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Review: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games: Tokyo 2020

5 Nov 2019

Gaming is funny sometimes. In one era, you’re thinking that two of gaming’s most recognizable mascots would never appear on the same console. Later on, they’re competing with each other in Olympic events in near-regular installments for over ten years. Having survived The Great Mascot Wars of the 1990s, the mere notion that there would ever be a crossover between Mario and Sonic at all would have blown my ten-year-old mind. Yet here we are with the sixth entry in the main series.

The Mario and Sonic franchise is known to be a reliable source of casual fun with a mix of official Olympic events and “dream events” included in later entries. While there’s only so much you can do with the former, SEGA’s seen fit to experiment with the formula a little bit, and wedge in a story mode on top of that for this release. Sadly, this is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a full-on crossover story for the time being.

Developed and published by SEGA, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games: Tokyo 2020 releases exclusively to the Switch on November 5, 2019. The title will retail for $59.99.

Back to the Past

For casual friendly games such as this, it’s nice to see something like a story mode included here at all. Part of me was hoping to see a somewhat entertaining story that’s wrapped up in Olympic competition. While it’s definitely framed around these events, what’s presented here is pretty simple.

Story Mode opens with Eggman unveiling a retro-looking game console dubbed the “Tokyo ’64,” with the intention of tricking the lead heroes into being sucked into the game. Being that this is Eggman that we’re talking about here, he gloats about it to Bowser in his usual bombastic and maniacal way. Hilariously, he both succeeds and fails at this endeavor. He is able to entrap Sonic, Mario, and Toad into this, but he also ends up getting sucked up in there along with Bowser. This sends the group back to the 1964 Tokyo Games (get it?) and also changes the graphical style to a pseudo 8-bit style, which also changes said characters to their respective 8 and 16 bit sprites.

After this, the mode switches back and forth between the ’64 crew trying to find a way to escape from the game console, and the rest of the cast (mostly Tails and Luigi) trying to recover the console to free them from their accidental history lesson. It’s not exactly time travel, but we know that one of these franchises played fast and loose with the concept. The characters being trapped in a game version of the past is a little more palatable than conveniently using Chaos Control to stop a princess from crying.

The “cutscenes” here are a little weird depending on what era it’s taking place in. The ’64 Games play out like an early JRPG, using the game environment and the sprites as if you were playing Chrono Trigger or something to that effect. Admittedly, it’s a tad jarring to see a mix of Mario and Sonic characters occupying a pre-SNES/Genesis space with Genesis sprites, but it’s not that bad.

Flashing forward to 2020 is a little more disappointing, though. You do move the characters around the 3D venue spaces, but you switch to a Sonic Rush-style of static backgrounds and limited emoting from the rendered characters when you encounter dialogue. I know that the Switch can be a bit limited in the performance department, but having presentation equal to the ’64 counterpart would have been nice.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much technically here for the cutscenes, but in all honesty there isn’t really much depth to them at all. For the most part, the ’20 crew chases after the Tokyo ’64 and other McGuffins from various characters from each franchise’s rogues gallery to move the story forward. More often than not it’s used as a segue into the next Olympic event or minigame that you’ll play. The ’64 crew follows a similar type of story and gameplay progression, save for the fact that they’re racing against each other to escape and getting in each other’s way. While playing through this mode, you’ll find small trinkets of trivia as it relates to the Olympics and both franchises. It’s definitely nice to see this information scattered about, but it’s really more of a way to make this mode seem a tad more fleshed out.

This is part of the reason I’m merely whelmed in Story Mode’s direction. I’m glad that they bothered to include it at all, but it kind of feels like a slice of hollow fanservice more than anything. Make no mistake, I’m not expecting the video game equivalent of Citizen Kane from a crossover game aimed at families. But I do know a half-assed story when I see one, and the story here feels like a series of pulled punches that they could have had more fun with, with what they have at their disposal. It’s fun to watch these characters interact, but they really lean into the fanservice aspect to carry it. It’s not a terrible story, but it’s nowhere near as entertaining as it could have been.

Climb the Tower

One of the things that gives this game a little bit of flexibility is the chance to mix certain control schemes for different events. With this being the sixth console entry in the series, there is bound to be a bit of repetition for a large portion of events presented in the Summer Games. That part can’t be avoided, as it’s one of the more successful gaming endeavors for the IOC (International Olympic Committee). But the casual nature of the gameplay does lend itself quite nicely to being a pretty solid party game.

Olympic events from both eras (separated accordingly) and Dream Events (limited to just three) are accessible from the get go with no unlocking required. Sure, some people might gripe that they don’t have to work at unlocking their favorite event, but playing through Story Mode does give you minigames and characters to unlock for certain events and characters. Because of this “unlocked from the start” aspect, this means you and up to three of your friends can play whatever you want right from the get-go, or up to eight online if you’re into that sort of thing.

Playing events in the 2020 era does give you the option of up to three control schemes (Single or Dual JoyCon play, or just button controls) for you to choose from depending on the event. A brief explanation of controls are presented to you at first (accessible later if you need), and you’re off to play. Regardless of what event you choose, the gameplay is super simple and easy to understand. So simple in fact that when I fired up the skateboarding event I ended up trying to play it like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and forgot that the simplistic controls are more than sufficient to play correctly. Not one of my finer moments, but I guess that’s just me wishing there was a new and competent entry for that franchise.

Personally, I find myself preferring button-based controls because of the precision aspect of it, but motion controls do work for the most part. My only gripe about it is that it’s not as precise as I’d like, especially when certain events critique your timing. For instance, I fired up the equestrian event and struggled to nail timing despite using the appropriate motion. When I switched to the button setup, these issues evaporated and the precision I prefer resurfaced. You can re-calibrate the motion controls if you need to, but it’s nowhere near as precise as I’d like. Granted, some people actually prefer motion controls, but I’d much rather have it be as tight as possible. While they’re completely serviceable, most button control schemes beat out motion controls by a mile.

The classic button control scheme is the only option you have in the 1964 events presented here, which aren’t as numerous as its 2020 counterpart. Though the design philosophy of simple button controls is also present here, and motion controls are completely absent, they aren’t really needed, because said simplistic scheme is more than enough to play through them.

Mechanically speaking, both eras behave as they should for the most part. While some events may be more complex than others, what they convey makes sense and usually do land. Sure, some are bland and others aren’t executed as well. They are collectively enjoyable, though, and seeing characters engage in these events is still entertaining to watch because of how weird they look in execution. The sight of seeing Shadow on a skateboard or surfboard is never not an amusing sight for the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Presenting as a Gracious Host

Considering that the host city has a well-represented presence by Nintendo and SEGA, the latter did their best to present the city in the best light that they can. While you will be traversing a map screen in both eras in Story Mode, it’s pretty obvious that they wanted to highlight certain Tokyo landmarks in a way that wasn’t lazy or poorly executed. It’s not super detailed for what it’s worth, but it’s nice that this wasn’t considered as an afterthought. Certain story-based minigames actually involve major landmarks throughout the city, which is quite nice despite the somewhat shallow execution of the minigames involved in both eras. You can play them later once you finish them, but your mileage may vary.

The modern portions of the game look well enough and perform about as well as most other Switch games pushing the console a fair amount. While the polygonal presentation looks quite nice, the framerate tends to hover around a consistent 30 frames per second. When you swap over to the ’64 side of things, the aforementioned mix of 8 and 16 bit sprites can be a bit weird at first considering that the environment involved straddles both console eras somewhat. Though graphical performance isn’t as much of an issue here because of the era it invokes, it’s nice that this is one less thing to worry about.

Sound design here is kind of weird when you compare the different eras separate from the musical aspects of the game. In the modern era, you end up having the typical crowd noises and appropriate foley for the event at hand, with arcade-style effects mixed in for good measure. When you switch over to a classic event, you’re treated to the expected 8-bit effects on top of a digitized vocal play-by-play not seen on the flip side. The commentary presented here is about as deep as you’d expect from the event in question, and the absence of this from the modern era is pretty noticeable. Obviously not a dealbreaker, but just something that I’m sure someone will point out.

Music isn’t quite an afterthought here, but strikes a good balance between being appropriately bombastic, thematically appropriate, and having fun with a couple of different styles in the modern era. Music in the classic era is the typical chiptune-style, and it’s not terrible either. Thankfully, none of it is super repetitive or overtly annoying. Though I’m not going to go out of my way to listen to this soundtrack, because it’s middling at best.

Stretching Forward

This particular Mario and Sonic entry is commendable for trying to diversify what it offers while also keeping a solid focus on the gameplay it already excels at. Unfortunately, some of this kind of feels like beating a dead horse to a certain extent. Though I will say that taking a seemingly short break from the series did work in its favor, because the gameplay here is decent.

Including a specific single player aspect is commendable, but I really wish that they did more with it. It’s by no means awful, but the supposed lack of effort put into this aspect of the game really shows through the deeper you play into Story Mode.

Despite that, the gameplay here is solid, despite its expected aim at casual audiences. None of this is especially deep, but I can say with some confidence that there is some fun to be had in firing this up and playing with a group of friends.

I’ll be honest that I’m somewhat conflicted about how this entry wants to safely branch out and do other things with the game, but I can’t turn around and ignore the effort put into the gameplay here. While many entries in this franchise could easily be considered an example of playing it safe, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games: Tokyo 2020 is still a good time. Though it might not be a bad idea to wait for a sale if you’re still on the fence.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by SEGA for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.