Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: sports games are best when they’re fun video games first

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 came out back in 2019 before the whole COVID-19 situation happened, so of course it represents a gleefully optimistic view at what should have been going down in Tokyo last year. Now that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are actually underway, it seems like a good idea to revisit this Switch title — particularly now that there’s likely to be some renewed interest in it.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is one of two officially licensed Olympics games that are available right now. While Sega’s effort — an excellent game in its own right — is available for multiple current platforms, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is, as you might expect, exclusive to the Nintendo Switch.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

There are a few different ways to play Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The simplest is the Quick Play mode for a single Switch console, which simply allows you to pick any of the events in the game — either the “modern” events presented in polygonal graphics or the “Tokyo 1964” pixel-art events — and play them either solo or with up to four other players on the same system. Some events allow for simultaneous split-screen play; others require players to take turns.

Quick Play also allows you to tweak a few settings where appropriate for the games. CPU opponent difficulty can be set between Normal (very easy), Hard (a decent challenge) and Very Hard (a stiff challenge), and events with variable point or time limits can be adjusted. Don’t expect any “full-length” matches here, though; this is a game designed for arcadey-style quick play, so even the longest matches of team sports such as football and rugby sevens are no more than four minutes at a time.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

Alongside this, there’s a Local Play option for multiple Switch devices to play together — though every player needs a copy of the game — along with an Online Play option. Sadly, even with Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 becoming relevant again due to the arrival of the real-life Olympics, it’s difficult to find an online match without pre-arranging one with friends. At the time of testing, there were no public rooms (from which you can launch any events) open by any players, and it’s impossible to tell from the game’s menus if anyone is queueing for specific events, whether in Ranked or Free mode. Don’t pick this up expecting meaningful online competition.

Which is a shame, because the events are all a lot of fun, combining the usual button-mashing fare from games like this with some more interesting, technical events that demand a bit of skill. Given that the game is clearly aimed at a young (or young at heart) audience, none of the events have especially complicated controls — though like Sega’s Tokyo 2020 game, most of them do have a selection of optional “Advanced Controls” that you can use in order to take additional actions while competing.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

That said, there’s plenty of fun to be had as a solo player, or with a group of friends playing together in the same room. The computer opponents on the hardest difficulty will put up a stiff fight, and there’s a large selection of Achievement-esque “Challenges” to complete if you want to truly say you’ve “beaten” the game. Plus many of the events are just fun to play and enjoyable to watch — and some are quite an unusual inclusion for a game like this.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 incorporates a number of events that are either new for the real-life Tokyo 2020 Olympics, or which have been singled out by commentators as being particularly interesting and noteworthy. Surfing, skateboarding and speed climbing are all present and correct, each with their own easy to learn control schemes — and skateboarding even has a “Dream Event” spinoff that combines the movement and trick mechanics of the main skateboarding event with a race through a typically Sonic the Hedgehog-esque rollercoaster course.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

The “fighting-style” events such as karate and fencing are interesting inclusions; while, again, rather simplistic to play, they challenge some skills that are not often explored in games like this such as managing space and understanding reach. Plus it’s just plain entertaining to see Daisy kicking the crap out of Waluigi or Blaze stabbing Eggman with a foil.

Most events feature some sort of “super” mechanic that charges up as you play; unleashing this allows you to earn more points in events based on style or other forms of score, while in more directly competitive events they tend to offer you some sort of significant advantage.

They’re not completely impossible to counter in most cases, but they are difficult to deal with; thankfully the game is balanced in such a way that all opponents in a match, regardless of event, will generally get at least one chance to make use of their super — and in some cases, the super is a reward for performing particularly well.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

Tricky events to simulate like gymnastics are handled well, consisting of a combination of rapid button combinations, timed stick movements and careful observation to keep your athlete “balanced”. Swimming eschews the usual button-mashing in favour of dual stick movement that simulates your chosen athlete’s favoured stroke. And events that are heavily dependent on timing — the equestrian and hurdles events are good examples — provide helpful, easy to understand and clear visual cues to help you determine what the correct timing is.

The core of Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is a clear understanding of a concept a lot of modern sports games developers have forgotten these days: that the best sports video games are the ones that are enjoyable video games first, accurate sports simulations second.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

Look back at some of the most enjoyable sports titles from the early eras of gaming — even right back to the Atari 2600 days — and you’ll find that the most enduring ones are those that bear only a passing resemblance to the real-life sport, but which are simply enjoyable to play.

The same is very much true for Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. No athletics game is ever going to really “feel” like competing in the real-life sport — so you may as well throw realism out of the window and just produce something with a satisfying control scheme, enjoyable visual flourishes and a bit of light-hearted silliness along the way. And Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 very much delivers on that front; it’s just fun to play. Not only that, but for those who grew up with Konami’s Track & Field, there’s a host of enjoyable retro-style events to take on, too — all of which work very well.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

For the solo player, the main attraction is likely to be Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020’s story mode. Here, Mario, Sonic, Eggman and Bowser find themselves sucked into a games console after one of Eggman’s well-laid plans goes somewhat awry. What then follows is a series of fairly transparent excuses to compete in various Olympic events while Tails and company attempt to get them out of the mess.

It’s actually a surprisingly substantial and well-realised affair. Between competing in events, you have the the opportunity to explore various landmarks such as Shibuya scramble crossing and Tokyo Tower as well as the sporting venues in Tokyo, collecting trivia cards along the way that reveal interesting facts about Tokyo, the Olympic Games and the characters in the game.

There are also a number of minigames in the story mode that aren’t seen in the Quick Play mode — Sonic racing a bullet train-driving Eggman is a memorable example. Once you’ve beaten these minigames in the story mode, you can replay them from the game’s menus, too, which is a nice inclusion.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

The story is absolute nonsense, of course, but as a means of providing some sort of context to what is going on — as well as a structured means of taking you gradually through all the events in the game — it’s an enjoyable single-player challenge. Plus the inclusion of the collectible trivia cards makes for a diverting metagame — and one that will doubtless be of particular interest to younger audiences, or those especially interested in the Olympics. Like its Sega counterpart, it’s especially noteworthy given the troubled history of the real-life Olympics it’s commemorating!

Ultimately whether or not Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will appeal to you will depend on your patience for this type of game. As a solo game, there’s a lot of fun to be had here when you take the story mode into account in particular. Multiplayer, however, feels a little underbaked; the Quick Play mode only allows for competing in single events, with no ongoing ranking or tournament facilities in place.

Online, too, is largely unusable for public matches at the moment; without any indication of who is playing what event — if anyone — it’s impossible to know what it’s worth queueing for, so you’re best off getting together with friends if you can convince them to pick up a copy of the game themselves.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

These flaws aside, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is a well-presented game that is full of the typical Nintendo and Sega charm, and is a fun game to bust out when you just fancy some simple, straightforward arcade-style fun for which you don’t have to think too hard. This isn’t a game you’re going to be playing for months at a time — but it is one you may just find yourself wanting to get down off the shelf now and again the next time you fancy seeing Daisy in a leotard.

I, err, I mean enjoying some fun sporting action.

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Pete Davison
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