The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics are memorable for a lot of things – the jetpack at the opening ceremony, the historic performance by Carl Lewis, the greater focus on female athletes – but for nerds of a certain age, they will always be remembered for something quite different: broken joysticks. This was the first Olympic tournament of the mass video game era and it prompted a whole new genre of sports sims, designed to replicate the physical exertion of actually doing sport. I can just about recall watching the real Los Angeles games on TV, but it was the household tournaments I held with friends that really bring back memories.
There’s some disagreement over where the multi-sport sim originated. At the burgeoning games studio Activision, pioneering designer David Crane had thought for a long time about making a sport game that simulated physical effort and his title The Activision Decathlon, arrived in late 1983, riding the growing hype for the LA Olympics to come. It allowed players to compete in 10 events, waggling the joystick left and right as quickly as possible to run faster and jump higher. At roughly the same time, Japanese company Konami brought the multi-event sports sims to the arcade with its brilliant coin-op Track and Field. This game allowed up to four players to compete in six athletics events, but instead of waggling a joystick, players used a two-button interface, alternatively pressing (or rather “bashing”) each one as quickly as possible.
As the LA Olympics began, there was a sudden influx of new competitors. Along with home computer versions of The Activision Decathlon and Track and Field, we got Summer Games from US studio Epyx, which innovated on the formula by adding events such as diving and gymnastics that required timing and style rather than furious joystick waggles; and then there was the famed Daley Thompson’s Decathlon from Manchester-based Ocean software, with its chunky visuals and glorious soundtrack. In an era before mass household internet, these titles were the original multiplayer games, often allowing up to six friends to take part in epic, all-day tournaments. I can recall spending entire school holidays at my Commodore 64, surrounded by friends from my street, all trying to beat someone’s latest record in the pole vault or 110m hurdle, making our own world-record charts.
I loved the way that, like genuine sports stars, we all discussed and developed our own techniques for play. We argued over the best joysticks for waggling – the hardy Competition Pro stick, based on the classic Atari design, was considered the crème de la crème for serious competitors (it was so good, we even considered a ban in our tournaments), while the showy but rather fragile Quickshot 2 could easily be wrenched in two during a particularly competitive 100m sprint. Later, when the excellent International Track and Field came to PlayStation, I was working for video game magazine publisher Future and every journalist in the building had their own approach to the button-mashing events. One colleague had a special cloth that he put over the buttons in order to provide optimal finger travel and reduce friction. No one thought he was taking it too seriously.
Multi-sport games have always been about inclusivity, too (at least for able-bodied players). The simple controls and widely recognised events meant that almost anyone could play, without having to understand a lot of complicated instructions. With the release of Wii Sports in 2006, Nintendo took this concept to its logical conclusion, the console’s motion sensitive Wii remote providing tactile, gesture-driven control over events such as boxing, golf and tennis. Selling more than 80m copies, the game became a fixture of social gatherings, a means of closing the generation gap between the oldest and youngest members of a family. There is still a thriving Wii bowling league running in retirement homes throughout the US.
I’ve always loved these games, especially the Epyx titles. I loved how they introduced me to new sports – the Canadian log rolling in World Games, the freestyle rollerskating in California Games – and how the controls have been refined over the years to take on board new technologies. It is also hard to overstate the impact that Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games had on a generation of players who grew up taking sides in that momentous rivalry. What a fine – yet also completely bizarre – symbol of the uniting power of sport.
So it’s nice to see the newly released Nintendo Switch Sports introducing a new generation of players to the joy of multi-event sports games. They continue to challenge the hoary old stereotypes about games: that they’re antisocial and sedentary pursuits. Even in this era of Fortnite and Fifa Ultimate Team, there is fun to be had gathered around one screen in one place, competing to beat record scores, discussing techniques and tactics. It’s just that nowadays, we are not surrounded by a graveyard of knackered joysticks.