It's become a surprising tradition since the Wii era that whenever the Olympic Games gear up for another installment, Nintendo's Super Mario and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog will be there for a fresh round of sports mini-games featuring the extended casts of both franchises. Now in its sixth iteration in celebration of next year's Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 covers familiar territory in new ways for the first time on the Nintendo Switch. The big draw to this sequel is the new 2D retro event series in which the Mushroom Kingdom and Green Hill Zone gangs trade their shiny 3D models for old fashioned, nostalgic sprites from the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis days. What justifies the throwback? It seems that Dr. Eggman and Bowser are cooking up a new scheme to be rid of their nemeses once and for all...
It's been a long time since I played a Mario & Sonic title; 12 years, actually, and it was the debut title for the Wii. That announcement back in 2007 was a shocking development at the time, as people like me who grew up as Mario and Sonic were the frontline soldiers in the console wars never expected to see the characters appear in the same game. Remember that this news came over six months before Nintendo announced the characters would meet in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Who would ever expected to see them cross over at all, let alone in a sports party mini-game collection? Yet somehow the combination worked, but my takeaway in 2007 is still valid today in the 2019 release: this is a party game best played with friends, not a solo adventure endeavor. While you can play the main game mode alone for practice and to work your way up the leaderboards for each event, I found it to be something of a hollow experience playing it this way by myself. There are over twenty traditionally styled 3D events and ten 2D retro events available to dip in and out of on your own, and while I was unable to bring a group of friends into the same room for couch multiplayer (we're a lot busier these days than we were twelve years ago; ah, the ongoing march to middle age strikes again), undoubtedly that's the way to best enjoy Mario & Sonic 2020. Organize a game night, put out some snacks, and pass around the Joy-Cons. If that's not an option for long-distance groups, there's always online play. Up to four people can play locally and up to eight can play online.
Instead, I spent the bulk of my Mario & Sonic 2020 time with the game's Story Mode. When Dr. Eggman creates a new kind of handheld gaming system called the Tokyo 64, he and Bowser plot to trap Mario and Sonic inside the only game that it can play: a retro-styled series of mini-games based around the history and culture of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the Tokyo 64 trap is sprung when the villains are standing a little too close to the heroes and all of them are pulled into the game. Now trapped inside, their only hope for escape is to... well, not exactly work together, but tolerate each other long enough to find a way out of the game back into the real world. Inside the Tokyo 64, the characters are represented as classic 2D sprites from the original Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog which makes this longtime fan of both franchises smile. Back out in the real 3D world, Luigi and Tails find the Tokyo 64 and discover what has happened to the heroes, leading them on a trip around Tokyo 2020's many venues to find clues that will enable them to bring everyone back out of the game. So: 2D characters working together on the inside, 3D characters working together on the outside. Everybody with me so far?
The playflow for the Story Mode generally unfolds as follows: character models interact through dialogue boxes to advance the story; for instance, Luigi and Tails find Amy Rose looking to compete at gymnastics and ask her for help with the Tokyo 64. She agrees to help if someone on their team can beat her score in the sports event. The action then shifts to the event itself which first teaches the player what to do and which buttons to press to do it. These sports events are largely button mashers that require hammering, say, the A button to run and then a quick tap of B to jump or are quicktime events that require players to input an increasingly complex series of button commands before time expires. Perform well, beat the high score, and the character agrees to help Luigi and Tails on their mission. Then, back on the map screen of venues, Luigi moves on to the next location where another character will offer help if he can beat them at sports. Repeat. This same flow applies to the 2D material inside in the Tokyo 64, although inside the game the action is all 8-bit or 16-bit in style. Everything is visually polished and fun to watch particularly the vivid colors and smooth animations. I never knew that characters such as Princess Peach or Knuckles could flip, bend, or bounce so gracefully!
Breaking from the sports action sometimes, the characters will have to complete a different kind of mini-game unrelated to the Olympic Games. For instance, Tails needs to scale a tower before time runs out by jumping from peg to peg in a vertical 2D semi-platformer, Sonic needs to catch up to Dr. Eggman's taxi by racing up behind him Outrun-style, and Luigi needs to help Yoshi find his friends in a massive Where's Waldo?-type of visual puzzle. Each of these unique mini-games is replayable later after completion, too. I had more fun with these mini-games than the sports material sometimes because I never knew what to expect next and the element of surprise kept things fresh.
My only real criticism of Story Mode is the presentation of the story itself. The dialogues go on for much too long, and while the character interactions between the two franchises is part of the draw here, I felt like as the story went on, the characters were talking more and more and I was spending less and less time actually playing the game. They talk a lot about plot points that we already know and are explained several times during the game. I'm not going to hammer on it too harshly though; it's largely a mode for kids, after all, and I shouldn't expect the Crime & Punishment of the Mario & Sonic world here. Just know that when you're playing Story Mode, it'll sometimes feel like you're doing more reading than playing.
So, we're through all of that framework just to get to the meat of it all: what about the sports?? There's a lot to keep you busy here with Olympic events including rugby, archery, boxing, javelin throw, fencing, and skateboarding just to name some of my favorites. I'm also fond of the 2D retro long jump and platform diving. It's all easy to learn but can be a challenge to master, and while the game will explain how to play, I always found there was an unexpected gotcha of some sort that I needed to play for myself to figure out. The game may say to hammer the A button to pick up speed and then press B to jump the hurdles, but it wasn't until I tried and failed a few times that I found the perfect rhythm and was able to zoom ahead of the competition. Fortunately, if you fail an event in Story Mode enough times, there's an menu option to just skip it and move on to the next event.
What you see is what you get with Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and I'd say that fans of the previous games in the series will enjoy coming back for more now. Just know what you getting into when you sign up and, above all else, bring some friends with you.