Review: Mario and Sonic win the gold…for bizarre gameplay

The 3DS edition of Mario and Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games hit store shelves last month. Mediocre initial review scores made me wary, but I did enjoy the eShop demo, so I finally caved and bought the cartridge.

To be blunt: If you want great gameplay from a recent release, buy Resident Evil: Revelations or spend a few bucks to download Pushmo or Sakura Samurai. There’s truly only one reason to buy Mario/Sonic 2012: you have to love the bright, cheerful, surreal world of Mario and Sonic enough that you consider this production’s impressive “show” worth the price of a meatier game.

We have here a polished, wondrous atmosphere combined with mixed-bag gameplay. In other words, it’s a typical post-Dreamcast Sega game. (For the record, I think Sega’s Sonic Colors was one of 2010’s best releases.)

Make no mistake, this beautiful title can be very entertaining. This is a bright, Nintendo/Sega-themed circus of humor and spectacle. It’s overflowing with amazing visuals, great music, tons of game-engine cinemas, collectibles, options and a consistently energetic, encouraging tone that brings the experience to life. It feels like a celebration each time you start it up…but once you start playing, it’s very like a celebration full of long lines for food and a hit-or-miss band roster.

The generous character lineup certainly tops the title’s selling features, though each of the 50+ events can only be tackled by four specific characters. So, no, you can’t put Bowser on horseback. A variety of “guest” characters such as King Boo, Shy Guy and Eggman’s other-dimensional counterpart show up as NPCs and boss opponents in story mode. There’s a lot of fan-focused fun going on, here.

Behind all the polish and fanfare, though, this is an Olympic-themed minigame collection. Its events employ such a broad variety of gameplay mechanics that it often seems your 3DS is the one getting the workout. You can take on events one at a time, play through the lengthy story mode (lengthy in terms of cinemas, not actual gameplay) or—the most entertaining option—compete in a variety of multi-event medleys, which can be customized to feature your favorite characters and events. There are multiplayer options and a “Party” mode which does indeed inject some Mario Party-style randomness and surprise into the progression, as well as using the inner camera for some laughs at the award ceremony.

Overall, I found most of the minigames fun and replayable, featuring some imaginative control schemes. Skeet-shooting works perfectly with tilt controls and the R button, while quickly drawing a straight line at the proper angle is a brilliant way to launch a javelin. The BMX and badminton challenges are cleverly designed, and I particularly like the games which feature the circle pad as a slingshot-like pull-and-release mechanism.

Not all the events fare so well, unfortunately. Take the kayak race (and take it far away); I’d enjoy madly spinning the circle pad more if it weren’t my own $169 dollar 3DS taking the punishment. Likewise, does anyone really want to perform a triple jump by slamming both thumbs against the touch screen?

Then there are the game’s stranger offerings, and it’s here that players will either laugh and get on board or roll their eyes and turn off the 3DS. Myself, I find a few of the events so wonderfully stupid and Warioware-esque that I have to give them a thumbs-up for sheer brassiness—like the weightlifting challenge where you “motivate” your athlete by shouting at the microphone. And I defy anyone to not laugh (or, at least chuckle) the first time they experience the race-walk. Here’s my favorite strange event: a marathon that simply cuts to the last hundred yards and puts you in control of an exhausted, wobbly athlete as he staggers to the finish line. The wobbliness is simulated by having the controls randomly switch configuration every few seconds!

It’s confession time: the more I talk about how strange, stupid and ridiculous this title can be…the more I find myself liking it. Even at its most aggravating, it remains charming. Controlling Vector the Crocodile (TEAM CHAOTIX!) through his rings routine may not be thrilling gameplay, but where else can I watch a headphone-wearing crocodile detective performing at the Olympics to stop Bowser and Dr. Eggman from taking over London with fog machines? That counts for something.

Do I wish the gameplay was meatier and more consistent? Absolutely. Would I recommend this game to everyone? Heck, no! Even if you’re a diehard fan of the Mario and Sonic characters, you might want to wait for a price drop on this one—and make sure to try out the eShop demo, first. But, if you know what you’re getting into, and you’re in the mood for some light, funny, character shenanigans…

…rent it first.