Decathlete (1996, Sega AM3 for Sega Saturn)
Decathlete is vintage Sega: cheerful, full of energy and packed with irreverent humor. It reminds me of the glory days of the Genesis as well as the triumphant revival with Dreamcast. It was a rare moment of confidence for the famously troubled Saturn, like a rare moment of Beatles unity during the making of The White Album. How I wish there were more moments such as this. If you own a Saturn, this title is an absolute must.
Olympics videogames have been a regular staple since Konami’s seminal Track ‘N Field conquered video arcades and home systems. It established a template for the genre that has been followed almost religiously ever since. The only great exception was Epyx, whose Summer Games delivered a more thoughtful, strategic sports game, where complex joystick controls and careful timing superseded button mashing. Today, we would probably call it a “simulation”, one that demonstrated the growing divide between arcades and home computers. That’s a discussion for another day, but it’s interesting to note that as the Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected the dedicated game console, Konami’s formula for video Olympics was followed instead of Epyx. It has been thus ever since.
Decathlete is the creation of Sega’s AM3, who would later follow up with Winter Heat a couple years later. They hold closely to the classic Track ‘N Field formula, with a series of short sporting events with fast action and simple controls. The action is limited to two buttons (the joystick is employed only in the 1500m dash), and “run” and “action” buttons. It’s a nice tribute to Konami that they map “run” to both the A and C buttons on the Saturn controller; if you use Sega’s arcade joystick, you can use the old ‘pencil” or “comb” trick to flip those buttons as fast as possible. The “action” button is used for specific tasks such as jumping or throwing; in the pole vaulting event, you must use the same button to lower your pole, lift yourself up and push your body over the top bar.
In Sega’s hands, these Olympic events employ a combination of speed and careful timing. To run the hurdles, you must be especially precise in your jumps, or else you will quickly stumble and fall (as you can see from the above screenshot, I’m terrible at this event). In the Shot Put and Discus events, you must release your held object at just the right moment, and hold the button just long enough to achieve the ideal angle. Again, all of this follows the Konami formula, but the execution is flawless.
You can play all ten events spread across two days, which then awards you a final score and a medal ranking. You can also play an arcade mode, in which you must reach a minimum score in each event in order to proceed to the next. You can also compete in a single event and practice on your technique. Goodness knows I need to practice the pole vault, because I absolutely stink.
The Japanese version of Decathlete has an added bonus character who is awarded if you score over 8000 points in the 2-day Olympics competition, Mankichi Kazami, who is a character from the Yoshihiro Yamada manga comic, “Decathalon.” With smooth, pale skin and big cartoon eyes, he’s a lot of fun to play. He reminds me a little of Lupin the 3rd, and he’s a nice addition to the cast. Sadly, he was removed from the US and UK editions of the game.
The character designs are absolutely smashing, pure 1990s Sega. The athletes are a wildly colorful bunch, sporting ridiculous costumes and wild haircuts. They’re the best thing about this game, and it’s equally fun to see nearly all of them return in Winter Heat. Why did Sega remove them from Virtua Athlete on the Dreamcast? Wasn’t that game just a dreadful bore, a colossal snooze-fest? Playing Virtua Athlete is like being drowned in chamomile tea while watching TV golf after overdosing on sleeping pills. And why was this so? The character designs were terrible. That wacky cartoon cast from Decathlete had completely disappeared, and with them all the spit and spark went with them.
Visually, Decathlete is presented in the Saturn’s “480/60” graphics, meaning 704×480 resolution at 60 frames per second. This was always the system’s true ace card, the one reliable trick that was nearly impossible on Sony Playstation or Nintendo 64. Here, Sega could boast of next-generation supremacy and stand tall without looking over their shoulder or feeling embarrassed. The character models are rendered in superb 3D polygons (note how their limbs are perfectly seamless, another rare feat for its time), and the stadium environment is presented in multilayered 2D bitmaps. Everything is presented in wonderfully lush and richly saturated color tones that are slightly cartoonish but entirely believable. You look at this game in action and think to yourself, this is how videogames should look. If this title were to suddenly appear on, say, Playstation 4, you wouldn’t want the graphics to change at all. What would be the point? What is there to improve, really?
Well, that’s a bit of a stretch. You would want to make some improvements. But not much. There’s a part of me that believes that videogame graphics really peaked with the Sega Model 2, and everything ever since has just been sugar, frosting and glitter on the cake.
If there is any complaint about Decathlete, it’s that only two human players can compete together. There is absolutely no reason why four players can’t be present, especially when only a few events show all the competitors together. Thankfully, AM3 fixed this issue with Winter Heat, but in doing so, they had to cut the frame rate and resolution to “standard” 240/30. So perhaps that was a necessary tradeoff. Oh, well. I remember playing Track ‘N Field on the family Atari 800XL long ago. By that standard, I have no reason to complain today. This is paradise.