As the Olympics return to Greece, this sports game returns to the 1980s
Ahhh, the eighties, the decade in which I grew up and first came into contact with videogames. The first ones must have been Pacman and space invaders on my uncle's Atari 2600, and as the decade passed the halfway mark all my friends and I got some sort of videogame system at home. That's when a line of sports games by Konami caught my eye, known to most as Konami's Track and Field, where you would steer your athlete towards glory by pressing the buttons on your controller as fast as you could. I seem to remember versions called Hyper Sports and Hyper Olympics as well, and this latest offering could well have been called Hyper Olympics 2004 due to the control system used in some (if not most) of the events.
Athens 2004 offers events 13 track and field events, which accounts for roughly half of all the events in the game. There are 4 swimming events and 4 events in the gymnastics stadium, while single events in jumping (the horseback-variant), weightlifting, archery and shooting complete the lineup. Game modes include an arcade mode (practicing of playing single events or a 'party mode' which I haven't been able to test because I don't have the necessary dance mat available). The other major gameplay mode is 'competition', where you strive to win medals and break records.
It's hard to look at Athens 2004 as a whole game, because what we've got here is basically a mixed bag of minigames. Not just mixed in terms of offering a diversity of disciplines, but sadly enough also very mixed in terms of quality. Let's start with the track and field events, which most resemble the old Konami games. I instinctively went for the 100m dash first, where I noticed a slight twist. You get into your starting position by pressing down on the L1 button, then waiting for pistol shot before releasing L1 again. Your runner gets up, and yes, Konami all over again. Press X, then O, and repeat the same thing about 40 times in the next 10 seconds. And believe it or not, it's a lot of fun, especially when you have some friends around to join you. So far so good. Others events here include long/high-jumping, the pole vault and several other track events. The first big problem arises during the 400m dash. It's just too long! This is most cramp-inducing event you might ever play, because it's okay to keep your frantic button pushing going for about 10 seconds, but 45 seconds is pretty darn impossible without hurting or exhausting yourself. Luckily, the 800 and 1500m events employ a different control system, regulating the amount of the energy you have. However, I couldn't help but feel totally out of control during these events, being beaten at the end even though I had saved up a full 'sprint bar'. Still, I had a lot of fun playing all the sprinting, jumping and throwing events that reminded me so much of the games I played over 15 years ago, so things looked promising.
On to the other events, which unfortunately didn't deliver on that promise. The shooting/archery events are okay, but fairy simple... just aim and shoot. The gymnastics events are rather silly because what you're doing doesn't really reflect what your gymnast is doing on screen at all. Take the floor exercises... you press X and O in alternating fashion again to build up a larger margin of error for the next bit, where you time the movements of the gymnast. You're basically just looking at a (moving) bar and not paying ANY attention to the gymnast's position and movements. Weightlifting's a pretty decent event, and a lot like the track and field events in that you build up momentum before a lift. Jumping requires you to use your left stick to steer, your right stick to control your speed and L1 to time your jumps. It's not easy to get into, which is what I think these games should be. This leaves us with swimming, which, I only played twice because it was physically impossible to control. You build up speed using X and O again, but after a few seconds, your air meter starts dropping and you have to hit L1 (quickly!) in order to breathe before you start pressing X and O again. This is almost impossible because you're going to need both your hands to build up speed, then let go, press L1, and then go back to X and O. Ooooh, the frustration!
The graphics in this game are nothing spectacular, but considering the number of events in this game they still did a reasonable job of polishing up all the individual events. The presentation is actually quite good, with athletes being introduced before a race and a good buildup of atmosphere by showing us different views before (and sometimes during) the event. Sure, you're click through most of that stuff after you've seen it once or twice, but it's necessary when recreating something like the Olympics. I wish they'd paid just as much attention to the award ceremonies though, because although you can select the country for which you're competing, you won't be hearing your national anthem if or when you win the gold (and isn't that part of the glory?).
The sound effects are a little too scarce in my opinion... I just kept thinking that "there should be more going on here". I would've liked more crowd interaction (clapping, booing, etc) and more stadium announcers, which would have given it a little extra touch of realism.
Gameplay... the most essential part of any game, and the hardest one to review in this case. As I stated at the beginning, it's really a mixed bag. Some events are a lot of fun and will have you pushing hard for that world record that you're so close to, but you'll lose interest in other events in a manner of minutes. Still, if you have fond memories of the button basher-sports games that Konami gave us two decades ago, then give this game a go, especially if you have some friends around to compete with. Just don't expect too much depth in the gameplay department... this isn't pro evolution soccer.