Mini-Games Are More Fun With Time Travel
Sports games have been a large part of the gaming market for almost its entire lifespan. Even the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, came with table tennis, skiing, and volleyball. Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 continue gaming's attempts to recreate sports that people love on the small screen. Instead of focusing on a single sport, Mario and Sonic take the quantity approach, letting characters from both franchises compete in almost every Olympic Sport. Whether that serves as a tradeoff for quality we'll have to see...
Mario and Sonic Head To The Olympics
Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 contains, for the first time in this series, a full Story mode. Mario, Sonic, and all of their closest friends (and a few enemies) visit Tokyo 2020 to watch the Olympic Games. Eggman has a new gadget, a portable video game device called "Tokyo 1964." When activated, the device traps players inside the retro game world. Intent on locking Mario and Sonic inside, things go awry just like they always do for Eggman's plans. The good doctor and Bowser find themselves trapped alongside their counterparts. After Luigi sees Mario, Sonic, Bowser, Eggman, and Toad inside the game, he seeks out Tails' help for a rescue mission.
Over the course of the story, you run into characters ranging from Amy Rose to Yoshi. They all want to compete in an Olympic event before they join the cause and help the heroes. Inside the world of the 1964 Olympic Games, Mario and Sonic race to collect as many Gold Medals as possible and escape. From the first chapter, the story features numerous pacing and story issues. Situations arise where characters are at risk of death (it gets weirdly dark) before finding a solution in a quick game of tennis. Raising the stakes so high in a scenario where the only way players resolve conflict is through competitive sports leaves for a disjointed narrative.
Mario and Sonic shows the problem with antagonists teaming up
The dynamic between Bowser and Eggman as a duo emphasizes both of their goofiness and promotes none of their strengths. Their dialogue plays off each other, but with no smarter enemy to play the straight man, they end up coming off even stupider. Eggman has moments of brilliance as the creator of the "Tokyo 1946" game machine, but he also stands dumbfounded by Sonic's remarks. You don't feel good or accomplished defeating the duo, and there was no point where they seemed competent, let alone a threat.
When not participating in events or listening to dialogue you navigate the different real-world locations via an overworld map. You'll visit most locations only once for story purposes but you also come across podium spots that quiz the player on not only Mario and Sonic trivia but also Olympic trivia. I was able to learn that Tokyo is one of the few cities that have ever hosted the Olympics twice and that each city didn't have its own Olympic emblem. Some of the trivia is questionably poor and it's surprising that it made it in at all. Examples include asking what color Wendy's shoes are while showing an image of the character wearing her pink heels. When you're able to launch into all of the events right from the beginning, the only real purpose of the campaign is unlocking the story related characters for use in multiplayer. That and providing a thematic reason for the 1964 themed 2D events.
Mario and Sonic trivia... but it's not very challenging
Using the 3D/2D split from the storyline, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 features both shiny 3D events and retro 8/16-bit 2D events. The 30+ events break into a few different categories, including races, head to head events, and quick-time events.
Races include events such as the 100m dash, the relay, or even equestrian jumping. As expected, a race has you aiming to be the fastest. This will normally result in you having to shake the controller or repeatedly hitting a button as fast as possible to gain speed. In a lot of these events, just a fast button mash isn't enough. In Hurdles and Equestrian, you need to avoid obstacles and time your jumps well for a bonus boost of speed. The races finish quickly, and there isn't too much skill involved. The addition of hurdles gives you an extra factor to think about, breaking up the monotony of continuously mashing a single button. Even then, it won't keep your attention for long.
Game Modes in Mario and Sonic
In the head to head events, you directly compete with another player as opposed to beating a certain time. These events include table tennis, badminton, football, as well as martial arts and boxing. These head to head events are where the game really shines. There still isn't any sort of overly complicated mechanics but each has a solid base that when you're playing reactively against your opponent is an enjoyable experience.
In Karate you can move towards and away from your opponents and choose whether to punch or kick in a direction. It's so simplistic on paper but with a good foundation and tight technical controls it is entertaining. It's reminiscent of a title like Divekick, there might be limited buttons but when it's balanced and the controls respond well it paves the way for an application of skill. Playing loser passes on in Karate was really fun and fast-paced, everyone wanted to hop back in to try to perfect their reactions. Boxing, Judo, and fencing are all great competitive games too. There are a few strange design choices still that are present such as in tennis your character automatically heads towards the ball. It makes the game approachable for inexperienced players but can also get in the way if you're trying to control the game yourself.
Travel to the past in Mario and Sonic
Aside from the obvious graphical shift and a few other changes, the 3D events and the 2D events aren't too different. In the 100m hurdle, the only difference is that you get a chance to boost off the line. A standout among them is skeet shooting. You have a grid of 3x3 reticles on your screen with your gun aimed at the central one, you move to different reticles as the clay pidgeons move through them. This use of setpoints that you can aim at not only adds mechanically but is faithful to how an 8-bit game would handle the sport. It's fast-paced, has you plotting out trajectories, and forces you to time your shots. The 8-Bit is a nice touch, but it's also very easy to see how these would work just as well in 3D.
The quick-time event games have a heavy focus on angling the control stick and pressing the correct buttons. Gymnastics floor routine has you pressing buttons in time with somersaults, for the javelin toss you have a healthy mix of a races button mashing and needing to angle your throw just right. This is a healthy mix of the two previously detailed game types. It adds a bit more complexity and entertainment than the races, but you don't have to worry about playing against another player directly.
Master each button press in Mario and Sonic
While there are slight variations in the controls between all of the games each minigame feels limited due to the constraints of the Switch Joy-Con. All minigames support playing on a single Joy-Con to facilitate playing with a friend. Even if you're playing with a full controller, you have one stick, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. The 100m, 4 x 100m hurdles, and 8-bit 100m all feel like the same minigame
You can also use motion controls, but that's not recommended. While intuitive, they're unresponsive at the best of times. The game has you recreate the motions of climbing a rock wall, but holding out your hand does nothing on-screen. After waiting a while or waving your hands like an idiot for a bit, you might get the correct response. When the aim of these minigames is emulating the speed and accuracy of an Olympian, you're quickly left in the dust. In Sport Climbing, I only made it two-thirds of the way using motion controls. I was able to easily win with a controller.
There's a lot that works well in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, but also a lot that really doesn't. In a large group of minigames, it's obvious that they won't all be equal, Mario and Sonic seems to have a balance of the good like Karate, the bad like Equestrian, and the Ugly, 8-Bit Judo. The story feels tacked on and low effort, as a means to an end it introduces each of the characters, the reason for an 8-Bit mode, and serves as a marker for unlocking some additional characters. Aside from that, it's a slow story with inconsistent pacing that overstays its welcome. For the few competitive games, it can be enjoyable, but with so much extra tacked on it's likely that you'll want to avoid this title.
Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Martial Arts Minigames
- Story Mode
- Motion Controls (Thankfully Optional)
- Other 80% of Minigames