It's always reassuring to know that 20 odd years on from the birth of Konami's legendary button-masher Track & Field that time hasn't dulled our ability to twitch on demand. Often in a frenzy to rival Charles Manson having an epileptic fit while taking 40,000 volts. It's skills like this that are the mark of either superhuman ability, or abject strangeness worth warning your children about. "Cross the road, there's that strange twitching man, mummy." "Don't look at him, darling. It's rude to point." "I'm scared". It's a fine line, but we bestride such oddities in a blur of fingers. It helps to have been born in the 1970s, incidentally.
Every Olympics that rolls around, our wrists twitch in anticipation of more entirely self-inflicted repetitive strain injuries, but still we make vinegar stroke faces and become acquainted with our joypads in a manner surely never intended by Sony.
But whether you're on your seventh Olympics (like the more ageing of the EG contingent) or can barely remember the events of Sydney 2000, the principle of athletics games remains largely the same as it ever was. LeftRight LeftRight LeftRight LeftRight LeftRight LeftRight LeftRight LeftRight or in this case X O X O X O X O X O X O X O as fast as you possibly can, with the odd request for 'jump' 'throw' or whatever the event requires at the right time. It's almost as physically tiring as donning a Lycra suit and going for broke out on the track - we bet the athletes themselves never had to go through such rigorous finger-based activities, at any rate.
Epyx, where are you now?
After checking whether the our health cover has a provision for button-bashing injuries [what health cover? -Ed] we approached Athens 2004 with a mixture of pre-teen glee and the dread of years of foolish mashing. Back in the early '80s when this was a new idea, a dozen imitators sprung up overnight to insert this insanely simple gameplay mechanic into all manner of athletics-related games, but only one company, the legendary and long since departed Epyx, did anything constructive with it, with its wonderful Summer/Winter/World Games series. Instead of merely button-bashing (or joystick waggling as it became on its translation to home computers), the game became more about timing rather than wild aggression, and its influence has been felt ever since.
In many ways Eurocom has taken some of the best bits of gameplay elements as ancient as Athens itself and forged them into an immensely slick, instantly playable package that covers as many events as you could reasonably expect. 25 of the most popular feature in Athens 2004, split between thirteen Track & Field events (100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, Hurdles, Long Jump, High Jump, Triple Jump, Pole Vault, Javelin Throw, Discus Throw and Shot Put), four swimming events, four Gymnastic events, as well as Weightlifting, Equestrian and Skeet Shooting. On top of that each event can be played as one of 800 male or female competitors representing one of 64 nations, with all the stadiums and venues authentically modelled.
In what amounts to a breathless number of modes you can go it alone or compete with up to three other mates in a multitude of competition modes, or single events if you prefer, with even a somewhat bizarre Party mode with dance mat support to give you another reason to get up off the sofa and wiggle about in front of your telly.
In what other circumstance would we use the word waggle?
As is always the case with games of this nature, it all feels a bit flat and pointless on your own. The difficulty level is set at quite a forgiving level, which means that you can win most of the button-mashers on your first go. If you're lucky enough to own an arcade joystick, then most of these events will prove even easier, as waggling is infinitely easier than trying to press two buttons at speed in our lengthy experience.
The real tests come from the timing-based events such as Skeet Shooting, Equestrian and Archery, or ones which combine the two, such as Hurdles, Swimming, Triple Jump or the excellent Gymnastic events, but even so, playing on your own isn't especially rewarding for long. No, the multiplayer mode is where it's at, and if you can get four mates round your TV, Athens 2004 is likely to be one of those games you'll develop a furiously competitive streak over. Not only have you got tons of records to set and break, but the game even caters for your own custom competitions so you can eliminate the more tedious events such as the dreaded Skeet Shooting, which is a world away from the simple reaction test of Hyper Sports, although practice should put paid to most of your initial confusion, along with the game's sensible inclusion of a 'How To Play' event guide in the pause menu of every event.
Sydney 2000 effectively tried to do what Athens 2004 has succeeded in doing. At the time, Silicon Dreams' effort was hamstrung by a lack of events and didn't quite manage to inject the level of character in the animation that it was evidently attempting. Fast forward four years and it's instantly noticeable just how far the motion capture has come, with every single event beautifully animated with a catalogue of incidental touches at every stage adding to the realism on show. What's especially impressive is how the animation system represents your mistimings on screen, with badly judged button presses contributing to all manner of stumbling and ultimately a poorer performance. In terms of the sheer breadth of dynamic reactions there are to your input it's hard to think of a game like it in technical terms.
A great weight lifted
Even the commentary system has an assured air, with numerous familiar voices from the word of athletics bellowing out words of encouragement or despair as you plough through the numerous events, and annoying music is kept to a gratifying minimum. All round, the level of polish within Athens 2004 is very impressive, and although some of the facial detail can look a little odd (what's up with the Weightlifters, for example?) the general standard is easily the best we've seen in a game of this type.
Now for the quibbles. The most obvious gripe is that the gameplay is largely old ideas rehashed, with some Dancing Stage ideas pinched for good measure. Arguably, the Epyx classics of 19, 20 years ago still have more innovation than Athens 2004. The designers could have definitely benefited from taking a look at these old classics, mainly on the basis that no-one has ever managed to top them for playability and replayability - that ahead-of-its-time gameplay combined with this graphics engine would have been an irresistible combination, but instead there are arguably way too many similar events that require little more than the same two button bashing mechanic that Konami invented. Old hands will be a little bored of the same old thing, although in its favour, many of the younger generation will be experiencing it for the first time and for simplicity's sake it can't be beaten for instant pick-up-and-play thrills.
Another lamented opportunity lost is the absence of online play. We question why Sony is wasting its time putting niche titles like Syphon Filter online when there's a gilt-edged mass market opportunity like Athens 2004 staring at them square in the face. It makes little sense to have a multiplayer game like this with no online mode, and the game's broader appeal suffers as a result, especially knowing how rare it is for many people to actually get four people all sat around the PS2.
And to round off our moans for the day, why didn't Sony use its huge marketing and licensing muscle to rope in some named athletes for the package? In these days of EA-led licensing extravaganzas like FIFA and Tiger Woods you expect a similar approach from the official Olympics title, especially when Sony itself has made great strides in recent years with the likes of Formula One and World Rally Championship. Sure, rounding up hundreds of athletes would be a headache for any publisher, especially if it transpires they don't even make the qualifiers, but merely giving the player a bunch of generic clones to play with isn't the answer either. Hopefully by 2008 a publisher will have taken the initiative on this score, as it'd add the finishing touches to an otherwise very slick and very impressive package - albeit an ultimately shallow one that only really serves its purpose as a multiplayer game.
If you're popular, buy it
Should you buy it? Well, there's little alternative out there if you're hankering after some old-fashioned twitch gaming wrapped up in beautifully presented threads, but our advice is to make sure you've got some mates to play it with first, or it's likely to end up as one of those titles that you'll quickly tire of if you're on your lonesome.