UK, February 29, 2008 - Here's what generally happens when people play Track and Field: everybody stares intently at the TV screen before suddenly dropping their heads to hunch over controllers, rubbing buttons furiously with the aid of their own chosen performance enhancer: a bit of T-shirt for some people; hose-pipe for others. Some would-be digital world record breakers have even been known to use pencils, or biros to shave off an extra few seconds off the clock.
Like those websites that cater to gamblers so desperately addicted that they'll place bets on snail races, the Track & Field series caters to gamers who are so hooked on competition that they will battle it out simply to see who can press two buttons the fastest (and then they'll probably argue about it for weeks afterwards). It is, ostensibly, ridiculous: pressing arbitrary combinations of buttons as fast as you can to propel some digital athlete down a track. But it's a series that recognised the joys of ridiculousness before the likes of Bishi Bashi and Wario Ware picked up the baton and ran with it, and long before the Wii and its blue ocean gaming took it into the mainstream. In many ways it is videogaming in its purest form.
It's also, in its new incarnation on the DS, shaping up to be ridiculously good fun. Twenty-five years after the arcade original, the latest sequel is in development at Sheffield-based Sumo Digital, where it's clearly in safe hands. Indeed, according to the press release, this is the first time a European developer has been entrusted with a key Konami franchise. That's a bit less surprising when you consider that Sumo is also the developer behind titles like OutRun 2, and Virtua Tennis: World Tour; slick, polished titles, created with the minimum of fuss but a lot of skill and devotion.
The new Voice Boost will make you look silly if youíre playing on the train, but itíll shave precious seconds off your best time.
Even though the game isn't finished yet, that skill and devotion is evident in New International Track & Field too: every element of the original seems to have been captured here, polished and enhanced for good measure. That's most obvious in the gameplay itself, which is every bit as simplistic, ridiculous, intense, maddeningly addictive, and just plain entertaining, as every game in the series since the coin-op original (which is, of course, sitting in an arcade cabinet in Sumo's offices).
The game gives you a choice of buttons or stylus or a combination of both. Choose the buttons, and the game retains the same button-mashing appeal as its predecessors. Chose the stylus and it replaces that with an equally appealing frenzy of screen-rubbing (and rest assured, not a single of Sumo's DS screens has been worn out or scratched to bits while they've been testing the game). All of the neat little touches of the original are present and correct, so you can still throw your javelin straight up to spear a Martian should you want to go for bonus points. The Vangelis music is as atmospheric as it ever was, and a new Voice Boost feature is an inspired addition, adding shouting (or blowing) into the already frantic mix to give your character a bit more oomph. Sure, it might make you look pretty silly if you're on the train, but then this is a game where looking silly is both an inevitable and indispensable part of the fun.
Visually, the game is a riot of bright, pixelly colour, thanks to the painstaking work of Sumo's pixel artists and the vibrant character designs provided by Udon Entertainment (the studio behind the artwork in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and Capcom Fighting Evolution, and publisher of various comics, manga, and art books). There are eight characters available to play at the start of the game, but also a host of well loved heroes from classic Konami franchises to unlock, from Frogger to Silent Hill's Pyramid Head. Some of these have yet to be announced (but is that statue in the corner of the offices wearing a bandana of some sort?). Each character has different stats, although the chaps at Sumo were keen to emphasise that these result in only a very subtle differentiation, which is, in any case, balanced out over the course of a tournament.
Six of the Konami classic characters have their own Challenge Events to unlock over the course of the game. In Simon Belmont's case, for example, this involves shooting bats to kill Dracula (a variation of Skeet Shooting). There's also a career mode, in which you play through several groups of events to unlock them, up to the total 24 events included in the game. Some of the highlights include: 100m Sprint, Long Jump, Javelin, 110m Hurdles, Skeet Shooting, Triple Jump, Breast Stroke, Weightlifting, Double Trap, High Jump, Horizontal Bar, Rowing, Back Stroke, and Cycling.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the game, however, is its community aspect. While the game seems decent enough, it is obviously a game that comes to life in multiplayer. Obviously, then, it has all the regular multiplayer functions you'd expect: multi-card play allows up to four players to compete if they all have a copy of the game, while a single-card option allows players to compete round a single DS. But the game goes beyond this to incorporate Worldwide Leader boards and, most interestingly, a website (www.newtrackandfield.com
) that will grant the game an extra dimension above and beyond the furious button-mashing (or screen-rubbing).
Sumo wants the game to be as exhausting to play as the original was. It's succeeded.
It's impossible to say whether any sort of International Track & Field community will emerge out of this website. What it is possible to say is that Sumo and Konami have put every element in place to ensure that it does, taking a leaf out of Xbox Live's book and ransacking social networking sites for inspiration. The game allows you to create a friends/rivals list of up to 64 other players, for example, to whom you can send simple challenges, taunts, or praise, and you can keep track of any developments via the website, or through a scrolling newsfeed in-game (informing you, for example, if any of your friends have broken a record).
There's also unlockable content associated with online play, from extra costumes that are so hard to unlock that they grant the wearer all sorts of online bragging rights, to ten trophies that are being reserved for tournaments that will be organised through the website. There's even talk of using the website to create communal events, such as throwing a javelin around the world.
A brief glimpse of how these online leaderboards and community aspects will work was provided when Sumo staged various multiplayer tournaments for visiting journalists in a nearby hotel, and even in spite of a pretty miserable showing by your humble (and apparently ham-fisted) correspondent, it was massively entertaining. And that, really, is what Track & Field has always been about
: as important as the competitive element is, it's the taking part that counts. Even so, New International Track & Field looks like it could be a winner.