Since the days of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon and Track & Field, gamers have been mashing controllers in order to ape their Olympic heroes. Daniel Driver remembers when a button-bashing game nearly wrecked not only pads, but also his year group’s A Levels.
For many of us gamers, we spend an inordinate amount of time attempting feats of sporting heroism from the confines of our sofa/bed/bean bag (delete as appropriate). Football (the soccer kind, not the one with hands) is the most common source of on-screen sports outside of the US, but athletics too has been a video mainstay for decades, way before Mario and Sonic teamed up for what was both the best-selling and most underwhelming crossover of all time.
My first taste of pixelated professional Olympic competition came by the way of the seminal Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on the Commodore 64: a game that was fantastic fun to play, yet fiendishly difficult to excel at, with an unrelenting requirement for supersonic waggling that led to the death of my first joystick.
Next was a brief stint with Track & Field in the arcade, followed by more time with US Gold’s similarly frustrating 1992 effort Olympic Gold on the Mega Drive. The conclusion I’d formed was that these games were fun but infuriating.
Enter Athlete Kings, known everywhere outside the UK as Decathlete, which changed all that for me. It was bright, stunning to watch and featured eight characters who wouldn’t look out of place in a fighting game. Most importantly, it dialled down the frustration and upped the fun. It was a blast, and my mates and I spent many afternoons rhythmically jabbing buttons and shattering records. The catch? It was two-player only, something bettered by the PlayStation’s International Track & Field.
The flaw was addressed in Athlete Kings’ outstanding sequel, Winter Heat (which I’ve spoken of before), but my friends and I wished for a summer Games-themed four-player sequel.
Setting the stage
In September 2001, I was in the second year of sixth form with a large number of my friends. Our school had just moved sites, with September being our first year on the new campus which included, among other things, a shiny new common room with our own TV.
Gaming-wise, I was still lamenting Sega’s earlier decision to abandon the Dreamcast, which led me to save up to go halves on a PS2 with my brother. It was something I did begrudgingly; jumping into bed with Sega’s enemy in order to maintain a gaming outlet stuck in the craw a little, but at the time, Sony’s second system was, quite literally in Europe at the time, the only game in town.
It was, in fact, a conversation ahead of the impending release of Metal Gear Solid 2 that prompted a course of action that would change our common room significantly for months.
“It’d be good if we had a PlayStation in here,” said one on my mates, while some daytime TV dross – possibly Cash in the Attic – warbled on in the background.
Inspiration struck. “What about a Dreamcast?” I ventured, seeing an opportunity to keep Sega’s machine somewhat relevant. “I’ve got a spare console and four pads so we won’t even need a multitap!”
The spare console had come from a friend who’d been close to tossing it in the bin when the controller ports gave out. One new resistor later and I had my own PAL console to complement my Japanese one: a console I was quite happy to bring in for my fellow students to enjoy.
And so it began. Over the next week, on breaks and during free periods, my sixth-form peers and I would battle it out in numerous Dreamcast games, from Marvel vs Capcom and Worldwide Soccer 2000 to WWF Royal Rumble to Power Stone. Each would grab the attention of some for a little while. They were worthwhile distractions, but at that point, none captured the imagination on a grand scale.
But such a game was coming…
Virtua Athlete 2K came into my life late and with little fanfare. By the time I became aware of its existence, it was well over a year old. With Dreamcasts delivering bargain-basement clearance prices, I picked up the game for a few quid. My hope at the time, on discovering it in CEX, was that it would be a follow-up of sorts to the outstanding Athlete Kings which, to my mind, still ruled the genre.
The good news was that it was.
The bad news was that it was a follow up in pretty much control only. The decathlon of events from its predecessor had been whittled down to just seven; despite the increased performance of the Dreamcast, the graphics were far less colourful and the wonderful cast of characters had been replaced with a bunch of uninspiring athletes who’d left their personalities at the door.
It controlled like a dream, though, meaning it was tremendous fun to play. While the stock athletes were dull as dishwater, it offered a character creation mode to allow players to send their custom avatars out into the world.
I played it for a day or so by myself before introducing it to my friends. While not the immediate hit in the same way Athlete Kings or Winter Heat were, it wasn’t long before we were battling fiercely for supremacy and world records. As the weekend drew to a close (and old rivalries began to resurface), one of my mates said: “You should bring this one into sixth form”.
Of the four of us playing, three went to the same sixth form. The question was; would anyone else join us?
Game and pads in my school bag, I came into the common room early on Monday to set everything up. Virtua Athlete 2K got its first round during our lunch break. We had no issue roping in another friend to fill that fourth spot, and with the rain lashing down outside, we had a few onlookers as the first Sixth Form Virtual Heptathlon ensued.
Right from the off, the game demanded the attention of everyone there. Playing it in one of our homes was one thing, but the environment was decidedly different in a larger room bustling with people. The occupants of the common room, who barely batted an eye when the television was commandeered, were soon drawn in by the whoops and cheers of four almost fully-grown lads hammering controllers like lunatics during the ten-second-long opening 100-metre dash.
Smashing the Dreamcast’s buttons for the long jump, 110-metre hurdles and high jump prompted similar reactions, before the more timing-based shotput offered a breather. From there, the javelin became the unexpected star of the show before the gruelling and tactical 1500-metre race capped off a battle for Virtua Athlete 2K supremacy.
As the winner’s avatar celebrated atop the podium (spoiler alert: it wasn’t me), there was no shortage of punters queuing up for their chance to prove their button-mashing mettle. Quickly, the four of us made way for the next set of challengers.
While a lot of Virtua Athlete 2K’s initially muted reception revolved around criticisms of its simplicity, that weakness was turned into the greatest of strengths in the common room. This wasn’t as difficult to explain as Marvel vs Capcom or Power Stone; within seconds of picking up a Dreamcast pad, players knew what to do, particularly if they’d been drawn in by similar games such as Track & Field.
That’s not to say the game was easy to master. Long jump and javelin required the standard button bashing before a separate action button was held until the optimal angle was obtained. If held for too long or not long enough, the throw or jump would suffer massively. Then, there were also considerations about the timing of the run and the positioning of the avatar before launching.
It was a game that anyone could pick up and could be played from start to finish in less than half an hour. It was perfect for breaks and free periods and its raucous presence made it a true spectacle in the common room.
When winning becomes an obsession
Given the very tangible appeal of breaking world records and topping the points table at the end of the series of events, it came as no surprise that Virtua Athlete 2K sessions became competitive. However, even I was surprised at how that competitiveness escalated.
I’m sure anyone who’s played similar games will know the tricks: sliding your thumb over two buttons either with or without your shirt wrapped around it; using a pen or pencil to do the same job; balancing the pad on one hand so that it bounces back up when the fingers of the other hammer the buttons; and so many more.
School shirts were shorn, stationary was snapped, at one point a pad found itself pulled from the console and accelerated airborne until it collided with an unsuspecting girl’s face. There were apologies, but the competition continued to intensify.
The records were getting silly: the 100 metres was run close to nine seconds flat, the javelin was being hurled over 125 metres, while long jumpers were leaping over ten. With every new record, my sixth-form playmates felt more compelled to play, to reclaim their lost titles.
On one occasion, break time was coming to a close and I’d won a rare and hard-fought victory. “Again!” came the cry of one of my mates, and shamefully, drunk with foolish pride from my win, that one word was all the incentive I needed to start the next game. After all, I could be a little late for a lesson, couldn’t I?
Naturally, I lost, which made the bollocking I received for being over 15 minutes late for my lesson an even more bitter pill to swallow. Not that I’d learned my lesson – but neither had any of my other mates. Tardiness because of Virtua Athlete 2K became increasingly frequent, with some missing lessons entirely. To us, virtual supremacy had taken priority over our A Levels.
Over the subsequent weeks, the game was barely ever off during school hours. At any moment, someone, somewhere, was trying to break the outrageous world records that were held on the VMU.
Not only were the feats of polygonal athleticism becoming more and more superhuman, but the record-holders themselves were becoming something akin to bizarre celebrities. As I mentioned, one of the areas where the game had disappointed me was replacing Athlete Kings’ eight entertaining characters with a bunch of production-line husks and a “create a character” mode. Well, one should never underestimate the power of such a mode in the hands of teenagers.
For example, I found it amusing that the default name of the created character was J Paxton, which immediately made me think of some kind of Jeremy Paxman/Bill Paxton hybrid. With this melding of a Hollywood actor and one of British TV’s best-known personalities – not to mention a generic face option that vaguely resembled a combination of the two – Jeremy Paxton became athlete number 0549.
As the weeks wore on, Jeremy was joined by further heroes. There was Roland Weigan, the German superman who had to win at all costs. There was the American athlete known only as Chambers (for reasons privy to his creator, pronounced as “Shumbehs”), who was also an undercover agent of some description. The most well-received was the mysterious Latvian competitor known only as The Source – P045, about whom rumours persisted that he was not human at all, and was actually an android of some sort.
There were many more.
These personas added to the entertainment of players and onlookers; the game’s lifeless avatars became blank canvases for all sorts of teenage fanfic madness. As world records were smashed and with the crazy characters frequently exchanging positions on the podium, the nonsense narrative added to the fun.
It all went on for a while, but as my peers and I were letting our A Level work slide more and more, there became a breaking point.
I remember the lunchtime well. Winter was looming and the common room windows were dark and peppered with rain. Another wet lunch break meant more Virtua Athlete 2K action. As was becoming the norm, one more game was declared with just a few minutes to go. The players and onlookers being late for their lessons was guaranteed.
Just as the javelin event was nearing its conclusion, our head of year burst through the common room doors, flanked by two other staff members. Enough had been enough: too many students were late for lessons or missing them entirely, the common room was becoming too raucous because of our group, and the console was solely to blame.
Asked whose console it was, I admitted ownership feebly, unhooked the Dreamcast as asked and bagged it up as we scurried back to our lessons. It was over.
A follow-up session was held by our year head addressing those concerned. I remember sitting through her speech around self-sabotaging our education with the quiet indignation of a grumpy teen, but she was right: over the months that Virtua Athlete 2K had been present in the common room, things had gotten increasingly out of hand.
Without the sixth form common room at its command, the appeal of Virtua Athlete 2K diminished quickly. Outside of school the newer, shinier Track & Field 2000 game on PS2 stole our attention, but even that game’s overcomplication of the simple formula meant my friends and I went back to Winter Heat on the Saturn.
In hindsight, the game certainly wasn’t one worth skipping A Level lessons for. Its paucity of content meant that it was painfully average, despite how well it played. Yet still I don’t regret introducing it to my sixth-form colleagues.
For a time, to that group of people, the system abandoned by Sega itself had become the centre of attention, something it hadn’t enjoyed since its release. That’s the sort of thing that, all these years later as the Dreamcast sprints past its 20th birthday, makes me feel warm inside.
So too do the memories of that period, the banter, the virtual feats of athleticism and the intensity of the competition. I couldn’t write out all of the occasions where a record was smashed in this piece, not that it would be very interesting, but I can’t deny that recalling them and the action at hand meant I was writing this with a smile on my face.
There are better athletics sims out there – certainly more iconic ones, and games with more content. But if you want something quick, simple and fun, you could do a lot worse. Just don’t try skipping work or school because of it.
- Simple button-mashing fun, with best-in-class controls
- Addictive, especially with four players
- Create an athlete mode provided some degree of personalisation
- Only seven events made it one of the smallest games of its kind
- Graphics and sound were unremarkable
- Dull presentation and characters
Virtua Athlete 2K is about as no-frills as an athletics game can get. It played well, despite its lack of content, plus average sound and graphics. There are better examples in the genre, but you got what you put in, and with the right crowd it was easy to lose hours and even days in.