"As if that weren’t enough, you're faced with computer opposition that you simply won't catch. Even in practise mode, your competitors will be running circles round you, making your meagre efforts look akin to those of an athletically-challenged gopher."
Track & Field games are older than Jesus. Since the beginning of time, Neanderthals have been able to stroll into their local cave-lined arcades and find a cabinet of the game squeezed between Missile Command and Pac-Man to waste a few coin-shaped stones on. It was though this medium that Olympic events have been mimicked by Track & Field since the invention of videogames themselves. Employing a "mash the buttons as fast as you can" system that regulates the pace of your chosen athlete, the series is as long-running as any you could mention.
From its humble beginnings in the arcades way back in the early 80's right up to a recent PS2 version, fans have yet to tire of imitating their Olympian heroes. Back in the dark ages when Space Invaders was still the cutting edge of technology, Konami set a trend with here and the much-copied formula has given rise to various competitors, although many of them fell at the hurdles set up by the original. However, the Gameboy Colour version did something to change this; it rather uniquely takes the long-standing series’ biggest strength and turns it into its biggest flaw.
Imagine mashing at the A and B buttons on a Gameboy while simultaneously holding the handheld comfortably, all the while keeping an eye on the screen. This is easier envisioned with some of the more modern versions than with others, but then imagine having to keep a hand free to use the D-Pad. Rather than using the same system as the much earlier T&F Gameboy spawn and use the A key for running and the B button for the various other movements performed, the game makes you press up on the directional pad, which, in this case, has been awkwardly designated as the action button.
For some of the events, such as the hundred-meter dash, this isn’t much of a problem, as the button gets little or no use. But picture something along the lines of the 110-meter hurdles: you’re already pummelling buttons that are poorly positioned for speed-mashing, and now you also have to stay in a position to watch the tiny screen and hit the up key to launch yourself over the hurdles. The long jump, another instance of this, suffers from a similar problem, although the timing is different. In fact, of the ten events Track & Field has to offer, not one of them is without a distinct sense of awkwardness.
That’s not to say some events, such as javelin-throwing, are almost playable, but unfortunately this doesn’t apply to the whole game. The high jump and pole vault, for example, are seemingly random in their use of angles and timing, and the discus is a nightmare of key combinations. Even the running events have issues, varying with the system you’re using; the GBC is hard to hold comfortably and still hit the buttons, the GBA's A and B keys are awkwardly positioned, and the SP's regressed keys do anything but help.
As if that weren’t enough, you're faced with a computer opposition that you simply won't catch. Even in practise mode, your competitors will be running circles round you, making your meagre efforts look akin to those of an athletically-challenged gopher. In a game that utilises inept controls, being thrown in with no easing whatsoever does nothing but kill any desire to improve. Instead of wanting to practise until you beat the irksome CPU, your first thought is not to bother at all. It's not like it’ll just beat you to the finishing line -- it’ll have arrived so quickly before you that it might as well be in a different time zone. If it weren't merely a game, I'd suspect there was drug-tampering on a Ben Johnson level.
Perhaps knowing this, Konami decided to add an extra feature -- the story mode. After competing in a simple 100m dash, your custom-named protagonist is yours to command throughout his career. However, all this really amounts to is you directing his training regimen, which is played out in little scenes of your avatar working his little heart out. Different strengths can be raised in this fashion; while sending him off on a Rocky-esque run-till-you-drop routine will do wonders for his speed and stamina, his throwing and jumping will suffer from neglect. Of course, there are various other chores your energetic pseudo-Tamagotchi can perform to enhance his abilities -- and making a muscular grown man jump rope all week is undeniably amusing.
The entire arduous process can eventually lead to a genetic freak whose stats are so pumped up he couldn’t lose if he tried, thus overcoming the poor controls and crazy difficulty level, but the game is so bland and repetitive that it just isn't worth it. The events contain opposition leagues above your starting ability, and the controls damage to your Gameboy’s keys more than they give you any sense of enjoyment or accomplishment. Yes, you could practice endlessly until the inane button combos come easily to your trained fingers, or you could spend an eternity training up your story-mode athlete until his stats are so high he can hop over high jumps and stroll to victory in sprints -- but it is worth putting all this effort into what is clearly the bottom of the Track & Field food chain?
... Does Ben Johnson pass drug tests?
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