First things first: when it comes to the Olympic Games, I prefer winter to summer. I tried my best not to let that color my impression of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, but in a way it couldn't be helped. So as the basis for a minigame collection, I'd be more excited to plop Mario and Sonic in bobsleds than, say, watch them run the 100 meter dash.
Next year, though, naysayers like me will have new reasons to pay attention to the Tokyo 2020 games, and the latest Mario & Sonic title tries to capture some of that excitement. First, a handful of sports including skateboarding, sport climbing, karate, and surfing are being added to the Olympics—all four are represented in Mario & Sonic. Second, Tokyo will join the shortlist of host cities that have hosted the Olympics twice. This detail inspires the most out-there addition to this Mario & Sonic installment: a collection of faux-retro 2D minigames set at the Tokyo 1964 games.
The team at Sega makes a run at mixing these new Olympic sports, returning staples, 1964 events, and a smattering of just-for-fun minigames into a story mode. The result almost, almost justifies its existence as more than just a minigame collection, but don't expect to find an experience that outdoes other Mario or Sonic titles.
Mario & Sonic's story mode starts off by leaning into its very weird premise. It resists the urge to explain why or how the characters from Nintendo and Sega's franchises have found themselves in Tokyo for the Olympic games and opts to get meta at the start. Teaming up with Bowser, Eggman creates a trap for Mario and Sonic: a Tokyo 1964 Olympics video game. They botch the evil plan and all four of them, plus Toad, get sucked inside the game-within-a-game. Outside of Eggman's trap, Luigi and Tails roam around the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in search of a way to free them all.
The dual storylines in 2020 and 1964 constantly invent reasons for the characters to compete in Olympic minigames, some more inventive than others (e.g. a secret feature of Eggman's 1964 simulation needs gold medals to work). For variety's sake, you're also constantly flipping back and forth between the two. While the 1964 story stays focused on Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman, all the other characters in 2020 are either eager to ruin Luigi and Tails' day or happy to help out... but, y'know, right after you compete against them at the Olympics.
At first, the story's framing gels into something nice and absurd. There are decent gags scattered throughout, the 2020 plot commits to a strange alliance between Bowser Jr. and Eggman Nega (I guess they're roughly the second-string bad guy equivalents of Luigi and Tails?), and occasional non-Olympics minigames help liven up the proceedings. Especially while playing the Tokyo 1964 sections, with their odd mix of 8 and 16-bit graphics, it can feel like you're playing something that's half-fanfiction ROM hack, half-Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.
Unfortunately, the story settles into a pattern that goes stale about halfway through. The 2020 dialogue scenes are also far less dynamic than their 1964 pixel art counterparts. Once it became clear that no major twists would occur in the former, and that the chuckle-worthy jokes dried up in the latter, I found myself less interested in Mario & Sonic's story than in the Olympics trivia questions scattered around the overworld. Unless you care to unlock all ten non-Olympics minigames and a dozen event-specific playable characters (in addition to the regular cast of 20), you won't miss much by tapping out of the story mode as soon as you get bored.
This leaves Mario & Sonic's Olympic minigames themselves, which for the most part are plentiful, polished, and... well, inoffensive. Out of the 31 main Olympics-themed games, there are only a few I wouldn't care to replay and even fewer I feel a great urge to play again.
Some of the minigames for 2020's new Olympic events exemplify what Mario & Sonic's minigames do best: boil down what could be a whole video game into a short, satisfying test of your timing. You're not getting a bite-sized Tony Hawk Pro Skater experience with the skateboarding minigame, but it still incentivizes precise jumps and savvy navigation of the course. Ditto sport-climbing, which could've easily been a QTE-laden affair but instead has some real risk-reward mechanics. Karate's fighting game controls are simple, yet still complex enough to allow for some strategy, rather than a pure button-mashing affair.
Even the less interesting, been-there-done-that minigames-swimming, 10 meter platform dive, the 100 meter dash-are be fun in the moment because they're well-crafted. While it can feel like a lot of them come down to mashing "A" the fastest and then unleashing a special powered-up move, I can't deny that I had fun doing it. A good minigame should feel like just a bit more than the sum of its parts, and most of Mario & Sonic's hit that mark. They're simple tasks performed with simpler controls that nonetheless make you feel like you pulled off something a bit more impressive.
As a whole, the most impressive thing about Mario & Sonic is the slickness of its overall presentation. Whether you're enjoying one of the more novel minigames or praying for a swift end to a frustrating one, it presents both the modern 2020 gameplay and its retro 1964 setting with great attention to detail. Many of the characters in the 2020 games now don event-specific gear for their matches (there's just something undeniably great about seeing Wario in equestrian attire). The same goes for all of the 1964 games: once you get past how out of place the 16-bit Sonic characters look in it, the accompanying pixel environments, music, and "compressed" announcer voices all believably give the impression of some long-lost NES game.
The weakest parts of Mario & Sonic's package are its team sports, which err on the side of too much verisimilitude. I'd rather not muddle through another round of minigame football that's neither all that realistic or terribly creative, and the retro 2D volleyball minigame plays like a slog thanks in part to the flattened perspective.
For the most part, though, if an individual minigame isn't fun to play, it's usually down to the game's design rather than the controls. Only a few stand out as simply not suited for the Switch as a piece of hardware. The kayaking minigame brought back back bad analog stick-spinning memories from N64-era Mario Party. Using individual Joy-Cons with squirrely gyro aiming was the only negative motion control experience my friend and I had while testing out the local multiplayer.
Thankfully, every game also has a buttons-only control scheme... though if you find yourself playing through these with the Switch in handheld mode, you might want to ask yourself "why?"
Ultimately, what hamstrings Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (other than that mouthful of a title) is that there's not a great way to just start having multiplayer fun with friends. The story mode is single-player only, and there's too much dialogue between minigames to make it well-suited for passing the controller around. There's also nothing to facilitate a fun, lasting party session: quick play just lists all your minigame options. Absent any sort of progression or tracking that would encourage actual competition, you just end up picking whatever sounds good. Playing with friends, you may very well spend more time selecting a minigame and reading how to play than it takes to play one or even a handful of rounds of the game in question.
There's enough good stuff in this Mario & Sonic installment to make me believe that neither a short, fun story mode or a multiplayer package with legs are out of reach for the series. Still, for Tokyo 2020, it doesn't feel like Sega has nailed either one. I guess there's always Paris 2024—or the series could do Beijing for the winter Olympics in 2022. I had enough of a good time with this that you could easily convince me to enter Waluigi in figure skating.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 offers a glimpse of what the series could be if it fully committed to a story mode or really invested in becoming a sportier companion to Mario Party. Most of the minigames are fairly strong and the whole package is dripping with polish. As far as minigame collections go, this one can carry the torch just fine—but maybe it’s not the one you pick to light the fire at game night.