Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games must break the world record for fastest use of a licence. A preemptive celebration of the 2008 Olympic Games, the game comes months ahead of the festivities in Beijing. For all its haste, though, it can't eek out a first place finish with gameplay. A large list of events and great multiplayer make Mario & Sonic fun, but the solo experience falls short of capturing gold.
From platform diving to skeet shooting to the 100m dash, the most popular Olympic events have been tapped but a handful of imaginative dream events also join the list. Dream table tennis, for instance, remixes the indoor sport with a new scoring system and special skill shots. In total, two dozen events round out the large slate of games available to play.
Nearly every one takes advantage of the touchscreen, although a few utilise the handheld's buttons, too. Cycling (exclusive to the DS version of Mario & Sonic) foregoes any use of the stylus in place of pedalling with the shoulder buttons. It makes perfect sense and earns the game credibility for not forcing touchscreen functionality where it's not really needed. Hammer throw, on the other hand, makes good use of the mechanic by having you spin the hammer around and pulling the stylus off the screen to throw.
However, some other events don't fare as well. The triple jump barely functions with mandatory use of the stylus. Running by scribbling horizontally on the screen works well enough, but trying to nail each of the jumps by drawing angled lines is extremely difficult. Fencing also fails to make good use of the touchscreen with parries and jabs tied to stylus slashes, but it's a hit-or-miss affair.
Single Match mode enables you to jump right into any of these events instantly. So if you fancy getting a glimpse of Mario in his bathing suit, you can get right to it by selecting 10m diving. Events do require unlocking in Circuit mode, which combines multiple competitions into small tournaments, with points awarded per event according to your finishing place. Accumulating the most points over the course of the circuit nets you the overall win.
Pleasingly, circuits can also be enjoyed with up to three friends locally in Multi-Card Play mode. Single-card multiplayer is offered as well, although only six individual events are available for competition. Meanwhile, the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection logo on the box doesn't pertain to multiplayer. Instead, you only have the option of uploading high-scores online. Still, asking for more than what Mario & Sonic already offers seems silly, namely because local wireless multiplayer is enough to get you by. Many of the Olympic events aren't directly competitive anyway, so taking the long jump online, for example, would have been pointless. Between the local wireless modes and online leaderboards, the game satisfactorily scratches most multiplayer itches.
You might wonder how exactly does Sonic not handily take every race or Dr Eggman trounce competitors at the javelin throw? Good question, and one that points directly at how the game balances its diverse roster of characters. Each figure possesses different ratings in four attributes: speed, power, skill, and stamina. Going back to Sonic as an example, he maxes out on speed at the cost of low stamina. Another character, like Bowser, is the antithesis to Sonic with great stamina and power despite having little speed.
While sheer skill can win you any event, you'll discover it's far easier when you play as a character with complementary abilities. Going back to our above examples, winning races as Sonic is far easier than with Bowser. You can still take first in a 100m dash using the latter if you try hard enough, but the characters have been appropriately balanced to make that challenging. Of course, you can also go with a middle-of-the-road competitor like Mario or Luigi if you'd rather not bother with differences in ability.
Each character does come with an assortment of objective-based missions testing the limits of your skill. Instead of aiming for a win, missions task you with specific goals. So in the 100m dash, for instance, you might be asked to finish in second place rather than first. They aren't at all fun, even if it does offer a couple more hours of play.
Much like Mario Party DS, Mario & Sonic is best when taken as a multiplayer game. Sure, there's enough to keep the Olympic flame going solo but it isn't nearly as entertaining as when with a couple of chums. Expanded support for single-card play would have been ideal and improved controls for a few of the events a necessity. But even without these key fixes, Mario & Sonic still manages a respectable bronze finish.