Getting in early and ready for next year’s Summer Games, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 marks the sixth entry in the series and its first appearance on the Nintendo Switch. Following a pair of disappointing releases on the Wii U, can SEGA’s latest effort get things back on course for its two lead heroes?
At its core, the series has essentially been a series of mini-games based around the events of the Olympic Games. Things are no different here, with a decent number of events included in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – split between a mixture of Olympic, Dream and 2D-style totalling 34 in all. Olympic events offer a more down-to-Earth take while Dream goes for a far more frantic and Mario/Sonic inspired approach. Overall the level of quality is pretty high with only a small handful of events feeling like true duds.
You’ll find a good variety of Olympic events included. These range from the more traditional like 100m sprint and javelin to the newly introduced such as surfing and skateboard. Both motion and button controls can be selected for most events with some faring better using the former option than others. Archery, for example, feels like a great fit, pulling back on a Joy-Con and tilting the pair to aim an extremely satisfying and intuitive experience. It’s great having the option though as we often found ourselves hopping between traditional and motion from event to event.
Other events that stand out include Rugby Sevens and Football both of which offer a fast-paced and competitive arcade take on the sports. Sport Climbing is a surprisingly tough and timing focused event that had our group on the edge of their seats trying to reach the highest point. Even the events that have been done to death by now still remain fun. Javelin involves a mix of button bashing followed by an estimation of the best angle to throw. 100m is ten seconds of pure frantic mashing of buttons or waggling of Joy-Con but it has that ‘one more go’ feel about it.
As I mentioned there a few events that either aren’t as fun or feel too clunky to control. Discus for example takes a much different approach with its controls that aren’t satisfying using motion or buttons. And as much as I wanted to like surfing, it never felt like more than repeating the same movements over and over. The Dream events too are a bit of a let-down with only three available and each delivering an experience of varying quality. Dream Karate for instance feels like it would have been more at home as a Mario Party mini-game.
The 2D events featured in the Tokyo 1964 mode are such a treat both from a nostalgia standpoint and an enjoyment one. These ten games are all presented in a retro, pixelated style complete with eight and sixteen-bit sprites for a group of the game’s roster. While only supporting two players, the events are no less fun, each one nailing that 90s-vibe it’s shooting for. Few events overlap with the modern selection and even those that do play different enough to stand apart. We absolutely loved playing through the Tokyo 1964 events so much so that it left us wanting more. If SEGA were to commit to an entirely retro-based Olympics game in the future I would certainly not complain.
As good as the overall selection is, the game does feel like it has a few gaps in its line-up. Athletics events like hammer throw, high jump and shot put are nowhere to be found while a lack of some of the more unique events like baseball and BMX feel like a missed opportunity. At the end of the day, everyone is going to have their own personal favourites though – some included and some maybe not – but what is here feels like it covers a good range of sports and events.
The story mode is a surprising addition but one that tends to drag far too often despite a few neat moments. As far as the narrative goes, Bowser and Dr. Eggman are up to no good planning to trap Mario and Sonic in an old gaming system. While their plan is successful they also find themselves sucked in too. What then follows is a story of two halves, one taking place within the retro pixelated world and the other with Luigi and Tails trying to save them in the modern world.
The interactions between characters from both the Mario and Sonic worlds is initially amusing but ultimately ends up losing its novelty once you realise how throwaway the dialogue is. Even more annoying is you can’t skip these conversations – of which there are many. The dozen-plus chapters offer a mixture of light exploration, event competition and mini-games that might see you smacking around shy guys or climbing the Tokyo Tower. It’s an unexpectedly lengthy adventure and if anything a good way to introduce you to the game’s numerous events.
If you want to just hop in and get right to playing then the game allows you to choose any of its 34 events and compete against the AI or with others. While we had fun randomly working our way through the list one by one, the fact you can’t set up tournaments or your own customised pentathlons hurts the competitive drive of the game. Unlike Mario Kart 8 Deluxe where every race within a Grand Prix feels important since it’s adding to your final score, here each event feels more inconsequential since there’s nothing tying it all together.
There’s also a general lack of customisation and options across the board. Take events like long jump and javelin that see you making just two attempts (as opposed to the usual three it’s always been in past games). Sure it keeps things moving at a brisk pace, but at the same time, it also feels rushed. An option that allowed the player to select how many attempts they can have would have solved this. Likewise, the option to switch off special meters again would have been appreciated for those who don’t want them.
The game does include an online option allowing you to compare your best times and scores with the rest of the world while all Olympic and Dream events can be played both ranked and in friendly rooms. While being able to play casually with friends or strangers is great, ranked might find itself struggle (depending on the quantity that picks up this game) as you’re forced to choose an event before searching – making finding a group potentially tough.
The game’s overall level of polish is impressive – from the slick-looking menus to the proud soundtrack to the animation of the characters and even the setting of Tokyo itself. This may well be the best-presented game in the series yet.
Unfortunately, the main character roster hasn’t grown in size, any new additions relegated to mere guest appearances in just a single event. It’s disappointing especially since this cast of twenty hasn’t grown or changed since 2009. In fact, there’s a certain air of safety when it comes to making use of both brands not just from a character standpoint but in other areas too. The previously mentioned Dream events feel both few and limited in scope while there’s no sign of music from older Sonic and Mario games be they remixed or originals (something past games would reward you with as unlockables).
You have two of gaming’s biggest icons headlining and at times it feels like the game doesn’t lean heavily enough into its source material. Yes, it’s cute seeing characters donning athletics gear or wetsuits, but where’s my epic selection of classic Mario and Sonic tunes? Why can’t more events take place in the Mushroom Kingdom? There’s another Olympic game due next year (from SEGA once again) which looks to be going for a more grounded take so perhaps Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 should have embraced the weird and wonderful. Perhaps it should have followed in the footsteps of other Mario sports titles?
My expectations coming into SEGA’s sixth Mario and Sonic crossover were somewhat muted especially considering the disappointing Wii U entries that came before it. Fortunately, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 feels like the series getting itself back on track, offering a varied mix of events that – for the most part – are both fun and engaging. The retro 2D events in particular are a true nostalgic treat and a great addition to the series.
If only the story hooked me in the same way or the options more customisable or the game radiated a little bit more Mario and Sonic flavour. Still, I had a lot of fun with the game and even more impressive it has managed to get me excited for Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympic Games Beijing 2022 should it ever happen.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo