WedNESday: Winter Games

See the source image Do you have Olympic Fever?  I have Olympic Fever (two vaccines later and all I have is a rash at the injection site).  I enjoy the overblown bombast and moments of individual triumph that permeate the games.  However, after nearly six decades of video games, and about 10 winter games events since the start of the golden age of gaming in the late 70’s, we have yet to see one title that actually captures the event well.  There were a few that landed and were good enough to sell well, however.  One such game was Winter Games from Epyx, released in 1985 on the Commodore 64.  It received fairly high praise for its graphics and quality, with multiple game modes and eight events.  So, a few years later, the NES saw a port of the hit title published by Acclaim.

The NES release of Winter Games wasn’t good. It isn’t the worst sports title on the NES, but as is usually the case with these sorts of sports games, it is very hard to really nail down the controls, and honestly, how do you simulate figure skating with two buttons and a D-pad?  Even excluding the limited control options, the port on Nintendo’s titanic console was inferior in graphical and sound quality due to hardware limitations and also featured only four of the original's eight events. It was almost literally half the game! The controls are occasionally bizarre and often counter-intuitive.  Instead of having one button that executes tricks, for-instance, these are done by pressing and holding one of eight directions on the D-pad while in the air or on the ice.  This doesn’t work!  This style of limited control options has never worked!  Without a button to execute the trick (ala, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater), just pressing a direction feels off and the game fails to consistently register the directions when they're pressed.  At the time it was released Winter Games on the NES was bad, but not insufferable because at least it tried to do a few things differently on consoles by giving the player freedom to execute big tricks offering a sort of risk-versus-reward design.  Still, not only has Winter Games not aged well, it really is mostly just boring.  These sorts of sports games have evolved so much that a title like this feels like a college student's first software programming project.

Figure Skating is frustrating, with most button presses feeling as though they aren’t doing anything and once you finally do hit the air it’s almost as though you have no control over what is happening.  While it is possible to land a successful trick, good luck trying to master this thing!  Speed skating is dull, ultimately amounting to pressing left and right back and forth in rhythm to keep up your speed and even then it just too frustrating and inconsistent to be really fun.  Bobsledding is the most intuitive entry but it falls flat for being boring.  The only one of the four events I actually really enjoy is Hot Dog Aerials, a ski jump game that is honestly pretty addictive.  This is due to the controls being far more intuitive and things just feeling like they make more sense when you are playing.  Press ‘A’ to take off, hit the air and use the D-pad to chain together a few tricks before you have to land safely.  Not too bad and, honestly, fun for a few go-'rounds to try and beat your best score (those judges are jerks!).

Winter Games is comparable to other, similar “multi-sports” titles like California Games, Gold Medal, Caveman Games and the significantly-superior Crash ‘n’ the Boys: Street Challenge.  The NES port isn’t unplayable; it just isn’t all that fun outside of the aerials.  I have always felt that being bland is far worse than being dreadful because at least I often remember playing a truly terrible game.  Winter Games is little more than an afterthought.  Still, I don’t hate it in its complete form released on other platforms and I have a fondness for the aerials minigame that just makes me want to pick it up and try again (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten anything above about an 8.6); It’s simple-yet-satisfying.  Even the worst of these multi-game event titles seem to have a few segments that are at least a little enjoyable.  If you are going to get this one, I’d say try to find a copy of the Commodore 64 release because it is significantly better, and if you are an NES collector like myself, chances are you already have this cart, but if not, it’s a scrap; pick it up.  It really won’t cost you much and the aerials are more fun than your average mobile game distraction, assuming you can get a handle on the still-clunky gameplay.