The Olympics: spectacular for spectators, but so-so for gamers. It seems much more like the prestige event lends itself better to the real world than our hallowed digital grounds – at least if you take a step back and evaluate our options when it comes to both licensed adaptation and third-party one-offs.
Throughout the history of gaming, there have been numerous attempts at digitizing the historic sporting event that attracts so many viewers. Many have been failed cash-ins or poor imitations with no business having been released. On the flip side, some of the best sports-oriented games weren't related to real-world Olympic events, but a collection of sporting activities collected in one place, such as the quintessential '80s classic Track & Field. These lend themselves well to the Olympic spirit, and the changes made throughout the years to the games released in the genre reflect that of some completely different trends.
What was the first Olympic game and how have they changed over the years? While you're getting primed to watch the games on TV, take in the rich history of the Olympics, video game style.
Track & Field (1983)
Credited as one of the first of its kind is Track & Field. While not an officially licensed Olympic release, Track & Field released to eager arcade-goers with a bang. Players used two “run” buttons that many events required to be hit back and forth, quickly alternating to allow the athlete to make progress, as well as an action button to perform a final action, such as the long jump. It quickly became a favorite both in arcades and in homes when it made the transition to home consoles in 1988.
Six events were included, each typical physical contests seen in the Olympics today: the Javelin throw, high jump, long jump, 100 meter dash, 110 meter hurdles, and the hammer throw. Up to four players competed feverishly to qualify and place for each event, which often led to damaged arcade machines and controllers due to the rapid alternating button presses required to do well in each event. It was simple enough to get into, but extremely addictive, its appeal lasting well into the present, spawning sequels and me-too imitators.
It's still widely regarded as the best of the best, and for good reason. Give it a try with a Power Pad for added challenge, if you're up for it.
Konami went on to include several other entries after Track & Field, including a direct sequel and follow-up to Hyper Sports, which offered a different variety of events, including the pole vault, weightlifting, archery, and skeet shooting. Hyper Sports was actually Track & Field's direct sequel, whereas the American-branded Track & Field II was released by Konami as Konamik Sports in Seoul, South Korea. The events in both entries into the franchise varied wildly, with Track & Field II serving up fencing, taekwondo, canoeing, and even hang-gliding – all controlled mainly via the same methods that Track & Field relied on.
Summer Games/Winter Games (1984 and 1986)
Epyx Computer Software threw its hat into the ring with two sports-themed games centered on the Summer and Winter Olympic games. While this wasn't immediately reflected in the games' layouts (players were asked to choose a country to represent and weren't tied to licensed events) the duo offered a serviceable alternative to the buzz Track & Field and its subsequent releases generated. 1984's Summer Games received its own direct sequel, and both games could later be linked together via Commodore 64 to create one super-sized Olympic event, combining minigames from both Summer Games and Summer Games II.
Epyx's Winter Games series was popular amongst genre buyers as well, offering a bevy of winter sports: alpine skiing, bobsledding, ski jumping, and even freestyle skiing were among the chilly qualifiers players could compete in, whether via tournament or singular event for practice. These games received several ports across various consoles, including the Amiga, Atari 2600, and even DOS.
Olympic Gold (1992)
Officially-licensed titles from the IOC (International Olympic Committee) didn't come to fruition until 1992, with Sega's release of Olympic Gold, the official video game rendition of the XXV Olympic Summer Games, held in Barcelona, Spain. Contrary to previous submissions such as Konami and Epyx trying their hand, Olympic Gold carried a sponsorship from Coca-Cola and deviations in the standard frantic button-mashing of games past. In addition, Olympic Gold introduced individual weaknesses and strengths for its computer athletes, distributing different proficiencies across the board. For example, bestowing outstanding shot-put action upon some competitors and tremendous speed for another. Interestingly enough, depending on the country, some competitors' strengths vary according to their background, with computer opponents from America typically coming out on top in sprint events and other similar instances.
U.S. Gold continued to handle the IOC license with the release of Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94, and Olympic Summer Games, both of which continued the same tradition begun with the earliest entries in the series. The Winter Olympics edition wasn't well received by critics or gamers, however, and became the last official 16-bit Olympic outing. The next series were to move into the era of the PlayStation and onward, with massive alterations to graphics (obviously) and in most cases, core gameplay.
Nagano Winter Olympics '98 (1998) and Sydney 2000 (2000)
Konami returned to the Olympic spotlight with their 1998 PlayStation/Nintendo 64 contribution Nagano Winter Olympics '98, better known as Hyper Olympics in Nagano to Japanese gamers. This was a relatively low-profile release despite the sudden jump to modern consoles, and greatly overshadowed by the arrival of ATD's PlayStation/Dreamcast offering Sydney 2000, following the XXVII Olympic Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
Sydney 2000 was a game changer, and one of the best adaptations since the unofficial Track & Field. It offered 12 different events with 32 countries being represented, and found itself in receipt of a BAFTA award for being the sports game of the year, and for good reason. It introduced some decidedly different approaches the genre hadn't seen before, namely the fact that athletes aspiring to compete in the Olympics were made to train and eventually qualify (by means of a Virtual Gym set of minigames) for the events he/she desired to enter. It's a much different beast with an emphasis on minigame completion and stat upgrades where the focus is less on the Olympic games themselves and more on growth as a competitor, making the Sydney 2000 entry remarkable in being thus far the most realistic representation of the Games.
Unfortunately, as seems to be the trend when it comes to the Winter Olympics adaptations, the following years' efforts (even from the same developer ATD) would see much less success than with Sydney.
Salt Lake 2002 (2002), Athens 2004, (2004) Torino 2006 (2006)
Each of these games were only serviceable representatives of their events at best, cutting the number of activities and playable contests and making it clear that the IOC license was seemingly an excuse to rush out hackneyed repurposings of the same games many years in a row. Lackluster graphics, uninspired gameplay, and events riddled with bugs made these entries take a backseat to the upcoming years that would partner with Sega and Nintendo to create something brand new.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games and Beijing 2008
Sega powered forward to take charge of the Olympic game scene, publishing two very different collections of minigames that catered to separate audiences: the hit crossover Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, which gathered longtime “rivals” Mario and Sonic and a cavalcade of familiar Nintendo and Sega characters to compete in modified cartoony versions of popular Olympic sports.
In stark contrast, Beijing 2008 relied on its realistic portrayals and accurate representations of the visuals attached to each event rather than focusing on making them fun. In this, Sega's gamble with Mario and Sonic as well as the rest of the game resulted in an entertaining collection of luck and skill-based competitions that tapped into a market previously unheard of: the “hardcore” crowd.
Two years later, the success of the previous Mario & Sonic Olympic release allowed a sequel to be birthed: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, along with another abysmal “realistic” sports sim: Vancouver 2010, which like Beijing 2008, was generally frowned upon. The cartoonier Mario & Sonic was held in much higher regard.
Which events are you looking forward to most? What Olympic games were your favorites over the years?