Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the sixth game in the series and, while Sega Sports R&D seemingly threw everything it had at elevating the formula, fans are stuck with an average entry that has always been more of a cross-branding experiment than a coherent franchise.
Here’s the setup: Mario and his friends — and enemies, of course — are in Tokyo for the Olympic Games, and Dr. Eggman and Bowser come up with the idea of trapping Mario and Sonic inside a retro video game console that will send them back to 1964, the last year that Tokyo hosted the games.
Those characters are then devolved back into their pixel-art form to compete in events that look like they were taken from an NES game, even through the NES wasn’t released until 1985. The system is called the Tokyo 64, because of the 1964 Tokyo Games and the Nintendo 64 ... get it?
The rest of the characters, from Luigi to Metal Sonic, compete in modern events in current-day Tokyo to try to collect enough gold medals to bring everyone back to the future.
It’s a clever setup that allows a standard Switch game and a retro-collection of minigames to exist in the same package, in which these classic characters are reverted to their original forms, talking trash and competing in events like the long jump in order to escape their hellish, classic-gaming prison.
The story mode sends you around Tokyo, back and forth across time, while also delivering a wide variety of Olympic and video game facts. This sort of thing might be fun for younger children, but I quickly grew tired of the game’s habit of putting one or two characters on both sides of the screen, endless speech bubbles between them, as their character models hop or react with little noises and exclamations.
For a game that’s so friendly for quick sessions, everything moves at a glacial pace in the story mode. I also loved the idea that, in this world, the only thing holding people back from competing in whatever Olympic event they’d like to try is the decision to do so. Who doesn’t want to just wander into an Olympic Stadium and randomly decide to give gymnastics a shot?
The game throws minigames and bonus competitions at you, but the weight of these storied characters and the high level of polish and production quality feel like they’re doing a lot of work to obscure the fact that very few of the events themselves are enjoyable for more than a few minutes.
You can choose between motion controls or traditional button presses to compete, you can play the story mode by yourself, you can compete with up to three other friends on the same system, or up to seven other players online. It looks great fun, and easy to cut into flashy trailers and screenshots, but you’re still just slamming buttons or timing your presses to nail the longest possible jump or to run the fastest.
More complicated events, like the discus or javelin, come complete with multiple tabs of instructions that somehow give a lot of instruction without actually telling you what to do, or how to do it. There were multiple times I gave up and chose to skip an event due to not quite understanding what I was doing wrong, even after a dozen attempts and going back multiple times to read the instructions.
The game is mostly tuned for younger players, but the on-screen explanations of events and rules frustrated multiple people I played with, and they were all a bit older than the children that make up the game’s target audience.
The excitement around Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 mostly comes from the subversive feel of the retro events, as well as the sheet number of minigames, diversions, and things to do, both online and off, either by yourself or with others. There’s so much to the game that it took me a bit longer than usually to realize that very little of it is actually enjoyable once the shine of the presentation wears off.
This is the sort of thing that might keep smaller children occupied for a time, but buffet rules apply: The food doesn’t taste better just because there’s a lot of it. And that’s maybe the best thing I can say about Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: There is certainly a lot of it.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is now available on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a “retail” code provided by Sega You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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