So here we are. After over a year of in-canon hype, Equestria Games finally airs. It's a self-contained episode written by Dave Polsky (who previously wrote Daring Don't, Rarity Takes Manehattan, Twilight Time, and For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils), who wrote one Equestria Games-centered episode once prior in Games Ponies Play. The ponified version of the Olympics offers a ton of creativity and interaction among different cultures, traditions, and characters. With plenty to experience and build, the logical part was to explore various aspects of it, right?
Instead, Spike was the focus with the Games relegated to the background, resulting in missed opportunities, a broken promise, and a broken conflict that had no business taking place at the Games.
For the most part, the Mane Six are relatively in character. Whatever they said, did, and behaved were very appropo to their respective personalities and development up to this point. Admittingly, Snowflake and Fluttershy were still out of character, but that's because Rainbow Falls royally screwed up the continuity, and Polsky was stuck with the crap RF left behind. And on the side, it's downright refreshing to see an array of characters beyond just the typical we normally witness. It gives the Equestria Games a subtle parallel to the international mosaic of the real-life Olympics. In particular the royalty suite, where the nobles, ambassadors, and leaders from other cities or countries. More of that…if you guys at Hasbro and DHX have the wherewithal to thrust the opportunities forward.
Whichever competitions were shown (ice archery, aerial relay), they were unique and fit the lore of Equestria.
On its own, the moral itself — sometimes the one who's most hard on is yourself; take pride in the hard work you endured — is very relatable and mature. You have so many people young and old who feel exactly the same as Spike did in EG.
The visuals are quite beautiful (if ignoring the fadeaway dots in the crowd). There's nice detail with great usage of perspective, and the Crystal Empire itself doesn't let up on the high-quality layouts. Despite The Crystal Empire being a weakly told two-parter, the visuals never cease to impress.
Some of the comedy works. The hammerspace gag is perfect for the climax, along with others like Dash's "casual" pose as Spike sulks by or Twilight's "Equestria, we have a problem." (Pinkie's "NAILED IT!", though, is very forced.)
One of the common problems that's been noticeable lately is the continuing of a flanderized portion of Spike being clumsy or just plain stupid. In one moment, this clumsiness was justified by having him light up the torch. It's one thing to light or burn something on your own or a small group. it's another before a stadium containing anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 spectators.
The abundance of Derpy. Need I say more?
Weaknesses (and I have a ton to write about):
It's a very common sin, one that Tommy Oliver and other reviewers have called out quite a bit this season: the arbitrary exposition. Instead of establishing the conflict early through organic storytelling, the dialogue tells you exactly what the conflict will be before the first act heads to commercial. By telling right off the bat, you take the fun out of the journey, make the conclusion extremely predictable, and immediately suck investment out from the audience. It was one of Rainbow Falls's quietest yet biggest issues, one that's occurred repeatedly this season. Equestria Games falls for that same trap when Spike tells the Cutie Mark Crusaders he takes a few breaths to calm himself (something he was unable to do for understandable reasons). For extra exposition, there was the medal count Pinkie revealed later in the episode. Instead of showing the medal count, Pinkie told the audience who had the most medals up to the final event. The problem with it is twofold. a. It was told for the reasons already given. b. It became a sudden moment of tension between the Mane Six. A sudden, unnecessary secondhand conflict that was resolved as quickly as revealed. If medal-watching was supposed to be important, then it should've been there rather early rather than be a clumsy twist.
The climax is very contrived. Unicorns are forced to pass through a security system that temporarily disables their magic "to prevent cheating." An Earth pony suddenly trips over his own arrows and accidentally shoots an arrow into the sky, freezing a cloud that somehow hung over the stadium. Because of the security system in check, no unicorn or alicorn is capable of using their magic to dispel the frozen cloud. That leaves Spike to be the one to save the day. Okaaaaayyy… a. So why didn't anyone keep the sky clear during the Equestria Games? That way, that botched shot wouldn't touch the cloud and condense it with ice. Also, just in case something like this does happen, wouldn't some kind of magic shield, force field, or spell dispel any magic that touched anything stray other than the target itself? That way, you continue the competition safely. b. Although Luna and Celestia flew to the frozen cloud to stop it from falling, certainly there was one unicorn or alicorn allowed as security to prevent life-or-death situations like these. If not, then that's very poor security. c. As what @ said recently, the climax is given to him. He didn't have to work hard; he was there by chance and took advantage. This isn't like For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils, where the Cutie Mark Crusaders play a game of cat and mouse to fix the headdress or TT123 where Twilight used Dash's ability to concentrate while flying to help her study. Through EG's process, the climax is anticlimactic. d. Instead of Act 2, why not have unicorns and alicorns pass through the security screening early in Equestria Games and show an olympic competition with at least one unicorn? When you add ponies with horns into the competition and take care of it early, it adds credibility to the security system and settles the plot point more organically into the story. (Then again, this would more than likely nullify Spike's sudden stage fright midway in Act 1 and kill Spike's conflict altogether.)
There's a difference between having Spike being naïve, nervous, and an idiot. Spike not being able to light up the torch and believing he let everyone down was very in character. The fact that he felt down after bumbling the Cloudesdale anthem was in character…until you look at what happened earlier. a. Spike said aloud that he can conjure fire with his mind?
Granted, it was reinforced through one instance in Owl's Well (because Spikabuse is SOOOOOOOOOOOO hilarious!), but Spike actually believed he could light up fire for some time? C'mon, man! You just crossed that line from making Spike nervous for a good reason into flanderizing his failures and making him an idiot! b. Speaking of making Spike an idiot, why the HELL would he even want to sing the Cloudesdale anthem when he obviously had no idea what the lyrics were despite claiming he did? Just by the first screwup alone and overall episode pattern, he was obviously going to screw up even bigger than last time. Through the sequences, it merely sets up more fervent embarrassment he had to endure. And worse, his out-of-character actions were written partially for laughs and partially to make you feel bad for him. That scene is called cringe comedy, but done out of the expense of Spike's characterization. Out-of-character comedy isn't good comedy, especially when the comedy is done to undeservingly abuse a child character! (That's one thing Power Ponies deserves credit. At least Spike was treated with some level of respect, as the taunting he received was frowned upon in story.)
The moral itself is fine, but there are plenty of problems. a. It was told to Spike in the last two minutes. Spike didn't figure it out himself. While it isn't a copy of the morals being executed in Bridle Gossip, Mare Do Well, Spike at Your Service, or Somepony to Watch Over Me (all bad episodes; don't kid yourself otherwise), EG still follows the same method in context. b. It was shoehorned. While you can relate to him (when bypassing his flanderization mid-episode), the moral itself was very blunt and didn't fit the context of the conflict. c. Like Feeling Pinkie Keen, the moral was poorly worded. Don't know what I mean? Here's the moral: It's so convoluted, it flows through one ear and out the other, seemingly to fill in script space. If it was something like this: Or this: …then you make the moral a bit clearer. (The third needs a bit more editing to make it more optimistic.)
At the beginning, several ponies were exercising and lifting weights a few hours before the Equestria Games. This is something you may overlook, but exercising strenuously on the day of the event (particularly a few hours before it starts) can leave you very vulnerable to injury, because your muscles need time to recover.
The episode not only breaks the promise of expectations for the Equestria Games, but also doesn't hide it. You want to know what I mean? Focus on the title: Equestria Games. The purpose of titles is to inform people of not just the setting, but also what the plot will be about. For example: a. Wonderbolts Academy, Magic Duel, Maud Pie, Apple Family Reunion, Applebuck Season, The Crystal Empire, A Canterlot Wedding, Winter Wrap Up, The Mysterious Mare Do Well: Self-explanatory. b. Bats!: The plot revolved on the conflict of bats. The exclamation point indicates surprise and how urgent the situation with the bats is. c. Lesson Zero: Twilight needs a lesson of friendship to write to Celestia, yet doesn't have one. d. Hurricane Fluttershy: Focuses on Fluttershy, a weather-centered conflict, and a metaphor of Fluttershy's fragile psyche. e. Green Isn't Your Color: Referencing "green with envy" and the struggle with jealousy. f. Too Many Pinkie Pies: Pinkie Pie along with "too many," a negative phrase. g. Rainbow Falls: Two references: the setting and Rainbow Dash's external conflict. Equestria Games translates to a primary focus on the Games, especially to those who don't review the synopsis or previews. Plenty of bronies watch the episodes blind, and the title indicates a primary focus on the ponified Olympics. And how can you blame them? For fifteen months and through parts of two seasons, the Equestria Games built up hype and expectations. FOUR episodes prior were heavily dedicated to hyping the Equestria Games. Grandiose, athletic, and full of life. Not everyone watches the Olympics (including me personally), but it doesn't alter the fact how important it really is. The Games are symbolic with people coming from all walks of life; they're important to athletes worldwide because they represent the best in their countries. The Equestria Games was a parody of this and built itself up as something more important and grander than the Grand Galloping Gala. How? Again, four episodes focused on the preparation for the Equestria Games. Sure, none of them were good (Flight to the Finish the best one; Rainbow Falls easily the worst), but it still doesn't affect the event's importance. DHX and Hasbro promised to the audience that the Equestria Games (one of three overarching plots this season) was worth watching. Not just through web promotions, but also the episodes themselves (as they each held a very heavy focus). Instead? The overarching plot is a half-assed gimmick for an unnecessary main conflict. This has been a gigantic problem all season: premise over story. CloudCookooCountry's very negative review of EG (and also season 4 collectively) explains this perfectly. EG is shoved in as the premise to create Spike's story, conflict, and moral. You could've used ANY piece of the Games for Spike's story, and it wouldn't change. Hell, Spike's confidence problems could take place ANYWHERE in the canon, and it wouldn't change the story. Just like several other bad episodes this season like Daring Don't, Power Ponies, Bats!, Rainbow Falls, It Ain't Easy Bein' Breezies, and Trade Ya!, it's as if DHX is focused more on the setting or the premise over the story, characters, and overall conflict. When they have the setting prepared, they have plenty of difficulty what to do with the setting and just plug in the overall narrative with hopes of making it work. Why that's the case, I don't know. Either the writers are experimenting and hoping to succeed, Hasbro is mandating them to introduce wilder and clunkier premises to pander to its older audience, a combination of both, or none of the above. In what was the series and web promotions hyped for a grand payoff, the conclusion to this arc contributed nothing to the series. It was a trap simply to sucker the audience and achieve high rankings. We won't know the official results until later this week, but just by the weak writing and unfulfillment of expectations, EG feels like an obvious rating's trap. To echo Tommy Oliver: DHX, why the fuck would you hype up the ponified Olympics and spend more quantity of time on it over the Grand Galloping Gala if the Equestria Games DOES — NOTHING?! Normally, you'd set aside audience expectations and review the quality of the writing itself. But because the build up to the Games's conclusion and expectations are interconnected, it'd be insulting to separate the two. What Equestria Games does is a really big crime in storytelling: build expectations and not capitalize on them. What makes this anomaly stand out more is how these expectations are spat at, as if they mean nothing. That's low. At this point, there are two people to vote "I hated it!" for Equestrian Games; one of them is mine. And it's a shame, too, because the Games offer SO MUCH to explore. You have various ethnicities, the spirit of friendly rivalry, how sportsmanship affects people in other cultures around Equestria and other countries, the styles of events to parallel the Olympics while blending with the lore of the canon simultaneously, the griffons, the security system beyond being a transparent Chekhov's Gun, and interactions in the stands. All of these are much more interesting than the crap featured in this episode. And as fun as fanfic is, it shouldn't be relied on to fill in the gaps. As cool as Spike is, his conflict and bastardization in the second half are out of place, especially one to last for the entire episode. And I know a few people will recognize how plenty saw the previews along with the synopses. That still doesn't nullify the lies Equestria Games exhausts.
There are three overarching plots this season: the six keys/Chest of Harmony, the Castle of the Royal Sisters, and the Equestria Games. The Equestria Games is the focus, and Equestria Games is the self-contained finale of the arc. After fifteen long months, the Games take place…only to have it be a backdrop for Spike. The young dragon's conflict had no business lasting this long, if not at all. At most, it should've lasted before the first act concluded. But it lasted way too long, and the Games were rushed through to reach the contrived climax and poorly executed moral. After enormous build-up through parts of two seasons and heavy promotion, Broken Promise: The Episode is a glaring rating's trap to inorganically shove Spike in the spotlight in an unnecessary setting. You could've had Spike be placed anywhere, and you still would've had the same story. It's an underwhelming conclusion with blatant deception, culminating in an overarching plot that doesn't need to exist. Overall, a terrible episode.
Source: S04:E24 - Equestria Games