Mario is no stranger to a sports game. He and his pals (and even his enemies) have been dishing out nasty three-pointers, stellar tennis serves, and miraculous goals for generations now. However, while the Mushroom Kingdom crew has a storied history of competitive athletics, there are only a handful of sports-adjacent video games starring the friends and foes of Sonic the Hedgehog. The only regular exposure Sonic gets to the world of sports is when he and Mario team up for their biennial Olympics outings. And after finally giving the series a chance with the release of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, it’s easy to see why this crossover has endured for so many years.
This is perhaps the most important entry in the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games franchise. After all, the Summer Olympic Games take place in Tokyo next year, no doubt pushing Sega to make sure that this is the biggest and brightest entry in the series. That plan begins with a beefy selection of over 21 Olympic sports for you to partake in. Some of these are truly microscopic in scope, like the 100M dash or the discus throw. If you’re playing against friends or online foes, there’s some charm to these smaller events, but in solo play, you’ll likely participate once or twice and quickly move on. There’s minor replayability in chasing high scores or retrying these events with motion controls instead of button controls, but they still won’t grip you for any extended periods of time.
Thankfully, there are plenty of events in this game with the kind of depth and strategic potential that will easily keep you engaged for hours, especially if you’re playing with others. Take the head-to-head events for example. Sports like karate, fencing, and boxing feature more complicated mechanics than simply mashing A or swinging your Joy-Con. You need to pick your attacks or evasive options carefully, and the mind games that ensue are almost on the same level as in fighting games. Even if you don’t have a pal to duke it out with, the enemy AI on higher difficulties will provide ample challenge. Just the sight of Yoshi uppercutting Eggman is enough to keep me entertained, but the surprising depth in a lot of these events kept me more engrossed than I could have ever imagined.
Then there are the 2D events. While most of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is rendered in gorgeous 3D graphics, there’s a section of 10 “Tokyo 1964” events that see you participating in sports rendered in old-school sprite graphics. The character selection here is disappointingly slimmer. While regular events let you play as over two dozen different characters from the worlds of Mario and Sonic, 2D events only let you select from about 8 different characters. These events end up being a bit more of a novelty and are similar in scope to the simpler 3D events. A handful of games like the marathon or judo have some intricacy to them, but they still end up serving as more of a cheeky trip down memory lane than anything else.
That nostalgia trip is continued in the surprisingly hefty story mode for Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. In this mode, Bowser and Eggman have teamed up to create a mysterious game console that traps anyone who plays it in the old-school world of the 1964 Tokyo games. Luigi foolishly turns the device on while the others aren’t looking and proceeds to get Eggman, Bowser, Mario, and Sonic stuck inside of the game world. Your time in the story mode jumps back and forth between the present and past of the Tokyo Olympics, with Luigi and friends working together in the real world as Mario and Sonic compete with their respective rivals in the 1964 world to try and escape.
Admittedly, the writing of the story mode is pretty weak. If you come into it expecting the kind of charming dialogue and clever jokes you’d get out of something like Paper Mario or the Sonic Boom cartoon, you’re in for some major disappointment. While there are a handful of entertaining exchanges, most of the interactions in the story more of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 consist of characters plainly explaining what they’re doing or what they need in order to progress the story.
No, for me, the major charm of this mode came from the fact that it acted as a gorgeous tour through the sights of Tokyo itself. You’ll navigate an overworld map with over a dozen locations on it, and each one that you enter is beautifully rendered in accurate detail. Being able to soak in the atmosphere of the Nippon Budokan or Tokyo Station was a delight, and coupled with the insane amount of unlockable trivia about Japan and the Olympic Games, Sega does a great job of sharing the culture and appeal of Tokyo with anyone who plays this game.
Ultimately, that’s where a lot of the fun in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 lies. Yes, some of the sports are fun to play and even more fun to replay. I’ll never get tired of seeing Donkey Kong and Metal Sonic skateboarding. The real magic of the game, though, is how it serves as a perfect casual entry point into the world of the Olympic Games. Have a child or little cousin who knows every Sonic game in existence but doesn’t care about sports? Spend an afternoon playing this with them, and you might just end up helping them discover a fascination with the Olympics. Or Nintendo sports games. Hopefully both!
A review code was provided by the publisher.