With the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang cruelly overlooked for some reason, fans of the Mario & Sonic series haven’t had a new entry for nearly four years now. Given that the 2020 Olympic Games are being held in Tokyo, the home of video games, it would have been truly bizarre for Sega to pass on that one too. Sure enough, Mario, Sonic and their respective chums are back once again for another bout of mini-game mirth.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the sixth entry in a series dating back more than a decade now, and while it offers a strong variety of things to see, do and play, long-time Mario & Sonic fans will also note that there’s a little less going on than most previous games when it comes to long-tail content designed to keep players interested for a while.
Before we address that, though, let’s get to the meat of the matter: the events. There are 21 main Olympic events to choose from here, covering a nice variety of disciplines. As well as the expected track and field events and the welcome return of others like Equestrian, Rugby Sevens and Football, there are four new events which have never been seen in a Mario & Sonic game before: Skateboarding, Sport Climbing, Karate and Surfing.
While Surfing’s controls failed to impress us, the other three are great new additions to the series. Karate can become a surprisingly tense multiplayer affair with two similarly-skilled players involved and Sport Climbing requires both timing and accuracy in a way that can get your palms sweatier than an 8 Mile rap battler. Best of the bunch, however, is Skateboarding, which sets you loose in a skatepark and gives you a set time to pull off your best tricks and grinds. It’s no Tony Hawk, but it’s good fun nonetheless.
Joining these 21 standard events are 10 retro-style 2D events under the heading Tokyo 1964. Designed to be a clever nod to the first time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, these events play more like Konami’s Track & Field games, with Mario, Sonic and chums represented by their old 8-bit and 16-bit forms. That said, you can only choose from a reduced selection of eight characters in this mode rather than the full 20-strong roster; that means no old-school Vector the Crocodile sprites for you, Vector fans (both of you).
While the retro events obviously have even more simplistic gameplay than the modern ones (which themselves tend to only require a handful of buttons at most), they’re a fun little addition nonetheless and give Sega an excuse to introduce disciplines that aren’t represented in polygonal form (like Shooting, Volleyball, the Vault and the Marathon). There’s even a fun analogue TV filter that works better than many retro compilations’ scanline filters do in terms of nailing that vintage look.
Rounding things off is a frankly disappointing trio of Dream Events, only one of which kept us entertained for any length of time. Dream Racing takes place in a Sonic Forces-themed environment and is genuinely fun to play, but the Dream Shooting event has horrendous motion controls that can’t be turned off (as far as we can see) and Dream Karate is a harmless but ultimately throwaway affair in which you try to knock down enemies to fill as much of the floor in your colour as possible. Given that the very first Mario & Sonic game back in 2008 offered more Dream Events than this, it has to go down as a missed opportunity here.
All these events also form the basis of the game’s single-player Story mode, which is easily the most entertaining part of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (though not without its niggles). It’s a suitably strange plot: Eggman and Bowser have teamed up to create the Tokyo 64, a retro video game console designed to trap Mario and Sonic in their respective 8-bit and 16-bit forms. Things don’t quite go according to plan, though, and when the console is activated not only do Mario and Sonic get transported into it, but Eggman and Bowser do, too.
Cue a comical caper in which both pairs of characters compete in various 1964 Olympics events to try and earn gold medals which should theoretically provide them with the power they need to escape the game. Meanwhile, in the modern era, Tails and Luigi have teamed up to try and figure out how to get their pals out of the console, embarking on an adventure that inevitably shoehorns in a bunch of reasons for them and their pals to compete in 2020 Olympics events, too.
It’s a fun little journey, made more entertaining by the ten extra mini-games created just for that mode (they can be replayed in your Stats menu once you beat them in Story). There are five modern ones and five retro ones, and these include such delights as climbing the Tokyo Tower with Tails, racing Bowser in a canoe with 8-bit Mario and trying to outrun a bullet train as 16-bit Sonic.
That said, Story mode isn’t without its issues. Most notably, the pacing is much slower than it needs to be. The dialogue is entertaining enough but the game regularly uses lengthy conversations in scenes that could be half as long, and each line appears just slowly enough to make things mildly frustrating. Add to that the fact that some plot points are repeated numerous times – we lost count of how many occasions Tails or Luigi gave the console to a new character who proceeded to go through the “What? Mario and Sonic are in there?!” routine yet again – and it starts to feel like there may have been some attempts to pad this mode out a bit.
It’s easy to see why, in fairness, because once you’re finished with the Story mode there’s really not much left for solo players to do. There’s a Challenges feature with 80 achievements to earn, but the game doesn’t actually tell you what these achievements are (they’re all just shown as question marks), making the whole thing a bit pointless – especially since they don’t appear to unlock anything.
You also don’t get any of the other fun unlockable stuff you got in other Mario & Sonic games: there’s no central hub to customise like there was in the (otherwise unremarkable) Rio 2016 game, there are no character-specific missions like there were way back in the first Mario & Sonic and there’s no shop of any kind to let you unlock comedy costumes for your Mii like there were in a few of the other instalments (partly because you can’t actually play as your Mii in this one).
Essentially, there’s no real added incentive to keep going beyond the fun of playing the same events over and over. Granted, for many that will be perfectly acceptable, especially if you’re mainly buying the game for local multiplayer. But given that one of the Switch’s most important features (especially the Switch Lite) is its use as a handheld console, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that it could have tried to provide more longevity for single-player gamers, particularly given that previous Mario & Sonic games had handheld versions that catered more for solo play.
Its 34 events provide welcome variety and there are far more hits than misses in its line-up, but once you're finished with Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020's four-hour Story mode it becomes notably less enticing for solo players. With no real incentives or unlockables to aim for, this should be considered a strictly multiplayer affair if you want to still be playing it by the time the actual Tokyo 2020 Olympics roll around.