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Olympic Decathlon (Apple II) artwork

Olympic Decathlon (Apple II) review


"Everyone knows about the free card games you get with Windows, but they are nothing compared to Microsoft's wonderful early Eighties game, Decathlon. It simulated all ten events of its namesake, and you could practice or play through them all; Decathlon telescoped a grueling two-day affair into an intense thirty minutes. Even friends with the latest consoles enjoyed getting better and almost beating me, and I had fun mostly winning. We took breaks between events, just like real ath..."



Everyone knows about the free card games you get with Windows, but they are nothing compared to Microsoft's wonderful early Eighties game, Decathlon. It simulated all ten events of its namesake, and you could practice or play through them all; Decathlon telescoped a grueling two-day affair into an intense thirty minutes. Even friends with the latest consoles enjoyed getting better and almost beating me, and I had fun mostly winning. We took breaks between events, just like real athletes, and talked trash over whether I'd fall apart. Better yet, the Olympic theme clips before each event, along with the heavier button-pounding action, must've driven my parents crazy. Tough for them! The game drove me crazy, too, dangling Bruce Jenner's world record for me to beat one day.

This took practice, which often frustrated me into beat up my stick-figure athlete instead of the keyboard or joystick. Watching him twist his arm throwing the shot put backwards, fall on his face in the long jump, miss the mat in the high jump ("Ohh, that hurts") or hit his head botching the pole vault ("What do you take for a headache?") helped ease the pain of not improving as I'd hoped. Your athlete showed dramatic flair, too, with his heel grazing the high-jump bar or his ability to shot put the dot on the "i" of "Olympic."

Still, without a sensible game, stick figure tricks fall short. Many ports of Decathlon invoked brutal controls, but the Apple kept the first day's events simple, and then the second day forced you to combine several keys. In the 100- and 400-meter dashes, you just bashed two keys alternately. On the long jump, you just planted your foot and pushed space when the angle fell where you wanted. Eventually you got better at playing chicken, so you could go faster and hug the foul line. The high jump fixed your speed but forced you to find the right jump distance and angle, and only the shot put made you futz with the joystick, bending and straightening your arm for the best power and distance.

Day two got more complex. During the hurdles, you tapped buttons to run but held them to jump. Javelin and pole vault required two and three separate buttons aside from bashing, and the discus was more of a gamble. You had three tries to pick the speed to whirl at, faster speeds meaning longer throws--unless they hit the cage. The 1500-meter run was thankfully not a button bash but more of a solo racing game where you could tilt 45 degrees and got penalized for hitting a wall.

As in the decathlon, strategies depended on your score relative to your opponent's, or the goal to achieve. You could skip over the lower heights to save yourself the energy later, risking no score. In events with three tries, the best strategy changed as you improved. Any time, fatigue or ill-advised gambling could ruin you. Missing forty points in one event and trying too hard to get it back in the next would start a slide hard to avert. You could even risk a zero in the discus to improve your personal high by a few points.

However, Decathlon held some weaknesses: the long and high jumps' upper bounds were too easy to reach, and the 400 meters were fifty seconds of finger-bruising button-clacking. Even these forced me to concentrate, like an athlete, before plowing through. As a stick figure, your legs didn't kick except in the hurdles, which required precise timing to avoid continual dippy jumps. Sometimes the computer didn't record one of the keys in your pole vault routine. And when you weren't a stick figure, you were a dot or caret. You'd send a dot or line flying over the outfield, with no trajectory shown.

Still, for such an ambitious game so early in personal computing, Decathlon provided surprising excitement, planning and humor. I planned and trained for it more than many RPGs I bought five years later, polishing my technique until my best scores would not only beat Bruce Jenner but leave room for error. After a few weeks, I succeeded and temporarily retired until I found about Daley Thompson, putting my parents back on the hook. I beat him, then quit and forgot my score--eighty-eight something. Years later, hearing of Dan O'Brien and his new world record, I searched for my old disk. It wasn't there, but I smirked self-righteously learning he'd missed the 1992 Olympics. My hard work DESERVED the revenge.

Rating: 8/10

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (July 19, 2009)

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zippdementia posted July 22, 2009:

This review didn't grab me the way yours usually do, Aschultz. I found it read a lot like an instruction manual, with too much emphasis placed on the different buttons you push and not enough on the experience.

Not that you don't talk about the experience! Your sections involving your goal to beat real world records and annoying your parents in the process are great, and the review begs for more of these. I would've stuck with the whole "I am an olympic contender, too!" approach, taking this review much like a sports drama.

Because really, what spiced the game up for you was that drama, and the review is lacking it. Thus, we don't come away feeling, as you do, that the game deserves such high praise.
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aschultz posted July 22, 2009:

Thanks again for the big pointers on what I can edit, though I have the matter of a review tonight to finish for the team tourney.

Here's my brief reaction. One problem is, you sort of have to discuss the controls, because they are well done. I don't think I was as succinct as I could've been. Also, part of the thrill of the game was banging on the keyboard and having an excuse to do so. I think it's important to mention that the 1500 plays more like a driving simulation than the 100 and 400, for instance, where you turn at 45 degrees around the oval track. (Say! Maybe I can edit my review for this!)

I figured I cut it down from the original size of the review, which still needs to be updated down the GameFAQs memory hole. I also figure I had a higher percentage of fun stuff and that it was more focused...however, we do have a higher standard for reviews on this site, and part of why I send reviews here is to make it to the higher standard.

So let's see what else to add: it's a lot of fun to slowly better yourself, but on the other hand, some like the long jump have clear maximums. Maybe I can break the sub-games up into that.
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zippdementia posted July 22, 2009:

In that case, I would just change your focus without really changing the content. There's just too many paragraphs which seem meant to only talk about the controls. If you were to mention them in a more interesting way, such as...

"I knew that I was close to my goal. But I was having trouble. I would get my fingers going on the "1" and "2" buttons, but I couldn't break my top speed. I'd been meeting my record for weeks without improvement. In despair, I changed my focus to the pole vault event, where my dexterity was tested further by the inclusion of having to hit the space bar at the right moment to jump..."

And so on and so forth.

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