Sunday, February 23, 2014

Game Review: Winter Olympic Games

Winter Olympic Games: Lillehammer '94
  • Publisher: US Gold
  • Developer: Tiertex
  • Release: Super NES/Sega Genesis/Sega Game Gear, 1994
  • Genre: Sports
  • Players: 1-4 Alternating
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • Super NES/Genesis: Common, US$5-10
    • Game Gear: Moderate, US $5-10
The XVII Winter Olympic Games, held at Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, were a time of change for the festival's history.  It was the first time that the Winter Olympics were staggered by 2 years to take place in between the Summer games, and the first time that the former Soviet republics competed as independent nations1.  To date, Lillehammer was the northernmost site ever to hold a Winter Olympics, and these were the last Winter Olympics to date that were held in a "small town" of less than 50,000 people.  Oh yeah, and Lillehammer will also host the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics, so look out for that.  So what's the point of all that trivia?  Because it also gave us the officially-licenced, multi-platform, aptly-titled video game Winter Olympic Games.  Now, I've covered the Game Gear version of this multi-platform release before, in a Sticking Points special, and I've managed to take some of the other versions for a spin since.  For the sake of officiality, this review will cover the versions for the Game Gear, Genesis, and Super NES.  This review does not cover the version for the Sega Master System, but that wasn't sold outside of Europe, nor the Game Boy, whose events are substantially different to require a separate review.

Some of you readers, especially American readers, may remember the '94 Winter Olympics for the rivalry between American figure-skaters Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, where the former had the latter knee-capped only for the gold medal to go to Ukraine's Oksana Baiul.  The video game doesn't give you a chance to re-create this little event, however; it boasts 10 events across 6 sports.  There are 4 skiing events (Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom), 2 sledding events (Luge and Bobsleigh), plus Freestyle Skiing, Ski Jump, Biathalon, and Short Track Speed Skating.  They are presented in three different modes: Full Olympics, where all 10 events are played in a set order; Mini Olympics, where you select which event(s) you wish to play; and Training, where you can practice an event as often as you need.
The way the skiing events are designed, it's too hard to react to the gates in time,
and the penalty is too steep if you miss one.  (Genesis version shown.)2
It's unfortunate that, proportionally speaking, there are so many skiing events, because they're a major headache.  The trouble is the isometric perspective in which these events are displayed, which give you precious little time to react to upcoming gates.  Holding a button to tuck for speed only gives you less reaction time, but unfortunately you have to do this to finish fast enough for a medal.  The only guideline you have to go by are the contours of the snow, but these lines show up faintly against the snow itself, and don't indicate if a gate is centred or aligned to one side.  If you miss even one gate, you'll be disqualified from the event, and yet you still get to keep going.  Pray tell, game, if you're going to invalidate my results in medias res, what incentive do I have to waste time finishing the course?  I might as well just crash into one of the many tree banks and end my run then and there.  Oddly, I had an easier time of it on the Game Gear than on either of the console ports.  Maybe it's just me, but your skiier and the flags are smaller in proportion to the screen size on the Game Gear unit, so you have more room to look ahead, but still, that's not much room for error.

The Moguls event is equally punishing in that it requires the most precise timing to land your jumps safely, but at least the round ends immediately if you do crash.  It wouldn't be so bad, except there's very little indication of what will constitute a successful jump until it's too late.  That's the same problem I had with the Ski Jump; of the many actions you must take in order to perform a high-scoring jump, there's little to no indication of what commands you have to input and when you have to do them.  But not all the events are downers.  My personal favourite might be the Biathalon, possibly because you're actually given a timing meter for you to gauge your strokes against.  Plus you get to shoot targets!  Okay, so they throw off your aim by simulating muscle fatigue, but at least the penalty for missing a target is relatively light -- just an extra 10 seconds added to your time.  Now why couldn't they have just done something like that for the skiing!?  The Luge and Bobsleigh events are also considerably more playable, since there's no opportunity to crash, but the track is so narrow and the turning controls so slippery that scraping along the walls and haemmoraghing speed is an inevitability at some point.  And finally, there's Short-Track Speed Skating, which boils down to a functional but tiring button-mashing contest.

As with that other Olympic-like game I reviewed a long time ago, Winter Olympic Games is unforgiving in its difficulty.  But it's not hard in all the same ways; there are no qualifying barriers you have to pass before you can continue.  On the contrary: even if you do get disqualified from an event, the game just moves you on to the next event.  Well, what if I want to try it again?  Granted, that's how it works in the real-life Olympics; if you don't win, you just move on with the program and your life.  But maybe I'm feeling a little ashamed of my performance and would like to save face.  Why won't you give me that little quantum of solace, game?

For some reason, the Game Gear
version (shown) is easier.2
I'll admit, once you get the hang of playing the events, there is more than just a quantum of fun to be had.  Up to four players can take turns competing in the Full or Mini Olympics modes -- yes, even on the Game Gear; no additional controllers or consoles needed.  But if you insist, the console versions also let you play some of the events head-to-head, but unfortunately it's limited to the dull stuff like Moguls and Speed Skating.  You get to name your athletes as well as choose their nations, each with their own uniform colour scheme -- again, only in Full and Mini Olympics.  The soundtrack is pretty rockin' too -- although the Game Gear's music is more tuneful than on the other games.  And it supports eight languages for the in-game text -- I reckon that was unheard of for the time.  But I'm pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point in my efforts to justify this game's existence.  If you desperately want to play Winter Olympic Games, be sure to A) stick to the Game Gear version, and B) ask yourself if you're a big enough Olympics nut for this game to be of any value to you.

Control: 2 medals out of 5
Design: 3 medals out of 5
Graphics: 3 medals out of 5
Audio: 3 medals out of 5 (SNES/Gen) / 5 medals out of 5 (GG)
The Call: 55% (D+): SNES & Gen. / 60% (C-): GG

The Soviet Union dissolved before the Winter (Albertville) and Summer Olympics (Barcelona) of 1992, but as the Soviet Republics had already been training together, they competed as the Unified Team.
2 "Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94 (1994) screenshots".  MobyGames.  http://www.mobygames.com/game/winter-olympics-lillehammer-94/screenshots.

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