In a way the Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games series is very similar to the Mario Party titles. With a few notable exceptions, most of the sports themselves are quick to play and require some pretty precise button timing and button mashing. But the one way that Mario Party excels is by tying the various mini-games together into a cohesive package. While the story mode in the Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 rendition of the Olympic party games tries to do this, the game ends up feeling a bit disjointed.
Let’s talk about the story mode first and foremost, because that’s the fresh element to the game and it’s actually pretty fun to play through. So the story goes that Bowser and Robotnick (hrm, sorry … Eggman) cook up a scheme to trap Mario and Sonic inside an 8-bit video game based on the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Of course when they try to do this they all end up sucked inside the little video game machine and they have to find a way to get themselves out. All the while in the real world (and at the Tokyo 2020 games) Luigi, Tails, et all try to rescue everyone while Bowser Jr makes trouble.
It’s a silly premise but a good way to introduce the retro style games that hearken back to playing something similar on the NES.
The throwback games are kind of weird in that they all look they’re in 8-bit NES graphics but the Sonic characters all look like they’re from the 16-bit era. It’s strange seeing 8-bit Mario and Bowser standing beside 16-bit Sonic and Eggman. These events are pretty one-and-done sports with one play through more than enough.
As the story goes through we jump back and forth between the 8-bit and the modern era as the characters try to figure it all out. Of course woven into story is the familiar “beat me at this next event and such and such will happen.” It’s not the most original or compelling thing, but it eventually gets you through to each event. Thankfully too if there’s an event that you just can’t seem to best your opponent, you can skip it after three tries. It can be a saving grace in some events which are frustrating and not fun – Judo I’m looking at you.
For the most part you don’t need to complete story mode, however doing so unlocks playable characters – sort of.
One of the biggest complaints I had with Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 was the fact that only select characters could be used in different events. Even though there were more than a dozen playable characters, only a handful were available in an event. Thankfully that’s gone now, but the unlockable characters are locked into set events. Want to use Rosalina? She’s unlockable, but only for Surfing. Great.
Outside of the story mode the game is pretty much just about randomly selecting events and spending short bursts playing them. There’s really only so many times you can play the 100m and mash the A button to run. There are a few highlights, which I’ll get to in a minute, but the random a la carte event selection is a bit boring.
What the game needed is to take a page out of the aforementioned Mario Party or the Mario Kart series and make this a true party game. Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 game needed to the option to have a tournament mode where you can pick a character and play through a series of selected or chosen events. Rack up points towards claiming first place. Anything to give the game something to keep me coming back to play again and again.
There were a few highlights in the game, most notably the team sports – rugby sevens and soccer. Both of these events are much more fun because they have diverse controls and they have something to DO in them. You don’t mash buttons or play ‘match the button press’ – it’s an actual game from start to finish. My only complaint about both of these is that they’re way too short. Even if you change the length of the matches from the default setting to the max, it’s only a few short minutes. I’m not expecting a full 90 minute soccer match, but more than two minutes per half would be nice.
I honestly would love to spend more time playing through both of these sports than 90% of the rest of the game.
Skateboarding and surfing are also new sports to the 2020 version of the game, both of which are pretty underwhelming. Tricks for both are very basic and, if you’ve ever played a Tony Hawk skateboarding game, you won’t find much here. One go through is pretty much all you’ll feel the desire to do, and that was in the story mode for me.
Dream racing was pretty fun, which is more or less what you’d get if you were to combine the likes of F-Zero with 1080° Avalanche – it’s lots of fun and there’s not nearly enough of it.
Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 supports motion controls for some of the events, but you’d be better off to stick to the regular button inputs. They’re more reliable. The game however doesn’t support one thing that I complain about for almost every game – touch screen input. I’m annoyed to no end when I can’t tap the menus when I’m playing the game in handheld mode. Nintendo (and Sega): so many people have mobile phones where we use touch screens every day. Not having touch screen menu support is annoying.
The music in the game and the actual presentation of the game was top notch though. It very much looks and sounds like I’m watching and playing an official Olympic broadcast, aside from the competitors themselves.
While Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is fun at times and the retro Tokyo 1964 events feel nostalgic, the game suffers from a lack of cohesion and purpose. The developers need to embrace this franchise for what it is – a party game. If Mario Party was just a collection of random mini-games it wouldn’t be the franchise that it is. Let’s make the Olympic Games a true competition and next time let’s make it a party.