Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the newest instalment in the Mario & Sonic at the Olympics series of sports games. This is my first time playing a game in this series and my only experience with Olympic themed video games is when I was a kid I rented something on PS1 (It was most likely Sydney 2000). I remember it being incredibly dull, and the constant button mashing hurt my fingers. While Tokyo 2020 features some fun looking events like rugby and skateboarding, my biggest question is, how will SEGA make events like sprinting and floor gymnastics fun?
Tokyo 2020 features a full story mode, so I thought I would jump into that first. Dr. Eggman has invented the Tokyo '64 Console. It's a retro video game console based on the Olympics of 1964. Users are literally sucked into the game and apparently there is no way to escape. Bowser and Dr. Eggman plan to trap Mario and Sonic in this console, but unfortunately for the dastardly duo, this all goes wrong when they get sucked in with them too. Luckily Dr. Eggman thought ahead, there is actually a means of escape, by collecting gold medals of course!
In case you're not an Olympics fan and are wondering why they end up at the 1964 Olympics; this was the first time Japan hosted them (and the first time they were in Asia.) It was a massive deal at the time and is captured in the incredible documentary Tokyo Olympiad. NZ sports fans will know this Olympics as the time Peter Snell won three gold medals. (To this day he is the only male since 1920 to win the 800 and 1500 metres at the same Olympics.)
Inside the retro console Mario & Bowser return to their original NES form and Sonic & Eggman go Mega Drive style. The problem is NES is 8-Bit and Mega Drive is 16-Bit, so this mix of opposing graphical styles looks odd. Why couldn't they both be 16-Bit? Mario has some great 1-Bit sprites in Super Mario World. But really, I think there was a huge missed opportunity, It's set during '64, so why couldn't the graphics be 64-Bit? With SNES and NES sports games available for free with a Nintendo Online subscription, isn't it time for something different?
Motion controls are a big feature of Tokyo 2020. That's why I was surprised story mode started in the retro world as here you only use buttons. My first event was sprinting and guess what? It just consisted of me mashing one or two buttons — not a great start. Thankfully, parallel to Mario and Sonic being stuck in the Tokyo '64 Console. Luigi, Tails and others are competing in the 2020 Olympics. The events here are much more fun, Sprinting consisted of waving the Joy-Cons about, and floor gymnastics has you attempting to mimic the motion of a gymnast. The motion controls worked well in some events, but I found them confusing in more complex events like skateboarding and rock climbing. However, motion controls are optional, and before the event, you can choose between 1 or 2 Joy-Consor a button control scheme.
In both the 'real world' and the retro world you travel around a map to visit the various sports stadiums and tourist destinations in Tokyo. It feels like a tourism advert, but it's done in such an earnest way that It was actually genuinely quite charming. At each location, you can learn trivia about Japan, The Olympics, Nintendo and SEGA. In between events, there are also mini-games to participate in, but these are afterthoughts that mostly control poorly and are not fun to play. Before the start of each event, you are given a brief explanation of how to play. Sometimes the instructions are a little overwhelming, but in-game prompts help you learn on the go. Once you beat the event, you are usually told advanced strategies or button presses that were not explained earlier. It's surprising how deep some of the events are, but it's a shame that the story mode is so easy that these tips and tricks aren't helpful unless you are playing a different game mode.
I liked the early Sonic games, but I must admit I haven't followed the franchise like I have Mario. The Mario characters that appear in this game are varied and recognizable. Where I feel like the majority of Sonic characters just look like colour swapped Sonics. There is even a character called Eggman Nega who looks exactly the same as Dr Eggman; apparently, he is a distant offspring. Several other characters had a big role, like some blinged up crocodile who features more heavily in the story over other characters like Knuckles and Amy, whom I believe are more recognizable.
In the end, the storyline mode feels like a cute way of advertising Japan and introducing the player to the various events (over twenty 3D, ten retro, three dream events and several mini-games.) But presumably, players will spend the majority of their time playing events at random, Wii Sports style. Playing this way is a breeze, loading times are super fast, and you can change events or demand a re-match quickly and easily. Each event has three difficulty levels, so if you wanted to get every medal, it will take some time.
Now let's talk about the best mode in this game, multiplayer. I played with my Japanese student, and we had a blast. The majority of events can be played with one Joy-Con each, and this suited me perfectly as I only have one set. The highlight was javelin; the motion of pretending to throw a Joy-Con felt incredibly natural. But once again we both had problems with events like surfing. There is just no natural way of replicating some sports on one or even two Joy-Cons. Only owning one set of Joy-Cons does have its drawbacks though, in events like boxing and archery we had to stick to using the buttons, as the one Joy-Con mode was unavailable, it just didn't feel like the correct way of playing.
The large variety of events means you could play this game with anyone. Something like sprinting that requires no skill meant my student's youthful vigour allowed her to beat me with ease. But in more complex events like rugby (an absolute highlight of this game), I completely destroyed her. (She had flashbacks of the South Africa vs Japan game) I could imagine these kinds of events could get really competitive with a fellow seasoned gamer. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to play with one (gamers rise up.)
Even though I mentioned there is a large variety of events, I wish they'd have just scrapped all the retro events. It did make the story mode more interesting, but most of the retro events were incredibly boring. I would have preferred just a couple more 3D team games. Basketball, handball, baseball and hockey are missing from this game.
At the beginning of this review, I wondered how SEGA would find the fun in some of the more boring events. The simple answer is they succeeded with cute Nintendo/SEGA designs, characters and mostly-fun motion controls. This does mean that events with poor motion controls aren't fun, but luckily the majority were great. This is a charming and well presented fun family game. Kids will have a blast with this, especially when the actual Olympics start. I could imagine the fun of replicating the sports you watch on TV as your favourite Nintendo or SEGA character. Older gamers will enjoy challenging friends or flatmates in events like football and rugby.
+ Fun for the whole family.
+ Multiplayer is a blast.
+ UI is fast and easy.
- Retro mode events were boring.