It would be fun to try to describe this game to a friend and see how long they would take to guess what it is. You could start with the title. But it always feels a little odd when a video game title includes the word ‘official’. Your friend will probably suspect it features some big license movie franchise – something like The 007 James Bond Spectre Never Dies while Russian Diamonds Kill using Golden Guns: Official Royale Edition. So that wouldn’t work. You may try explaining that the game somehow simultaneously takes place in 2020 and 2021. However, that would probably lead them down a sci-fi rabbit hole. You’d think you’d be safe by trying to be quite specific and say the game was a collection of real-world sports, taking place in Tokyo and featuring Sonic the Hedgehog. But they’d probably then guess “Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020“… and be wrong too. So, in order to avoid any of you passing out from dazed confusion I’ll just come right out and say it – welcome to our review of Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – The Official Video Game (a title our friends in Japan have been playing for about a year).
And they’re off!
Playing Konami’s Track & Field on my Famicom [knockoff] was probably my first taste of this kind of game: a collection of Olympic-style sports all crammed into one cartridge. I still remember getting the angle all wrong in the Javelin Throw event and joyfully gasping as my sharp pointy object left the screen into space only to return a second later after spearing a UFO. I really loved all that wild button mashing and screaming at the screen urging my digital sprinter to cross the line first. Over the years we’ve got a wide range of games that have continued the tradition and while some games have been reasonable – too often these collections are a mish-mash of quality and confusion. Although Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 still has a lot that infuriates and confuses – it thankfully provides a few more ups than downs.
The Swimming Medley event actually has you moving both analogue sticks differently based on the type of stroke you are swimming.
From the first glimpse of the game, you’ll notice that there is a definite arcade-style presentation. While there are probably some good arguments for realism in these types of games – I personally prefer this option. I think it works better when you have a collection like this because, not only does it make it easier to forgive gameplay that may feel a little loose for some of the sports, but it also allows for the addition of some humour. Thankfully one of the ways this game shines is the addition of a few fun elements – but before we dive into that it’s probably worth telling you a bit about the various sports, the general gameplay and different modes on offer.
After the horse has already Usain Bolt[ed]
Wisely, rather than try to include every single one of the well over 50 different Olympic sports that will be played at this year’s championship, the game includes only 18; picking a few from each of the track, field and aquatic events as well as several from more non-traditional and team sport events. In the single-player (or two-player) Olympic Games mode you can try out for each event or tackle them in smaller batches. I found each game had its own ‘personality’ and in most cases, felt quite cleverly designed in one way or another. Rather than use more traditional button-mapping for example, many games try to mimic the real-world sport with some unique controls. The Swimming Medley event actually has you moving both analogue sticks differently based on the type of stroke you are swimming. That was rather cool. But as you can expect this works better in some sports than others. I found the Hurdles to be a challenge in finger dexterity and Sport Climbing virtually unplayable whereas Table Tennis, in particular, felt amazing and intuitive.
The hint system may be one of the most incomprehensible video game design decisions I have ever come across!
This unevenness is found in other places as well. While some games are perfect for short bursts of fun, others feel like a real slog (I struggled to enjoy BMX racing and Baseball at all). In fact, the gameplay of most of the team games feels very very dated. The Soccer for example reminded me of Superstar Soccer Deluxe on my old Mega Drive, and the AI of opponents in Sevens is often laughable. And when you consider the variety of sports available I really wish they had rather included something more interesting (my personal pick would’ve been archery because who doesn’t love an Olympic-archery game, right?!). Then we head to the issue of difficulty…There are three difficulty options available – which is great – however, even in the easiest setting, the actual difficulty between games and even within a single game, jumps all over the place. For example: most games require two rounds of qualification before the finals. In most sports, I qualified miles ahead of the pack in the first two rounds and then would be lucky to finish anywhere but the last place in the final round.
What makes this even harder to deal with is what I think may be one of the most incomprehensible video game design decisions I have ever come across! After you complete an event for the first time – a hint about that specific game is unlocked. Then, the more you play, the more hints are unlocked. Sounds reasonable, right? You’re probably thinking that the hints contain some interesting tidbits or at least rather advanced information you’d only need if you want to truly master an event. Unfortunately, instead of that, they often include just basic and rather necessary directions about how to play the game. And so for the first few times you play an event, you actually don’t really know how to do it properly. And if that wasn’t frustrating enough – once you actually unlock a hint it’s very hard to access it. Not only do you need to exit the game you are playing, but also leave the Single-Player Olympics Mode (resulting in a short but irritating little loading screen), then access the Main menu, followed by another sub-menu, and then scroll down to the specific game to see the unlocked hints. Oh, and they somehow also tie the hints to in-game progression – as if someone expected that this would all be a fun exercise. Hiding basic controls and mechanics behind a hard to access menu drove me absolutely bonkers. And I cannot for the life of me understand who came up with the idea, never mind how it eventually made it into the actual game.
Dress for the job you want… then add a hat
After exploring all of the single-player stuff (including the special practice modes where, after you obtain a gold medal, a real-life athlete will challenge you to their favoured event) I’ve got to say I was rather unimpressed – a score of 5 seemed on the cards. Sure, some individual sports were quite enjoyable, but it all felt a little flat. However, remember the ‘fun elements’ I spoke about earlier? Well, it was these additions where the game started to grow on me. Because the range of Avatar creation options is rather extensive, you can have a blast creating the perfect Olympic specimen made of muscle and stone… or you can create grumpy old Bernie, your fat uncle from Umtata, and watch them run the 100 Metre sprint in under 10 seconds.
And if that wasn’t enough, the added clothing options are hilarious! As you compete in various sports you earn credits. These credits can then be used to purchase outfits. Now, as you may know – I’m not one for unlocking cosmetics in most games. However, rather unexpectedly – I really loved what Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 does in this regard. Because of the arcade style and because the game doesn’t take itself too seriously – the range of outfits is a little out there. And I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed playing Beach Volleyball in a perfectly tailored suit or hitting the swimming pool dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow… Or even cosplaying as a certain familiar plumber as I took the gold medal in the Table Tennis finals.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed playing Beach Volleyball in a perfectly tailored suit
Of course, I realise that even that won’t make the game a must-buy for most people. And to be honest, even though I was smiling while playing – thanks to all the wonderful nonsense – the reason I actually think the game is probably worth at least checking out is the online modes. As I mentioned above, while the single-player is a little bland, a lot of that has to do with stuff like the difficulty variability and silly AI. However, you can avoid those issues by jumping online – and tackling people from all over the world in Ranked modes (every half an hour, 3 events become available and you can play to increase your personal rating from C- upwards) or in the mainline Olympics Games – where a host can set up a room and you can compete in a series of events. At first, I was worried about the connection issues playing from SA. However, at least for now, I can confirm that with a little trial and error I was usually able to play online quite easily on my PS4 and had a great time. And actually, even sports that I didn’t enjoy alone – are infinitely better when played with others. Plus, you can play locally too – so that’s a definite plus in my book.
Just off the podium… but still respectable
So after one of the most confusing launches and the longest names ever, I hope this review helps a little with whether or not this game is for you. It’s almost a good game – if I could, I’d have given it a 6.9/10. Sure, there are some definite issues. A few things made me almost literally pull my hair out. However, it’s actually a little better than I expected and with the real Olympics just over two weeks away – I think having a collection of mostly fun little arcade sports games is probably not a bad thing.