Like so many American children, every two years I became glued to the television set where the world’s bravest amateurs from across the globe put their dreams on the line in the winter and summer Olympics. The only thing nearly as grand as watching such athletic drama unfold was reenacting that excitement virtually. Memories such as seeing my dad use our living room to host a youth group competition of Atari’s Winter Games still make me chuckle to this day. And who could forget the soda-induced sugar rushes I used to out-sprint my friends on the Nintendo Power Pad? Indeed, obtaining digital Olympic glory was nearly as fulfilling as watching the red, white and blue pursue the gold.
Medaling With Things
Welcome to the prestigious gathering of the world’s top track and field stars! Some of the world’s best riflemen and bowmen have shown up as well. Enter a ten-event contest to prove yourself as the world’s most diverse athlete, or try a mini-contest of between one and nine events. Whatever you choose, make sure to practice! Compete with individuals from 32 different countries for the gold, silver, or bronze medals in each event and watch your loot pile up!
Olympic Summer Games is a salad of Olympic summer events, presented here as individual mini-games. One might assume that since ten events are featured, we are pining for the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete.” However, only seven events from the traditional decathlon are included: the 100 meter sprint, 110 meter hurdles, pole vault, high jump, long jump, javelin, and discus. Two classic running events (440m & 1500m), as well as one throwing (shotput), are replaced by the long jump and two shooting events. Ironically, the triple jump is the most non-intuitive event of the ten, while archery and skeet are the most straightforward and enjoyable. There is a list after every event showing the overall standing of medal winners, but no winner is declared for earning the most gold, or most total medals.
The Bugler’s Dream Deferred
The official game of the 1996 Olympics, Olympic Summer Games (OSG) was released on many platforms. This does not work to the advantage of its SNES rendition, however. For running events, the alternate pumping of the A and B buttons is necessary to find a rhythm for your runner’s legs, or to whip around a discus. Then, pressing the directional pad for an accompanying function (jumping or throwing). I can see this method working well on a keyboard, but on the SNES this transitions awkwardly. In what other game does it behoove you to hold the controller upside down, pumping two buttons with your right index and middle fingers while timing one push of a button with your left pointer?
The controls alone set OSG miles behind some of its archaic predecessors. Winter Games (1985) on Atari 2600, for instance, featured events intuitive to its joystick: alpine skiing (slalom), ski jumping, biathlon (cross-country + rifling), figure skating, speed skating, luge, and freestyle skiing. All of these are handled well with the classic Atari joystick and trigger. Then there is World Class Track Meet (1988), where the player physically pumps his own legs on the Power Pad beside his neighbor in friendly competition. OSG could have done way better in acclimating itself to the resources of the mid-90s. In retrospect, why weren’t the right and left triggers used for running, with B or some other natural button as the secondary movement?
Unintuitive and outdated, the controls of OSG suffer a third fault, called, How the hell do I even play this event? Why am I face-planting into the sandbox–this event is called the ‘triple jump,’ not the ‘epic fail!’ If you go into this game cold like I did, you will probably not be able to make heads or tails of how to even do half the events, much less make an honest grasp at medaling. Luckily, OSG has been FAQed by at least one helpful fellow. Even having it spelled out for me, after dozens of tries, I was never able to complete a triple jump without disqualification. Once one finally does get the general knack of the events, the gameplay is not without its merit. Still, I’ll take a game with natural feeling controls over one that seems bent on testing your patience any day.
Playing for an Audience of One
The overall presentation of OSG leaves much to be desired. The opening menu is a green computer screen reminiscent of the ancient Apples in my junior high computer room, before their first major upgrade in the late 90s. The graphics are minimal; there is a noticeable effort to exclude the presence of a crowd throughout the game. Instead there are odd details: a teammate stretching while you perform a high jump, a secretary taking notes while you perform your discus. A referee raising his rifle to signify the sprint is about to begin is just about the only interactive feature in the entire game. After you’ve completed a marathon of events, there is no special ending ceremony; just an opportunity to try again (or not, the game seems indifferent on the matter).
Sound is a notable disclusion. There is a neat little opening theme, and some jingles during events. But the sound effects are poor. There are believable gun shots for beginning a race and for shooting your skeet. The arrow makes a nice little sound when it sinks into the target. But really, no crowd noises? Having an announcer of any kind would have been swell. It’s almost as if the makers of OSG were trying to present the package without an audience. Now how engaging is that–an Olympic games with no viewers!
Bringin it Home
With all these negatives, you’d probably think this game is trash, and I’m not gonna lie, it mostly is. In fact before I found a FAQ which explicitly spelled out the controls, I was on the brink of giving this game a 1-star rating. But if you happen to see this title lying around for $1, as I did, I won’t tell you to run in the complete opposite direction. If you enjoyed the classic Olympic games of yore as much as I did, you may just want to check this one out and see if you can’t regain just a mite of that nostalgic Olympic magic. But if you happen to have your Power Pad collecting mothballs in your mother’s attic, it might be time instead to dust that baby off and get those couch potato thighs a’rockin.
Two out of Five Stars
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