REVIEW: Mario and Sonic’s Olympic preview is no gold medal winner

  • reviewed on PlayStation 4 / rated E10+ / $59.99 / released November 2019
  • OFFICIAL SITE: www.olympicvideogames.com
  • FINAL: You can SKIP this game. 2 out of 5 stars

Mario and Sonic have been to several Olympic Games together over the years, but none seem as special as next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. For the famous video game duo – created by Japanese companies Nintendo and Sega, respectively – these Olympics are all about home country pride. The modern Olympic experience is as much a celebration of global tourism as it is about athletic achievement, so “Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020” lands at a finely pointed intersection to celebrate both the history of video games and of Japan.

This “Mario & Sonic” Olympic trip includes over thirty games, ranging from official Olympic sports to more fantastical events. Depending on the game, you can have up to four competing players and up to eight when playing online. Most of the games are simple, relying on either timed button presses or motion controls to simulate running hurdles or swimming laps. The various sports are also featured in a “story mode” that ends up being the game’s most interesting component… although that bar is not especially high.

The story plays with the converging histories of the Olympics, Japan, and Mario and Sonic themselves. Noting that Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964, Mario and Sonic (plus their natural enemies Bowser and Dr. Eggman) are sent back in time to a pixel-happy retro-game simulation of 1960s Tokyo. Although divided along good guy/bad guy lines, the quartet ends up competing in various Olympic events while trying to figure out how they’re going to return home.

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang in present day Tokyo works up a rescue plan… while also fitting in time to participate in modern Olympic-themed mini-games. It’s cute for a while, with the story flipping between modern video game graphics and a 1980’s-style look. However, the story is interminably long and tediously overwritten, owing to a desire to fit in far too many of Mario and Sonic’s pals as well as every single represented sport. The story is not even well-told. The characters converse while standing behind text boxes, inevitably agreeing to run to some other part of town on a MacGuffin hunt that just happens to involve throwing the discus for no reason.

Playing through story mode unlocks some bonus characters that can then be used in multiplayer matches outside of story mode. But get this: the secret characters are limited to only one particular event each! Why?

That brings us to the core of “Tokyo 2020”: the games themselves. There are over twenty main Olympic events, covering hurdles, archery, karate, soccer, etc, plus an additional three “Dream” games. The Dream events are simply longer, more “video gamey” games that are not as strict about adhering to a sport’s rules. There are an additional ten Olympic events presented in the retro-game look, and another eight bonus games that are not sports-focused at all.

The cruelest joke here is that those bonus games are probably the best of the bunch, and they’re unlocked by slogging through story mode. “Shibuya Scramble Search” has you playing “Where’s Waldo” at Tokyo’s famous crowded intersection. “Museum Sneak” has the best use of ancient Nintendo graphics in years, with 1985-era Mario dodging security patrols. Sure, these are all “Mario Party” cast-offs, but at least they’re different. As far as most of the core Olympic events go, odds are you’ve played a cutesy take on soccer or ping-pong in some other game, and it was better there.

Many of the events boil down to just timed button presses, and often they are poorly explained and provide no corrective feedback while you’re playing them. If you do not immediately understand the way the game wants you to do a particular swimming stroke, for example, you’re just going to have to lose and re-read the instructions a little more carefully next time. It’s not much fun for anybody.

Compounding the sin is that there is no sustained multiplayer mode, where two to four friends could participate in a series of events, with overall medal winners revealed at the end. No, in multiplayer mode you pick one event, and one event only, and when that is done (after clicking through all of the podium ceremonies and single event score tally screens) you either play it again or hop back a menu to pick another event. When the games are short, like Triple Jump or Javelin Throw, you easily spend more time navigating menus and watching Sonic wave for the camera than actually playing.

“Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020” is clearly a special release for Nintendo and Sega, affording the two video game giants a chance to show off their pride in Japan’s Olympic past and future. The story mode is packed with factoids and tourism blurbs, and it is obvious that a lot of attention was paid to creating a cartoony-yet-accurate version of Tokyo (across two different time periods and visual styles, no less!) There is just not much going on beyond that, and a supposed multiplayer party game ought to be offering a much more thorough experience. It is difficult to imagine kids, families or even Mario and Sonic superfans spending more than a couple of nights with this one.

“Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020” is available for Nintendo Switch. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Sega.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.