Wednesday, August 03, 2016
The Evolution Of... Olympic Video Games: Summer Edition
Once every four years, we're overwhelmed by an urge to screw up our faces, make a variety of strange noises, get blisters on our fingers and cramp in our hands. We also love playing Olympic video games!
With the Rio Games about to begin - hopefully featuring a lot of Samba-ing Abraham Lincolns in the Opening Ceremony - our attention turns to that pile of games on the shelf that we get obsessed with for entire summers, before forgetting about them for another three and half years.
Olympic video games are like Christmas albums. You need a reason to play them, and when you do you're reminded of why you loved them in the first place, only for something else to take their place once the season is over and your hands have lost all feeling.
Although we often neglect them and take them for granted, they were actually our first love. So, we've taken a look back at thirty-odd years of Olympic video gaming fun. As usual, it's by no means exhaustive and is often more of a thinly-veiled excuse to tell inappropriate and embarrassing stories about our youth. But it's Olympic games as we remember them, on the consoles (or cabinets) we used at the time.
We've concentrated on the Summer games, as the Winter equivalents provide more than enough material for another blog further down the line. We also haven't included games dedicated to individual sports featured in the Olympics such as Virtua Tennis or Mary King's Riding Star, and we've also omitted multi-event games such as Wii Sport and Sports Champions which have no connection to the Olympics, no matter how many similarities they share with the genre.
So, take your marks. This one's a Marathon...
Track & Field (aka. Hyper Olympic) (1983, Konami, Arcade)
Located next to the Bumper Car rink at the legendary arcade underneath the car park on Penarth beach, Track & Field holds the honour of being the first video game I ever played. Luring me in with its colourful graphics and digitised female announcer, I was soon bleeding ten pence pieces into the cabinet in an attempt to button-bash my way to Long Jump glory.
Track & Field contained a variety of events which all featured a variation of the same control method - bash the two run buttons as fast as possible, using the third fire button to jump or throw your way to victory by obtaining the perfect forty-five degree throwing angle.
Never the fittest of eight-year-olds, mostly due to my diet of Cheesy Wotsits and Shandy Bass, I was not one for taking part in actual sport (I coincidentally had a dentist appointment at the same time as PE for two years in a row). However, I could often be spotted breaking into a sweat whilst emitting some sort of primal screech during Saturday afternoon sessions of Track & Field. And that was just on the deceptively difficult name-input screen. If I had ten pence for every time I was GAY, I'd be... well, I could have played a lot more Track & Field, put it that way.
The game required you to meet a certain qualification distance in order to continue to the next event. I could always get past the 100m, with the little athlete doing his victorious arms-above-the-head pose, but it was the Long Jump that became my nemesis. If I managed the required speed, I'd be too late off the line. If I managed to jump at the right time, I'd over-do the angle and go flying vertically up into the air before landing with a bump before even reaching the sand. My indignity was made even worse by the fact that the little shell suit-wearing measuring person (think Hyacinth Bucket in the QE2 episode of Keeping Up Appearances) would still come out to take the result while my athlete just rubbed his head. Despite the pixels, his face clearly showed a person who had better things to do with their time.
As it was the late-Eighties and the machine had been standing around for at least half a decade, the score board was full of Penarth's best finger athletes and I never had a chance of getting a place amongst them. But I still loved the game so much and no amount of failure could stop my hope that this ten pence would be the time I finally got to the third event. At one point, all I could think and talk about was Track & Field. I even had a little Tandy LCD version of the game at home, but I was even worse at that and couldn't get past the first event.
Eventually, the arcade closed and all I could do was stare longingly through the dirty windows at the Track & Field cabinet displaying nothing but a black screen. But thankfully, I received a ZX Spectrum that Christmas to fill the gap. Sadly, the Track & Field conversion was disappointing - it was eerily quiet and the athlete would disappear whilst in the air during the Long Jump, only to reappear in a position which indicated that he was relieving himself in the sand. It gave a whole new meaning to the word "Foul." But none of this mattered when you had the alternative option of a certain moustache-sporting beefcake in a strikingly similar game.
Daley Thompson's Decathlon (1984, Ocean, ZX Spectrum)
As far as I was concerned, Daley Thompson's Decathlon was Track & Field in all but name. It had all the charm of the arcade classic and retained many features, such as the Chariots Of Fire music, the Long Jump measuring man and the arms above the head celebration, which has even become a verb in this household. Whenever we see somebody doing it, they're "doing a Daley" (even though, technically, they're "doing a Track & Field").
Daley's Decathlon used keyboard or joystick control (preferably the latter if you didn't want your parents saying "this is why we can't have nice things" whilst the Q, A, O and P keys fell down the stairs behind you) to get your athlete up to speed before achieving the perfect forty-five degree angle. To this day, my right bicep is bigger than my left due to the amount of waggling I did as a teenager. And that really isn't a euphemism.
The 400m was a particular tester for the armchair athlete, as it had you shaking that joystick back and forth for a full forty seconds. I once fell off my swivelling office chair halfway through and still continued waggling to victory from the floor, as the chair flew into a pile of cassette tapes on the other side of the room. Never was "a Daley" more appropriate as I lay there panting, with my mother shouting "what the hell are you doing up there?!" from the living room below.
It was much easier to progress through the events compared to Track & Field, thanks to the three-life system and easier qualifications. If you managed all ten (including the stamina and patience-testing 1500m), the game would go around again with harder targets to beat each time. I never managed more than two days in a row and thought it impossible to get any further until I met Matthew, the boyfriend of a family friend called Heather.
Enough years have passed for me to publicly admit that I had a huge crush on Heather, who was five years older than me with lovely long ginger hair and... sorry, I'm getting distracted. But by the end of one fateful day, I think it's fair to say that I had an equally big dose of admiration - manly, mind you - for Matthew. His family ran a guest house on Barry Island and he spent all his free time setting the high scores in the various arcades of the area, including Just Pennies. I was already jealous. One day, when they were "babysitting" me while my parents were away (I was thirteen, for God's sake!), Matthew got very excited about my Spectrum collection and insisted on firing up Daley Thompson's Decathlon.
Ten minutes later, Matthew was waggling like a demented mole. I swear there was smoke coming off the joystick. By the time he got to the Javelin, he had barely broken a sweat. Then the incredible happened. With perfect speed and angle, he sent the Javelin flying off the screen, disappearing for what felt like minutes before landing with a thump at a distance of 103m. As Heather and I sat there staring at him in awe, Matthew said the immortal line; "that could've been better."
For years, I attempted to repeat his feat with no success. Then, a few years ago we dug out the Spectrum and fired up Daley. To my disbelief, Louise managed to get 100m on only her third attempt. But this time, with a bit of practise and no doubt the buzz of indignity running through my veins, I managed it too. Success! So at least I can say, albeit twenty years later, that I am truly as much of a man as Matthew. Heather, I hope you're impressed.
Video Olympics (aka. Video Olimpic) (1984, Mastertronic, ZX Spectrum)
An exhausting joystick waggler that leaves you so knackered after the initial 100m that you've got nothing left to give for the remaining events. A fun little game, but a little too difficult for casual or extended play. Still better than Spectrum Track & Field though. At least you'll know how the competitors at World's Strongest Man feel when the commentators say "the lactic has kicked in!"
Hyper Sports (aka. Hyper Olympic '84) (1984, Konami, Arcade)
It would have been so easy to release a sequel to Track & Field with all the same events, but Konami really pulled out the stops for this fabulous follow-up which was even released as an official 1984 Olympics game in Japan. Going back to the drawing board, the game provided all-new disciplines to get players button-bashing, but featured the same feel, charm and characters as the original Track & Field. Even the name-input was just as difficult, this time in a star-shape!
The Swimming event required you to bash the two "run" buttons for speed, with a well-timed press of the Fire button to breathe when the game prompted you. It had the feel of doing the Hurdles in Track & Field, but over a longer distance. Get it right and your momentum would sail you victory, get it wrong and you'd be treading water as your competitors flew past. Laughing, probably. But it was easy enough to master and you'd be on to the next event, Skeet Shooting.
We've had a love-hate relationship with Skeet in games over the years, with a general swing towards the latter half of that sentiment. When it's done well, it feels like you're in control. When it's done badly, you're scoring zero and a controller is going flying across the room. But this is where it all started, and it's actually quite fun. As the Skeets flew across the screen, you had to press one of two fire buttons as they passed through one of two squares (each representing a barrel of your shotgun). The timing was so strict, and just when you thought you had a good rhythm, you'd miss one and everything would fall to pieces. There were bonus items which could be shot for extra points, but I was just never good enough to get the 3000 points required for qualification to the next event.
I never did get to play the other levels in the arcade (Long Horse, Archery, Triple Jump, Weight Lifting and Pole Vault), but thankfully the excellent ZX Spectrum conversion from Imagine Software allowed me to get a little but further. One of the most faithful conversions for the home systems, the Spectrum version even retained the star-shaped name-input screen (this time with very manic bleepy music which added to the time-sensitive skill of getting your name right).
The Skeet was easier on Spectrum, partly due to the fact that qualification was only set at 2400 and partly because the square targets grew visibly bigger with each successful hit (although they did also get visibly smaller with each miss!). Soon, I was on to the Long Horse but the vague instructions meant that I had very little idea of what to do. With a bit of good timing I could manage a couple of metres, but to this day I have never managed to qualify for the next event. Despite this, it remains one of the best sports games for the Spectrum and a lesson in how to pull-off a great arcade conversion with limited resources.
Daley Thompson's Supertest (1985, Ocean, ZX Spectrum)
The success of Decathlon was so huge that Daley got another game out of it. Supertest had him going right out of his comfort zone, becoming a Jack Of All Trades in events such as Rowing, Penalty Kicks and even Ski Jump - the only example we can recall where a Winter sport found its way in to a Summer collection.
Supertest felt exactly the same as Decathlon in most respects, with the Chariots Of Fire music and the same little character participating in the events with his "Daley" celebration or commiserating head rub. If Decathlon was Daley Thompson's Track & Field, then Supertest was undoubtedly Daley Thompson's Hyper Sports.
Although Decathlon has a charm all of its own and is much more of an authentic representation of Daley Thompson as an athlete, Supertest is probably, slightly, depending on my mood, our favourite of the two. Rowing has you waggling furiously and is basically 100m with different graphics, but Penalty Kicks is the first event to bring something new to the table. As Daley auto-runs onto the screen, you have to press and hold fire at the exact time he arrives at the huge ball (it's bigger than him!) to obtain the forty-five degree angle required to score a goal. It's great fun and an opportunity for a quick rest after the, quite frankly, knackering Rowing. Ski Jump requires some waggling again, but the real skill is in the landing. Using a combination of the overhead and side-on view provided in the same screen, you have to time your press of Fire perfectly if you want to help Daley avoid becoming a human snowball.
Anybody who doesn't need a rest after Tug Of War must be superhuman, as it sees you waggling for all you're worth in a best of three against a variety of characters, all trying to stop you qualifying to the next event. Just when you think you've got the power bar into the safety zone, your opponent will pull you back and you have to start all over again. Sometimes, when you've given all you've got, you just won't be able to waggle any more and you'll end up face down in the mud, rubbing your head.
Most of the other events are business as usual and variations of events featured in Decathlon - Triple Jump, Javelin, 100m, Hurdles and Cycling. But the Shooting is good fun, requiring you to set the height and direction of your shot before pressing fire. Similarly, Diving is something new for the genre, requiring you to waggle furiously in an attempt to roll your way to a high score before landing - preferably - face first.
Fail to make the cut - which is inevitable as the qualification gets increasingly difficult - and Daley will collapse into a blubbing mess of digital tears at the base of the podium while your opponent has the cheek to "do a Daley" at the top.
Run For Gold (1985, Hill MacGibbon, ZX Spectrum)
Originally released with a cover featuring Sebastian Coe at the 1984 Olympics, I first encountered this running simulator as part of Alternative Software's 4 Most Sport compilation.
Featuring a nice little classical music menu, the game has you training two athletes. One of them specialises in shorter sprints, with the other tackling the longer distances. You must compete at varying levels of competition from Club to Olympic, working your way up from local competitions to Crystal Palace, European and World Championships and the Olympics. A pace maker is even provided to help with those world record times.
The action is displayed in a 3rd person view from behind, which was quite rare at a time when most other games were side scrolling. You can also get a top-down pause screen which shows current positions. The athletes look quite ghostly as they're entirely white, in a similar style to Ubi Soft's Pro Tennis Tour on Spectrum. Waggling is required for success, but you also have to manage a stamina bar so it's not entirely about wearing yourself out in a quest for success.
Overall, Run For Gold was a fun enough way to pass time, with a more serious feel to it than its arcade peers.
Stadium Events (1987, Bandai, NES)
An enjoyable game in the Family Fun Fitness series, most notable for being one of the first motion-controlled Olympic games. Players stood side by side on the Power Pad mat - like a primitive Dance Mat - and ran as fast they could to make the athletes on screen run along the track, as well as making them jump and run where appropriate. Exhausting stuff, and a full twenty years before energetic gaming entered the mainstream with the release of the Wii.
Konami '88 (aka. '88 Games or Hyper Sports Special) (1988, Konami, Arcade)
Konami's third Track & Field instalment was released for the 1988 Olympics and sported an entirely different look and feel to the previous titles. The first thing you noticed was how orange and green it looked, but you were soon distracted by the fun opening ceremony which featured the "Olympiad Hotel" in the background and an announcer saying; "welcome to the stadium, test your strength and stamina in these eight events. Go for gold!" There was also lots of background humour provided by the numerous stretching athletes and event officials running around at the side of the stadium.
The game was generally more of the classic button-bashing technique perfected by the previous instalments, but there were some new events which required variations on the technique. The 4x100m relay was particularly fun, requiring you to bash as fast as possible before pressing the Fire button at the exact right time for the perfect handover each time (which was harder than it appeared). Skeet Shooting used a similar technique to that seen in Hyper Sports, but this time you had to move the cursor with either of the two buttons before pressing Fire. Needless to say, I still wasn't very good at it but did manage to obtain the required score.
The most fun event was Archery, where you had to press and hold Fire at the right moment as the board appeared, hoping to get an angle of approximately twenty-five degrees in order to get the best scores. This event was an example of the balance of the game, adding more relaxed skillful affairs between the expected button bashing. It worked really well, and a Top 100 scoreboard gave everybody a chance to see their name in pixels. But it still wasn't easy and you had to work if you wanted a chance to take part in all events without losing too much pocket money!
Track & Field II (1988, Konami, NES)
The NES conversion of the original Track & Field was very faithful to the original, particularly compared to the Spectrum version. The console's sequel is a gorgeous little game which retains the feel of the arcade classic but manages to be something completely original in its own right, which remains very playable today. It was particularly notable for the inclusion of some events not seen before, and some novel new ways of playing established favourites.
Fencing was included, which remains one of the best representations of the sport to this day, mostly due to its simplicity. Just move your athlete left and right and hit fire at the right time to get a hit on your opponent. Clay Pigeon shooting was Duck Hunt by another name, and surprisingly easy to rack up high scores. Taekwondo was like a mini Beat 'Em Up along the lines of Yie Ar Kung Fu and Archery had you firing arrows over ever-increasing distances, requiring you to constantly check your angles and technique. But of course, the button bashers were still in place and provided most of the fun, especially when doing the Triple Jump with a particularly muscly specimen of a man!
The overall presentation was charming, with an opening ceremony featuring the athletes flying in on a Konami Airlines plane, waving through the windows. The menu used an Olympic flame cursor, results were displayed on a "Konami Press" typewriter and the crowd spelled out the country initials using cards.
Daley Thompson's Olympic Challenge (1988, Ocean, ZX Spectrum)
Daley's third instalment for the Spectrum was notable for the fact that it wore you out before you even began the main game, a bit like Geoff Capes Strongman. Heavily sponsored by Lucozade (who would later be associated with our other favourite game character, Lara Croft), you first had to endure a three-part training session in order to fill up your bottle with sugary goodness. Waggling as if your life depended on it, your progress was reflected by Daley's ever-changing face in the top right of the screen. The better you did, the more he smiled - the same couldn't be said for the poor player, who would end up an alarming shade of purple. Meanwhile, your coach (who seemed to be based on Ian Dury) waddled around in the background for comedy effect, even going so far as to drop a weight on his foot in an effort to make your waggling go that little bit faster.
Once you were done with the three events - weightlifting, sit-ups and squats - it was on to the main game itself. Playing the game recently, we managed a fitness level of 75% which seemed to set us up nicely for the main game, even if we did end up with blisters on our hands. First things first, you had to choose the correct trainers for the job (the game was also heavily endorsed by Adidas). Get it right, and you'd have little trouble qualifying for the next event. Get it wrong, and all that training was for nothing. But at least the game told you which ones you should have chosen, so you could remember for next time.
As usual, the game gave you three lives, so it wasn't Game Over if you failed an event. These lives were illustrated by three evil-looking Daley faces, which didn't really help to put you at ease. The events themselves were more along the lines of Decathlon than Supertest, so lots of waggling was required. The graphics were a noticeable upgrade from the previous games, and there was some nice comedy provided by your coach and the posters in the background featuring muscle men with tiny heads. But the warm-up session was so genuinely tiring that it was impossible to play for long periods of time.
Overall, Olympic Challenge was my least favourite of the three Daley Thompson games even though it was undoubtedly the most big budget and well-produced of all. The big box version even included a gorgeous fold-out poster and wall chart for the 1988 Olympics, and a soundtrack cassette featuring music called The Challenge to accompany the game. But sometimes simplicity wins through, and I inevitably found myself going back to Decathlon time and time again. It says a lot about Olympic Challenge when Decathlon is classed as a less tiring game!
Summer Games & Summer Games II (1988, Epyx/US Gold, ZX Spectrum)
Summer Games I & II combined to make one super game, full of waggling and exasperation for anybody who played them for any length of time. They had less of an arcade feel compared to the Daley Thompson games with many of the events requiring more skillful timing, but even a first-timer could achieve some degree of success.
After the initial opening ceremony featuring a little stick man and a flock of doves, you could choose to play a full Olympics or just a single event. The first game featured the traditional track and field events, requiring the player to waggle and press fire at the right time. Some events were temperamental and impossible to get any consistency going. In the Pole Vault, for example, just when you think you've cracked the timing of placing the pole, you can never do it again. In the Diving, you just waggle and hope - sometimes it'll work in your favour, other times you'll go legs first into the water.
One of the major criticisms of the game is the lack of visible speed. With previous games such as Daley Thompson and Track & Field, your athlete clearly responded to the speed that you waggled or bashed. In Summer Games, it has no obvious effect. In the Swimming events in particular, you seem to waggle forever, always wondering if you're doing the right thing. But any frustrations are balanced out by the fun events, most notably (and most surprisingly) the Skeet Shooting. One of the most natural and intuitive versions of the sport available, it's so easy to time your hits that it's possible to shoot two Skeets with one shot at once. This allows for big scores and is one of the most replayable events in the game.
Summer Games II featured an Equestrian event, which was very exciting at the time as I was obsessed with the Back To The Future III demo on a Your Sinclair covertape, which featured a horseback chase. Unfortunately, the Summer Games version of horse jumping was less easy to get to grips with, and you didn't even have the added disadvantage of somebody shooting arrows at you (that would have made an interesting combination with the Archery event though). More often than not, your horse would just stop in front of the jump and look at it before turning away. If you did manage to time your jump correctly, you'd get so over-excited that you'd forget to pull back on the joystick to land. This would lead to you and your horse lying still on the ground, seemingly dead, before you miraculously got up and failed to the jump the next obstacle (which looked like a barricade from World War One).
Summer Games II also included Fencing, which was very technical and difficult. It also featured the most ear-piercing alarm every time you landed a hit on your opponent (or got hit) which continued for ten seconds afterwards and completely put you off your next move. The Cycling was even more technical, requiring you to rotate your joystick like a pedal while an arrow waved manically around the screen. It was possible to get some momentum going, but generally you'd end up struggling around on the last lap, making it across the line after everybody else had gone home. Embarrassing.
Overall, Summer Games I & II required much more effort and concentration than their arcade-style peers. If you were willing and able to put in the time and effort, some rewarding results could be achieved. But as a twelve-year-old who just wanted some immediate fun and results, they generally stayed on the shelf in favour of Daley.
The Games: Summer Edition (1989, Epyx/US Gold, ZX Spectrum)
Now, this was more like it. Taking the best aspects of Summer Games I & II, adjusting the gameplay to a more arcade-style and basing it around the 1988 Olympics was a winning formula. Finally, a game to drag me away from lengthy sessions with Mr. Thompson.
After a culturally confused opening sequence which showed a map of Seoul, South Korea accompanied by generic Japanese music and images of Geisha Girls and stereotypical Chinamen, it was down to business. All the classic events were present for your waggling enjoyment, along with some new events like Rings and Uneven Bars. Most required you to waggle furiously for varying amounts of time before pressing fire to jump or throw as usual. In the case of the Pole Vault, the run-up seemed to go on forever - like the road in the opening sequence to Highway To Heaven, or Cardiff's Lloyd George Avenue - before eventually switching to the pole-placement screen where you'd inevitably get the timing wrong and go sailing under the bar. But it was all such good fun that I never cared, and always went back for more.
The Games: Summer Edition allowed for up to eight players to play alternately. At the time, my friend had also become completely addicted to the game and we would often spend entire afternoons playing through the events. Coincidentally, his name was Gareth too, and he hadn't yet earned the nickname Mez which later easily identified him from a sea of Gareths in our very Welsh secondary school. One day, as we entered our names, he typed in Gareth and instead of hitting M for his surname initial, he wrote Y instead. Thus, a legend was created. "Garethy" made us laugh so much that it stuck, and he always played under that moniker from that moment on. In fact, I still like to input my own name as Garethy whenever I play today, just for old time's sake.
But the fun didn't end there, although you may wish it had by the end of this story. We loved playing through The Games: Summer Edition so much that once wasn't enough. To extend our fun, we began filling in the competitors list with eight names, taking control of four each. We used the names of our favourite television stars, and chose their actual nationalities (which were each confirmed by a bleepy Spectrum version of their national anthems). One of our favourites was Rebekah Elmaloglou, who played Sophie in Home & Away at the time, but now appears in Neighbours as Terese. We both had a really big crush on her (and still do, to be honest) but Garethy in particular wouldn't shut up about her. So there I was, waggling Rebekah on her way to Olympic gold in the Hammer Throw, when Garethy started making moaning sounds and saying "Mmmm, Rebekah" over and over again. Just before my third attempt, I happened to look down to see Garethy dry-humping my favourite cushion. Needless to say, it put me completely off my stroke and the hammer went sailing into the wire barrier. Whether more damage was done to the virtual fence, my cushion or my innocence that day, I'll never know, but it certainly does give a whole new meaning to... no, I won't even go there.
Olympic Gold: Barcelona '92 (1992, US Gold, Sega Mega Drive)
As if we weren't button-bash obsessed enough, an Olympics year gave Garethy and I great cause for excitement. I had been looking forward to the Barcelona Olympics since catching the tail end of the Seoul games in 1988 and wishing I had watched it from the beginning. The BBC showed an image of the 1992 stadium in progress with a "Barcelona Prepares" caption, and I remember that it seemed like a lifetime away. But the four years flew by, and when Garethy got his Mega Drive just before those summer holidays, there was only game we wanted to play.
It is impossible to overstate just how much Olympic Gold blew our minds when we loaded it up, having been used to years of Spectrum and early arcade graphics representing our beloved track and field genre. As the first "proper" official Olympics video game, it had everything you'd want. The opening ceremony featured blimps emblazoned with Sega, US Gold and Coke logos, the menu and results screens were presented on the stadium's big screen surrounded by fans, you could watch the heats that you weren't competing in and medals were even presented in a box as the national anthem played (even if it did only play as far as "God Save The..." for the UK, as if it was on Name That Tune).
No official athletes were involved, but it was possible to edit the names. However, we were excited by the fact that one of them was called D. Stead (so we pretended it was the drummer from The Beautiful South) and another was M. Rossi (which is how Francis Rossi was known for the first few Status Quo albums), so we always left them as they were.
The events were controlled in the usual way, bashing two of the Mega Drive's controller buttons before using the third to set angles or jump. All of them offered varying degrees of difficulty from Club to Olympic, but even at the lowest setting they still provided a challenge. It was very easy to false start in the 100m for example, as you had to judge the timing for the best getaway. Similarly, after twenty-four years of trying, I have only recently managed to perfect the timing of the Pole Vault.
The most difficult event was undoubtedly Diving, which required memorising the various button presses for each type of move, in addition to setting the diving board at the correct position and getting the timing right on the take-off. To this day, I am incapable of good scores and have respect for anybody who can do otherwise! On the other hand, Archery is brilliantly simple and would have been a fun game in its own right, with only simple button presses required at the right time, allowing for wind. The time limit lays the pressure on, as do the animations of your fellow competitors firing off their arrows. As in real life, the action takes place over numerous rounds so the skill is in keeping your concentration going over a period of time. It's such a thrill to get a big score, but you always want to try to improve. To this day, it remains one of the best versions of Archery in video games.
Barcelona '92 was a great Olympics, and is tied up with so many memories of the time. The Games seemed to go on forever that summer, and Olympic Gold was always there accompanying the real life action. The official license allowed the game to include the real logos and venues of the event, right down to the clock tower in the stadium. As such, it's a lovely memento of a great event, as well as being one of the best button-bashers in its own right. You can almost hear Freddie Mercury!
Team USA Basketball (1992, Electronic Arts, Sega Mega Drive)
Another officially licensed Barcelona '92 product, Team USA Basketball featured international teams as opposed to the usual NBA roster offered by EA. It has everything you would expect from an EA Sports game of the time, from a digitised TV announcer (who looks like Whose Line Is It Anyway's Colin Mochrie with hair), stars at the players' feet to show who you're controlling and an impressive half-time honk.
There are nice little touches such as country trivia and digitised images of Mounties (Canada), generic bridges (Yugoslavia), the World Trade Centre (USA) and a gazelle (Angola). It's always "a beautiful day in Barcelona, Spain" and there are some great sound effects from the squeak of trainers on the court to the grunts of "oooh!" when a player is fouled, which make you think that Garethy is in the room having a Rebekah Elmaloglou moment.
The side-on view makes gameplay easy to follow, and it's easy enough to get three-pointers and good leads, as long as you can stop getting distracted by the fact that the shorter players look like Carlton from Fresh Prince. There's a nice "T" system of taking penalties, where you have to stop a marker in the middle of each bar. Overall, it's a fun game that doesn't add anything special to the Basketball or Olympic genre, but considering I always preferred EA's NHL games, it's a nice little officially licensed curio.
Capcom's Gold Medal Challenge '92 (1992, Capcom, NES)
A very cute, but very hard button-basher from Capcom that was released to tie-in with the Barcelona Olympics. Even by today's standards, it features more events than the average Olympics game and is presented in a television style that brings all the little events together to emphasise the fact that they all work together to dictate the end result.
The glue that binds the game is the Marathon. Presented as an interval after every few events, it's a chance to have a rest after all the button bashing. It's more a test of strategy, as you lock your athlete's speed in and hope that it's faster than your opponents. Set the speed too fast though - the maximum is 36km/h - and he'll run out of puff before the end. It's very charming, although admittedly does go on a little bit too long each time.
Other cute features include a medal ceremony featuring a Dick Van Dyke lookalike, Dizzy-style music throughout and adorable big-head athletes. It's particularly sweet when you're bashing to power up before the start of the 100m and the athlete's little feet run on the spot, like Scrappy Doo saying "let me at 'em!" If they're successful, they'll do "a Daley." Failure, on the other hand, leads to nothing but a kicking, screaming tantrum on the floor.
Some events require you to bash as fast as possible, whilst others are more about rhythm. In events such as the 400m, it's a bit of both. Get it wrong, and your athlete will stop halfway round to throw up. Similarly in Swimming, your female character can drown if you don't get the rhythm and breathing right! All events can be mastered easily though, and you'll be worn out by the end of the game as it really is a marathon in itself - a full session can take well over an hour!
When the events are over, a lovely closing ceremony fades into an end credits featuring a runner. On the scrolling boards at the side are little red and white umbrella logos. They meant nothing at the time, but as Resident Evil fans they now get us a little bit excited!
Track & Field (1992, Konami, GameBoy)
Along with a re-release of the original Track & Field game for NES (Track & Field in Barcelona), the 1992 Olympics also inspired a GameBoy conversion of the original arcade classic. Featuring very impressive graphics, cheerful music and the ability to play with a friend via Link Cable, it remains one of the best versions of the original game.
Each event had a tutorial beforehand, which is always useful, and it was easy to get good scores and distances. Little details in the animation added to the charm, such as the way the athlete windmills his arms through the air in the Long Jump, or does a one-armed "Daley" following a successful event. It looks like he's throwing a baguette in the Javelin, but that just adds to the appeal of the game. Only Weightlifting lets the game down slightly, as the controls require you to bash, then press D-pad to lift, which can lose your momentum at higher weights. But perfecting the timing is all part of the fun in any game of this genre, and it's possible to set World Record results in most events.
Summer Challenge (1993, Accolade, Sega Mega Drive)
Originally released as The Games: Summer Challenge on PC, this Mega Drive conversion is probably the most difficult, brutal multi-sport simulation to date. If, like us, your copy is also missing the separate controls card providing vital information, you've got no chance!
With absolutely gorgeous 3D graphics, realistic motion capture (giving it an almost Mad Dog McCree feel), a theme tune like CHiPs and menu music like Paperboy, it should be a winner. But unfortunately, Summer Challenge is just too infuriating to remain fun. Even one of the easier events - 400m Hurdles - is punishing in the fact that if you mis-time a single jump, the athlete falls flat on his face never to get back up. The quest for a perfect lap is inspiring at first, but after the twenty-eighth attempt when you fall at the last jump, it's hugely annoying! You literally have to jump at least four metres before the hurdle, and even then it's no guarantee. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't wear you out, but the combination of being hot, bothered and frustrated doesn't help you get any better in the long run.
Equestrian makes a welcome return to the genre in Summer Challenge, and at least it's easier than the hurdles (and Summer Games II, for that matter). But it's still ridiculously difficult, and the smallest error results in a fatal stoppage. As with the Hurdles, the game isn't just hard, it's harsh. You could argue that this zero margin for error makes it the most authentic Olympic simulator around, but it could at least have had an easier difficulty level for those times when you just want to pick up and play without being overly tested. As a reflection of the game's difficulty, it's worth noting that there is no 100m or anything equally simplistic.
There are fun events in Summer Challenge, however. Archery, for example, requires you to move a crosshair and judge the wind before firing. Louise managed a winning score of 100 on her first go, which is more than either of us managed in the earlier events. Similarly, Kayaking (which looks remarkably like Hard Drivin' on water) controls surprisingly easily and it's a real thrill to go zooming around the course, turning the boat around at a moment's notice to go through the opposite gates. Cycling is also fun, a straight-up button-basher (although you do have to keep at it for an absolute age!) You do have to be careful not to fly off the edge of the sloped track though!
Overall, Summer Challenge is very impressive but just a little too unforgiving overall. When it gets the difficulty balance right, it works perfectly. The irony is that the most difficult events are the ones which were easy in older games. In the Javelin, for example, you still only have to bash and throw, but you get barely any run up and will end up fouling on your first half dozen attempts. On the other hand, events which are traditionally difficult in this genre - Kayaking, for example - are some of the best versions in video games. The game was obviously intended for PC, and maybe didn't quite convert well enough to a console pad for optimal control. But if you can get past the extremely steep learning curve, and unforgiving nature of the smallest mistake, there is fun to be had with the game and it is a worthy addition to any collection.
Athlete Kings (aka. Decathlete) (1995, Sega Sports, Sega Saturn)
After a few years of Olympic games moving to a more realistic, technical style of gameplay over pure arcade fun, Athlete Kings took things back to basics and remains our favourite Sega Saturn game, as well as one of our favourite Olympic-themed games.
The Saturn conversion retains all of the fun and Sega-ness of the arcade original, offering a variety of characters to choose from including Ellen Reggiani (like an early version of Ulala from Space Channel 5), Rick Blade, Jef Jansens and Joe Kudou (like an early version of Ryu from Shenmue). The original title, Decathlete, is still present in logos on vests and billboards throughout the game.
Events require the classic bash and press technique of old and are simple to pick up and play. Playing with Ellen Reggiani, you'll soon get used to hearing her scream "Yeeeeaaaaah!" as she flies over the high jump bar or sprints to victory. Other catchphrases such as "that feels good!", "oh man, that does it!" and "let's go, next game!" soon become etched in your memory. Although we're still not sure if Joe Kudou is shouting "faster!" or "bastard!" during the Javelin!
Olympic games always work best when they're presented in an arcade style, and Athlete Kings proves that you can be serious about the game without taking yourself too seriously. The graphics are very colourful and cartoony, but there are timings and rhythms to be mastered if you wish to take all the characters to their limit. Based around the Decathlon events, Athlete Kings is the spiritual successor to the Daley Thompson games and provides just as many hours of endless fun (and just as many finger blisters!)
Graphics are gorgeous and events look like they take place at the base of Mount Fuji. There are varying times of the day, and sunsets look particularly impressive. There are two main modes, Arcade (which requires you to qualify to the next event) and Decathlon (which requires no qualification, but a bad result in one event affects your overall position - just like in real life).
Should you find yourself having difficulty with an event, there is no need to panic. With each Continue, the required qualification comes down, allowing you a chance to perfect your skills in order to get the higher scores next time. When an event is completed, the athlete silhouettes sit down in the menu to show which events are still unattempted. Success leads to a podium ceremony, which will feature your character gyrating wildly in celebration (particularly "Marvellous!" when it's Ellen and her pixelated derriere).
Izzy's Quest For The Olympic Rings (1995, US Gold, Sega Mega Drive)
A side-scrolling platformer may not have been the obvious choice for the first official game of the Atlanta Olympics, but it really worked. Izzy, the mascot of the 1996 Games, was a typically Nineties character and was therefore completely at home in a typically Nineties game.
Izzy's goal was to save the Atlanta Olympics by collecting all five of the Olympic Rings in order to open a reality vortex back to the Games. But the story was unimportant when faced with gorgeous visuals similar to previous Mega Drive games such as Tazmania, and future classics such as Rayman and the Disney Tarzan and Hercules games (complete with the Greek lettering font of the latter).
From the minute Izzy pushes the Sega logo off the screen, you know it's going to be fun and the game doesn't disappoint. Izzy can transform into anything from a rocket ship to a Baseball player, taking in Skateboarding and Archery along the way to reach the goal.
Everything you'd expect from a side-scrolling platformer is present, from checkpoints to power-ups, pesky enemies and humour, all wrapped up in an Olympics theme. Each level ends with a podium ceremony with a Gold, Silver or Bronze awarded depending on your actions throughout the level. There is a good difficulty balance and learning curve, with Olympic themed bonus levels for particularly well completed levels. The animation is lovely, and Izzy even twiddles an Olympic ring on his finger if you keep him waiting too long.
Overall, Izzy's Quest was a surprising entry in the Olympics genre, but was proof that you don't always have to follow the same formula to be considered worthy of entry. No Olympic mascot has had the honour of their own game since, but this should not be considered a negative reflection of Izzy's game, which remains a perfectly acceptable platform game in its own right, even if it doesn't add anything to the genre aside from novelty value.
Olympic Summer Games: Atlanta '96 (1996, Silicon Dreams/Black Pearl, Sega Mega Drive)
The official game of the Centenary Olympics begins with one of the best opening sequences of the genre, featuring an athlete running and hurdling through time from sepia, into black & white and finishing in colour, while information about every previous Olympics is displayed on screen. It's a very effective piece which captures the tone of the game - respectful of the history of the Games, with new twists on established ideas.
The main menu has a PC, point-and-click feel to it featuring an Olympic torch cursor (always a nice touch) and music which has become embedded in my brain from years of repetitive play. Starting the game leads to an Opening Ceremony which features the crowd making the Centenary logo out of cards before going straight into the action.
All of the classic, expected events are present, often presented in a new style. The 100m, for example, features a top-down view of the action rather than the traditional side view. The same camera angle is used for Hurdles, which actually makes timing the jump easier than in previous games. Pole Vault is difficult to master, but with enough practise it's almost impossible to stop clearing the bar! The Long and Triple Jumps require accurate timing, with the latter particularly hard to master, but at least there are nice animations of clapping judges and pretty flower pots to distract you while you persevere. The High Jump is one of the easier versions of the event you'll find, but it is possible to get easily distracted by the stretching competitor at the side who bears an uncanny resemblance to Don Beech from The Bill.
Some events such as Javelin and Discus require bashing buttons for power before switching to D-Pad for the throw, which can lead to awkward hand positions, dropped controls, cramp or a mixture of all three. Archery also uses the D-Pad, requiring you to pull back for power before pressing Fire at the correct moment to allow for wind speed. Skeet Shooting is as difficult as ever, but there is a noticeable pattern which can allow for high scores once you've played and memorised it enough times.
At the end of the events, there's a nice Closing Ceremony featuring a laser show over the stadium. Atlanta '96 is one of few button-bashers in the genre where you'll find that you've probably got enough energy for another go around, thanks to the balance of events and techniques. Overall, it's a hard but fair game, probably just my favourite of the Mega Drive Olympic Games, and worthy of being a souvenir of a special anniversary Olympics.
Olympic Soccer (1996, US Gold, Sega Saturn)
Like Team USA Basketball before it, Olympic Soccer would have been just another long forgotten, generic sports game - football, in this case - were it not for the official license of the Atlanta Olympics. This would have been a shame, as it's actually a fun little arcade-style title with a nice touch of humour.
Taking a leaf out of the official game's opening sequence, Olympic Soccer begins with a little piece featuring a boy playing football on the streets dreaming of being a star, with each of his actions being carried out by a footballer in a huge stadium. It's basically the virtual version of Garethy and me playing football down at the Old Penarthians, pretending to be commentators called Jimmy and Ralph and asking unsuspecting dog-walkers for their reactions.
The manual featured a lengthy essay called "The Olympic Enigma" which argued the case for Olympic football, and amateur vs professional players. But if you just wanted to get stuck into the action without worrying about all that, the game was easy to pick up and play.
The obligatory rave music soundtrack is present throughout the game, adding to the Nineties feel, and British fans could choose from all of the Home Nations. The lack of licensed players meant that the Wales team was made up of names such as N. Kinnock (complete with ginger hair) and stereotypical surnames such as Thomas and Davies. Scotland, meanwhile, had at least three Donalds on the team. The location of their trousers is unknown to this day.
There is much humour in the game, such as the way it sounds like you're kicking a bass drum whenever you shoot for goal, the exaggerated grunts following a foul and the commentator shouting things such as "even I could have saved that!" When you eventually score, the word GOAL appears on screen written in the team's colours, and it's very hard to skip replays, which means that your opponent often has to sit there having salt rubbed into the wound.
Having grown up playing FIFA on Mega Drive, Olympic Soccer felt so exciting at the time due to the commentary and enhanced graphics. Playing the game today provides so much nostalgia from the old days of football games. Clunky movement, limited controls, repetetive sound effects - but it's so much fun!
International Track & Field (1996, Konami, PlayStation)
By the time I was sixteen, the original Track & Field was already a retro game and I never thought that I would ever have the opportunity to play a new instalment in the series. But then along came the delightfully cheesy International Track & Field.
All of the arcade features were present in this PlayStation conversion, it really felt as if you had the arcade cabinet in your home. Boasting "11 muscle cramping events to bring out the sweat in you," the cover really wasn't lying (the same couldn't be said for the manual, which got the controls wrong). International Track & Field was a real return to basics, requiring nothing more than furious bashing and a forty-five degree angle.
The PlayStation controller felt perfect, as you bashed away at Circle and Square before pressing Triangle to jump or throw. It was possible to get insanely fast times, and even recently we managed 100m in just over eight seconds, compared to an average of ten or eleven in other games. The Long Jump was easy to get to grips with but hard to master, and regardless of your success or failure, it always sounded as if you were landing in gravel.
The female announcer was present and correct, just like in the original Track & Field. In the Javelin, she turned into a female Sean Connery for some reason, reporting that "the dishtanshe wash..."
Most events would have you gasping for air by the end of a circuit, but the sense of achievement more than made up for any pulled muscles. In the Pole Vault, for example, an event which still fills me with dread in most track and field games, was surprisingly easy once you got the timing right. Seeing your athlete fly over the bar with metres to spare is still one of the best feelings in the game.
Overall, International Track & Field was everything you would want from what would now be called a reboot of the series. All the fun of the arcade original, with updated graphics and sounds reflecting the technology of the day without losing any of what made it so great in the first place.
Daley Thompson's World Class Decathlon (1996, Interactive Magic, PC)
We obtained this game as part of a Midas compilation called 20 Sports Games back in 2001, mainly attracted by the fact that it contained a Daley Thompson title that we'd never played before. Once we installed it, we soon realised why it had never crossed our path before.
More of a Windows application than a game, World Class Decathlon relies on rhythmical mouse control rather than button bashing or joystick waggling. Graphics are adequate, action is slow and there is very little in the way of sound. It results in a bit of a boring experience overall - especially as all the athletes look identical - and considering the competition it had at the time of release, it was never going to reach the heights of the old Spectrum games.
It's impossible to install the game on a modern PC, which is probably for the best as it's not worthy of being classed amongst Daley's "proper" games and is better forgotten. The best thing about it was the video introduction from the great man himself. This was obviously omitted in the American version where the game was released as Bruce Jenner's World Class Decathlon, and featured a dedicated Bruce introduction for that edition.
Sydney 2000 (2000, Eidos, PlayStation/Dreamcast)
The Sydney Olympics are probably, when push comes to shove, our all-time favourite Olympics. Louise and I had just moved into together, we were enjoying our first taste of independence and enjoyed staying up all night watching the action from Australia. That cry of "come on, boys!" during the Rowing is still quoted by us during any close race to this day, even if it involves women. Plus, it is universally acknowledged that an Olympics aired at unsociable hours is always better.
By September 2000, we were the proud owners of both a PlayStation and Dreamcast. We played the demo of Sydney 2000 on a DreamOn disc from Official Dreamcast Magazine (the same issue that published Louise's reviews, fact fans). When we went to buy it, we discovered that the game was £15 cheaper on PlayStation so opted for that version instead. Twiglets don't grow on trees, after all. We were perfectly happy with it, but did find that some of the events (such as Diving) which required you to press a coloured button in line with the colour on screen, were harder than in the Dreamcast demo. But this didn't stop us from battling each other vigorously and setting every World Record in the game!
Everything about Sydney 2000 is perfect, from the dance music soundtrack (which sounds uncannily like Kylie's On A Night Like This) to the opening video sequence which features highlights from previous Olympics, including a bit of Daley Thompson. There are only a dozen events, but a nice mix of button-bash track and field events, plus lesser-seen sports such as Canoeing, allow for some variation. Most notable by its absence is Long Jump, but at least there's Triple Jump for a similar style of gameplay. In Olympic Mode, there's even a "virtual reality" training session involving a sort-of laser man on a treadmill. It's reminiscent of Daley Thompson's Olympic Challenge, and no less tiring.
Now that CD games were well established, Sydney 2000 was the first official Olympics game to feature commentary, although you have to be prepared to be ridiculed on every occasion. Phrases such as "oh dear, that was positively embarrassing" are commonplace as you get to grips with the controls. But eventually, like a strict teacher, you finally gain his approval when you begin pulling off amazing feats. In the 100m, for example, he says "let that be a lesson to all youngsters on the importance of dipping." And lest we forget the Weightlifting, where the comment "a good jerk really set him up nicely" led to flashbacks of Garethy and my poor cushion.
A nice mix of characters are present, both male and female and all shapes and sizes. We particularly love the chubby weightlifters who bounce around after a successful bar-bending lift, almost rolling off the stage like Laurence Shahlaei at World's Strongest Man. In the Skeet Shooting - which is one of the more difficult versions of the sport, with terrible recoil and D-pad sensitivity - the athlete looks like Super Mario (an omen of things to come), which at least makes up a little for the fact that you're more likely to shoot somebody in the crowd than any Skeets. It's also great to see virtual versions of the real-life venues, including the stadium with its arched roof.
The most difficult event is Canoeing. With perseverance it is possible to work your way through the gates to a decent fourth or fifth position, but at one point we were setting better times and results by just bypassing all gates and making a dash for the line. With all games of this type, the real satisfaction comes from truly mastering an event, and when you get Canoeing right it's a great sense of achievement.
We loved Sydney 2000 so much that playing at home was never enough. The legendary, much-missed, double-storey GAME in Cardiff's Queen's Arcade had a Dreamcast demo pod which ran Sydney 2000 for the entire duration of the Olympics. Every time we were in town, Louise would have a go at the Diving and constantly set the high score, even attracting a crowd of awestruck schoolboys on one occasion. As I looked at their admiration, I remembered how I felt when Matthew sent that Javelin flying off the screen a decade before. At that moment, the Olympic video game torch had been passed to the next generation and the circle of life was complete.
Eventually, we imported an American version of the Dreamcast game for ourselves. Everything was identical except for the commentator, who sounded more like Sheriff John Bunnell and was much more encouraging than his British counterpart. If we had to choose, the Dreamcast version would just get it due to the sharper graphics and the way that the QTEs better reflect the coloured buttons of the Dreamcast's pad. We also love the way that the Olympic Rings are displayed in the Virtual Memory Unit. But both versions are brilliant, and a reminder of not only a great Olympics but also a particularly memorable point in our lives.
ESPN International Track & Field (aka. International Track & Field 2000) (2000, Konami, Dreamcast)
The sequel to International Track & Field was branded with the ESPN logo for the Dreamcast release which was our preferred gaming format by this point in time.
Events took place in a stadium which bore more than a passing resemblance to Sydney, and each event had the option of a virtual tutorial, similar to the training segments of Sydney 2000, featuring an athlete who seemed to be made out of mercury (you could even unlock him for the main game using a cheat code).
The Dreamcast controller offered a perfect set-up for achieving high scores as it utilised the L trigger as a throw or jump button, allowing you to hold the pad firmly in one hand with your index finger hovering over the trigger, while bashing the A and B buttons with the other. This made events such as the Long Jump much easier to time, leading to record beating scores. Similarly, Weightlifting is brilliant. Although for the higher weights, as your athlete (who looks like he only just managed to squeeze into his suit) chalks his hands, you'll wish you had some too!
The power gauge was a slight variation on the established theme, changing colour once you reached the initial maximum, eventually turning red for the "true" upper limit. Coincidentally, our faces usually ended up the same colour after some furious bashing.
A new addition for this game was the Horizontal Bar, which centred around a QTE system requiring maximum concentration to time the button presses in time with the athlete's movements. It looked brilliant when you got it right, giving a real sense of satisfaction, even if it did sound as though the athlete was swinging from a coat hanger.
Javelin is probably one of the most gratifying experiences in the game, with good speed and angles leading to huge distances not seen since Daley Thompson's Decathlon. The event takes place at sunset which makes it almost impossible to see the foul line, even on a huge television. You'll soon get used to the echo of the announcer's voice saying "the attempt ends in a foul...in a foul... in a foul." But as the Javelin wibbles through the air, it all looks beautiful and is more than worth the squinting. Playing recently, Louise managed 97.93m which was a new Personal Best.
There are three secret events, unlocked by earning a medal in all previous events (handily signalled by a little medal icon next to the title). Trap Shooting is one of the best versions of the sport in the genre, and even looks like GoldenEye. The analogue sensitivity is perfect, and it's so intuitive to line up the crosshair with the target object for a perfect shot. Things can end up really manic with up to five Skeets on screen at once, so although it isn't the most realistic portrayal of the sport, it's certainly the most fun. There are bonus points for combos too, which you'll need if you want to get on the podium.
The other unlockable events were Vault (which was another QTE test of reflex) and High Jump, which required you to bash as hard as possible before pressing L to set the angle, and then L again when the bar reaches its "Recovery Zone."
The game is presented in a television style, as expected by now, with ESPN logos adding to the authenticity. The commentator was much more sympathetic than in Sydney 2000, with encouraging phrases that were more of a "there, there" pat on the back than "why did you even buy this game?" levels of ridicule.
Although not quite as good as either the official Sydney game or International Track & Field, there was more than enough fun on offer and the game was worth it for the Trap Shooting event alone.
Virtua Athlete 2K (2000, Sega, Dreamcast)
Along the same lines as Athlete Kings, Virtua Athlete was a pure arcade experience which was short on events but packed with fun. With a tone very similar to Virtua Tennis, the game kicked off with a rocking soundtrack typical of Sega games at the time, along with an over-dramatic voiceover: "Today...the greatest of sports!"
A variety of fictional athletes were available to choose from - surprisingly all male - including Julius Sang, who was like a cross between Daley Thompson and Mr. Motivator. Then it was down to the business of bashing your way through seven events including 100m, Long Jump, Shot Put, High Jump, Hurdles, Javelin and 1500m. All used the classic bash and fire technique, with the exception of 1500m which had you managing stamina and using the D-pad to (theoretically) "skillfully avoid other competitors."
Multiplayer was particularly fun (although if you couldn't keep up with a friend in a race, you'd disappear off the screen), and the ability to save individual player records to separate Virtual Memory Units allowed friends to take their stats back home, where they could try to better them in their own time. The Dreamcast was always ahead of its time, and Virtua Athlete was one of the first to allow players to upload their high scores to a Network Ranking system using DreamArena. Brilliantly, the game also used the console's internal clock to display the current date on the results screens. Such a simple touch, but it's a real novelty and very effective - up there with the way Metropolis Street Racer used the clock to dictate day and night races. Other realistic touches include the stadium announcer asking spectators to look at the giant scoreboard for results, as well as informing them that "programmes are available from Gate 12." The only minor gripe is that results could sometimes be misreported. Playing recently, Louise came a clear second in the 1500m but was classed last on the results screen!
As with ESPN International Track & Field and Sydney 2000, the Dreamcast controller sits comfortably in one hand while you bash with the other. As the game is so short, you can manage a good few goes before you even have to think about taking a rest.
Like all Sega arcade conversions of the time, console specific modes were added for the home version. The ability to edit players was one such feature, with the choice of forty types of sock and twenty-two types of shoe. However, nothing could beat the main Arcade mode, which ranks up there with Virtua Tennis, 18 Wheeler, Crazy Taxi and Confidential Mission, as a perfect, short-but-sweet arcade conversion that's always worth revisiting.
Sergei Bubka's Millennium Games (2000, Midas, PC)
Another one from Midas' 20 Sports Games compilation, Millennium Games is actually a very playable mouse-driven athletics game which used a more rhythmical method to build up speed. After choosing your athlete, the event will begin and a circle appears at their feet. As a bar moves clockwise around it, you have to click the mouse at the optimum time to increase the rotation speed. The faster it spins, the quicker you have to press, until you're eventually just clicking repeatedly. In jumping and throwing events, you must click the right button to perform the action. It's very effective, though cramp-inducing, and it's surprising that no other developers ever picked up on the idea. Sadly, even in compatibility mode, Bubka's game does not run well enough to play on modern computers.
Athens 2004 (2004, Eurocom, PlayStation 2)
Ah, the Athens Olympics, where we got completely obsessed with Field Hockey and I developed huge crushes on Germany's Silke Muller and a Dutch player whose name I completely forget. I even emailed the latter, and she replied with an essay - in Dutch - full of smiley faces and exclamation marks. Sadly, I never did get around to translating it so she could be out there somewhere wondering why I never met her from the airport.
Eurocom's Athens 2004 is one of the most authentic representations of the Olympics, with a vast array of events and gorgeous presentation. Everything is present from authentic locations to the beautiful illustrated loading screens featuring the mascots taking part in the relevant event. The balance between simulation and arcade gameplay was perfect, with a choice of Olympic Mode (which featured serious competition with official rules, records and medals) or Arcade (which offered no official rules, just "maximum fun"). An option to compete in a Decathlon or Heptathlon was also available, as well as the ability to complete all twenty-five events offered in the game back to back. The game used the PlayStation 2's power to great effect, bringing in control methods which worked so well that they continued into subsequent Olympic video games.
As far as we're concerned, any Olympic video game that features Equestrian is always a winner and Athens 2004 is no exception, even if they do insist on just calling it Jumping. The animation of your horse is so realistic and there's such a natural timing to taking the jumps. The commentator can be quite hard on you if you get a penalty, but we were used to the disappointing tone of the announcer from Mary King's Riding Star on PlayStation ("oh dear, fences going down all over the place") so we could handle it. Like all the events, the learning curve is not too steep and even if you're not perfect straightaway, it won't be long until you're near the top of the scoreboard.
Old favourites are present, such as the 100m and Long Jump, but with slightly tweaked controls. The 100m, for instance, requires you to hold down L1 at the start, releasing it at the gun for a perfect getaway. This adds an extra challenge to the event, meaning that the fastest button basher is not necessarily guaranteed to win. Pole Vault requires you to bash a power bar made up of segments that look like they've been taken straight out of Henry Kelly's Going For Gold, before stopping a moving target within the indicated ideal range for a successful clearance. The higher the bar, the harder it is to power the segments to the required position, but it's great fun trying!
The dreaded Skeet Shooting makes life a little easier by displaying guide lines for the targets, which can be followed by your crosshair. It's still not guaranteed that you'll manage to shoot the things, but at least you've got a sporting chance at a decent result. Similarly, some of the Gymnastic events such as Floor Exercise use QTE controls which are very strict on timing. Some of the harder routines will result in you getting muddled occasionally, but it's always worth persevering for that perfect score. But one of our favourite events is High Jump, which requires you to press X and O in time with your athlete's run-up before pressing L1 as they reach a point marked with a cross. It's incredibly addictive, often frustrating, but always fun. Plus, we love the way that the athletes puff their cheeks out in preparation for a jump.
Archery is a nice, easy affair in Athens 2004, requiring nothing more than a pull of the analogue stick and a well-timed X. But it's the wind that will defeat you, and the commentator always sounds disappointed at anything less than an eight, like a Darts caller who calls a twenty-six with a tone of disgust.
Overall, Athens 2004 is one of the best Olympic video games and the first in a long time to offer a vast catalogue of events which remained fun over a long session of play without wearing the player out too much. Yet, surprisingly, it is also one of the most under-rated. It's still hugely playable and we find ourselves going back to it time after time, regardless of how many Olympics (and their games) have come and gone since.
Beijing 2008 (2008, Sega/Eurocom, XBox 360)
Teaming up with Sega, Eurocom took everything that was great about Athens 2004 and made it even better for the next generation of consoles, presenting the first official Olympics video game in HD.
Featuring television style graphics, gorgeous visuals and amazingly realistic athletes (with motion capture by Kelly Sotherton, amongst others), Beijing 2008 was a feast for the eyes but a nightmare for the hands. Athletes could be controlled by either button-bashing or waggling the analogue stick, with the latter offering better results. We found the best way to get a fast waggle was to place your palm on top of the stick and move it side to side quickly. It was amazingly effective, but we suffered from many blisters in pursuit of success - we've even picked up a few during the research for this piece!
As the joint users of a single console, we particularly loved the way that we could both log into the game at once with our individual Gamertags, earning individual achievements and records along the way. Similarly, as Beijing 2008 was the first offical Olympics game to offer online play, it was possible for both of us to sign in at once, in order to compete against the rest of the world (on the rare occasion that we could find a match, at least). The game even updated any online World Records, meaning that there was always somebody else to beat, other than yourself. Even today, eight years after release, World Records continue to improve. Somebody called Nige Mansell leads the way in Long Jump this month, for example, which means that there's another British moustache legend in the world of athletics to keep Daley company. Another nice touch was the way in which the scoreboards would display the Gamertag of the person currently in control, whether online or locally, along with their Personal Best in the event. This all added to the realism brilliantly.
With the disappointing exception of Equestrian, most of the events from Athens 2004 made the move over and retained their control methods. Skeet, Pole Vault and High Jump still stand out as the most unique methods, though they're all even harder than their previous outing. High Jump in particular can often lead to bouts of swearing, as your athlete refuses to clear the bar despite the fact that you matched all of the coloured button presses in time with the corresponding coloured circles. And don't get us started on Weightlifting, which requires you to rotate the two analogue sticks in opposite directions - like rubbing your tummy and patting your head - but neither the manual or on-screen tutorial can agree on which one should go in which direction. Suffice to say, controllers have gone flying across the room on more than one occasion.
Every time we revisit Beijing 2008, it's always so much better than we remember. Frustrations often overtake the fun at times, depending on the events chosen, and it's not rare to end a session in a bit of a red-faced grump. But looking past that, it really is a fantastic game which has so much attention to detail - you can even control the fireworks at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies - and can provide some excellent enjoyment as long as you're willing to put up with a bit of trial and error at times.
Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games (2008, Sega Sports/Nintendo, Wii)
We couldn't believe our eyes when we saw a preview for the first Mario & Sonic game on the cover of Computer & Video Games. Along with Resident Evil, it was the reason we decided to invest in a Wii.
A more informal take on the official Olympics license, Mario & Sonic is a perfect companion to the realism of Beijing 2008, offering a fun-filled view of the action starring all of the favourite characters from the Mario and Sonic universe.
Bursting onto the screen with a triumphant fanfare, the opening sequence shows all of the characters battling each other and sets the tone for the entire game. Action takes place in the real-life locations - albeit a more cartoony version - and there are little touches of humour across all of the events, such as Princess Peach's big pink gun in the Skeet Shooting, or the little tantrums thrown by the characters when they lose - they're all really bad sports!
The game makes full use of the Wii's motion control, with players having to shake the Wiimote as quickly as possible in order to run the 100m, swing it around their head for the Hammer throw (which, disappointingly, does not involve the flinging of a Chain Chomp), flip it in perfect time to gain height in the Trampoline or master the various strokes required in the Swimming events. Like the majority of Wii games, the accuracy of the motion control can be hit-and-miss at times. But it's never enough to spoil the enjoyment, as the mini-game nature of the events means that you're quickly moving onto the next discipline before you've had chance to be disappointed.
The Wiimote really comes into its own in the Skeet Shooting, where you use it to move the cursor around the screen in order to shoot the targets. Similarly, thrusting at your opponent in Fencing whilst moving around with the Nunchuk in your other hand makes for a very authentic experience.
Despite the fact that most of the events are quick and to the point, there is scope for longer sessions of play thanks to events such as Table Tennis, which has you working your way through play-offs using the Wiimote as a bat. It's tricky at first, but easy enough to master. We even managed to come back from 5-10 down and go on to win a gold medal.
Mission Mode provides you with sets of goals which allow you to unlock other challenges and items along the way, whilst Circuit Mode has you competing in small groups of events, with a one-off chance for double points in an event if you choose to accept the relevant challenge - but be careful, as failure to meet the criteria will result in zero points (like playing your Joker in Metropolis Street Racer on Dreamcast).
The game is full of charm, and has nice little touches such as the "time to take a break" screen featuring a Chao having a refreshing drink. We also love the way that you can make the audience clap in rhythm during the jumping events by actually clapping with the Wiimote and Nunchuk, and the inclusion of characters such as Lakitu as judges and measurement officials. Everything about the game is over the top, from the colours and sounds to the way that you can throw the Javelin for an unbelievable 110m (well, Louise managed it).
It almost feels mean to say anything bad about Mario & Sonic at the Olympics, as there is so much happiness and charm contained within. Having said that, although we love the vast amount of events on offer, we do find the experience a little too mini-gamey for our personal taste and still prefer the realism of Beijing 2008 out of the two. We also feel that the game is more about the characters first, with the Olympics as an afterthought. Both Mario and Sonic can come across as quite obnoxious at the best of times, but there is almost too much personality on offer, meaning that events can become overshadowed. It's like being the bride at a wedding where your distant cousin insists on singing One Moment In Time while lifting up her top. During the vows.
But viewing the two games as a whole, complementing each other perfectly, it's clear to see that the Beijing Olympic video games had all bases covered with something for everyone.
New International Track & Field (2008, Konami, Nintendo DS)
A celebration of the 25th anniversary of the original Track & Field, this DS instalment is full to the brim with nostalgia, whilst presenting an entirely new experience in its own right.
The cartridge features a picture of the original Track & Field athlete, and upon loading it up you're presented with a remix of the Chariots Of Fire theme and the identical music from the original arcade classic. But soon the new content makes its presence felt, as you choose from a variety of characters such as Kang, Yoko and Claudia to guide through the touch-screen fun. Again, as with Mario & Sonic, the over-the-top personalities can sometimes overwhelm the gameplay, but the general feel of the original Track & Field is always retained.
Rather than button-bashing, full use is made of the DS stylus. Players must now swipe as quickly as possible to run the 100m, adding the press of a target to jump or throw in relevant events. There are exaggerated animations throughout the event, such as the way that steam comes off the Javelin as it flies through the air. In line with the nostalgic tone, there are also adverts for retro games such as Frogger and Contra all around the stadium, as well as a hot air ballon emblazoned with the Silent Hill logo.
Event success leads to unlockable items, such as outfits for each character, not to mention the fact that there are numerous unlockable classic characters such as Sparkster and Frogger himself. There are many celebratory poses and celebrations (as well as plenty to commiserate when things don't go to plan). It's a brilliant game which celebrates the legacy of the Track & Field titles whilst bringing the series into the modern era. Many of the techniques introduced and perfected back in 1983 are still present, but adapted perfectly for the DS. A perfect handheld game, Olympic-related or otherwise.
London 2012 (2012, Sega, PlayStation 3)
The official game of the London 2012 Olympics is astounding. Even four years on, the graphics are superb and the game perfectly captures the atmosphere and tone of the actual event, without an Abraham Lincoln look-alike in sight.
London was a special Olympics for us, as we had never experienced the excitement of a home Games in our lifetime. Playing an Olympic game is always one of our favourite experiences, but for the action to take place amongst some of our favourite landmarks is even better. The Archery at Lord's Cricket Ground is particularly exciting, and when we visited London in 2015 for the first time in fifteen years, we even made a point of going to see the real venue!
We had just purchased our PlayStation 3 a couple of months before the London Olympics kicked off. We still have fond memories of using the console as part of our enjoyment of the event, watching the BBC Sport app from morning to night to keep up to date with results, playing Audi Piano on PlayStation Home between Equestrian events, then playing the official game when things had come to an end for the day. We even remember watching the Beach Volleyball one night, which ended with a performance by Mika. The fixed camera angle meant that he looked like a dot to us - a dot surrounded by gyrating ladies - and to this day we still refer to him as Baby Mika.
London 2012 - The Game captures all of that atmosphere perfectly. The Beach Volleyball court at Horse Guards Parade is not only visually perfect, but also full of the dance music and noise which made it so special. The players act and move perfectly, and although it's less arcadey than Dead Or Alive Beach Volleyball, it's just as fun. The Olympic Stadium also looks flawless, as do the interiors of all the specialist arenas. Playing in a setting we knew so well made it feel as if we were actually there.
Sega carried many of the control methods from the Eurocom games into London 2012, but also introduced some new challenging features. The 100m, for example, still required you to hold the L2 button halfway down in order to hold a power bar perilously close to its limit, before pressing it fully at the gun for the perfect start. Then, unlike in other games where it's all about a flurry of fingers, you have to carefully bash X and O in order to keep the power bar within a very small range at its maximum. Go too hard and your athlete comes to a crawl, go too slowly and your opponents go flying past. But get it right, and you'll fly to the end. When you do it properly, it feels so good. The same method is used for most running events, with the addition of the L2 as an action button for jumping and throwing. Although the PS3 controller doesn't sit quite as comfortably in the hand as the Dreamcast controller, it does provide some of the most responsive controls since the days of Sydney 2000.
Some of our most dreaded events became our favourites in London 2012. Skeet Shooting feels much more like a shooter game, and seeing as Resident Evil 5 forced us to master that particular genre, we're now dab hands at the event. Similarly, Kayaking is so responsive and exhilarating. You really get a sense of breathlessness and speed, and after living near the White Water Rafting Centre in Cardiff for a year, we're able to bring in a little real-world knowledge to our gameplay now. If you didn't watch the real thing at London 2012, you might be confused when the commentator starts talking about Piccadilly Circus and Stone Henge, but they're just the obstacles!
Table Tennis is like a game in itself, along the lines of Rockstar Table Tennis, with simple controls that make huge rallies a regular occurence. Plus, how can you not love an event that begins with the commentator announcing that the arena is "full to the gunnels?"
One of the bonuses of London 2012 is the inclusion of PlayStation Move compatibility. In our view, Move is the best form of motion control around and we're not surprised that the controllers will form part of PlayStation VR. If you only try one Move game, make it London 2012 - it's amazing. Every event makes you feel as if you're in full control, with the game getting you to hold the controller like a Javelin, making a thrusting motion as hard as possible to throw it (our Personal Best is 91.34m). In 100m, you have to move your arms like a runner to build up as much speed as possible. Archery uses two controllers, one acting as the bow and the other as the string (a similar technique to that used in Sports Champions), whilst Kayaking has you using controllers to row and steer the boat (probably the hardest event in the Move section). Move isn't compatible with every event in the game, but there is more than enough to supply hours of fun before you need a lie down anyway. There are also a number of Party Games, such as Archery Blitz where the aim is to score as many points as possible in a time limit, with bonuses scattered around awkward parts of the board.
Online play worked brilliantly, especially as there was a bigger pool of available players due to the fact that PS3 online play is free. Four years on, it is admittedly harder to find a match, but patience is worthwhile as there is still a small online community chipping away at the available trophies. Competing against a handful of real people in the 100m is great fun, and as gamers who grew up in the pre-internet era, it's a novelty that we never take for granted.
London 2012 is, quite simply, a flawless Olympics game. It's a perfect souvenir of a brilliant Olympics and an illustration of how far games have come since the original Track & Field. Given the (shocking) absence of a "proper" Olympics game for Rio 2016, London 2012 remains the current official licensed game. In some ways it's almost for the best, as it would have been a tough act to follow. Undoubtedly, our favourite Olympics video game of all-time.
Mario & Sonic At The London 2012 Olympic Games (2012, Sega Sports/Nintendo, Nintendo 3DS)
The mini-game nature of the Mario & Sonic Olympic games translated perfectly to the 3DS, with the London-based sequel taking everything that made the original great, adding loads of new events and using every single one of the 3DS' unique features to great effect.
Just like Daley Thompson's Supertest a quarter of a century before, the action was not just limited to the track and field arena. Events such as Football (which sees you pulling back on the analogue stick before releasing it with perfect timing, in a bid to score goals from corners taken by Shy Guy ), Field Hockey (which was more like Pong, with characters having to pass the ball back and forth across the screen, avoiding Shy Guy defenders before scoring a goal) and Basketball (which required you to use the 3DS' motion control, thrusting it up and forwards as if actually throwing a ball) made welcome appearances, along with never-before-seen sports entering the genre such as Handball, Sailing and - our personal favourite - Walking (which used the stylus as a conductor's baton, which had to be swung back and forth across the lower screen in time with a march, before getting faster and turning into the Can-Can for the final push past Buckingham Palace).
Most of the events are shortened versions of those found in the "proper" London 2012 game. Even the 100m is reduced to nothing more than a reflex test, where you release a button at the right time to start before the action cuts to the last few metres where you have to bash as quickly as possible. But in the handheld format, it works absolutely perfectly and is by no means a disappointment - there's always enough room for improvement to keep you coming back for more.
Equestrian makes a welcome return in the form of Team Showjumping, where you guide the four main girls (Peach, Daisy, Amy and Blaze) around a circuit of jumps, which looks very sweet. It plays just like the Jumping in Athens 2004 and is one of the highlights of the game. Another memorable event is the Weightlifting, which requires you to shout as loudly as possible into the 3DS microphone to pull off a successful lift, which no doubt made our neighbours wonder what on earth we were doing. The Rhythmic Gymnastics is also adorable, and requires you to draw circles with the stylus and tap the screen at the correct moment to complete a perfect performance.
Medley Matches make a return, featuring little collections of events which must be beaten in order to unlock more. There's also a Story Mode based around the characters arriving in London for the Olympics, and even the ability to Share Play amongst 3DS-owning friends with just the one cartridge.
Our personal taste meant that we still found the game to be about the game's stars first and the Olympics second. However, the entire experience is full of undeniable charm, from the personalities of all the characters (who still get really crabby when they lose, especially Baby Bowser who has a habit of shouting "what IS this?" like Barry Burton from Resident Evil). It's so lovely to see the characters performing in real-world locations like Horse Guards Parade and the Olympic Stadium, and the entire game is full of happy, cheerful music throughout. It's a pleasure to play, even better than the Wii original, and has infinite replay appeal to this day. As with the original, it's a perfect complement to the "proper" game and the two of them form a lovely reminder of an unforgettable event.
A free companion app was released for 3DS which allowed users to collect virtual trading cards based on scenes from the game to complete an album. Some could be bought with Play Coins, whilst others had to be collected via StreetPass from other users. Over the years, we've managed to collect the majority and are now only missing two, which we still hope to obtain whenever we're out and about with our 3DS in Sleep Mode!
Mario & Sonic At The Rio 2016 Olympic Games (2016, Sega Sports/Nintendo, Nintendo 3DS)
It's very sad that for the first time in twenty-five years, due to the closure of developer Sega Australia, there is no realistic official game for the Rio 2016 Olympics. After working side by side with the "proper" game for the past two Olympics, Mario & Sonic now stand alone as the only licensed product for 2016.
Thankfully, nothing has changed. It was always going to be impossible to better the London instalment, so Rio 2016 offers more of the same with a few nice additions for good measure. Road To Rio allows you to use your Mii to compete in the events, whilst Pocket Marathon (which sounds a bit dirty to us) rewards you for walking around with your 3DS for the full 42.195km Marathon distance. Why did we not have this game when we walked from Penarth to St. Fagans and back last year? Our only reward that day was a custard slice from Brutons - but bloody good it was too.
Quick Play mode allows you to get stuck in with one of the characters or your Mii, for nothing more than fast and furious fun. Most of the events from London are present, with a few new additions such as Golf, which is a newcomer to the Olympics in general in 2016. Plus Events are comedy variations on the real thing, featuring Crazy Golf, Springboard Long Jump, BMX with Goomba obstacles, Archery with Boo holding targets (we love Boo!) and Swimming whilst a Thwomp makes waves. There's even a version of Table Tennis which plays like a Virtua Tennis mini-game, getting you to hit the ball into certain segments of your opponent's half to score, whilst attempting to stop them doing the same. Beach Volleyball works in a similar fashion, although the announcer's habit of shouting "almost there!" from the very beginning does grate a little eventually!
There's a lot of nostalgia contained within the game, whether it's reminders of Ready 2 Rumble Boxing whilst building up a special meter in the ring, or the introduction of lesser-seen characters from the Mario & Sonic universe such as the adorable Ludwig Von Koopa. It's all wrapped up with gorgeous graphics and replays, plus the obligatory Samba soundtrack.
Overall, it's a brilliant game full of all the usual fun and charm, but you can't help but feel that we're missing out this Olympics by not having a realistic game to complement it. We wouldn't want F1 Race Stars to be the only official F1 game, for example, no matter how much we love it. We can only imagine how good a PS4 game would have been, even if it was just a carbon copy of London 2012, so we hope that it will be a return to business as usual for Tokyo 2020. Having said that, Mario & Sonic is a perfectly acceptable tie-in for the Rio Olympics, and we have no doubt that we'll be wearing our fingers out throughout the summer. It's a brilliant introduction to the Olympics for children, too. At the end of the day, the reason we fell in love with Olympic video games in the first place was for the sheer fun. Realism is great, but as our look back through the years has shown, the best games are the ones that put playability first - even if you were basically just controlling a stick man - and Mario & Sonic is full to the brim!
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