Did you watch the closing ceremonies last night? If the newspaper adornments, golden-tinged models, Monty Python cast members, and giant inflatable Fatboy Slim-helmed octopus tell us anything, it's that the Olympics are a grand, majestic international spectacle of the absurd. (Also, Russell Brand singing the Beatles? Really?)
Odd sports rules are not novel, but consider some of the summer Olympic events that viewers, myself included, have been glued to for the past two weeks. The hammer throw requires competitors to whirl themselves dizzy like the Tasmanian devil, whipping around a weighty ball and chain to see how far they can fling it. The balance beam has teenage waifs doing backflips on a four inch wide plank, as we hold our breath hoping they don’t fall off. Synchronized swimming is water dancing with nose plugs. What a ripe domain for videogame parody!
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Videogame players of a certain age share a common memory – hardening their thumb hammering on the A or B buttons of their rectangular NES controller, straining to win the 100 yard dash in Track and Field. If you were lucky, you had the NES Advantage joystick controller, which featured turbo buttons that meant instead of tearing ligaments in your thumb, you could tap and hold once to propel your sprinter at top speed.
Originally released in 1983 as an arcade cabinet game, the NES version fired up with the familiar sounds of Vangelis’ "Chariots of Fire," that ubiquitous and tacky synthesizer symphony that immediately calls to mind the image of dudes running on a beach. However you got to play Konami’s masterpiece Track and Field, if you grew up with the game it was likely a first introduction to the grandeur and spectacle of the Summer Olympics.
Track and Field was an elegantly simple yet addicting game. To avoid writing a mere rose-colored, nostalgic look at the game, I picked it up recently to see if my memory of the game holds up. The NES version I played offers eight events, the 100-meter dash, long jump, 110-meter hurdles, javelin throw, skeet shooting, triple jump, archery, and high jump; a mix of traditional track and field events, and obscure Olympic sports that were included, I’m guessing, to broaden the appeal of the game (shooting?).
To compete in each of the diverse sports in the game, you do the same thing over and over. Each event depends on a variation of similar mechanics - tap, tap, tap, push and hold. Yes, there is lots of button mashing. Not even alternate button mashing. Just hammer on your key until you are fast enough then, jump, and throw, or jump again. The game does include some interesting geometric problem solving, having the player determine the trajectory of certain jumps, shots, or throws, but other than that, the activity is pretty mindless.
Not that I’m complaining. In fact, the game lived up to my every memory, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting a track and field simulation on par with the likes of NBA2K, MLB: The Show, or Madden. Granted, my expectations are dictated in part by the older game platform, but going in I knew I was looking for a mindless, joyful, and whimsical take on the Olympics, that still provided enough challenge as to compel me to keep playing. Track and Field, like track and field, is hard. I got better with practice, timing my throws and jumps better, but I still made mistakes and at no point did I feel like I had perfected the game, nor mastered it. The simplicity of challenging, albeit repetitive, action tickled a deeply rooted fancy for relatively mindless engagement. It is downright absurd that the most diverse collection of sports competitions in the world was represented by a series of mini-games with the same mode of interaction.
Given the diversity of events, the range of sport rules, and the complicated interactions involved, this is like designing a dozen sports simulations and trying to cram them all onto one disk. No wonder the games tended to be terrible.
In general, Olympics themed videogames have fallen out of favor. Likely because of short development cycles, and strict publication deadlines to coincide with the broadcast of the games, most modern Olympics themed games suffer from a lack of polish, and buggy performance, if not outright unplayable game design. The Torino, Beijing, and Vancouver, officially licensed Olympics videogames were all terrible. They did not hold up to the photorealistic competition of other more sophisticated sports simulations, and often the events were awkward to play. London 2012 has received moderate critical response, with most regaling the title as a pleasant surprise given its lackluster to downright awful Olympic videogame predecessors.
These games have all been designed as sports simulations, entering a market dominated by highly polished, highly iterated, and annually released titles. Given the diversity of events, the range of sport rules, and the complicated interactions involved, this is like designing a dozen sports simulations and trying to cram them all onto one disk. No wonder the games tended to be terrible.
My favorite Olympics videogame to paly as I’m drawn in by the games this year is Justin Smith’s Realistic Summer Sports Simulator. Filipe Salgado previously reviewed the title for Kill Screen, and I agree with most of his analysis of the game with a giant, glaring exception: I think it is wickedly amusing. That Justin Smith, designer of Enviro-Bear 2010 and Fuck Oregon Let’s Go Find El Dorado called his game a “simulator” suggests the irony and whimsy he applied to his take on the summer Olympic games. It is the very non-simulative design of his game, the simple regurgitation of a common rubberband mechanic, shared across events, that is so reminiscent of Track and Field and makes JSRSSS a joyfully challenging and charming game to play. You’re clumsy, the controls are awkward, and that is his point. But, not unlike Track and Field, I keep wanting to play, and I relish each moment when I notice improvement, when I execute a dive, or manage to hold on to the barbell without falling over. There is still joy in simplicity, and absurdity and JSRSSS offers it in droves.
In light of the awesome ridiculousness of the Olympics, it is fitting that my favorite Olympics videogames lean heavily on the wacky, and the absurd rather than verisimilitude. Truth be told, I’ve grown somewhat weary of sports simulations, and this Quixotic quest for the accurate, and the real. I love playing games like NBA2K and The Show, and I find myself regularly immersed in the worlds they create. All the same, I still really enjoy the mindless, haptic joy that comes from hammering on a button to get my little mustachioed decathlete across the finish line, or swiping my finger to fling my gymnast around on rings. Simple, and silly, can be good too, and such games are no-less sporty than more detailed simulations.