Friday, February 26, 2010

How To Hold On To the Winter Games, Electronically

I like a good videogame now and then with a few conditions:

1. No first person shooters. I am incompetent at all first person shooters.

2. Nothing that takes longer than 15 minutes to play.

3. Nothing that requires multiple button combinations. If it’s harder than a ShoRyuKen, it’s too hard. And even that’s pushing things a bit.

In short, I like old-school NES games (or the occasional Super NES game).

The Winter Olympics come to a close this week, but what if you don’t want the fun to end? How will you fill the void left by not having any biathlon for 4 years? What will you do on weeknights without the orchestral version of Linkin Park’s greatest hits in the Ice Dancing competition? And will we ever be able to recapture the feeling of watching Apollo Ohno become the most decorated athlete in Winter Olympic history by losing to Koreans again and again and again?

Absolutely. The 8-bit video game is here to soothe the soul.

1. Winter Games

Actually, let’s start in the pre-8 bit era with this classic, which can probably be successfully emulated on most coffee makers these days. This game was originally created for the Commodore 64 in 1986, but I played a port on the Atari 7800. Winter Games uses your standard Atari stick figures to represent Alpine Skiing, Ski Jumping, Freestyle Skiing (known as the Hot Dog at the time), Bobsled, Luge, Figure Skating, Speed Skating, and Biathlon.

The Hot Dog was the best of the bunch, as the controls were fairly responsive and you could actually pull off some neat tricks. To receive a perfect ten you had to perform 3 backward flips followed by something that we called a “daffy”, though I don’t know why. Alpine skiing is your standard back and forth racer, and it’s OK, but a bit slow in that particular Atari way. The worst game is bobsled (and probably luge too, though I don’t remember ever playing it), which requires you to look simultaneously at a top-down drawing of a map of the course and the back of your sled, and turn when you approach a curve on the map. You can’t actually see a turn approaching from the first-person point of view. It just shows up all of a sudden. It’s like you can only see the world 3 feet in front of you but no further, and so everything is a surprise. The fact that someone with this handicap is in the bobsledding competition at all is the kind of uplifting story that makes the Olympics so special, though it’s a pain in the ass to actually play.

There’s some good and some bad here, but the most interesting event is probably the Biathlon. While you’re skiing in the biathlon you are constantly haunted by the sound of a very loud, very irregular heartbeat. In fact, at the end of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic, “The Telltale Heart”, I suspect the murderer’s roommate is playing Winter Games in his bedroom with the sound on too loud.

In the Biathlon you have to move fast but also keep your heartbeat reasonable, and if you don’t, when you reach the target range the targets will appear microscopic. The whole time you’re playing you feel like you’re going to give your character a heart attack, and the way his heart jumps around, he definitely needs to see a specialist.

I don’t remember figure skating. I’m sure I never played it as I can’t imagine a worse idea for a game. Well, OK. There’s at least one. But this is still pretty bad.

2. Slalom

There is a video game company called Rare. Rare hates you.

Rare is probably most famous for making games of a shockingly high level of difficulty, but not the fun kind of difficulty. Sometimes it’s rewarding to overcome a great challenge and succeed in your goals, but Rare games were more existential in nature. They taught us that life was precious, short, and could end at a moment’s notice, and therefore to appreciate what we have right now. Their most popular impossible game is Battletoads, however for my money, the boat racer/fighter Cobra Triangle is more frustrating by several orders of magnitude. (There’s a stage in Cobra Triangle where you have to jump your boat across several waterfalls. To do so you must hit moving ramps at a certain speed, but the ramps are very random. Unlike most videogames you can’t just memorize a pattern. And if you miss even one jump, which you will, you have to start over. I’ve heard that this level actually repeats itself later in the game, though this is likely just speculation as no one has actually ever completed said level.)

Slalom is comparatively forgiving, however your skier does spend the entire time mooning you with very detailed, very carefully crafted 8-bit butt cheeks. Rare might not be hurting you this time, but they are mocking you.

Other than that, Slalom is a very realistic representation of Olympic level skiing, complete with other skiers trying to run into you, randomly built snowmen in the middle of ski runs, and trees galore. There’s also a small glitch in the game that will allow you to continue skiing after time expires if you can keep jumping in rhythm. Not by hitting jumps. By jumping. Because jumping on skis is a big part of skiing, so they had to include it in the game.

Slalom is not without its charm, but it handles like molasses and the lack of tight controls will eventually leave you frustrated when you run into your 18th snowperson and you can’t get the image of your skier bending over out of your head.

3. Ice Hockey

Now we’re getting somewhere. Ice Hockey is a NES classic, and as an added bonus it reignites that Cold War angst that the modern Olympics is sorely lacking.

Ice Hockey was one of the first releases for the Nintendo Entertainment System and either Nintendo never thought to seek out an NHL license, or they didn’t want to pay for one. Instead you get to choose from one of several international squads including the US, Canada, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the dreaded USSR.

You also got to create your team by choosing either skinny fast guys, average guys, or fat, powerful guys at all of the positions, and while you needed one skinny guy for face-offs, fat guys are the way to go. They have devastating slap shots, can effortlessly knock over the other players, and are themselves very difficult to check. This makes Ice Hockey one of the few things in existence where being a squat, overweight man is a serious advantage.

Ice Hockey actually plays really well. The controls are very responsive and the game still looks pretty good, especially considering that it’s only two years younger than the extremely primitive Winter Games. Even the music is catchy. Controlling the goalie is a bit wonky, but you eventually get used to it and it’s actually pretty fun. There are even fights! And not just two guys weakly punching each other either. Fights in Ice Hockey are full-on brawls complete with guys getting forcefully thrown out of the scrum.

If you’re looking to recreate the Miracle on Ice, this is your best bet.


ahren said...

i programmed a pretty sick version of "slalom" (the intellivision version) on my ti-85 in mr. woodworth's class.

it was probably the most worthwhile learning experience i had in high school.

ahren said...

where do you come down on the whole "ice hockey" vs. "blades of steel" controversy? i was a big time ice hockey guy, but the more i played blades of steel, the more i liked it cuz the control was better.

also interesting to note that these games were the paleo-types for all the hockey games that came after and made hockey the undeniable king of sports video games for a decade.

PaulNoonan said...

I like both Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey. If I had to pick one I'd probably go with Blades. You're right, the controls are much better, (and the fighting is more interactive), and I think it has more long term replay value. Blades is a better sim, whereas Ice Hockey is more in the arcade style (in the category of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz). I think your fun ceiling is higher with Ice Hockey, but it's less fun in big doses.

It's interesting that the side-to-side hockey went the way of the dodo (same with side-to-side football too post-Tecmo Bowl). I wonder why the top-down view won out eventually.

ahren said...

cuz you can zoom in further to the playing surface, get better detail, and eventually have more micro-controlled gameplay?

PaulNoonan said...

Yeah, that makes sense. Nice work on Calculator Slalom. Didn't know you did that.

PaulNoonan said...

Although i think that explanation works better for football than hockey. Basketball games are still generally oriented horizontally (I think. I haven't played an EA basketball game in forever) and hockey is more like basketball.

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