What happens when the cartoon spin-off is way better than the official version?
In the grand pantheon of sports video games, Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: The Official Video Game (which for brevity’s sake I’ll just call “Tokyo 2020”) is a bit of an odd case. In addition to the fact that by definition it cannot be an annual franchise, it also happens to have a sister series in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Since both games are developed by Sega and are largely the same game, it’s difficult to avoid comparing them, and unfortunately that’s a comparison that isn’t very flattering to Tokyo 2020.
Tokyo 2020 is a minigame collection featuring many events from the real Summer Olympic Games. The 100m dash, the hammer throw, baseball, and judo are a few examples of the 18 events featured in the game, and all of them are presented in a pretty plain and simple manner. You can play the main game mode where you compete in an event three consecutive times in order to earn (or fail to earn) a medal, which translates into points that can be used to purchase in-game cosmetics. Additionally there is a Ranked Games mode where you can compete in online leaderboards for three specific events that rotate in and out every real world half hour.
Most of the events are short, with some like the 100m Freestyle swim or Archery taking longer to load than to actually play, while more traditional sports like Tennis and Basketball being a bit beefier. All of them are pretty straightforward and honestly kind of lame. The Hammer Throw is just rotating the control stick until you press a button once with good timing. The 100m dash is just mashing the A button until you hit the boost button at just the right time for a final sprint. The games mimicking traditional sports are more interesting, but they still feel pretty underbaked. Football and Basketball use the same controls and overall play pretty much the same, and Baseball is so watered down that I was able to strike out an entire inning’s worth of opponents by just mashing the A button to throw straight, standard pitches.
The “How to Play” tutorials for each event feature one of the strangest design decisions I’ve ever seen: you have to unlock the full tutorials by playing the event multiple times, with the final page of each tutorial unlocking after an average of five plays (although some events take as many as ten plays). Even once you’ve fully unlocked all of the instructions, there are still critical pieces of information that the game doesn’t give you.
I kept failing to receive a medal in the 100m dash because the CPU opponents would charge up some kind of aura during the countdown that gave them a burst of extra speed to start. The fully unlocked tutorial for the 100m dash doesn’t explain how to do this at all. The way I finally figured out what to do was to load up the demo for Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games where the tutorial for the 110m Hurdles plainly explained that I needed to hold the R button to charge power during the countdown. I swapped back over to Tokyo 2020 and it turned out that this was the correct answer in that game as well. Why on earth would one game teach me that while the other game made by the same company didn’t?
In addition to plain old playability, Tokyo 2020 also fails to live up to Mario & Sonic in terms of style and flair. Mario & Sonic goes for a colorful cartoon aesthetic with lively animations and exciting music during events that make everything feel more fun. Tokyo 2020 meanwhile feels a lot like watching the Olympics on TV. The graphics are stylized enough that the humans don’t look like uncanny monsters as in some sports games, but aside from an occasional super move that the player character can pull off out of nowhere, there’s very little in terms of flair and punch to spice up the simple minigame action. No music plays whatsoever during events, and intro animations to each event are awkward and lethargic.
The only style the game really gets away with is the strangely well-developed character creator that you can use to customize your player avatar and any other teammates you may need during group events. The cosmetics you can unlock with points won in events get truly varied and strange, with options including spacesuits, pirate outfits, and a large mascot costume modeled after Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s shocking just how in-depth and interesting the character creator is, but unfortunately it’s basically vestigial since the events you actually play as these characters will get boring long before the character creation itself does.
Comparing Tokyo 2020 to Mario & Sonic is not only unavoidable, it’s also just weird. Mario & Sonic released in November 2019, and while Tokyo 2020 was always going to release a little later it was delayed a full year due to the real life Olympics being postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than a year and half gap between the two video games, it’s bizarre that the one that had so much longer to be worked on ends up feeling more rushed and lacking in comparison to its counterpart. Tokyo 2020 would be tough to recommend on its own merits, but placed next to Mario & Sonic there really doesn’t seem to be any reason to choose the “Official” Olympic Games.