Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 review

Over the past decade, Mario and Sonic have become synonymous with the Olympic Games, at least where videogames are concerned. With the exception of the PyeongChang 2018 winter games (due to licensing reasons), every Olympics since 2008 has seen a Mario & Sonic tie in, each one delivering a collection of arcade-style versions of Olympic events with a wide selection of Mario and Sonic characters to take part in them. They’re a fun, party-oriented way of celebrating the Olympics and the cities that host them.

That much is true for Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as well, though this game goes one further than just commemorating the 2020 games. It’s just as much a celebration of the 1964 games, which were also held in Tokyo, and with it, a look back over50 years of Japanese Olympic history. 

It does that the only way a game starring two iconic ’90s videogame mascots could: with a throwback to the 8-bit days of blocky pixels, limited colours, and chiptune music. When you’re playing a minigame based on the 2020 Games, you’ll have all the 3D graphics, detailed sound effects, and optional motion controls you’d expect, but when you’re playing a 1964 event, Tokyo 2020 essentially turns into a NES game.

It works beautifully. The events are simple enough that they can easily be worked into a 2D minigame, in a fashion not unlike you’d see from NES sports games themselves. The 100m sprint involves a well-timed start and then some rapid button mashing to make your character sprint as fast as they can; the 10m platform dive sees you following a series of button prompts as quickly (and accurately!) as possible to make your diver perform their flashiest dive to perfection. Obviously, this will most appeal to people who have their own nostalgia for the 8-bit days, but even without that, the retro effect helps to sell the idea of travelling back to another era of Olympic history (even if it is somewhat anachronistic—the ’64 Games predate the NES by a couple of decades).

Out of 30 or so events in Tokyo 2020, 10 are retro-styled throwbacks to the earlier Tokyo Olympics; the rest are situated firmly in the modern day. That means more scope for more a level of complexity and depth that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a collection of minigames. It means good use of a 3D camera to do justice to events like archery that, while possible to 2D-ify, would lose a lot in the process. It means new events being introduced at Tokyo 2020, like skateboarding and surfing, get their rightful place within Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games

It also means motion controls, though these are. Each of the Tokyo 2020 events offers a couple of different control schemes, including standard button controls and some configuration of joy-con for those wanting a more kinetic experience. In archery, for instance, you could use the analogue sticks to aim and triggers to fire, or you could use your joy-con to physically draw and aim your shot. While a fun idea, I found the motion controls fairly unreliable, making them little more than a novelty—though your mileage may vary. 

The thing tying the 2020 and 1964 Games together within Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games is a story mode that, while shallow and not the most creative, is an enjoyable journey nonetheless. The short version: Bowser and Eggman’s latest scheme involves trying to trap Mario, Sonic and co in an old handheld game console, but they manage to somehow get themselves trapped as well. Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman all revert to their 8- or 16-bit selves and are left competing in the 2D,1964 Olympics as they try and find a way back to the real world, while Luigi, Tails, and the rest who’ve been left behind do their part by taking part in the 2020 Games. 

It’s not the most inventive premise, but it lends itself to plenty of comical moments, like Eggman Nega (in the real world) hacking power-up items into the retro game world, and Bowser Jr. being that awful, awful kid who borrows your Game Boy, runs down the batteries, and then gives it back almost on empty.

This story setup also gives Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 a chance to really celebrate Tokyo as a city. In both 2020 and 1964, an overhead map of the city serves as your way of getting around from event to event—the 2020 one in a cartoony style befitting Mario and Sonic, and the 1964 one in the same 8-bit style you’d expect from a NES game. The locations aren’t limited to the Olympic venues, either; landmarks like Tokyo Tower and Kabukiza Theatre are also available to visit. With a story constantly jumping between the two time periods, you get a real sense of how Tokyo has changed over the course of those 50 years, and how it’s stayed the same, as well.

True to the series’ form, theTokyo 2020 iteration of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic  Games doesn’t limit itself strictly to its takes on the real-life Olympics. Dream events make a return, letting you compete in Mario Kart-style skateboard races, play a sort of third-person shooter, and fight a Splatoon-style turf war using karate. There’s also a handful of other minigames to unlock that, rather than approximating Olympic sports, call to mind the arcade games of yore—there’s a scrolling shoot ’em up, a beat ’em up, a shooting gallery, and the like. There’s even a Where’s Wally?-style thing that has you looking for very particular Toads among a sea of near-identical ones at the Shibuya Scramble crossing. 

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020  is, for the most part, exactly what you’d expect: an assortment of fun, party-oriented minigames based on Olympic events, starring a wide cast from Mario and Sonic legacy. It goes a bit further, though, and cleverly brings the 1964 Tokyo Olympics into the fold through retro-style 2D minigames, and in doing so manages to celebrate the city of Tokyo’s full Olympic history.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.