There’s something inherently charming about rivals uniting to take on – and conquer, naturally – a common foe. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” conceit is not a novel concept, granted, but when executed with care and caution, it can masterfully stoke the fires of those sunny feel-good emotions like nothing else.
The Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games series is arguably the pinnacle of this rivalry. Maybe it touches older players more than younger fans, but seeing Sega-specific characters line up, shoulder to shoulder, alongside Nintendo mascots rarely gets tiresome, as few rivalries are more storied than that of Nintendo’s iconic plumber and Sega’s inimitable Sonic. Yes, we appreciate the symbolism of these Japanese megabrands coming together for Olympic unity – it’s not exactly subtle, is it? – but it’s delightful nonetheless.
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On paper, there’s a lot to love about the latest instalment of this mash-up, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020. The developers draw heavily with the “2020 vs. 1964” motif – 1964 being the last time Japan hosted the event and 2020 seeing the Olympics return to Tokyo – and treat us not just to the usual smorgasbord of mini sporting games in current-gen glory, but also in 8- and 16-bit majesty, too. It’s a neat, amusing twist, and one that generously heaps on that old school nostalgia.
On paper is pretty much where the brilliance ends, though. While the quick play matches feature a handful of new modes – climbing, Karate, surfing, and skateboarding – they chiefly offer the standard fare of sporting mini-games you’ve seen, and played, eleventy gazillion times before; boxing, sprinting, long jump, diving, swimming, and so on.
The story mode, however, forces you into an insufferable slog on a threadbare premise, trampling both pacing and player choice as it does so. While you’ll get to explore events in both the current and retro style, these trials are interspersed with interminably dull exposition and text-based dialogue; if you don’t get enough of a work out hammering “A” in the mini-games, you’ll certainly do so as you desperately hurry-up the drawn-out exchanges between characters.
“Motion-controllers are likely more fun in a couch co-op situation, sure, but for committed players seeking perfect bonuses and top scores, they’re too clumsy.”
The difficulty of the challenges across sporting activities varies wildly from extreme to expletive-worthy extreme, with very little middle ground to be found in-between. Much like its predecessors, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020 is a motion-controlled game that offers the promise of player choice, and while there are three ways to play most of the events – dual controllers, solo remote, or buttons only – anything other than the latter feels clumsy and inexact.
Motion-controllers are likely more fun in a couch co-op situation, sure, but for committed players seeking perfect bonuses and top scores, they’re too clumsy. This means button-only play is the most accurate, but even that can be a bewildering affair.
Take the gymnastics challenge in story mode. It’s hard enough to track the button prompts on the Switch‘s compact screen as it is, but – forced into a split-screen perspective to inexplicably monitor your competitor, Daisy, in action – they’re almost unreadable.
In other modes, however, there’s almost no skill needed at all; choose a speedy runner in the hurdles, for instance, and it doesn’t matter if you face-plant into every hurdle along the way – you’ll still win, and by a comfortable margin at that. Skateboarding, on the other hand, can be cheesed with creative button mashing.
This lack of consistency means you don’t organically develop your skills as much as leap-frog between them, never entirely sure when you’ll next be stonewalled by an unnecessarily complex challenge. Beyond offering fun, family-friendly party games as you recover from overindulging on turkey this holiday season, we’re at a loss as to what else, exactly, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020 offers… which, for a game seemingly crafted with such warmth and humour, is a sad thing indeed.
Though bold and colourful and accompanied with a dazzling score, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020's clumsy gameplay lacks the polish we've come to expect from games emblazoned by that iconic little plumber.
- 8-bit and 16-bit graphics are a delightful touch
- Wonderful to see Sonic, Mario and co. once again team up
- Imprecise motion-control
- Story mode is slow and tedious
- Lack of meaningful replayability