Sega’s Olympics 2020 video game is a very pleasant surprise

Olympics video games of the non-Mario-&-Sonic type have had a negligible appeal over the past, oh, IV or V Olympiads. The format itself — dividing players’ attention among several events instead of focusing on one — presents a big challenge to developers. And the fact that TV coverage fixates more on athletes and their stories than the events or their results certainly does not help set players’ expectations.

Mine were low coming into Sega’s Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the publisher’s first swing at a Summer Olympics since 2012. Chatting with my colleagues, I think I called it a sports party game. And while its array of 18 minigames certainly fits that billing, Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 doesn’t deserve that kind of a blow-off. Backed by a simple, generous system of progression and unlockables, and a deep and endearing (and sometimes weird) avatar creator, Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 does what any licensed adaptation should do — make me interested, for the first time in years, in the thing that’s on TV beginning next month.

Yes, there is potential for loads of silly stuff and unintentional comedy, if that’s your inclination. You may have seen preview videos or screenshots of competitors in pirate garb or astronaut suits running the 110-meter hurdles. One outfit, the sumo wrestler’s belt, is particularly spicy for fans of sport climbing (see below). I’m waiting for the inevitable multiplayer madness where a team of Sonic the Hedgehog, a schoolgirl, and a Power Ranger homage beat an all-Goku team in the 4×100 relay.

a rock climber scales a competition wall wearing a sumo wrestler’s signature belt in Olympic Games Tokyo 2020
Whatever you do, don’t look up.
Image: Sega via Polygon

But the fun here doesn’t depend on making a joke of things. It isn’t an exacting sports simulation, of course, but Olympic Games Tokyo 2020’s take on the 100-meter dash is quite good. It has room for technical skill, like getting off the blocks or leaning at the end, to affect what is literally a 10-second event, without just being a button-mashing wear-out.

Even better is the hammer throw. Man, I can kill half an hour with that anytime. Hammer throw involves a whirling buildup on the right thumbstick, and then waiting for a slow-motion meter to appear, where you nail the release by letting go when a line crosses a very narrow band. Even if the athletes in Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are a kind of stylized, semi-realistic cartoon, or wearing a zany outfit, the presentation uses typical camera angles and reaction shots to make the action feel familiar and authentic.

animation showing a fictional U.S. athlete in the hammer throw in Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, screaming at the hammer as he whirls it and releases it
animation showing a fictional U.S. athlete in the hammer throw in Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, screaming at the hammer as he whirls it and releases it
The hammer event is 2 Legit.
Image: Sega via Polygon

Other events, though, are weaker in the fun department. Many will find the 110-meter hurdles baffling at first, as the window to make a successful jump — flicking a stick while dashing with the X or A button — seems to be as narrow as the one for pulling off a parry or counter in a fighting game. The physics in BMX cycling are heavier and slower than I would prefer, or expect, given the apparent speeds the racers reach. Boxing’s use of the sticks for punching, eschewing movement (instead you can step left or right with the triggers) indulges input spamming. But that still doesn’t ruin a natural multiplayer choice, local or online.

There’s even a measure of character progression: The points earned in every event, win or lose, unlock not only outfits but also one of nine skills loadouts. These tune the player for all-around tasks, stronger or more powerful events, or speedier and more technical ones. Similarly, you have to play an event three or four times to unlock the tips that will help you maximize your results. This might be nettlesome to others, but I appreciated that the developers wanted me to have fun quickly, then actually learn what I was doing.

screen showing a main athlete character and their 15 teammates in Olympic Games Tokyo 2020
You don’t have to spend forever on your avatar or their teammates — the randomize button is helpful and usually turns up someone unique and realistic.
Image: Sega via Polygon

The deep and inclusive avatar creator gives equal weight to a user’s preference for whimsy or realism. It begins, though, with a strange request to “not infringe the rights of others,” which could mean corporate copyright holders as much as your average user.

But if folks do develop infringing or abusive things, it’s going to be on their consoles for the most part, not in a public, online vault that can be shitposted to death. Avatars can be shared with an alphanumeric code; enter it, and you create a copy of the avatar, which you can then edit, and put in a personal library of 100 faces (and body types) or on your national team for events where you have teammates. It’s a good solution to something that could be a moderation headache, or might get nixed altogether by Olympic licensing partners.

Animated montage of an athlete in a full-body sonic the hedgehog costume competing in several different Olympic events in Olympic Games Tokyo 2020
Animated montage of an athlete in a full-body sonic the hedgehog costume competing in several different Olympic events in Olympic Games Tokyo 2020
Yes, you can be Sonic the Hedgehog in every. single. event. if you wish …
Image: Sega via Polygon

I’m apprehensive about damning Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with faint praise, because I know I’m a sports snob, and Sega and this game don’t deserve that. But honestly, this is a video game I could see myself and three other bros playing at someone’s apartment, inhaling tacos and having a great time. And by myself, Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 still triggers my sports gamer’s Pavlovian response to unlockables and the challenge of shaving a few more hundredths off my time, or getting a half meter more on my jump.

Sega has taken what I assumed to be a thankless task and turned in a very pleasant and very appealing surprise. I’m willing to give Tokyo’s actual Summer Games, the ones starting next month, a second chance, too.

Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 launched June 22 on Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. These game impressions come from the PlayStation 4 version played on a PlayStation 5, with a download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.