It still strikes me as almost unfathomably weird to see a bunch of characters from the Mario Bros. series and a bunch of characters from the Sonic series in the same game. The fact that the game they're in is yet another officially licensed Olympic product just heightens the weirdness. But there it is: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, due in October on Wii and DS.
In the brief demo of gameplay Sega offered, our small group first got a look at the DS version. Most interesting here is the fact that this version features an exclusive Adventure Tours mode, which is sort of a light RPG in which all the main protagonists of the Mario and Sonic universes join together to defeat Bowser and Eggman. Seems this unholy alliance has set out to melt all the snow in Olympic Village and kidnap all the snow spirits. Using a combination of minigames and light puzzles, players explore the snowy world in what the developers believe is the first time Mario and Sonic characters have ever worked together in this sort of game.
We also saw a few events. "Bobsleigh" involves two characters, both controlled by the player simultaneously: the lead character is controlled by the d-pad, with the rear character controlled with the face buttons. When the characters lean together in time, they build up a teamwork meter, which allows them to move faster.
And "Dream Snowboard Cross" is basically a snowboard race, which uses elements of Mario Kart -- like line boost and drift dash -- to navigate snowy courses complete with jumps and tricks.
The Wii version doesn't offer anything as in-depth as the Adventure Tours, but it does offer a lot of traditional Olympic-themed games. First we were shown figure skating, in which players swing the Wiimote in time to prompts shown onscreen -- like furiously swinging in a lasso motion for spins -- which is simple enough. But you can also gently swing the Wiimote in time to the music, which adds tricks that increase your score. And periodically, you're prompted to keep your balance by carefully tilting the Wiimote. Let me tell you, you have not lived until you've seen Mario pull off a triple salchow with a twist. I have no idea what that means.
Next was hockey, which looks like an entertainingly simple, arcadey affair, with the nunchuk's analog stick and button taps on the Wiimote offering gameplay similar to the console hockey games we've been playing for years. The only real exception is for shooting, which requires a firm flick of the Wiimote. And in an interesting twist, you're required to charge up the puck by passing; with each pass the puck glows brighter, and when you finally take a shot at the goal, the brightness will determine the power of the shot. This struck me as the kind of simple sports experience that could prove surprisingly addictive…but I wasn't able to try it myself to confirm that. (I found it interesting, though, that one of the Sega employees in the demo room insisted he be allowed to participate in that part of the demo).
Finally, we were shown "Dream Ski Cross," on a course based directly on the Mario Circuit course from Mario Kart Wii. In this simple skiing race, you tilt the Wiimote and nunchuk simultaneously to turn, swing up to jump, and perform tricks in the air with additional tricks. And if that's too complex for you, you can also just hop on a balance board, since this mode supports that as well.
Look, we all know Olympics games aren't exactly system-sellers. But the variety provided here, combined with the mash-up of these two huge gaming dynasties, ought to make both versions solid entries in the genre.