It’s time, once again, for the Olympics – the guts, the glory, and the patriotic pride. It’s time to cheer for sports that we barely know the rules to, for athletes who we’ve never heard of before. It’s the perfect time, in other words, to play some Olympic-themed video games. And from our childhoods, no Olympic-themed video game was more gorgeous (and more punishing) than Track and Field II for the NES.
The best thing about the Olympics has always been its variety – at this year’s Sochi Olympics, for example, there’s luge, bobsled, speed skating, and ski jumping (and what the hell, curling too) – all within an 18-day span. Track and Field II was memorable for the same reason – the sheer variety of sports and activities you could partake in. There was, of course, the traditional Track and Field type fare – Hurdles, Triple Jump, Hammer Throw, and Pole Vault. That wasn’t all, however – there was also Clay Pigeon Shooting, Gymnastics, Teakwondo, Swimming, Diving, and even Canoeing. All told, there were 15 events to partake in.
The graphics for Track and Field II were phenomenal. At a time when most sports games (even the great Tecmo Bowl) rendered their players as tiny blobs, the sprites for the Track and Field II athletes were exceptionally designed. Let’s take a look, for instance, at the Triple Jump from the original Track & Field, released in 1987.
Now, let’s look at the Triple Jump from Track and Field II, released in 1988.
Wow. What a difference a year makes, right? It was hard to find better graphics on the NES – the shading even showed off the musculature and bone structure of the athletes. It was also an attempt at realism – a bold decision unto itself. Developers often compensated for lack of realism by stylistically ‘cartoonizing’ their characters’ features, exaggerating noses, eyes, and proportions for comic effect. The Track & Field II developers said, ‘To hell with all that,’ and created visuals that players could more easily identify with.
It’s also worth noting how large these sprites were, which was perfect for a sports game. Track & Field II had an imposing physicality – when you pole-vaulted, you felt the weight of your athlete as he soared up and over.
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So far, so good. Awesome, realistic graphics. Diverse variety. And what about the gameplay? Was it equally dynamic and fun? Well… that’s sort of a loaded question. Track & Field II was definitely a product of its time – although its core gameplay mechanic was acceptable in 1988, modern gamers would not stand for it today. Basically, the mechanic to 80% of the games was to mash the button, as quickly and vigorously as you could. Sprinting? Mash the A Button. Swimming? Mash the A Button. Shooting a bow and arrow? You had to mash the A Button to pull the freaking bow back. It was excessive and crude, and it detracted entirely from the gameplay experience.
“So wait, you only had to mash the A Button? That sounds simple enough. Hell, that’s every Quicktime Event in today’s games. That’s easy, you only have to do is press one little button. Games back then were a joke. Ha-ha!”
Au contraire. Quicktime Events are Novice Infant Mode compared to this bullshit.
First off, your tapping speed was measured by an energy bar – the quicker you tapped the button, the quicker you ran. This sounded fair and reasonable, until you learned, very quickly, that the sheer speed at which you had to mash the button was unattainable. Track and Field II also made you mash the A Button for the entire length of a race. Even if you could max the bar out with a sudden burst of energy, there was no way you were going to maintain that pace for a minute or more.
Furthermore, the AI was some sort of button mashing czar. If you slowed down for an instant or ran out of oxygen, your opponent would automatically win. I suppose this is ‘realistic’ – after all, Michael Phelps was separated from his opponents by tenths of a second. Realism, however, doesn’t always translate to fun or accessibility.
The worst event in the entire game was the hammer throw. For this sport, it wasn’t enough to make us tap the A Button. Instead, we had to roll our thumb against the control pad in a counter-clockwise direction. This damn near guaranteed an injury of some kind, and your thumb would either get caught on the edges of the directional pad, or get friction burn from the excessive rubbing.
In Championship (ie. Olympics) Mode, there was no way to skip or opt out of these events. If you lost your qualifier in Hurdles, for instance, the game did not let you advance to any other sports, like Horizontal Bar or Taekwondo – it was an instant Game Over, which prevented most of us from seeing the entire story mode. Even if we managed to qualify in the first few events, we tired out our thumb to do it, and we would be crushed in the long run.
Thus, a truly screwed up meta-game emerged from this broken game mechanic – what was the best way to tap the button quickly, while minimizing fatigue? My best friend, for example, would hold the controller against his stomach and ‘strum’ the button with his thumbnail. I would place the controller against a flat surface and quiver my hand, using my thumb’s tip to ‘vibrate’ the button. Either method, while moderately effective, would ultimately fail if your finger slipped in the slightest.
So was there a pain-free solution? There was, but it was going to cost you.
Behold: the NES Advantage Controller. See that Turbo A button? All you had to do was hold it down, and the controller would jackhammer the A Button for you. This left you free to do more important things - like timing your jumps, enjoying the visuals, and playing the goddamn game. The only reasonable conclusion from all of this is that Track & Field II existed to sell NES Advantage controllers, or to sell regular NES controllers once you ‘strummed’ them to death. Track & Field II – perhaps the only time in video game history where it might have been easier to play the real sport.