Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: The Game of the Games That Never Were

With a few exceptions, officially licensed video game adaptations of the Olympics tend to be little more than footnotes in video gaming history.

Often regarded by critics as collections of minigames rather than anything of real substance, they tend to enjoy a brief period of popularity around the time of the real-life Games they find themselves based on, then afterwards fall into complete obscurity, never to be seen again. Which puts Sega’s Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – The Official Video Game (Tokyo 2020 hereafter) in a rather interesting position.

First releasing in Japan in July of 2019, a full year before the actual Tokyo 2020 games were set to begin, it now finds itself in the peculiar position of being an official adaptation of an event that never happened — and that, at the time of writing, we’re not 100% sure will happen as the global COVID-19 pandemic continues. Which makes it an interesting historical curiosity at the very least — but thankfully it’s also an entertaining game, too. Let’s take a closer look.

I’ve always had a soft spot for multi-sport games like this, despite never being a particular fan of 1) sports or 2) sports games. For me, my feelings run counter to the common criticisms of the subgenre; the mechanical simplicity of these games actually makes them an ideal way to enjoy and engage with subject matter I don’t typically have a lot of time for, but which I can find myself getting invested in with enough of a nudge. Plus simple, arcadey gameplay is sometimes exactly what you need to wind down with after a busy day.

My enthusiasm for games like this dates right back to the 8- and 16-bit home computer eras and Epyx’s classic titles Summer Games, Winter Games and World Games which, despite not having an official Olympic license, were pretty clear in the kind of experience they were trying to create. These games all provided an interesting, varied selection of activities, and in many cases acted in a quasi-educational fashion, introducing players to sports they might not have come across before.

The multi-sport games I’ve always had the least time for are the ones that have been the most stereotypical in the eyes of the general public: the “button-bashers” or the “joystick-wagglers”, where the majority of your time is spent invalidating the warranty on your controller by subjecting it to the sort of abuse you’d normally have to slip Big Margaret fifty quid for. The Activision Decathlons and Daley Thompson’s Decathlons of the world — even Konami’s legendary Track & Field series; no. Not a big fan, though they have their moments.

With this in mind, I’m glad that the last few official Olympic video games have skewed closer to Epyx’s approach of providing a diverse and varied selection of Olympic events rather than focusing exclusively on track and field athletics events. And Sega’s self-developed Tokyo 2020 is no exception in this regard. In fact, it’s one of my favourites to date, outside of a few events (like any sort of gymnastics) I’m sad to see omitted.

The first thing you do in Tokyo 2020 is define your “athlete avatar” using a surprisingly comprehensive character creator. Your athlete can present male or female (and, in a pleasantly understated nod to non-conforming types, this basic body type selection is referred to as “style” rather than “gender”). They can be muscular, lithe and athletic or chubby. You can adjust their height, how much their cheekbones stick out, how big their eyes are and all manner of other things — and then you can fully customise the colour of hair, eyes and makeup for the perfect finishing touches that allow you to really feel like you’ve taken ownership of your custom character.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Tokyo 2020 skews slightly more towards exaggerated, somewhat cartoony presentation rather than out-and-out realism, but it is a slight thing. Imagine what The Sims would look like if they were competing in the Olympics and you’d probably about have the measure of how this game is presented.

There’s an important reason for this aesthetic choice: the fact that the game doesn’t take itself altogether seriously, which feels entirely appropriate for a Japanese-developed game depicting an as-yet fictional Japanese Olympic games. Not only can you give your custom characters comically exaggerated (or utterly grotesque) facial features, you can also dress them up in unique outfits for each event, with a variety of unlockable costumes available for the points you earn by playing the game. Want to jump into the boxing ring dressed as a Power Ranger? Go ahead. Rugby sevens with a team in full plate armour? Got you covered. Magical girl BMXing? Step right up.

It’s also worth noting that several of the events in Tokyo 2020 are team-based — and yes, that means you’re able to create, customise and name every single one of your team members in the same level of detail as your main “star athlete” that you play as for the majority of the time. You don’t realise quite how much joy this brings until you see your full judo team lined up on the mat in the bizarre costumes and hair colours you’ve provided them with, staring down the distinctly normal-looking Team Finland, who were just hoping for a good clean fight rather than a battle for their very life against an armour-clad QX-9000 and her best friend Lana the witch.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the events themselves as yet, and that’s because I cannot overstate how much playing around with the character creator is a highly entertaining experience in and of itself. Indeed, when I booted the game up for the first time, I spent a good two hours getting Team GB looking exactly the way I wanted them to look — and feeling intense delight that the randomly selected pose my star athlete ended up with for her portrait turned out to be exactly the sort of smug grin I had in mind for her. Wonderful stuff.

Anyway, events. Tokyo 2020 features 18 of them: the 100 metre dash; the 110 metre hurdles; the 4×100 metre relay; the long jump; the hammer throw; 100 metre freestyle swimming; 200 metre individual medley swimming; baseball; basketball; beach volleyball; boxing; BMX; football (as in soccer, for any Americans reading); judo, rugby sevens; sport climbing; table tennis; and tennis. No two of these games play in the same way, and each offer a nice balance between one-button accessibility for newcomers or party play, and more complex, advanced controls for those who want to take the competition a bit more seriously.

Let’s examine each of the events in a bit more depth.

The 100 metre dash is probably Tokyo 2020 as its most conventional and traditional so far as Olympic-themed sports games are concerned — it’s all about hammering a button as fast as you can for the most part, though there’s an additional mechanic known as “spurt” (shush) that allows you to get an additional burst of speed towards the end of the race while leaving a flaming trail behind you if you time your button press correctly. Told you this game didn’t take itself too seriously.

While I’m not a super-fan of button bashing gameplay as noted above, the 100 metre dash is at least mercifully short as a general rule, and the addition of both the “spurt” mechanic as well as an optional turbo start gives it a little more depth than other games of this type, rather than simply assessing how badly one’s Wanker’s Cramp is playing up on any given day.

The 110 metre hurdles also involves pressing a button rapidly, but the emphasis is much less on hammering like your life depends on it, and more about timing a flick of the left analogue stick to hop over the hurdles at the appropriate moments. Helpful marks on the floor in front of both your athlete and the hurdles give a good indication of the required timing for this — line up one with the other and you’re good — so this event ends up being more about rhythm, timing and reflexes than wrist strength.

It’s actually surprisingly challenging, and the control scheme here is well thought out; by keeping your speed on your right thumb and the jumping on your left thumb, there’s no risk of getting tied up in knots, and each of your hands has clear responsibilities. This sort of thoughtful control design continues throughout Tokyo 2020 as a whole.

The 4×100 metre relay is an altogether different beast to the previous two racing events. Here, success is dependent on tapping a button to keep a meter in a distinct, marked area; the longer you keep the meter in the marked area without dropping out, the faster you will go, and the more your team as a whole will accelerate. Combine this with a flick of the stick to pass the baton — again, using helpful markers on the floor to show timing — and you have a simple but effective game that simulates both teamwork and stamina management.

This event could have easily been another mindless button basher, but the more rhythmic aspect of having to pace each athlete’s run properly really gives it a unique feel. The event also gives you some detailed feedback on how “efficient” each of your team members were throughout the race, so you can figure out where your weak spots are — plus, of course, this is your first opportunity to take to the track with those custom team members you spent a few hours building before playing for real!

The long jump is handled through button tapping to build up speed on the run-up, then flicking the right analogue stick to jump. The closer the stick is to a 45-degree angle when you flick it, the better angled your jump will be — and if you’re feeling particularly fancy and/or quick to react, you can tap another button in mid-air to do a “proper” landing, which can often get you a bit more distance.

One thing I really like about this event is the fact that it captures the drama and personality of the Olympics very well; beat a particular distance on your first two jumps, and you have the option to clap your hands and hype up the crowd before your third, which in turn allows you to jump even further. It’s really fun, particularly seeing how “into it” your custom athlete gets; the nice thing about the slightly cartoony presentation is that it makes for some highly entertaining, exaggerated facial expressions at times!

The final track and field event is the hammer throw. This one eschews button bashing in favour of requiring you to hold the two shoulder buttons (to simulate gripping onto the hammer’s handle) and then whirling the right stick around in circles as quickly and accurately as you can. Just before the time comes to release, the event goes into slow motion, and releasing the hammer at the correct moment on an on-screen meter allows you to fling it with a frankly obscene amount of force, causing it to burst into flames as it flies off into the distance. Getting the timing right will take a bit of practice, though.

This event is enjoyable because it keeps the “physicality” aspect of doing something fairly intense with the controller, but making that something a bit different from simple button-bashind. Moving the analogue stick in circles provides a good feeling of how challenging it must be to whirl that thing around — and the satisfying yell your athlete emits when finally letting it go provides an almost tangible sense of relief. Simple, but effective.

The 100 metre freestyle race sees us jumping into the pool for two lengths of front crawl. This mostly involves rhythmically pushing each analogue stick forwards one at a time in line with on-screen indicators, though you have to be a bit careful — the pace changes somewhat as your athlete changes speed and their stamina level changes. There’s also a “spurt” mechanic in this one, where you can give yourself a bit of a speed boost for the last few metres — but in this case, unleashing it too early can exhaust your athlete and leave you going from first to last in a matter of milliseconds!

This one is tricky to get the hang of — particularly the timing of your “spurt” — but satisfying and enjoyable when you do. It’s presented very nicely, with some pleasantly cinematic underwater views when your athlete is making their initial dive or their turn at the far end of the pool. Plus, of course, I’m sure you can imagine the inherent comedy value the various costumes can provide for this event in particular.

Meanwhile, the 200 metre medley swimming is more about stamina management. Each length of the pool requires you to do a different movement with the two analogue sticks, with no requirement to be rhythmic this time. Instead, the speed at which you perform the moves determines your overall pace, but moving at a faster pace also drains your stamina more quickly. Thus, this event is all about finding a good balance between speed and stamina drain.

The controls for this one are simple and intuitive, and the stamina mechanic works well. The various stick movements used to simulate the various strokes also give a nice sense of engaging directly with the action, and on the whole it’s a much more accessible event than the challenging 100 metre freestyle.

Baseball marks the first of a series of events that are quite a bit more substantial than you might typically expect to find in an official Olympics game. These games take a bit more time than the 10-15 seconds of some of the track and field events, and have a bit more potential depth to their gameplay, too. That said, if you want to play these games as one-button arcade-style experiences, you can do; the “advanced” controls are there for those who want to take a bit more control over the situation.

In baseball, you alternate between batting and pitching. While batting, it’s your job to do two simple things: firstly, to line up an aiming marker with an indicator that shows where the pitcher is going to throw the ball, and secondly, to press a button to actually hit the ball with the correct timing. While pitching, you have the option of selecting several different types of pitch — which are mostly implemented as the ball marker moving after you throw the ball, making it harder for the batter to make an accurate hit — and then, optionally, you can take control of the fielders yourself. You don’t have to do so, however; the default automatic fielding means all you have to concentrate on is pitching.

This is a highly accessible take on baseball, which can potentially seem like quite a complicated sport to those who aren’t familiar with it. The default basic controls make it a simple matter of timing and aiming, however, and from there as you develop your confidence you can start experimenting with the more advanced options available to you — including a delightfully over the top “super shot” that your main character can unleash once they’ve charged up a special meter. Getting the batting timing will be the biggest barrier to enjoyment for most people in this one, but it all comes with practice.

Basketball provides another simplified take on a sport. At its most basic level, you only have two buttons to worry about — one to pass, one to shoot. Once again, though, there are a series of optional controls you can make use of if you want to take a bit more precise command of the action, including directly selecting which team member you want to control rather than relying on the occasionally iffy decisions the automatic systems make.

The main challenge most people will find in basketball is figuring out how to successfully steal the ball from your opponents, since this can feel quite challenging initially. Once you get a feel for how to do this, however, the rapid-fire pace of the matches this event offers makes for some highly entertaining arcade action.

Beach volleyball is interesting in that it’s handled in a surprisingly strategic manner. Receiving, setting up and delivering shots is a matter of spotting where the ball is going to end up — which there’s a helpful on-screen marker for — and then timing your button presses effectively to deliver those shots. Once you’ve set up a spike, you’re able to move the aim point around to try and confuse your opponents; there’s a lot of potential for entertaining mind games with this one if playing against a human opponent.

The controls for this one are simple and straightforward, and there’s not a lot of need to understand the complex back-and-forth of beach volleyball. When playing alone, your AI partner works well as a team with you, and it’s very satisfying when, together, you manage to set up a particularly impressive shot on your opponents.

Boxing is implemented through use of the two analogue sticks to simulate your punches; pushing them in different directions delivers different types of punch. You can block and sidestep to deal with incoming blows, and you gradually charge up a fighting game-style three-stage special meter to unleash more powerful attacks over time.

This event can initially feel like you’re flailing around wildly and hoping for the best, but there’s a degree of strategy to it all. Once again, the controls are simple enough to be accessible for newcomers, but offer enough in the way of depth to keep things interesting for those with a bit more experience — and the harder CPU opponents put up a seriously tough fight!

BMX racing provides a simple take on extreme sports. Tapping a button allows you to gain speed, but this event is mostly about jumping off things and getting a speed boost when you land. Once again, clear visual indicators on the ground show exactly when you need to press the relevant buttons, and the “advanced” controls allow you to take things up a notch with a few additional moves such as pulling wheelies or hunkering down over the handlebars for a bit of extra speed.

This is one event that I almost wish there was a bit more to; the actual gameplay of this one is so fun that it’d be great to see some more tracks to play around on besides the one that is included. We’d be going a bit outside the remit of an Olympics game then, though. But if the people behind this event ever feel like making a full, standalone, arcade-style BMX game, I’d be behind them 100%.

Football feels like a football game from the 16-bit era, and that’s emphatically a good thing. As dedicated sports simulations have become more and more complicated — and microtransaction-infested — over time, it’s refreshing to have an adaptation of a simple, universally understood game that you can just pick up and play.

Like basketball, you only need two buttons to play this, but the optional advanced controls open up a wide variety of tactical possibilities for more experienced soccerheads to engage with. For me, however, my experience with football begins and ends with “foot foot foot foot ball, ball ball ball ball foot, foot kick kick kick foot, foot kick ball goal” so this is ideal for me, really.

Judo initially seems like one of the most terrifying events to attempt thanks to all the specialist Japanese terminology used throughout, but like the other events in Tokyo 2020, the basics are surprisingly simple. Grab an opponent with one of two buttons — they each have different reach — then tap a button in a “tug of war” against your opponent for a few seconds, aiming to keep a meter in one of a few coloured areas. Succeed in this and you’ll score one or two points according to whether your throw was a waza-ari or an ippon.

You don’t need to know the intricacies of what actually qualifies as a waza-ari or an ippon, since they’re helpfully marked on the meter, but once again, if you care to explore the advanced controls, there’s a huge range of possible moves you can do in this event; potentially it’s the most complicated event when unfolding between two players of equal skill, both of whom can remember all the controls. But you can also have fun just flinging one another to the ground.

Rugby sevens is a heavily simplified take on rugby, in which the aim is simply to take the ball and ground it in your opponent’s goal area — unlike American football, which requires you to score a touchdown by not actually touching anything down, in rugby you score a try by actually touching the ball on the floor.

Once again, this is a simple and accessible take on a complex sport that can be played with just one button if you so desire — though as with the other team games, a wealth of tactical opportunities open up to you if you explore the advanced control options. One thing I did find with this one is that it is very easy against the computer opponents; simply making use of the optional “sprint” button means you’ll outpace them with no difficulty whatsoever, giving the game little to no challenge. Competition against other players who know what they are doing has the potential to be intense and highly enjoyable, though; rugby’s nature as a full-contact sport makes it ideal for trash-talking multiplayer sessions.

Sport climbing is a simple event that involves pushing the analogue joystick accurately to follow a path up the climbing wall. The faster you can do this, the faster you climb; a combo system allows you to accelerate to ridiculous speeds, and an optional system where you “twang” the stick in the opposite direction to a far-off handhold allows you to make bigger, riskier leaps

The trouble with this one is that it’s over so quickly; when competing against the computer even on the easiest level a single mistake can spell immediate disaster, because there’s simply no time to recover. It’s fun while it lasts, though, and the analogue controls are well implemented. Learning the course will be a big advantage in this one; once you get the muscle memory down, you’ll be able to rocket up that wall like a spider.

Table tennis can be played in singles or doubles, and is a high-speed game played using the two analogue sticks — left to move around, right to swing your paddle. It’s a very simple game, but a lot of fun to play — and like several of the other directly competitive sports events in Tokyo 2020, you have the opportunity to build up a “special” meter in order to unleash an overdramatic, cinematic return that is a challenge (though not impossible) to return.

The main thing to get used to in this one is the fact that you don’t necessarily need to move around all that much; that table is pretty small, so as long as you’re in reach of the ball when you make your swing, you can return it pretty easily. It’s all about psyching out your opponent — which, as you might expect, is a lot more fun when competing against a human.

Finally, tennis (which, again, supports singles and doubles play) unfolds pleasingly similar to a lightweight Virtua Tennis, allowing you to charge up shots by pressing the button well before the ball arrives in front of you. The hard courts the Olympic matches are played on make for an exciting and high speed game, and once again you have the option of using a “special” meter to deliver ridiculously powerful flaming returns.

Like many of the other events we’ve seen already, this one can be played with just one button if you so desire, but a wealth of options — including lobs, drop shots, smashes and the like — open up to you if you take the time to learn the more advanced controls.

The overall “metagame” for Tokyo 2020 primarily consists of earning points through playing the events, and then spending these points on new costumes for your athletes. You get a few points just for participating, but more if you win — and if you compete in one of the Olympic modes rather than the one-shot practice mode, you get even more points if you manage to score some medals.

Talking of the Olympic modes, these are implemented a little peculiarly. Unlike many other previous Olympic video games, there’s no option to simply “play the Olympics” by competing in all the events in order. Instead, you have two options: either focus on a single event and work your way through a multi-stage mini-tournament, or compete in a “medley” of events in an attempt to earn the most medals and/or points by the end of the competition.

You can actually set up a custom medley if none of the included ones — which tend to be themed around a specific sport type — tickle your fancy, but there aren’t enough event slots to allow you to compete in a “full Olympics”. This is a peculiar decision, but it’s presumably set up that way in order to keep matches snappy and straightforward.

The Olympics mode can be played by up to two people on a single console; the Switch version also offers a local play option with one player per Switch. Besides this, you can also start an online lobby for up to four people in total, and two people on a single console can join one lobby.

Besides the main Olympic mode, there’s also a rotating schedule of ranked matches that change every few hours each day, potentially providing a nice sense of competing in a “real” Olympics that the main modes don’t offer. Unfortunately, since the game is over a year old in Japan at the time of writing and hasn’t officially come out in the West as yet, absolutely no-one seems to be playing right now, making this part of the game something that it’s impossible to enjoy without assembling a group of friends to play together beforehand.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy here, though. The variety of events on offer means that there’s something for every mood, and the arcade-style action each of them provides is good for a bit of light relief when you don’t fancy playing something super-deep. Add in the opportunity to compete against a friend and the inherent silliness of the costume collection, and you have a title that is well worth having on your shelf to dig out every so often; this is by no means a game you’ll be playing constantly for months and months, but it is certainly one you’ll enjoy coming back to every so often just to enjoy the experience.

So regardless of whether the Games of the XXXII Olympiad ever happen or not — and as I type this, we really don’t know with absolute certainty if they will, regardless of what anyone says — we at least got a fun video game out of them!


More about Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – The Official Video Game

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5 thoughts on “Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: The Game of the Games That Never Were”

  1. If our American football were instead rugby, and also played by a bunch of girls in maid outfits, maybe I’d actually bother to watch it instead of pretending to know what the hell my work colleagues are talking about every fall.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the idea of this game, the what may have been nature of it. Had hoped sports games would reflect some of the tensions and issues of recent events such as the next fifa with empty stadiums etc, but you’re right it is one of the most unique entrants in this particular series for the simple fact it never was.

    Liked by 1 person

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