Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is a Refined Party Game That Finally May Be Worth Our Time
Surprisingly, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 plays well enough to warrant at least a consideration for picking up.
Motion-controlled minigame collections aren’t quite retro, vintage, or nostalgic enough just yet, but they can be considered to be passé. The number of bad ones outweighed the number of good ones, and the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games titles were always somewhere in the middle. The subseries has taken a break, and for maybe the first time, I found myself having some interest in the Tokyo 2020 iteration after playing a demo at E3 2019.
Sure, it still doesn’t make sense that Mario can keep up with Sonic in a foot race, but at least it controls better. Gone is the tiresome “waggle” from huddles minigames of yore, and in its place are more accurate Joy-Con controls. And even for those who still don’t believe in that kind of stuff, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 has the amazing feature of using the controller buttons. Amazing, yes?
It’s easy to pass on such a “casual” game, especially when we live in an era where big blockbuster games drop every month. But if you somehow end up in a scenario where you end up playing this game with friends, it certainly won’t be a bad time.
At my disposal for the demo were five events: 110m Hurdles, Archery, Surfing, Skateboarding, and Karate. Each event had some combination of three different playstyles available: double Joy-Con motion, single Joy-Con motion, or buttons. Feeling confident that button play would be fine and dandy, I opted to choose motion controls for each of these events. Results were mixed, but promising, with the best of the games flashing back fun memories of Wii Sports Resort.
Archery was the first event that I chose, mainly due to my positive experiences playing the archery game in the aforementioned Resort. It turns out that the Mario & Sonic take on the event plays just about as well—pull back the Joy-Con controller while holding a shoulder button, aim with motion, and release. You’ll have to take wind and distance into account as well. Overall, I felt much more confident and accurate with subtle motions over using an analog stick, or Heaven forbid buttons.
Despite my overall praise of the motion implementation, the hurdles event was the lone example of where I felt the motion control didn’t work as I wanted it to. You’re sort of back to the drumming motion from the original Mario & Sonic game, and jumping over hurdles was mapped to a motion that I didn’t think was very intuitive. Rather than say, a flick or thrust upwards, the motion was more of a punch or fist bump with a button press, and perhaps it was the timing, but I never got this quite right, causing Sonic to repeatedly trip and stumble on the hurdles like the idiot he truly is.
Another event that likened back to Wii Sports Resort was the surfing event, which worked rather well with motion controls. You’ll shake the Joy-Con controller to paddle, and upon a wave coming, you’ll use tilt to move left and right, making a nice and satisfying flick motion with your hand to get some air from the top of the wave. There was plenty of information on-screen that I didn’t quite know what to use for, but I mark any confusion I had more so towards my unfamiliarity with surfing in the Olympics.
It reminded me a bit of wave boarding in Resort, in that it involved precision in both positioning and timing. It’s also a bit exciting once you begin surfing through a curve, or a barrel wave, using motion to maintain balance and navigate through the wave. The surfing minigame exemplified the simplicity that a lot of these minigames inhabit, which makes me curious how people will take to skateboarding. A Tony Hawk game, this is not.
I found using motion controls for skateboarding to be oddly relaxing, again using flick motions to perform jumps and tricks. Skateboarders will be in a park, with ramps abound. Dash pad-looking markers indicate where players can gain some air and perform tricks, with tilting used to keep balance while grinding and for moving left and right. In the background, you’ll hear an announcer constantly yelling out all the names of the tricks (activated with a combination motion and button press), so as someone with zero skateboarding knowledge, I assume these are all legit moves.
And while we’re on the topic of simplicity, no one should expect the karate event minigame to have the depth of a full fighting game. Even so, it’s fair to say that it still involves strategy, positioning, and timing, like how the real event should. I don’t expect mindlessly button mashing to take players very far. Players also won’t be doing any punching with their Joy-Con controllers in hand—this event is meant for button play.
Punches and kicks are mapped to face buttons, with power kicks and power punches activated with both the analog stick and buttons. The left shoulder button is your block button, while a Super meter fills up and can be accessed with the right shoulder button. Rounds are short, with players getting points from each successful hit they get. It isn’t a minigame that I totally picked up the timing of, but matches were quick enough and the gameplay decent enough that I was willing to learn.
It was a solid sample of party minigames, and it was only just a fraction of what will be available in the final game. As far as I know, the rest of the collection could be total rubbish, but not only has the motion control technology evolved since the first Mario & Sonic games, but there are plenty of lessons that Sega learned from those older ones. And if that still isn’t your drift, the option to only use buttons are great not just for those who prefer them but just as a general accessibility option too.
It’s natural for this game to be exclusive to the Switch, it being Nintendo’s latest console and all, but Mario & Sonic isn’t exactly fit for portable play. Unless you regularly hold Switch rooftop parties and don’t care about the tiny screen, this game will probably only be experienced on television, being a multiplayer game at its core. Honestly, playing a party minigame collection in portable or on the upcoming Switch Lite by yourself would be a bit sad.
And it should be on television because Mario & Sonic is a pretty good-looking game. It’s no technical powerhouse, but Mario sports games have always had bright and appealing color palettes, and ever since Nintendo hardware moved to high-definition with the Wii U, they’ve only been looking even better. While participating in athletic competitions might not be the ideal way fans would want these two iconic mascots to interact, I’ve always appreciated these crossover titles for combining and remixing visual and audio elements from both franchises in a package of nostalgia. It’s strange that Mario and Sonic co-starring in games has been totally normalized, but I appreciate Nintendo and Sega for keeping it palatable to this day.
In previous games, the nostalgia came on stronger through “Dream Events,” which eschewed the realism of the Olympics for the fantasy and cartoonish physics and antics from the Mario and Sonic games. I wasn’t told explicitly that Dream Events would be back for the Summer 2020 edition, but the Sega representative I spoke to pointed out an 8-bit Mario and 16-bit Sonic on the menu, hinting that they were to come.
There’s no way that Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be at the top of anyone’s upcoming games list, let alone their Switch list. Still, I didn’t particularly dislike anything I played of it at E3, and honestly, I’d play it again, preferably with friends. It could very well be a worthy inclusion to the rotation of Switch party games, and even if the minigames themselves aren’t a draw, you can at least see how badass Yoshi looks like shredding up the skateboard park.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will release exclusively for Nintendo Switch on November 2019, though expect a mobile version with just Sonic and friends to come out as well. Look out for my separate preview and interview regarding that title later on.