Version tested: DS
You probably have one overriding memory of the original Track & Field arcade game: pain.
Chances are that it was your first encounter with agonising finger blisters and the dull, rasping throb of repetitive strain injury, a condition that didn't even get a name other than "stop moaning, you pansy" until many years later. International Track & Field asked you to do one simple thing: hammer buttons very fast to win. It did this with a torturer's grin. "I'm just going to drip this water on your head, okay?"
For the perhaps-inevitable pre-Olympics rebirth of the franchise, developer Sumo Digital has changed things. The game is on a handheld, it doesn't involve pressing buttons any more (unless you really want to), and it isn't quite as simple as it used to be. One thing, however, remains consistent down through the years: pain.
Transported to the Nintendo DS, it's no surprise that control now rests with the stylus. There's an option there to use buttons if you're a purist, but the basic control system involves scrubbing the stylus through a variety of motions - occasionally hitting or holding a button to perform a special function such as jumping or setting the angle of a launch.
In the process, Sumo has - thankfully - eliminated the blisters of yesteryear, but it's also created a game that's even more tiring and painful, albeit in the different way. Running a few 100-metre sprints by scrubbing the stylus on the screen will probably leave your arm aching and hanging limply by your side in protest.
This may, you think, be a comment on the physical fitness of Eurogamer's intrepid writers - but if there's one exercise our vigorous one-handed appreciation of imported Japanese art films should have prepared us for, surely it's this one? Well, it didn't. We surmise that it'll hurt you too.
This isn't a bad thing though. If anything, it's Track & Field demonstrating a real adherence to tradition - and when it comes to the multiplayer, the fact there's genuine physical ability going into your victories makes them all the more accomplished. Even confronted with the fact that it's physically painful to type for ages after playing the game (writing this review is an interesting process), this isn't something we'd change about Track & Field for the world.
So while the controls are consistent with the old-days game, they're also the most obvious change, and it's good to note that the new stylus-based system is intuitive and enjoyable. Perhaps a little more variation wouldn't have gone amiss, but some events like the cycling, where you have to keep up with the accelerating pace of the pedals rather than just scrubbing in a circle wildly, add a level of depth to the race-style events, while the straightforward left and right movement in the clay pigeon shooting event turns out to be addictive despite being simple on the surface.
It's in the presentation of these simple game modes that New International Track & Field really starts to shine. Eschewing the simple 2D graphics of its originator (although many nods remain in the soundtrack and sound effects) and the attempts at realism of more recent franchise resurrections on the PlayStation consoles, New International Track & Field opts for a colourful, 3D, cartoony style, with beautiful "super-deformed" characters which are reminiscent of the artwork in Capcom's better Street Fighter spin offs, such as Pocket Fighter and Super Puzzle Fighter.
In single-player mode, the game's 24 different events are arranged into sets of four-event challenges. As you progress through the game, challenges will pop up that allow you to unlock various classic Konami characters, ranging from the obvious - Solid Snake and Castlevania's Simon Belmont - through to the more obscure, such as Rocket Knight Adventures' Sparkster and Rumble Roses' Evil Rose. Then there's the outright weird - an absolutely brilliant super-deformed version of Silent Hill's Pyramid Head, which is possibly the best thing we've ever seen.
As with any Track & Field game, however, the single-player is ultimately something of a hollow experience. It'll certainly keep you going, thanks to the rewards for progress - great unlockable characters beat virtual art galleries any day of the week - but the true strength of the game lies in its multiplayer modes.
On this front, Sumo Digital has done a remarkable job. The game naturally supports local download play, while for those with multiple carts to hand, you can bet on the outcome of events and earn persistent scores in your own copy of the game. Local multiplayer games turn into a furious assault of screen-scrubbing, complaints over sore arms, and naturally, filthy underhand tactics.
But it's the online mode that's remarkable. This is the best online functionality we've ever seen in a DS game. You get a friends list, which is populated with people whose friend codes you have received. You also get a rivals list, which is full of people you've played online but haven't received friends codes from. You can't send messages or communicate with those people, but you can play against them - and better again, you can receive updates whenever they break any of your records.
This update system is a key part of the game, which unlike every other DS game we've played, leaves you signed in to the network even when you're playing single-player events. This allows you to receive notification of broken records, challenges to play matches or even just taunting messages from friends at any time - a bit like how Xbox Live works. It's a new high water mark for online modes in DS titles, and we'll be hugely disappointed if other developers don't learn from it.
The biggest criticism of New International Track & Field is, in the end, going to be the same as the biggest criticism of its illustrious ancestor - it's very simple, almost to the point of being very dumb. That's an entirely valid criticism, but it's not one which, we think, will hold true for fans of the genre. The single-player mode probably won't hold your attention for long - once you've unlocked the Konami characters, your interest will seriously wane - but as a game to play with friends, and as a great online competitive experience, New International Track & Field ticks all the relevant boxes.
It is weakness in the basic concept of the franchise, and some excessively similar events, which prevent this from climbing any higher in our scoring system - but as an execution of an admittedly simple concept, this is genuinely brilliant.
8 / 10