Time is out of joint - at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

Hauntological fun with Mario and Sonic

For my own research into the connection between nostalgia and videogames I have recently been looking into the concept of hauntology as a means of better understanding what is happening to videogame form.

Hauntology as a concept is one that is still being understood, but its origins, whilst not that old, began as a bit of comical wordplay. A portmanteau of haunting and ontology, which takes on a double form is you imagine a French person saying it in which they drop the H, and it sounds like ontology. Therefore it is not surprising that hauntology has a relationship with ontology. If ontology is the study of “being”, existence, and reality, then hauntology can be broadly understood as the opposite of this. In short, things that do not exist.

However, there is more to the term than highlighting what does not exist. In keeping with the theme that one might imply from the haunt part of the name the concept also considers that which is simultaneously dead and alive, kind of like a ghost.

I’m going to leave the explanation of hauntology there for this issue and possibly return to it another day. But this brings me to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Now that we have an overview of hauntology you might begin to understand why hauntology, the Olympics, and videogames have been on my mind. The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 does not exist. Except it does. Am I being pedantic? Not really, because whilst a year later the world did get to compete in an Olympic Games that took place in Tokyo, with the year 2020 still splashed all over, this obviously was a very different event to what was meant to have been.

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 does not exist.

Except it does.

I watched a lot more of the Olympic Games this time around than I expected. I thought it was a foolish decision to go ahead with it this year, given the situation in Japan is just as bad, if not worse, than in 2020. Regardless, the Games went ahead. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite? Yet watching new Olympic sports such as Skateboarding and BMX events provided thrills. The speed climbing was also an interesting distraction.

Because I was engaged and distracted by these newer events, the lack of spectators and mascots and general festivities weren’t something that I particularly acknowledged.

That is until I played The Official Video Game. This might be an official depiction of the Games, but realistic it is not, which also seems at odds with how it drew my attention to how what we got was not the Tokyo 2020 Games. The Official Video Game is more of a sports-themed arcade game than anything close to resembling a simulator, and that is absolutely the best decision. It is still a challenging game (mostly due to the AI) but learning the controls is often mostly straightforward [Unlike Mario and Sonic’s version which I’ll get to]. The more I played it the more it became apparent to me how this is depicting an alternative event, one that never took place.

This thought became even more pronounced, paradoxically by going back to Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 [what a title!]. I originally got it back in the before times of late 2019 and despite being Mario and Sonic themed was depicting an event that was going to occur. Playing it now [I’m still surprised at how I’ve ended up playing and enjoying two Olympics videogames] this notion blends with the videogames plot of going back to a digital version of the previous time Tokyo hosted the Olympics back in 1964.

Roughly half of the videogame is set in 2020 and featured 3D depictions of sports and venues whilst the other half is set inside a videogame recreation of 1964 Tokyo with 2D depictions of sports and venues. It is the 1964 setting that is particularly interesting in this whole context. The rationale behind the 2D pixel look is to help distinguish and reinforce that part of the videogame is taking place in the past, yet for starters videogames barely existed, with Spacewar! having only been developed two years prior. Furthermore, the 2D section features the original pixel depictions of Mario and Sonic, except these both come from separate generations and visual styles, resulting in the weird disconnect between 8-bit and 16-bit respectively. Gameplay-wise this works well enough, but the clash between 8-bit and 16-bit with no rationale for this always reinforced the notion of time bring out of joint. Couldn’t they have used the 16-bit versions of Mario and Bowser (et al.) to better complement the 16-bit Sonic and Dr Eggman (et al.)? Sure it might be even further away from 1964, but it’s not as if the original Super Mario Bros. was close, as there is still a 20-year gap.

What we’re left with is a videogame that depicts simultaneously features an anachronistic past (be that of real Tokyo and the videogames medium) and a depiction of what was meant to be a forthcoming event that didn’t take place and instead replaced with something similar.

In the years ahead if I come back to those two videogames, it will be a reminder not of the Olympics Games Tokyo 2020 but of 2021 that featured a sporting event that simultaneously existed but didn’t. Or that could just be my interpretation and the time when I played these videogames, contributing to my own relative nostalgia*.

*Was not intending on ending with some kind of reference to the newsletter name, as funny as it would be, it is not the aim to do this every time.


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