & Sonic series for every official Olympic season; However with the accumulating controversy surrounding the Games being held in Rio de Janeiro, one would think that Nintendo and Sega would hold off on releasing their bi-annual game this time around. As the last 30 hours of my gaming life have proven though, Mario, Sonic, and friends are in Brazil, showing that not even corrupt governments or deadly viruses can stop them from a fierce and friendly competition.
The game’s central hub for accessing all of its features is on the lovely Copacabana Beach, which is populated by numerous familiar faces from the Mario and Sonic universes, as well as random Miis from other players whom you talk to in order to initiate games or unlock world flags respectively. Interestingly, the Olympic games themselves have not yet started when you begin the game, so you are forced to play the “Single Match” mode, where you have access to all 17 sports offered by the game. While in this mode, you have access to all of the characters (who all have unique stats) in addition to using your Mii (who you can outfit with various unlockable gear to change their stats). After doing a bit of research, I found out that there aren’t as many sports featured in Rio 2016 as there was in London 2012. Along with this, the Dream Events are gone now too, and while many sports were cut, there are some new ones which offer new gameplay experiences, like Rugby Sevens and Rhythmic Gymnastics. There are also new Duel versions of three of the sports, which make them more arcade-like by adding items and ways to attack, while building upon the regular sport’s rule set and gameplay. I didn’t exit Single Match mode until I had tried each sport at least once, and it was then I was able to enter the actual Olympic Games, as well as another mode called Heroes Showdown, which I will get to later.
The first thing to note, is that you are not able to use any Mario or Sonic characters in the Olympic games. You’re only able to use Miis, so you’d better hope you have outfitted them with gear strong enough to withstand the trials. Each sport has its own series of tournaments that feature up to three progressively harder difficulty levels, each of which you can win medals for. After winning the first tournament, I unlocked the ability to access the “Shortcut Menu Button” while on the beach, which is a quick launch menu for the different modes. Why was this mode not active from the very beginning? I don’t have a clue. I don’t see any particular reason to restrict access to it in general. Also, occasionally when you complete a tournament, a guest character will challenge you to a match of the sport you completed, which will unlock them for use in Single Match mode. Each sport (not including Duel versions) has an unlockable guest character. These range from Rosalina for Rhythmic Gymnastics, or Rogue the Bat for Volleyball, to Diddy Kong for Rugby Sevens, or Zazz (you know, one of the villains from Sonic and the Lost Worlds… Oh… You don’t know? I don’t blame you.) for Table Tennis. Most, if not all of the special guests, are actually shown in the intro of the game, so it’s not a very well kept secret as to who these “hidden” characters are. Part of me wishes they did something similar to the intro of the original Super Smash Bros., where the 4 unlockable characters only showed up in it after unlocking them. Though with 14 unlockable characters, that wish may not be realistic.
While you are entered in a tournament, which usually has 3 rounds, you are unable to access any other modes until you complete said competition or withdraw from it. On that note, the game automatically forces you to go back to the beach between rounds of the tournament with no option to just enter the next round and skip the long load times. Maybe I’m just impatient, but having to sit through that load screen 3 times per tournament, for 17 sports, with 3 levels of difficulty per sport while the monkey(?), cat(?), mascot thing, Vinicius, does it’s creepy head-changing thing with a static body. It actually became quite a bit unnerving. On top of that, when I got back to Copacabana Beach I usually just immediately talked to the Toad who initiates the next match, bringing me to yet another loading screen. Rinse and repeat, it grew tiresome especially for longer play sessions.
Heroes Showdown was a mode that I played only a handful of times due to its main gimmick being mostly boring. The mode is basically a glorified arcade mode where you pick a team captain (Mario or Sonic) who determine the characters you get to play as (which should be obvious based on the two captains) in a randomized set of sports. Choosing characters of a particular row will grant you a card that activates if you win a round, which can make opponents sit on the bench for a duration of time, power up your own teammates, or force the opponent to use particular characters in the next game. Either way though, the losing team benches the previous characters of the round permanently, which leads to how you win the game: make all of the opposing team members sit out, including the team captain. It’s not a horrible mode, but some of the cards feel greatly overpowered, especially when you can bench an entire row of opponent characters, and the rounds run too short to really get into them. Before I knew it the Heroes Showdown had concluded when I was left wanting more rounds and matches or the ability to try more cards. I didn’t get a chance to try it in the multiplayer mode though, which I imagine would be more enjoyable than playing solo against the CPU.
As mentioned earlier, there are unlockables, and a ton of them at that. Just from playing through tournaments, players can unlock a generic shop, a Mario themed shop, a Sonic themed shop, the ability to post on Miiverse, Ghost Mode, a challenge parade, and amiibo functionality; And that’s just the beginning! Playing either Single Matches, Olympic Games, or Heroes Showdown will award you in coins and rings, which can be used in the shop’s lottery machines to win more gear for your Mii, stamps for Miiverse, and music. Miis will also give you flags of which country they represent and tips for the different events. In total, there are close to 1000 unlockable items which really helps the replayability of this game.
Overall, my experience with most of the sports is not bad, but certainly not great. The general movement feels stiff, and that might be due in part to the fact that there is no analog sensitivity for the control stick. Yes, you get the full 360 degrees of movement, but there is no variance in how quickly you move. You’re either running full tilt or standing still which makes slightly nuanced movements, which I feel is expected or even mandatory in most third person games, impossible. It’s quite apparent that having finer movement would be beneficial in Football, Rugby Sevens, and Volleyball, where you have large fields and courts to move around in, though the two sports that really suffer from this limitation are Equestrian and Archery. You are required to have insanely precise accuracy in controlling your steed along the obstacle course, and obviously, hitting targets with your arrows. I actually ended up using the D-Pad for archery in the end and received higher success rates as it was quite a bit easier to work with your basic up, down, left, and right rather than Any-Which-Way Analog McImprecise over there. As much as I complain about the analog input being deficient though, I did find myself getting used to it and compensating appropriately after the first few times within each sport.
A rather frustrating element of a few games is the seemingly random additional time that gets added on to the regular timer. There is no indication as to when or how the additional time is called upon and then there is no way to determine how long the additional time goes for. It’s been anywhere from an extra 30 seconds to a full couple of minutes. While, yes, it can allow for some clutch plays that allow you to win a game, it mostly allows for the CPU enemy team to have extra plays. You as the player, of course, play to win within the allotted time, though just as you’re expecting the game to be called, the additional time is announced and the enemy is in possession of the ball. You’re screwed. That has literally been the deciding factor in a number of situations for me. On the CPU note now, the AI is pretty bad in this game. Opponents sometimes make the most impossible plays, or other times they are pathetic and basically do nothing. For instance, in Table Tennis, if you’re not on the lowest difficulty setting your opponent is always aligning itself up for a perfect smash return, but in Javelin, opponents will never score higher than 70 yards, which is a very easy number to beat. Also, your team AI is pretty useless too. In Football and Rugby Sevens, I never found that my teammates were in useful places. That being said, you have the ability to change who you are controlling by tapping the L button and it, for the most part, chooses the player closest to the ball. For the most part. Sometimes it randomly swapped to a player who wasn’t near anything useful for the play. You then find yourself furiously tapping the L button again in hopes of it picking someone who can save the match. In addition, when the enemy is in possession of the ball, the game automatically swaps the player you’re controlling to who it thinks would be a better character to control. This has screwed me up too many times, as I’d be running in one direction with a character and fall behind a little bit, only to have the game swap to someone who was ahead with no notice and I start running in the opposite direction of where I needed to be as a result. You need to stay on your toes to catch it happening and correct your inputs.
Otherwise, most of the games are pretty unremarkable. I found myself groaning when I had to play 100m Dash, 4 x 100m Dash, Triple Jump, and Swimming. The first two are stupidly simple, and finish way too quickly to the point I never found any lasting enjoyment from them and the latter two are just annoying to play. The timing required for Triple Jump felt inconsistent between characters, while Swimming hides the stamina meter you NEED to maintain pretty much as soon as you start swimming. That being said, some people might like them. In the end, I preferred the sports that clearly had their mechanics defined and visible. There are a few diamonds in the rough however. First, notably is Rhythmic Gymnastics for one reason and one reason alone. I present to you, Wario dancing majestically:
If that doesn’t immediately make you want to buy this game, I don’t know what will. I was unprepared for that sight as I was playing, and it broke me for several minutes. But really though, Rhythmic Gymnastics is a new addition to the Mario & Sonic series, and it might be the toughest sport in the collection. It’s quite simple in that you only have to push the D-Pad and the A button in time with the music and visual cues, but the harder difficulties were seriously challenging. Javelin is also another one of my favorites. Character stats actually have a huge importance in this minigame (whereas it feels almost negligible in others) as they control how much you can power up and how easy it is to pick your throwing trajectory.As a result, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was the best for the sport along with which input timings I needed to get the furthest throwing distance. I found myself continuously going back to that one to beat my previous scores.
Something else to note is the lack of courses and tracks. BMX and Equestrian would have a much higher score in my books if there was more than a single track to play on each. It’s not that the tracks are bad, but a little variance or even some more challenging tracks would have been nice. Archery did it best I feel, where each round of a tournament would have a different pattern and set of targets appearing. The Duel versions of Football and Rugby Sevens were quite a bit more enjoyable than their standard variants, but Duel Volleyball was a bit of a chaotic mess. Firstly, Volleyball already had enough packed into it with the different kinds of sets, returns and spikes you could perform where it felt deep enough for a truly enjoyable experience. Duel Volleyball takes that balance and says, “let’s add items, flashy backgrounds, and a parade going through the middle of the court”, which needless to say, really messes with it. There were far too many times where I was running to set the ball and either a Red Koopa Shell or a Fireball came out of nowhere and made me miss the ball. As far as I’m aware as well, the only way to dodge or block the item onslaught is with a Shield Bubble item, which you randomly get from item boxes and only lasts for a small duration. Is the Duel Volleyball broken? Far from it I would say, as I don’t think I ended up losing any of those matches due to using the items on the enemies. Is Duel Volleyball one of the worse sports in Rio 2016? Harsh, but yes.
If you can’t tell already from screenshots, the game is very good looking. As usual, Nintendo has hit all the right marks when it comes to HD cartoony graphics, combined with a healthy dose of bloom. The only thing that could really make everything look better is some anti-aliasing. There are far too many jaggies on everything, including, but not limited to the dividing line on the Table Tennis table. That one really stood out to me for some reason. The music of the game is also fantastic. Most of the tracks are very South American-themed, featuring horns, and very fun and fast percussion. It really sold me on the whole “Rio” setting. There were some tracks in particular that I found myself humming when not playing the game, namely one of the Duel Rugby Sevens songs, and one of the Volleyball songs. Speaking of which, all of the sports have their own set of individual tracks, making sure the soundtrack doesn’t go stale from hearing the same songs over and over, which was a really nice addition. The sound effects all seem to fit and nothing really jarringly sticks out, aside from a particular Shadow the Hedgehog voice clip which I swear I keep hearing a rather nasty curse word in. Rest assured, he’s not actually swearing, but boy does it sound like it.
Amiibos had little to no relevance in Rio 2016. Not only could you not use them until easily more than halfway through the game, but they don’t really do anything for you. Tapping the Mario or Sonic amiibo grant your Miis a power up for a limited time, and tapping any other amiibo gives you rings and coins to spend. You’re only allowed to tap the amiibos once per 24 hours as well. The integration felt so hamfisted that I feel it would have been better if they left the option out entirely. Also, while there is a Ghost Challenge mode, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a true online mode where there could have been actual tournaments set up for the different sports. Yes, there is also the ability to challenge the scores of other players on a leaderboard, but it’s not the same as actually playing against someone in real time. I’m not sure how much of an online audience there would have been for this game, but I have seen much less polished and popular games with online modes before.
All in all, Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games left me surprised as to how much I enjoyed it. I went in expecting very little and came out wanting to 100% the game, which by the way, as of writing this review, I nearly have actually done, almost entirely from standard play sessions. I haven’t had to hunt down anything in particular and it doesn’t seem like anything is going to be really hard to collect. The Olympic Tournaments have decent pacing and most of the sports themselves, while not bringing anything new to the table, are quite fun. My main criticism would be that the team behind this game took too much time implementing all of the different sports and game modes that everything feels like it lacks the level of polish Nintendo is known for. That being said, the visuals are easy on the eyes and the audio is easy on the ears. Plus, the game has that Wario dance I showed earlier. I wouldn’t tell you to buy the game at its full launch price, but if it were to ever go on sale, I could easily find myself recommending it to family and friends for a good, lighthearted party game.
Thanks to Nintendo for providing us with a review copy of Mario & Sonic at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games for the Nintendo Wii U.