Promotional imagery for 'Mario and Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games,' via Nintendo
With the Olympic Games in Rio starting on August 5, you'd be forgiven for expecting to see a tie-in video game stacked in specialist stores and supermarkets alike. Riding high in the chart, no doubt, and rubbing shoulders with FIFA, Minecraft and whatever shooter's got a deal on at the moment. Proud and muscular figures staring out from its sleeve, all strong chins and bulging thighs; athletes at the peak of their physical prowess, at the top of their respective sports. It's not like it's unprecedented: ever since 1992's Olympic Gold and its digits-knackering A-and-B-button-bashing sprints, there's always been an officially licensed game available to coincide with the Summer Games.
But in 2016, that game is nowhere to be found. All that's available is the Sega-developed, Nintendo-published (still sounds weird) Mario and Sonic mash-up,...at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, out now on Wii U and 3DS. It's just as official as Olympic Gold was in terms of earning its Rings, but instead of starring real-life sportsmen and women, or at least anatomically accurate analogues of them, it rounds up a raft of characters from said platforming et al franchises and pits them against each other across events such as archery, rugby sevens, table tennis, and beach volleyball. I've dipped a toe into what it has to offer through the 3DS demo, which allows free access to boxing and the long jump. It's fine, you know; it works, and I can imagine that the full game would distract me for a fair few flights, given the chance. But there's something really missing for me.
And that's the athletes. But the Mario and Sonic games, while giving off the impression of being arcade-style knockabouts with little connecting their gameplay to that of more traditionally stylized multi-event sports games, actually don't play too dissimilarly to the "realer" deal (occasional power-ups aside). And perhaps that's why, in 2016, there's no need for a "proper" Rio 2016 game: even if there was a companion title with the same disciplines included, but you controlled Usain Bolt—or someone designed to look and act like him – instead of Bowser and Robotnik, how it played would most likely be incredibly close to the Nintendo platforms-exclusive titles bearing cartoon avatars.
But when we see the furore over who's going to be on the FIFA cover each year – fans of the series have voted Marco Reus the global star for 2017's edition—and the additional visibility that affords the chosen one, or some, beyond their own sports-specific audience, you've got to wonder what featuring a rising sprinter, javelin thrower, or swimmer on the sleeve of a non-Mario Olympics game would do for their career prospects. Do you know who Fabrice Lapierre is? I didn't until a cursory internet search told me that the Australian could well light up the men's long jump in Brazil. Who's Chad le Clos to anyone who doesn't regularly follow the swimming world? (Turns out he won the 100- and 200-meter butterfly at London's 2012 Games.) English Gardner, anyone? She's maybe the fastest woman in the US right now, over 100 meters.
None of these people are truly household names, in the way that Sonic and Mario, or Messi (definitely) and Marco (possibly, certainly soon to be) are. Back in 2008, for the official Beijing Summer Games tie-in, then published by Sega, shot-putter Reese Hoffa and swimmer Amanda Beard, both Americans, appeared on its cover, doing wonders for their public recognition across the world. That the game in question was multi-format, on Sony and Microsoft consoles and PC—the Wii and DS got their Mario and Sonic games—furthered its reach in a way that no Nintendo-only release can aspire to. The stateside cover for London 2012 also featured a quartet of Team USA contenders, depicted as titans, towering superhumans, above landmarks of the English capital.
Many competitors at the Summer Games aren't rolling in monetary rewards for their physical efforts in the same way as top stars in the English Premier League, American NBA, or the most outstanding talents in golf and tennis. They're in it for the pride and the glory, to meet that challenge of excelling over all of your peers. However, if you're winning in a vacuum of publicity, that's no help whatsoever for the continuing health of your chosen sport.
In the UK, in 2015, it emerged that casual participation in sporting activity was falling across the board, most noticeably in swimming, despite the enthusiasm the nation at large had expressed around London 2012. The biggest team games like football and basketball have their pedestal-positioned superstars to forever attract new fans—but here we see a sign, in a mostly individual discipline like swimming, that having no central figureheads can play a part in a national decline of involvement.
There's more to it, of course—investment in local facilities, to actually enable participation, is something that requires attention. But knowing what a successful video game can do for alternative-media engagement—how many people get into a new band through a game, or actively pursue new stories set within previously unexplored comic-book universes—I'm sure that not having the most promising and most likely to alike from Rio 2016 on the cover of a video game is, however slightly, nonetheless damaging to the public's appreciation of just how phenomenal these men and women are.
'London 2012,' launch trailer
We all know Sonic can run quickly, and that Mario's pretty nifty when it comes to leaping about the place. But having these characters in real-world sports, using power-up tricks also seen in, for example, Ultra Smash or Super Mario Strikers, feels like a substantial underselling of just what it takes to reach the top level. I'm not sure that it trivialises their commitment, per se, but it definitely takes away that superhuman element: Mario and Sonic's version of the 2016 Olympics features a robot in the javelin and a gorilla in the boxing. Now that's just cheating even before someone squirts ink everywhere, isn't it?
Why no Bolt-et-al game to complement Mario and Sonic in 2016, then? To me, it's something that's always been there, ever since the very first official release. (I played the hell out of Olympic Gold, on the Game Gear. I'm surprised I didn't hammer right through the console, or at the very least develop RSI at a stupendously young age, given the punishment of its 200-meter freestyle.) Not seeing one up there, out there, beside the now-established cartoon-y Nintendo take, is a big disappointment.
It turns out that the developer of 2012's game, Sega Australia Studios, closed its doors in 2013, and that was that for a 2016 tie-in, with Sega Sports Japan taking the reins for Mario and Sonic and nobody else stepping up to handle the companion affair. A cruelly simple explanation, but a puzzling one, too. It's not like London 2012 performed ostensibly poorly—in the UK, it was at number one on the all-formats chart for three weeks, and sold close to 700,000 copies in its financial year. That's not a bad return given the naturally short shelf life of any game explicitly tied to a real-world event. And the short shelf life shouldn't be a factor, either—EA continues to issue World Cup games alongside its FIFA series, and its 2014 World Cup Brazil release even made a mark on the US charts as anticipation for that year's big kick-off grew.
This year off for a "proper" Olympic game—well, eight years off really, given the next opportunity for one will come in 2020—doesn't bode well for a return come Tokyo's Games four summers from now. Depending on how well virtual reality gaming establishes itself in the home, there might be an opening for a great track-and-field collection that used that technology to give players a sense of what it's like to hurl a spear across a stadium; although anything more kinetic, like the hurdles or gymnastics, would be a motion-sickness challenge that no developer would gladly take on today.
But I can't see it happening. The Mario and Sonic releases are sold on their cast of decades-long-known anthropomorphic avatars rather than their selection of events, and with fencing, table tennis and hammer throwing hardly rivaling the NFL for viewing figures, converting these sports into intuitive interactive games is something I think we'll now see an end to, outside of Nintendo's blessedly blinkered commitment to the cause (no doubt in some way informed by the company's continuing dedication to improving its players' "quality of life"). I could be wrong. I hope so, because it must be massively motivating for any young athlete to see someone they look up to staring back at them from a video game. But with Sega stalling and Mario dominant, I suspect that's it, game over, for another crack at Olympic Gold.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.