|Source // Wikipedia|
With a title like Track & Field, you know what you're in for. Get ready to mash some buttons as fast as you can, all while trying (and probably failing) to time inputs either to a specific point in an animation or even just the starting gun.
We know this because there seems to be a game out for every Olympic Games, probably even every Winter Olympic Games, as well as more generic athletics-based games sprinkled in the gaps. We don't know where they come from, they just appear, and then just as quickly disappear back to the bargain bin where they belong.
If you think a yearly series like FIFA is churned out, I put it to you that games based on the Olympics are literally churned out. They've got four years to make each one worth purchasing and they still haven't succeeded. Personally speaking, of course.
Now all of that is basically a long winded way of saying that Track & Field kicked all of this video game athletics off, so let's see where it all began.
I'm unable to play the any arcade version, but the NES version is a decent little game. Not as impressive graphically, and without a robotic announcer mumbling things in your ear, it does manage to have most of the original athletic events included, and then a few more for good measure. With eight events in total, if you like button mashing, this version is a good place to start.
Why the frustration then? The learning curve to be perfect - or even just get close enough to succeed - in the various events can be quite steep, leading the game to be a bit too quick to chuck up a Game Over message.
The first event is the 100m Sprint, and it doesn't pay to figure out the controls once the race is underway, though it is just bash 'A' as fast as you can here. So you learn that the hard way, and you perfect your button mashing technique, you remark at how the CPU looks like he's rubber-banding up top, though you aren't sure, and after all that you finally step up for a proper go at things and wait for the starting gun to go off for that perfect start. Which you don't get because the count is so. Much. Slower than you expect that it threw me off a few times.
Hardly a big deal, mistiming the starting gun, but some events like the High Jump just have me scratching my head, even after reading instructions. If the aim was to knock the bar down, I'd be pretty good. Unfortunately there's no animation for missing both the bar and bag completely, but we can't have everything.
Timing, like in the physical real world version of Track & Field, is important too, though sometimes you're seemingly hard done by. I'm not up to speed on the current rules for Long Jump, but on the NES at least, being on the line is as bad as being over the line.
I'd include a John McEnroe joke here, but that's Tennis, and saying it would highlight what little I know of athletics. Bumped into Olympic silver medalist Colin Jackson in a shoe shop once though. There's no relevant story there either, I'm sorry to say. This paragraph has very much been a waste of our time.
One of the new events for the NES is Skeet shooting, with a bizarre control scheme. I know those red squares are where I'd be shooting. I don't think I can move them, and they appear to have some kind of movement all of their own, notably soft-locking onto incoming targets.
When the time is right you can press the directional buttons to shoot whatever the left target is aiming at, and the A and B buttons to shoot whatever the right target is aiming at. As well as the left target. For some reason. Either way, whatever you do, shooting with great timing nets points and an easier next shot (in that your reticles aren't flailing about the place like they would be if you're acting like you're at a shooting range).
I wasn't any good at Skeet shooting, but I was impressed by how it played in a completely different way to how I expected it would. The exact same thing can be said for Archery, which doesn't have controls like you might think, along the lines of 'wobble a reticle over the target and press the fire button while a random number generator for the wind speed or the force of your pull works out how far off target you inevitably were', but instead has a top down moving target thing going on.
The target moves from top to bottom and then resets. If you don't release an arrow toward it, you lose an arrow, so you can't save shots for when you've got more confidence in when to shoot. Once you do shoot though, you watch your arrow fly across the screen, and the target down it and you hope to land somewhere in the middle. I don't know how it determines whether you were above or below the center, but who cares? It's a novel approach, to my eyes at least.
The other events are rather run of the mill, involving mashing a sprint button and then timing or angling something (and usually both at the same time). You'll fall at some hurdles, you'll cross a lot of foul lines, you'll amuse yourself at how jumping physics really don't work that way, but apart from those niggles here and there, Track & Field is a solid enough game, especially with human competition.
Hearing 'Chariots of Fire' at the main menu may get you pumped for some action, but Track & Field can be unforgiving. I guess - like the Olympics - you win some and you lose some. Winning sees you make progress to the next event, but losing sends you home no matter how far you've come. It's better to then just have a laugh with others, picking your favourite events and just seeing what you can do.
The gameplay is something that has persisted for decades now, only being fine tuned with the inclusion of analog inputs and gyroscopic sensors (I've not played any modern Olympic tie-ins though, so if they don't have these inputs then serious, what the hell are you doing?). Everyone understands the concepts of button mashing and timing button inputs, and seeing them try to put the two together makes up for any arguments you may have against the likes of graphics or sound.
Track & Field is clearly something different for the arcades. It's not set in the darkness of space, but in a bright and lively sports arena. It's not tasking you with protecting the Earth or destroying anything, it just aims to get you to prove yourself, and show what skill you really have. Or it tries to. Though come to think of it, four years of practice only for a face first fall into the last hurdle does sound remarkably similar to the real deal...
If your javelin throw manages to fly off the top of the screen, you might just score yourself some bonus points and spear an alien in the process. You don't see that in the real Olympics, do you?
Track & Field, developed by Konami, first released in 1983.
Version played: NES, 1987, via emulation.