The Gods Of Olympus

The Olympics. Whether you revel in the excitement of the world’s greatest athletes coming together every four years for a festival of sport; or are already planning a way to escape the non-stop coverage of an overly corporate 2 weeks of men and women hitting balls with sticks or running around in circles, there's no denying that it and gaming have strong ties. Whilst the games have never set the world alight, many a bedroom has been host to a bout of wrist-aching joystick waggling as school friends attempt to show that they are indeed faster over the digital 100m. From Daley Thompson sponsored joystick breakers on the 8-bits, through pad breaking exploits on the Mega Drive and SNES, right through to 90's gaming icons battling it out in strangely mismatched sporting events on the latest Nintendo consoles, the Olympics and Gaming have been bedfellows for some time.
They all bought PS2s at launch. The lamenting went on for years...
The DC didn't escape its own little role in Olympic video gaming, and with Rio 2016 fast approaching, it's time to look back at the trio of Olympics themed games that hit Sega's little box of dreams, and perhaps take time to look at just what the console could deliver when it came to re-creating the Olympic spectacle. 
The Games
For a console with such a limited life span as a mainstream console, the DC had more than it's fair share of Olympic-style button bash-a-thons. Eidos (Capcom in Japan), through developer Attention to Detail, delivered the licensed Sydney 2000; Konami gave us ESPN International Track and Field (licensed by the Japanese Olympic association as 'Ganbare Nippon! Olympics 2000' in Japan) and Sega itself followed up hit Saturn title Athlete Kings with Virtua Athlete 2K. Let's have a look at the 3 Medal prospects.

Sydney 2000
As a big fan of the Olympics and this much maligned sub-genre of 'multi sports', I do like myself some Sydney 2000 action. I originally came to this on the PC, and the DC version certainly isn't technically as good. The athletes are well animated, but there's a fair amount of slowdown, the background graphics leave a lot to be desired and the look of the game, with bold, bright graphics sometimes jars with quite bland scenery. The commentary is good, although the general level of audio quality is quite low, with poor music (which frequently bugs out in the skeet shooting event) especially grating on the ears. The real draw here though is the rather unique way ATD approached this official Olympic license. Although there's the usual arcade and training modes, the Olympics themselves take the form of a group of athletes from your chosen nation who you must get through several stages of qualification, by training them up through training mini games and then competing to qualify. It's certainly a bit more involved than a straight ahead Olympics game, but it's not without its faults.
The mini games are fun at first, but many of them are just watered down versions of the typical button masher, with Tron-like graphics. Some are decent and as you progress become incredibly tough, but others simply grate and you'll want to skip them rather than go through the tedium. If you do, of course, then your athlete will not be able to attain the highest marks for certain attributes. In essence, ATD have put the boredom and tedium, but with reward, of training into video game form. This wasn't the smartest move. Where Virtua Tennis crazied up their training modes, Sydney doesn't and it feels like a chore. Still, if you're patient and can stick with it, it is a novel and quite cool way of approaching this type of game, and you certainly feel some accomplishment when you do take an athlete to the gold medal. Also, I like the way the athletes will look beefier the more training you've done – a nice little touch. The events themselves are a decent selection of 12 varied events. There's the button mashers, and the usual 'hit 45 degrees' jumping and throwing events, but there's also Skeet Shooting, Diving and Kayaking, which offer a welcome respite, and aren't too bad at all – although all are rather simple.

The Skeet Shooting in particular is a tough one until you've levelled your athlete up somewhat. Control throughout the game is decent and responsive, but then that's a given for this type of game. I like Sydney 2000, but I know many; most even; won't. It does little more than add an unwelcome and rather tiresome training regime on top of the Track and Field template, adding repetition to a genre already suffering from it. Look over those issues however, and you get a decent varied Olympic tie-in that won't set your world alight, but is decent enjoyable fodder with some friends.

Virtua Athlete 2K
Athlete Kings on the Saturn was a great game. Perhaps the pinnacle of the button basher, Sega's Athletics title was great fun, and so I was hyped by the DC sequel. Sadly, I very quickly realised Virtua Athlete 2K wasn't a worthy successor. There's only 7 events on offer, and there's been little evolution of the controls over any other 'Joystick Waggler'. There's an addition of a stamina bar in the 100m and Hurdles, but other than that, it plays very much like Decathlete did. Indeed, this Stamina bar seems nonsensical, adding a complexity that doesn't actually add anything to the gameplay. The events that are here are all standard fare, which means you've played them before. There's nothing technically wrong with them, but if you're not a fan of the genre, this won't convert you, and long term fans will probably want more.
The game does at least look decent, with a good looking stadium and plenty of camera angles to give a realistic impression and plenty of crowd noise setting a good atmosphere. The Athletes are a little blocky, but they don't look too bad. The record keeping is also in depth and you can load other VMU data, and in addition to this, the athlete creation mode replaces the cartoony athletes from the Saturn – although I'm not sure if that is ultimately a good thing. When creating your athlete, you can give him (and it is only him, no females in this game) several 'interests', whether that be athletic events, team sports, winter sports or even the type of music he likes. These interests will then give your created star different hidden stats – so for instance a character who lists an interest of 'Sprinting' would be a dead cert for the 100m. It's a cool concept, but is wasted. There's no indication what your athletes stats are, no RPG style system of improving them, and perhaps worst, to unlock more you need to compete several times in the exhibition mode of the game. This is ultimately the game's biggest weakness. Coupled with the serious lack of events, there's only an arcade mode and a barely customisable 'exhibition' mode to play through.

If there was more to the game, some sense of progression other than beating your own PB's and world records, then perhaps the simplicity of the events could be overlooked, but sadly there's not. You can play with 3 friends in all modes, but this is pretty standard for the genre. Virtua Athlete 2K is a disappointment. Not as strong as it's predecessor, even in multiplayer, it's far too shallow and the few signs of genre-changing ambitions are sadly underused.

ESPN International Track and Field
ESPN International Track and Field starts with an intro movie that had me looking forward to some good looking graphics that would make the most of the DC's power. Imagine my disappointment when entering my first event and seeing poorly textured, angular PS1 graphics. Konami were never the best at making the most of the DC, and this update to the traditional track and Field formula does feel very much like a last gen title.
There are 8 events to start with, with a further 4 unlockable. To unlock these you have to get specific medals in all events in the games trial mode. It's not too difficult, as there are a good half dozen events where I beat the world record on attempt number 1, but the difficulty is completely unbalanced and frustration sets in far too quickly. It's a lazy programming fault that these games suffer from far too much, but which neither Sydney 2000 or Virtua Athlete 2K struggled with. The events on offer are quite diverse, with Gymnastics and shooting events thrown in to break up the Athletics, and the control is decent enough too, with some neat touches. I especially like the Gymnastics events for mashing up the control a little. Sadly, those poor graphics show the age of the game at the core here, and there's little in the way of long term appeal. The championship mode is alright, but it's the multiplayer which is best, and it is undeniably good fun. ESPN, like the two other Olympic style games, isn't an awful game, channelling some old school multi-sport action onto the DC, but it lacks any real sense of innovation and it's unbalanced difficulty sees it trailing behind the pack.

The Podium

Gold Medal: Sydney 2000  
Suffering from it's fair share of faults, Sydney 2000 nevertheless tries to do something a little different and adds some much needed single player progression to the genre.

Silver Medal: Virtua Athlete 2K       
Hamstrung by less than favourable comparisons to it's predecessor, it's poor selection of events outweigh some neat ideas.

Bronze Medal: ESPN International Track and Field   
Poor graphics and uneven difficulty, alongside an archaic structure, relegates ESPN to the back of the pack.

Other Sports
If you want to re-create the Olympic hype come Rio, you don't have to limit yourself to the trio of traditional multi-sport games. In time-honoured tradition, here's a look at the other action:

Basketball is always a good watch every 4 years, mostly to see just how much better the US team are, and on the Dreamcast, there's a plethora of games you can recreate the action with. Midway's 3 on 3 take on the legendary NBA Jam, NBA Hoopz, doesn't quite have the authenticity of Olympic Basketball, but plays a decent game of Basketball, whilst NBA Showtime sticks to Jam's 2 on 2 action and just about pips it's Midway sibling to the Silver medal. Sega's 2K series however assumes the role of Team USA, and with particular ease sweeps it's opponents away. NBA 2K2 is a high point of Dreamcast Sporting video games, playing a good game even now, and winning the Gold with particular ease here. A word for Konami's poor little ESPN NBA 2 Night. The broken, buggy mess of a game turned up for the Basketball competition, forgot it was actually a basketball game at all and fell down whilst attempting to find the court. Probably really jerkily, if the animation of this gaming turd is anything to go by.

Boxing at the Olympics has delivered some Sporting icons in it's time, and I think we'd all be watching if Afro Thunder from Ready 2 Rumble Boxing took to the Olympic stage. As it is, he and the rest of the cast of Midway's arcade boxing hit win the Gold pretty much unopposed. UFC tried competing, but got banned when they kicked their opponent in the head. Probably after about 3 seconds (It's not just me right?). And as I’m legally obliged to say under Dreamcast Fan Charter Article 2, Section 5 – Ryo would probably win the boxing medal on his own. Yep.

Soccer may not be the centrepiece of the Olympics, it's under-23 player competition being an awkward compromise between the IOC and FIFA so as not to devalue the World Cup (you know, like awarding the hosting of the event in a slightly dodgy way to a tiny country where money has not played a part, no sir); and fittingly the Dreamcast never really got the football game it deserved.

With the lack of perennial super-villains EA and their license-heavy FIFA series on our beloved console, and with Konami deciding not to give us a taste of their own Football franchise (although they did give us ESPN NBA 2 Night,, thanks Konami), it's a contest between some also-rans. There's a couple of no hopers (J-League Spectacle Soccer, more commonly hated as 90 Minutes in the West is an abomination, whilst early Rage title UEFA Striker (Striker Pro 2000 in the States) was hopelessly out of date and archaic even at the time), but Sega themselves are the real medal contenders.

Virtua Striker 2 is arcade heavy and slightly unwieldy but grows on you and looks great, whilst Sega Worldwide Soccer 2000 is too slow and has dodgy AI. It's sequel, Sega Worldwide Soccer 2000 Euro Edition, fixes many of the problems but still lacks finesse, even though it does deliver a relatively exciting game of footy. Virgin's European Super League has strong licenses, but plays poorly, with games more a lottery of luck than anything. It's the UEFA licensed UEFA Dream Soccer (developed by the same chaps as the SWWS series, and not previous UEFA Striker developers Rage) that ultimately wins over the sub-par field. Despite some AI problems, it plays a better game than its opponents. It's also notable for including women’s football teams, a sadly overlooked part of football games to this day so wins by default.

Yes, Golf. Look, it's in the Olympics now okay? No, I’m not entirely sure how good it's going to be, but I'm not deciding the sports here. The Dreamcast had a couple of golfing games, but nothing to set the world alight. Golf Shiyouyo (Tee Off in the West) had a couple of data discs and a sequel released, and was popular in Japan, but it's cartoon feel and repetitive nature doesn't do it for me. The sequel is better than the original though.  Nettou de Golf is a similar Japanese only release, but ends up just about losing out to Golf Shiyouyo 2. Sports Jam gets another special mention here, for its golf mini-games could very well have been the basis of a superb golf game...

Tennis suffers a little like football, in that the Olympics are not the high-point of the Sport. The DC however is home to Virtua Tennis. Do I need to say any more? (Boku no Tennis Jinsei is a cartoon style Japanese only tennis title that can't hope to compare to the majesty that is Virtua Tennis 2)

Judo and Taekwondo
On the DC? Surely not? Well actually, no. They're not. But this is my article, and I'm going to stretch the definition here somewhat. The DC is known for its strong fighter line up, and as digital recreations of the two martial arts turned into Olympic sports, there's a veritable smorgasbord of choices. From Virtua Fighter 3tb's considered tactical approach, to Dead or Alive 2's counter-heavy graphical delights, there's plenty of sort-of-close recreations of the two sports. I'm a particular fan of SNK's The King of Fighters series, which often feel like tactical sporting contests compared to the more flashy effects of the Street Fighter games. Soul Calibur, wonderful as it is, would face an Olympic ban for bringing massive weapons to the fight. And, of course, Ryo would win both of these by default. Because he's Ryo.

BMX Cycling
Stretching the definition a bit more, the DC's pair of BMX titles could re-create the close racing action of Olympic BMX, although the Tony Hawk inspired gameplay is far more stunt-based than racing-based. Matt Hoffman just about grabs the Gold, Dave Mirra suffering from some slightly dodgy frame rate issues.

I remember playing GTA 5 and finding Triathlon events around the map and thinking 'Wow! That's cool!’ I didn't have quite the same feeling when I pushed my controller to the point of it nearly picking itself up and telling me to go screw myself for bashing it for half an hour. But on the DC? Mike, I hear you say, there's no Triathlon on the DC you silly man! Really? Friends, I give you Pen Pen Tricelon! Perhaps not quite a traditional representation of the sport, it offers a multi-disciplined approach with swimming, sliding and running that truly recreates the trials and dangers that real athletes must face. With alien penguins and hippos. Brilliant!

Man on man action. Gladiators of the small circle. Strength against strength. Olympic wrestling may have no representation on the DC, but with several interpretations of professional wrestling at home on the console, another stretch of the definition of this article sees the Japanese-only wrestling titles, more particularly the technical Giant Gram 2000 and 2D powerhouse Fire Pro-Wrestling D, steal the golds from the PS1-converted Acclaim licensed WWF and ECW titles.
Definitely Lisa Simpson doing something wrong...
Without doubt the Dreamcast has some spectacular sports games buried within its library. It's not all arcade conversions and 2D shmups y'know! So what do you think? Has Mike missed anything? Let us know in the comments.


doceggfan said...

A bit late responding, but really enjoyed this sports recap. I don't usually care much for sports titles, but this has made me think about ensuring my collection has a selection of the gold medal titles mentioned.

B# Major General said...


That'd be pretty rad, to have a "Dreamcast Olympics" and have all the good games as events.