On Your Marks
There are many arcade games from back in the day that can bring a tear to the eye of the veteran gamer. Grown men have been lost for days at a time, only to turn up huddled next to Pac-Man machines in the local chippy making rapturous noises, as if reunited with a long lost son, or slobbering clumsily on battered old Galaxian cabinets, long forgotten to make way for endless light-gun shooters and derivative sports games. Konami's sports title Track and Field is certainly a game known to induce this sort of fitting. Frenzied button bashing and expert timing was needed in the arcade, in fact the wrist-crunching button action was so hardcore the cabinet shipped without a joystick, adding a third button instead for events where timing needed to take place. Many youths spent their coveted ten pence pieces, in between cans of old style Shandy and packets of Tudor Crisps (Steady on -Ed), on developing RSI by guiding a little moustachioed man through a series of events, to be rewarded with a hearty "CONGRATULATION!" (sic). But would it hold up today? Would the kids, with their class-A drugs and WAP phones and the like, find a place in their hearts for this update of a classic sports game? Or would it be like a retired athlete, clinging to the limelight doing punditry for Eurosport or advertising a phone book, ignored by all? Konami, ever the glutton for punishment, decided to find out with its release of International Track and Field on the little Gameboy Color.
"And They're Off!"
If any of you are old enough to remember the original, you will no doubt remember that a vast array of events were available. Things have changed somewhat this time, with my personal favourite Weightlifting (with the most inventive use of oval sprites to create moving arms, ever) being removed, among others. The new lineup of events includes the 100m Sprint, Long Jump, Shot Put, High Jump, 400m Race, 110m Hurdlers, Discus Throw, Pole Vault, Javelin Throw, and finally the 1500m Race. All pretty much standard athletic fare, but some have slightly different methods of controls. The 100m Sprint is your average finger-snapping, tap the A and B buttons alternatley to run faster style race. Maybe I'm getting lame in my old age or something, but I was finding it very difficult to rack up times of under 11 seconds, and I was usually finishing 3rd or 4th. The thick GBC buttons don't really lend themselves to this kind of sprinting action. Just as well the other events aren't totally focused around it. The remainder of the non-running events include the button bashing, although it isn't nearly as critical. The real test of skill in events like Discus and Javelin, is pinpointing the trajectory angle of the projectile. Getting the javelin to fly at 45 degrees, or throwing the discus in an exact straight line for maximum length. Nothing groundbreaking, just tap the D-pad to time your release. It's fairly easy to master these events after the first few shots - it would actually have been nice to have wind and weather play a factor in any events, but either this didn't occur to the developers or they were trying not to stray from the original's purity, and the weather is always pristine The 400m and 1500m races differ slightly, thankfully not asking you to tap A and B for 10 minutes non-stop. Instead, you use the buttons to speed up and slow down your athlete. Once again, this is ridiculously easy, with my little pixelated athlete coming in first virtually every time, only seriously being challenged at the very end of the race. A sharp contrast from the challenging sprints, although since when was the 400m classed as an endurance race? Piffle.
Witty Sports-Related Captions Wanted, Enquire Within
The Hyper Mode offers a chance to play each event, with points being scored in each, determined by the time, score, distance or height attained in each event. This is all right, if you actually care about beating the AI controlled athletes, and comparing your best times. It's the most faithful to the arcade, except you cannot be eliminated through getting a bad score. After a few shots in this though, I was bored solid, playing through most of the events as a chore, trying to get to the "good" ones. The Story Mode aids this somewhat. Taking a break from the basic structure of the game, this mode allows you to take control of the life of your athlete, training him in four disciplines of Speed, Power, Throwing and Jumping, by determining training schedules throughout the week, and attending practices on various weekends. You can even take days off with your friends, and watch your Stress level return to normality. Usually I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, but there's too much menu-switching and number-crunching, and the action takes too long to start. The very basic "role-playing" aspects can be fun, too, but usually you'll find yourself tapping the A button to skip through the embarrasing dialog, as fast as you might during a 100m race. In addition to this, there's a Practice mode where any individual event can be mastered (or otherwise), and new records set. A neat feature is the Battery Backup, which not only saves the Story Mode progress but also your records, so you don't lose them when you switch off. This is a vital element of the game; the lack of a battery backup is the main reason I hated those Game and Watch Galleries for the Gameboy, I couldn't go back in and beat my own score. Even if I'm too much of a weakling to break my 8 metre long jump record, the VS Link mode allows you to play a friend through the events. I didn't get a chance to test this out, but I can imagine all it changes is that instead of coming 1st in all the non-sprinting events, I could possibly come 2nd, and instead of coming 4th in the Sprint, I could maybe come 3rd. To create your own fun, I suppose, you could have mandatory urine tests before you start playing, and weepy medal ceremonies when you throw your Gameboy down after contracting arthritis of the wrists. Or alternatively, you could just not bother.
Going for Gold
If there's one thing to be said for the game, it is the graphics are a marked improvement on the arcade. I know, giving that the game's from the dusty era of 1983 it may not sound much of an acheivement, but the Story Mode graphics, menus, score tables and backdrops are all well-defined and easily accessible. My main complaint is the characters have lost their "cartoony" feel from the original, instead becoming streamlined stick-beings. There's even now the blasphemous option to select your own character to play through each mode with, instead of always being Mr. Moustache from the arcade game. If the visuals are tolerable, the sounds definitely are not. Music that even Konami of the 80s would hesitate to use (not an exaggeration), and that ridiculous rising-falling sound whenever someone is jumping or throwing someone, a relic that really SHOULD have died out in the 80s, really makes the game feel more like a piece of Shareware than a polished product. Maybe I'm being tough on the little GBC's capabilities here, but really, now, the music is shambolic. The crowd noises I'm not even going to comment on, because it might bring back a relapse of the frenzied buzzing in my sleep, like a rabid bee stuck in my brain.
It didn't need to be released. I'm sorry, but it's true. Hyper Sports, featuring events such as Clay Pigeon Shooting, Archery, and Horse Vaulting would have been much better suited to the Gameboy: it's quirkier, and is more fun. It's an arcade game that would work on the small screen. I just found myself bored at this, after a few shots, with little desire to go back and improve on my paltry records. There's many better sports games on the Gameboy: my personal favourite being the various NBA Jam sequels. If you're a track and field fan on the go, by all means pick it up. For the rest of us.. it's deeply average. Money to burn? Go for it. But it's no medal-winning stuff.