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New International Track & Field

Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami


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NDS Review - 'New International Track & Field'

by Richard Poskozim on Sept. 23, 2008 @ 2:55 a.m. PDT

The New International Track & Field features over 20 different athletic events, with several unlockable characters from other Konami franchises, such as Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2 and Sparkster from Rocket Knight Adventures.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Sumo Digital
Release Date: July 22, 2008

At almost any Kmart or GameStop you go to, you'll see it: the lonely little DS or DS Lite that has been sitting there for ages, taking the abuse of every passing child and idle customer. Its face is more scarred than a battle-hardened Spartan warrior, and you might ask yourself, "How does a DS screen get like that?" Konami's New International Track and Field is ready and willing to show you just how to destroy a DS in just a fraction of the time it takes a store model to die horribly.

Track and Field is the latest iteration of a classic series of button-mashers that set out to simulate the exciting realm of running, swimming, diving and throwing. It's packed with more than 20 mini-games, an impressive selection of playable characters and dozens of unlockable costumes. The production quality is through the roof and packed full of both user-generated and developer-produced incentives to push yourself to the limit. In almost every respect, it's the perfect game, except for just one niggling problem: It's not fun. To simulate the gameplay, you could simply rub a pencil back and forth with your friend and see who's able to scribble the fastest.

The content in Track and Field is impressive. Compared to the original, which featured only six mini-games and brutal opponents, this game has it all. It features a variety of event groupings and three difficulty levels, as well as a slew of unlockables and the option to play individual events as practice. It even includes single-pak and multi-pak multiplayer, and the option to compare scores and compete online. Anyone would agree that this is a pretty vast improvement over its predecessors.

However, button-mashing is button-mashing, no matter how well executed. In this latest edition of Track and Field, you're given the choice between pure "original" gameplay, which had players mashing the A and B buttons to run, and stylus-driven play, which involves frantically rubbing the stylus across the bottom screen in a race to see who can destroy the touch-screen the fastest. There are also a few events that call for actions such as spinning (rubbing the stylus in a circle) and trap shooting (tapping a button on the screen to shoot), but a large majority of the game has you simply running and jumping as fast and as high as you can.

To its credit, the game really does do an impressive job of creating variety. Each mini-game really requires its own rhythm. For example, players rowing laps will have to rub the stylus in a circle in synch with a spinning marker, and those competing on the high-bar will have to work up some circular momentum. Double Trap shooting is a hectic timing and coordination challenge, where discuses come from both sides of the screen at two separate reticles. For every one of these somewhat original and less exhausting events, there are two or three "rub the stylus as fast as you can" events to destroy your arm.

This is the root problem with Track and Field. There are others, to be sure, but this is the biggest obstacle to enjoyment. One thing that makes this such a problem is the progression of the game. It's pretty standard, starting with easy and working up predictably to hard, but the problems set in around the Normal mode. By the time you've unlocked the first set of events in Normal mode, you've unlocked all of the individual challenges, probably practiced most of them, and also unlocked the Classic mode, which plays just like the original arcade machine. That's all well and good, but making your way to the Hard mode is a lot more punishing, and getting through it to unlock the rest of the characters is brutal, to say the least.

The old-school crowd might argue that this punishing difficulty is simply a method of extending playtime and encouraging gamers to spend a little more time with the title than they otherwise would have, but in Track and Field, it simply feels like bad design. Not only does your competition not suffer physical fatigue, but the qualifying conditions quickly stop factoring in your own human frailty. Once I got into Hard mode, I realized that almost all of the qualifying times were better than my personal best, meaning that I'd never been good enough to take so much as fourth place in Hard. In preparation, I found myself training myself for my own personal Olympics, struggling desperately to condition myself for the cruel hardships ahead. In hindsight, I would rather have learned how to throw a javelin or become an Olympic swimmer.

This acts as major discouragement to most of the population, especially considering how each set of events works in Career mode. If you fail to qualify on any one of the four events, even the last one, your super-high scores in, say, Double Trap mean nothing. It's an instant KO, and you have to start over from scratch, only this time with an exhausted arm and a worn-down stylus. There's very little incentive to do so. Only the truly dedicated are going to want to earn gold medals in Hard Career mode to unlock a super-deformed Solid Snake so they can go and rub their styluses some more. If your incentive is simply to unlock Konami favorites like Castlevania's Simon Belmont and Rocket Knight Adventures' Sparkster, you're probably such a big fanboy that the gameplay doesn't even matter.

With all of that against it, though, Track and Field really excels as a lighthearted ode to Konami's past and present. The title includes self-advertising billboards and other amusing in-jokes, such as a ragged and grungy "Silent Hill" balloon and an inflated float of "Kid Dracula." There's also the aforementioned unlockable characters, ranging from Pyramid Head to Frogger. The characters even come with their own "challenge" levels, which are generally just dressed up track and field events, but they're amusing and a bit of a relief from the monotonous hurdles and throwing fields that populate the rest of the game.

The graphics are some of the best that I've seen on a DS. There are the occasional rare slow-down issues for no apparent reason, but they almost never occur during an actual event and generally last less than a few seconds. The colors are bright and vibrant, the big-headed "chibi" characters are well-drawn, and the menus are a graphic designer's dream. The sound, including the endlessly repeating theme song and enthusiastic announcer, are similarly polished, and really works well with the graphics to make it all feel very top-notch.

Unlike most DS titles, the multiplayer and online are friendly as intuitive as it gets. You can stay connected to the Internet as long as the game remains on, and it will automatically update your personal records and keep you up to date with the leaderboards. There's even the option to tie your Track and Field persona to an online account and take part in online tourneys and competitions, which is an extremely cool idea that I hope to see implemented elsewhere.

It even features an easy to use matchup system that usually suffers from a lack of players, but the single-pak play is an easy way for people to get their multiplayer fix. The download and loading is a bit lengthy, but that's the price you pay for single-pak play, and it's very easily forgivable.

No matter how you look at it, New International Track and Field may be a gorgeous little title, but it isn't a must-buy simply because the button-mashing and stylus-rubbing gameplay was old the moment it was invented. If there are still small cliques of gamers who find pleasure in torturing their thumbs and arms, then Track and Field is the DS title of their dreams. For the rest of us, though, it's just a cute distraction for a few hours.

Score: 6.5/10

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