Release Date: November 5, 2004
Back when I was but a smaller and more marketable child version of myself, I had a game for my shiny new Tandy 1000 called Summer Games, made by pretty-well-forgotten company Epyx. Playing this game made for a breezy route towards carpal tunnel syndrome even at that age, as most of the events offered for play involved either pushing the left and right arrows as fast as possible or jiggling the joystick in the same rapid fashion. In spite of the hazards to my wrist and arm muscles, I really enjoyed the simplicity of the "Do nothing but push left and right, and possibly a third button to jump" gameplay.
It's 2005 now, and some things just don't age well. That kind of gameplay is one of those things. If you see it at all anymore, it's as a minigame buried away in some other deeper title. That Athens 2004 has chosen to make this variety of gameplay its heart and soul shows a certain lack of initiative, it's a game released in 2004 (yes, it's a late review, sorry) doing exactly the same thing as a game made in 1986.
Yet I hear you ask, "Is it fun?" and as I listen to your possibly fictional pleading for information I realize that I have perhaps been inside too long. I also realize that it'd be kind of a crime not to give this game a fair shake, and so we begin to analyze.
The Olympics are really something of a celebration of diversity in a number of ways. The Olympics are a place where every few years, people from all over the world can gather together under the banner of some of the worst mascots on Earth to compete in a truly awesome variety of sporting events. To date, no game has ever attempted to capture the full spectrum of Olympic events, and this game is no exception. You'll be competing in events across only a few fields. There's the track stuff, mostly concerned with the dashes. You'll be dashing anywhere from 100m to 1500m, or there's the hurdles for a little jump button tapping variety in your button mashing. There's swimming in a variety of positions (breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, etc.), which is really the same as dashing, except now you have to remember to tap a button to breathe as well.
Now we start to get into the more interesting stuff. The "field" portion of track and field gets comfortably wrapped up in things like the long jump, high jump, shot-put, and discus throw. There's a little bit of variety in the gameplay here, throwing a shot-put ball is not like throwing a javelin which isn't like throwing a discus, but these events do still largely revolve around rapid taps of the left and right keys followed by a final third key press. For more variety you can play around with the archery and skeet shooting events. Both of these games involve lining up angles to shoot a target, adjusting slightly for wind and/or leading your shot as you go. Finally there's weight lifting, which again involves pumping two buttons rapidly to fill up a meter and tapping a third to lift, the difference being that you have to keep the meter at the end of the bar full until a timer has ticked down.
Missing from this lineup of events are the gymnastics floor and rings events (and the dance pad support for the floor event) and the equestrian events from the Playstation 2 version of Athens 2004. This is a shame in a way, the game could only be helped by a larger variety of games to compete in and a few less events involving the two-button pound routine.
You can play as an athlete from one of dozens upon dozens of counties around the globe, but don't expect to see any familiar faces in this game. No actual Olympians lent their heads to the digital block, so the people you'll see running for the gold seem to instead be generated randomly from a pool of features. This gives your character that generic "he could be anyone" feeling so important in getting celebrity endorsements post-games. To drop the sarcasm for a moment, though, there are a wide number of body part combinations for the athletes, so you'll probably get someone who looks respectable, but then you could also get a track runner with spindly looking legs and disproportionately large and muscled arms. It kind of makes you look twice when you realize that your runner could compete in the javelin throw using the runner one lane down from him as a javelin.
Speaking of appearances, this game doesn't look all that bad. The graphics are a little weak and show their lack of clarity at high resolution, and look worse when you compare them to the PS2 take on this game, but they're sharply done and fairly recognizable. The water effects in the swimming event in particular deserve a nod. Characters can seem somewhat angular-looking at times and from certain angles, however. Each event opens with a long shot of the stadium, and these look nice. One downside is the view of the crowd during the event. The seats are largely empty, and the cheering people in the bleacher seats appear to be representatives of Eight Bit Land, being flat sprites that bobble up and down in a six-frame cheering animation.
There's also an amusing glitch that kicks in occasionally, and this could just be my video card (a GeForce 3, for the record). Every now and then, a cluster of polygons will stretch out across the course absurdly. Sometimes it's one of the ground textures, and that looks silly but all right. However, sometimes you'll be going about business as usual and suddenly notice that one of the bystanders -- or perhaps even your own athlete -- suddenly has no head. Nothing throws you off your stride like suddenly spotting the headless guy sitting around on the sidelines, let me tell you. (Particularly if you're doing the discus throw. "Oops, was that me? Sorry.")
The audio is somewhat less energetically presented. Events are preceded by a jazzy musical theme, and followed up with commentary by a British-accented announcer who has a tendency to contradict himself. ("That was a lovely jump! The coaches will be happy with that one! And what a terrible score, there's no way he'll be pleased with that jump. Let's see how he'll follow up that brilliant performance.") Sounds during the events are limited to running, grunting and groaning. The weight-lifting competition in particular can sound awfully silly if you let it drag on.
The real trouble with Athens 2004 is its lack of individuality, in my opinion. If you took away the fact that this is the official game for the 2004 Summer Olympics, and you strip away the graphical pretties, it could really be any button-mashing track and field style game released over the last several years. Several even did the formula far better, such as Konami's Track and Field 2 way back on the NES, or Sega's Decathlete on the Saturn. If this were a genre I had less experience with, I might find Athens 2004 engaging for a little while, perhaps even far more so on a more multiplayer-ready console. As it is, it's absolutely average in every way. More events and more personality would really help this game, as well as more variety during events, but this is just a good way to experience the heart-pounding thrill of oncoming carpal tunnel syndrome.
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