If there’s one thing to know about Mario and Sonic, it’s that they’re fierce rivals. Sure, Mario’s ended up being the most popular and successful over the years, but like the Andre Agassi to Nintendo’s Pete Sampras, Sega’s mascot just keeps on coming and has a fair few victories of his own.
These days, of course, they’re friends and not the subject of quite so much playground bickering –well, unless it’s the parents of a certain age doing the school run – but that competitive edge to their chumminess has stayed simmering in the background thanks to the Mario & Sonic at the Summer Olympics series. And with the Olympics heading to Tokyo next year, Nintendo and Sega are sending their cast of characters back into the thick of it with another sports-centric collection of minigames to commemorate the athletic mega-event. Weirdly, it’s coming out in November, a full eight months before the Olympics actually start…
Now, having started on the Wii, the series has always had motion controls, but let’s be honest here, there’s not much worse than woolly waggle controls and the feeling that you can just wildly throw your arm around and win. It just isn’t as satisfying as when there’s some real finesse to it beyond rapid motion. OK, so there is one thing worse, and that’s knowing that there is nuance to the controls, but not quite grasping the timing, the motion and getting the intended results. For that, a simply tap of the button will always be king or queen.
Importantly, each mini-game gives you a set of options, often including double Joy-Con, single Joy-Con and button controls. Tapping buttons when arm waving is available isn’t really what I’m here for, though. So, throwing myself into a series of different sports with only a few moments to glance at the controls and I drop into that particular no man’s land, trying and often failing to get to grips with the shifting motion controls. Every game has its own set of motion-controlled inputs that, and initially it’s easy to sink rather than swim. They’re a little confusing to learn, but should soon became second-nature after a few goes.
Starting with the classic 110m hurdles, and it’s simple enough. Extend your hands to show you’re ready, launch, wildly move fists up and down to run, and then punch forward to hurdle. Get the timing right and you get a speed boost, get it wrong, as I did 90% of the time, and you just clatter into the hurdles. There’s finesse to the timing of leaping over the hurdles that takes some time to master, but I get the feeling that it’ll be fairly easy to reach the skill-ceiling in this game if you put enough time into it.
So we’re off to a good start. Now how about some surfing? Well, there’s just one controller needed for this one with some smoother motions and finer turning to decide on the wave you want to rider turn to run along the face of it and into the curl, while pulling tricks from the crest. Let’s just say I didn’t get a good handle on this one, and the same is true of the skateboarding. It’s more THPS Ride than THPS3, but when you do manage to pull off a trick, the animations are a treat. These two games were definitely the hardest to get a handle on during our demo time, but honestly a big part of that will have been down to choosing motion instead of button controls.
Thankfully, archery is a sport that just clicks with motion controls. I mean, how could it not? You perform the motion of pulling a bow back, try to finely aim at the target, taking into account the wind, and loose your arrow. The aiming does feel pretty heavy, as you’re working with relative motion to what’s on screen, but it’s easy to compensate for that and I was hitting the middle of the target thanks to some truly intuitive controls. The game happens across three rounds of two arrows, with the target distance increasing and the effects of the wind growing to add some real tension of the minigame. I found myself getting into the zone pretty quick with this one, even managing to just pip my trusty PR archery partner in multiplayer.
So far, each of the mini-games in the collection has been cute for a quick session, but nothing is really that gripping to get you to want to come back time and again, let alone be enough to convince friends to get used to each game’s controls. But then I hadn’t played Karate yet.
This game ditches the motion controls for button controls, which is probably for the best, despite the hilarity of seeing two people throwing Kung Fu shapes at a TV. Instead you have fighting game-esque inputs like punch, kick, throw and block, along with special button-combo moves. Bouts in this event are more like a quick and painless Bushido Blade battle than a long-winded fighting game match, though. One throw or a few well-placed kicks can send your opponent to the ground or out of the ring, earning you enough points and ending the round. After 2 or 3 rounds, a winner is crowned. I came back to this particular game multiple times, instantly addicted to the mind-games of reading my opponent and coming out on top.
Mario & Sonic is shaping up to be another fun collection of simple yet satisfying mini-games. Sure, there’s the (110m) hurdles of learning each game’s controls, which can make of break an experience like this, but when it does click, some of these games have that ‘it’ factor that could have you loading them up over and over again to get a perfect score or beat a friend. With twenty sports in total and a wide roster of Mario and Sonic characters to experience in the full release, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is shaping up to be an all-star athletic experience.