Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games 2020 is destined to become Figure 19.2 in a future textbook about the cultural impact of Covid-19; or at least it would, if textbooks weren’t soon to go extinct to be replaced by educational TikToks. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games being delayed by a year, the game is now a relic from pre-Covid times, but unfortunately that’s all it will likely be remembered as.

While it is, for the most part, a fairly typical Mario & Sonic Olympics game – that is to say, some great events, a lot that lack polish, and a couple which seem impossible to figure out – the rugby game is in a league of its own. Mario & Sonic is usually at its best when it’s a party game, when the events are raw and simple like the 100m. The rugby sevens however, being an arcadey riff on the sport and played with buttons over motion control, flies in the face of all that.

It isn’t what people pick up Mario & Sonic At The Olympics for, and that means it’s largely gone unnoticed. That’s a real shame, because it’s easily the best part of the game and fills a massive gap in the sport sim world: there has never been a good rugby game until now.

There’s something free flowing to the rugby event, something difficult to get right at the best of times, but especially given that it’s not even the focus here.

Rugby actually made its debut in 2016, though it was a little rough around the edges. Here, it’s much cleaner, while keeping the frantic pace real rugby has but virtual rugby often sacrifices. Passes will always go level or backwards, so you can’t trip yourself up on the confusing rules; rugby being one of the few ball sports where a pass forward is not allowed. Scrums are included but simplified to a question of whoever has more players nearest the scrum will win, and to keep a lightning fast flow, players can leap over tackles and build up a charge meter which offers either a unstoppable burst of pace or an inescapable power tackle.

Stats even feature too, though in the most accessible of ways. Wario and Robotnik make the best tacklers, while Daisy, Shadow and Sonic are speedsters. Blaze builds her charge faster, Amy and Mario are all rounders and Peach has the best distribution. It’s easy to build a dream team without knowing what type of skill set works best in which position. Rugby sometimes even prides itself on being obtusely difficult to understand, but Mario & Sonic break it down for beginners.

The football (soccer, I suppose) event has been part of the series since 2012, and brings the same chaotic energy, stripping down to five a side instead of the usual XI to make the game more cartoonish and less rigid, while also giving the characters room to breathe. There isn’t too much reason to shout about the football mini game though; it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the likes of FIFA Street, Sega Soccer Slam and, of course, Super Mario Strikers. Rugby though has never had anything close to this before, and once you dig into other rugby sims, you start to see why.

Rugby is part of the Holy Trinity of British sport, but is notoriously difficult to right in video game format. Football, with a fast flowing style, adapts to the virtual world easily, while cricket is slow and methodical enough that it invites a more measured gameplay. Rugby, however, has the fast and furious pace of football mixed with the hyper specific rules of cricket. There’s a certain appeal to that sort of sport, no question, but it doesn’t easily translate to video games. Just ask… literally any rugby game ever.

Rugby is a sport with a deep respect for the rules. In football, if you can bend the rules a little bit to your advantage, you’ll be lauded as a wildcard. In rugby, you’re a pariah. The rules are less invasive in football, but they’re also less sacred. If a rule gets in the way of FIFA, the game finds a way to cheat around it. Obstruction is rarely called, the keeper auto clears to avoid the six second rule, etc. Rugby games don’t have this laissez faire attitude to the rule book, and that’s to their detriment.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, a rugby sim isn’t going to waste time teaching you.

Rugby is a more stop-start game than football, and for fans of the sport, this off and on explosive nature is very much a part of its charm. Football can get bogged down too – just go watch Sunderland and you’ll see – but that’s a reflection on the quality of the players and the manager’s approach to the game, not part of the game’s very design itself. This means that football sims, by putting a lot of stock in pacey players, skill moves and offensive tactics, can recreate great football matches without needing to resort to arcade style, Princess Daisy leapfrogging Bowser as she charges down the byline.

Rugby might not need to either, but right now, rugby games seem far too scared to find out.

Rugby games simply don’t have the appeal of football games, and they likely never will. Football is a truly global sport, while rugby only has a major following in a handful of countries. This means that FIFA and PES have a mass appeal outside of fanatics and season ticket holders, but rugby games are likely only going to sell to hardcore rugby fans. This is why they get overloaded with minutae, why every pass, kick and tackle is a tactical ordeal. Because the games were designed to appeal to those who live and breathe rugby, the developers have convinced themselves that each action needs to be precise and meticulously planned.

They’re wrong.

I love football. It’s one of the things I miss the most about our pre-pandemic lives. It goes ‘seeing my family’, then ‘football’. Newcastle are still in the FA Cup, man! Tactics Steve is gonna windmill us to Wembley!

While I love football probably more than the average FIFA player, what I love most about FIFA is how it captures the simplicity of the sport. Give ball to Saint-Maxmimin. Run.

Rugby games completely miss this spirit of simplicity in a weird gatekeeping exercise which serves only to put off people who’ve already bought the games. Yes, rugby is a complex sport, but when you’re playing a match as the All Blacks, you’d think they’d be able to string three passes together without much fuss. For most rugby sims though, because they insist on putting you in control of everything, a simple pass becomes an exercise in long division. Just. Pass. The. Ball.

Perhaps because it wasn’t made for rugby purists, but instead for everyone to be able to pick up the egg and run with it, Mario & Sonic avoids these pitfalls. They’ve made the first truly enjoyable rugby game since, well, since themselves in 2016. After that though, you’d struggle to find another one which was even remotely fun. Mario & Sonic succeed where others failed for one simple reason: it didn’t take rugby too seriously.

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