While the sensational news that arch rivals Mario and Sonic would be appearing in-game together lost its shock value some time back, it is still remarkable to see the characters on screen together. Most gamers who are now over twenty would have laughed in your face if, during the golden era of the Mega Drive and SNES, you had suggested the two systems' mascots would one day feature in a collaborative game.
Consider the pairing a little more carefully though, and such a collaboration isn't so remarkable. In the end, both characters are cute, wide-eyed, family-friendly heroes with a penchant for jumping across platforms, and it is incredible how compatible their worlds are.
But before moving on to the finer points of how a portly plumber and lightning fast hedgehog make brilliant sporting partners, first it is important to forget about virtual celebrity, and take a look at the actual games that make up Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games.
Wii games always face harsh criticism from cynics, and cynics love nothing more than targeting mini-game compilations, which is exactly what you'd expect to find in this saccharine take on the obligatory Olympic Games tie-in release. However, it's a real surprise to find that this collection of physical challenges actually contains some worthwhile chunks of gaming, that are far more comparable to the games offered by the essential Wii Sports.
With well over 20 events on offer, while there are inevitably a few that miss the mark, there are bound to be at least half a dozen that you'll take a liking to, offering you more than Wii Sports; a game that still floats at the front of most Wii owners' games collections nearly a year after release.
The best on offer combine an emphasis on speedy button pressing with the need for only very basic, semi-rhythmic Wii-mote gestures. Trampoline for example, demands increasingly complex button combos while you gently keep your bounce's momentum with a soft rock of the controller. Other stand out events include the intricate archery, the exhausting 400m relay, and a range of extremely addictive track and pool events.
The entire package itself can be broken down into three main modes. 'Single event' of course offers you a chance to pick and choose which competitions you tackle on a one by one basis, while 'Mission' sets predetermined criteria in each event, such as a set score or finishing time. The main game, however, comes in the form of the 'Circuits' mode, which is the main tool for opening up new events and progressing through the game.
Circuits consist of three or four pre-selected and nicely varied events, though you can make your own customised versions, and essentially work like miniature tournaments that make sure you develop your skill across various disciplines. The greatest achievement of the circuits, however, is in giving Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games a concrete structure, and the player a sense of achievement as they progress.
The other pleasant revelation is that this cuddly ode to the Olympics is actually reasonably challenging. Whilst they are all very accessible, few of the two-dozen events are immediately conquerable, and most require a modest amount of practise. This adds a great deal of longevity and credibility to what could have otherwise been a rather empty experience. While Nintendo's new army of particularly 'casual' gamers will take to Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games, there is no doubt that more seasoned players will likely have a great deal to gain from picking up this excellent value compendium.
The final features worth a mention are the unlockable dream events, which take the form of fantastical competitions formed of various elements from Sonic and Mario's respective universes. Dream Race for example, combines the classic Mario Kart formula with elements from the magnificent ring collecting bonus games that formed part of most of the early Sonic titles. As you tear through each dream event you can spot a wealth of familiar icons from gaming's past, from Mario Kart pick-ups and Mario question mark bricks, to Eggman's minions and Sonic's infamous rings.
While the purer events are actually the most enjoyable, it is during your time with the dream events that you realise how sensitively the two gaming universes have been combined, and how well they work together. As Sonic's stark blue futurescapes clash with Mario's jolly cartoon worlds, it almost appears as if they've always been destined to come together in this way.
There are a few small failings, but they are mostly incidental and wholly forgivable. The odd event such as the rather drawn out table tennis and the hit and miss shooting are a little lacking, but it is the need to constantly unplug and reconnect the Nunchuck as you move from event to event that is the most painful. Necessary evils aside, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games is a brilliant game, and will likely exhaust you physically long before you tire of its ideas, as it is a title that really gets you moving and exerting your energy.
As compendiums go, it is one of the best on the Wii. It is well designed and the conjoined worlds are realised with simple graphical flair. While it is sad that fewer game soundtracks are featured than I'd have liked, the audio is well delivered, and throughout Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games is filled with marks of quality. Neat ideas like the inclusion of actual world records, and the option to gamble the potential points you could win from an event round off this tidy compilation. It will take months before this game can prove it has what makes Wii Sports such a seminal release, but for the first time the Wii's bundled software has a serious competitor.