There was once a time where the idea of two bitter industry rivals sharing the same game (let alone the same console) would have you laughed out of the school playground; yet, Mario and Sonic have been collaborating with each other for over a decade now. In this latest installment for the Nintendo Switch, we find the two beloved platforming mascots once again battling for gold in the Olympic Games, and it’s a concept that may have lost its initial novelty. Does that mean that the game is doomed to fail? Far from it: there’s actually a fair bit to appreciate here!
Reviewer: Alex ‘Indigo’ Ventrella
Note: This review contains minor story details, but no major spoilers.
The best way to summarize the premise of Mario and Sonic at the Olympics is that it’s a decent selection of mini-games with varying degrees of complexity. From simple timed button presses to precise hand gestures, you’ll certainly find something to enjoy, it’s just not likely to be everything. These mini-games are based off of real Olympic “events” that will take place in the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo and include a variety of activities such as the perennial 100-meter Dash and Relay Race, with some new events like Karate, Sport Climbing and Surfing.
Nearly every event features motion control options, with button only controls being available for all of them. In most cases, the Nintendo Switch’s joy-cons will detect gestures without issue, though whether or not these gestures make sense will depend on the event you’re playing. Playing any of the running events will see you shaking the joy-con with reckless abandon, for instance. Certain events like Archery and the Javelin Throw are a decent analog for the real thing, but the Discus Throw deserves a special mention for being one of the most obtuse and frustrating events to play regardless if you’re playing with buttons or gestures.
Other events are based off of more popular every-day sports like Football and Rugby Sevens, though your mileage will vary on your enjoyment of these. If you aren’t very familiar with either of these sports in real-life, it could take a few tries before you work out what’s going on. Some of the most fun events are Skateboarding and Sports Climbing. Skateboarding is no Tony Hawk’s Pro-Skater, but it’s very fun to launch off of half-pipes; the controls (both traditional and motion controls) are very fluid and feel natural. Sports Climbing has a little bit of a learning curve to it, but once you nail down the rhythm of jumping from one peg to another, it’s easy to get invested in beating your highest score.
Some of the events are presented in a retro pixel format, using sprites instead of detailed 3D models. The idea is that these events are based off of the 1964 Summer Olympics, which also took place in Tokyo. There are far fewer characters to select from here; you can only play as Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Eggman. All of these events use traditional button controls exclusively, and tend to be the most rudimentary… though there a few exceptions.
Most events are a combination of timing button presses or just mashing the same button as quickly as possible (anything involving running, basically); a few events aren’t so easy, though. Volleyball, for instance, is not as straight-forward as one would expect, with Judo being easily the most difficult to master. Some of these events were so difficult to handle that I found myself using the graciously provided “skip event” option more than once during the story mode just to get through to the end.
What definitely deserves appreciation is the attention to detail in certain character animations. The team behind this game went the extra mile to make sure every playable character moved like they would in their original games. One of the better examples can be seen in the Sports Climbing event. When the player starts out, the character needs to ascend to the first peg; Sonic parkours up the wall, Knuckles climbs it, Tails flies up to it… you get the picture. The game is full of subtle details like this, and it shows that there was a modicum of care put into this game.
On the subject of care, the graphics in the 3D events are very lush and are a treat to the eyes. Despite being the less powerful console, the Switch has proven to be capable of some wonderful visuals. The same can’t necessarily be said for the retro events, which suffer from a lack of consistent presentation. Mario sprites are from the 8-bit NES console while Sonic sprites are of the 16-bit Mega Drive era, with the backgrounds and environments failing to convey any kind of retro look beyond being “pixelated.” It may have been better if the team had elected to use sprites from the Super Nintendo Mario games to match the fidelity of the Mega Drive, seeing as that would be the most visually consistent.
The soundtrack isn’t anything special but feels appropriate – there’s a subtle oriental flavor given the location while the music in the retro events are reminiscent of the “good ol’ days” with chiptune sounds that could have come right out of the NES or Master System. It’s not especially catchy, but it serves its purpose.
The story mode shows more effort this go round compared to previous outings. Although it won’t necessarily scratch the itch for that epic crossover adventure some fans have been calling for, there’s fun to be had in seeing these iconic characters interact with each other, albeit through text dialogue boxes.
The adventure begins when Mario and Sonic’s respective enemies, Bowser and Eggman, try to trap the heroes inside of a retro looking game console. Their plan works, but inadvertently sucks them into the console during the process, leaving Luigi to be the lone witness. While the main heroes and villains duke it out in pixelated events from the ’64 Olympics, Luigi is trying to locate Tails to help him figure out how to rescue Mario and Sonic. The story frequently switches between the 3D world with Tails and Luigi and the 2D world with Sonic and Mario until the endgame.
You could call this first portion of the story the “Labors of Luigi,” because this thinly veiled excuse to campaign through every event in the game has our green sidekick being ignored as he tries to explain what’s happening, only to have every character he comes across ask him to compete in an event before they listen to him. Things start to pick up once Tails and Luigi meet up and start recruiting a team of athletes to find a way to rescue the rest of the cast. It’s not an especially engrossing narrative, but once the stakes are made clear, the plot hits a gradual pace towards a satisfying, if predictable, conclusion.
Throughout the story, you can explore overworlds with characters to chat with and “trivia cards” to collect. These cards don’t offer much in the way of completion besides information on Olympic history, or share some common knowledge about the playable characters. It’s hard to shake the feeling that something like this had to be in the game to receive funding as an official Olympics videogame, as it adds nothing to the experience. Thankfully, it’s not necessary to collect these cards to complete the story and can be completely ignored.
Ultimately, despite it’s underwhelming story, this is a decent party game. The Mario and Sonic series can only fail to meet expectations that it never set itself out to meet in the first place. This is not, and never has been, about “what if Mario met Sonic,” and always felt like an attention-grabbing stunt to grab sales for a party game. At its best, the Mario and Sonic series offers a nice selection of mini-games featuring classic characters to play as. It’s the kind of game that will satisfy younger or casual gamers who are excited to play a game as their favorite characters. At it’s worst, it’s a harmless distraction with a few duds.
When these two former rivals decide to have an epic platforming adventure together though, we’ll be ready. Until then, this will have to suffice.
This review of Mario &Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 was based on a review copy supplied by SEGA of America.