After 12 years and five games, Mario and Sonic competing together at the Olympics is no longer shocking. The animosity of the Sega/Nintendo ’90s console war has long subsided; Mario and Sonic have faced off across three generations of Smash Bros games, and the blue blur has starred in numerous Nintendo console exclusives. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 seems to recognize this, and does not lean in too hard on the gimmick; in the series’ first story mode, for instance, the characters from the Mario and Sonic universes chat and mingle without much fuss or fanfare about their worlds colliding. Instead of relying on brand recognition, Tokyo 2020 succeeds by being the most fully-featured and content-rich game in the series, serving up a lot of enjoyable, accessible minigames.
The game features 34 distinct events (including 10 rendered in a retro style to commemorate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), 10 bonus minigames, a story mode, and online play. Events range from athletic button-mashers like the 100m and swimming races to sports like boxing, equestrian, and archery, all of which are easy to pick up and understand. The controls for every sport are extremely simple, occasionally to the point of being reductive–you’re not actually in control of your character’s movement in badminton and table tennis, for instance, only controlling where and when you hit the shuttlecock and ball. But some events feel more fleshed out, like soccer and rugby sevens; they won’t give FIFA or Madden a run for their money, but they’re a nice representation of the sports with all the edges and requirements of expertise sanded off, and make for an enjoyable casual take on the sports they represent. There are no absolute duds in the package, which makes for an unusually high hit rate for a game of this type.
Every event has a “buttons only” option and can be played with any controller (including a single Joy-Con) without issue, but several also allow for motion controls. It’s good that motion controls are completely optional, because their implementation is inconsistent. Any mini-game that requires accuracy, or returning the controller repeatedly to a central point, is better off with a controller in hand. Simulating a sprint by pumping your hands is entertaining, as is manipulating a Joy-Con like a skateboard. But strangely, sports that require the use of hands, like sports climbing and boxing, can feel messy and imprecise. The motion controls aren’t exact enough that they’d be my preference in any event, but thankfully you can avoid them entirely if you want.
Every event also features a bit of video game flourish, allowing you to pull off special moves to score more points or overwhelm your opponents. Each 2020 event has some sort of “Super” mechanic that kicks in if you press R at a certain point or perform an action perfectly. Depending on the event this can mean you get a burst of speed, extra power, or double scoring. Curiously, beyond this, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 often feels quite straight-laced and sincere in its approach to these sports. The exception to this is in the three “Dream Events”–a hoverboard race, a competitive motion-controlled shooter event where players shoot targets and kites as they pop up around a castle, and a karate variant that transforms the dignified martial art into something more akin to Power Stone, as four players fight simultaneously in a 3D arena. The race is by far the most enjoyable, riffing on the old Sonic Riders series, although it’s limited to a single course; the other two do not make much of an impression.
Some events are unlikely to hold your attention for long or bring you back often to try for a high score. Surfing feels good thanks to some strong animations, but there’s not enough variation between waves to hold your interest long term; skateboarding looks great, but the simplicity of the control scheme becomes stifling after a few rounds; the kayak event is controlled by rotating the stick, which is tedious. But most games hold up well in local multiplayer, as the simple controls (most only use two or three buttons) mean that they’re easy to pick up and learn. Mastering the exact timing on the 100m sprint and relay races, or working to get your best distance in long jump or javelin throw, makes for an enjoyable experience–especially if other players are involved.
It’s a shame that the multiplayer options are so limited–you’re limited to simply going through the events in “quick play” and going through them one by one. There’s no opportunity to arrange multi-event tournaments, for instance; it’s just a matter of picking which events to play, and then playing them. Casual and ranked online play is included as well, but I did not have much success finding lag-free games, and it’s not the sort of experience that translates well to online play. It’s much more enjoyable when your opponents are in the room with you, all desperately trying to bash the ‘A’ button or master an equestrian course.
The major exciting addition in Tokyo 2020 are the new “Tokyo 1964” events, which render the action in a manner fitting somewhere between 8- and 16-bit graphics. They’re designed as though they were NES games, confined to two buttons, and super moves have been excised. You can turn on a CRT filter for these events to replicate the NES era better, and the minigames pay homage to the button-mashers of the time, albeit with less punishing controls (even if, yes, you’ll be asked to mash A as fast as possible). The highlight is a tremendously strange take on running a marathon, where you need to gauge your stamina, grab water cups from tables, ride the wakes of other runners, and aim for boost pads to reach the front of the pack.
Tokyo 1964 is a fun bonus, and it’s surprisingly integral to the Story Mode. The plot concerns Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman being sucked into an old game console to compete in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and they have to run around to win medals that will ultimately restore them to the present. This mode is a big bogged down by lots of text-only conversations of little consequence, but the overarching plot is appealing goofy, at least. The highlight is seeing game’s take on various iconic Tokyo locations, like Shibuya Crossing and Tokyo Skytree, lovingly rendered and filled with Mario and Sonic characters. They’re beautifully realised, and I found myself getting unexpectedly invested in the upcoming Olympics as I played through, visiting each venue and reading the collectable chunks of Olympic trivia that pop up in each environment.
The story is largely an excuse to run through most of the events in the game, and the difficulty is turned all the way down: if you fail an event three times you can skip it. You also unlock a handful of new playable guest characters for Quick Play (who are only playable in certain specific events, strangely) and a further 10 minigames by playing through the short campaign. Some of these minigames are amusingly bizarre–I certainly didn’t expect a retro-styled stealth game in the middle of my Olympics experience.
Mario & Sonic at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 is an entertaining take on the sports-event genre that has, by and large, disappeared in the modern-day. The game aims for accessibility at every opportunity, and while nothing about it is particularly exceptional, it still has plenty of unique flourishes to offer, and the wealth of different events and simple controls make for an appealing casual multiplayer title. Thanks to a generous selection of events and a few neat gimmicks, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the best entry in this series.