Written by: Rik

Date posted: September 6, 2008

Something has gone very wrong here.

As an increasingly unathletic man/boy veering towards his thirties with very little thought or time given to aerobic exercise, I’ve begun to accept that my chances of achieving any kind of sporting success have now passed me by. Whatever kernel of ability or skill I may once have been blessed with has been neglected for so long that it’s now withered away and died. There’ll be no lifting the FA Cup, winning the Ashes, or Wimbledon glory for me – just a steady descent into middle age, battling vainly to conquer more mundane foes such as baldness and alcoholism.

For those retaining an interest in sport but who find themselves palpably lacking in talent and dedication, there are broadly two options: spend the rest of your life slumped on the sofa consuming lager and watching Sky Sports, or risk injury and embarrassment by participating in recreational sport in your local area. Happily, computer games now exist to complement either choice, providing a participatory element for the couch potato occasionally stirred into life by an inspirational sporting moment as well as a glorious escape for the hapless amateur nursing sore limbs and a bruised ego.

With the scope for casual participation in athletics negligible, and Olympic success (or failure) usually following a punishing four-year schedule of non-stop practice and training, it’s left to games like Summer Challenge to fill the void, opening up the world of the global physical elite to anyone who can rouse themselves to stab at a few keys on their PC keyboard.

As with many games of its type, Summer Challenge doesn’t give you a massive range of events to participate in, with a total of eight seemingly chosen at random to be broadly representative of those on offer at the Olympics (or – seeing as this isn’t an OFFICIAL PRODUCT – some other, more generic kind of global summer athletics event). Initial options are simple – you can either practice an event (highly recommended) or head straight into a tournament against other athletes.

Animals lovers fear not – no matter how many times you mess this up, it’s always the rider that gets hurt.

In the absence of a more original way of doing things, we’ll go through each event in turn – starting with archery, seeing as it’s located to the far left of the ‘event select’ screen and hence represents the most logical starting point for most people. It’s also a good one to start with because it’s a) quite forgiving for the beginner and b) one of the better events on offer. Essentially, it’s a case of holding down the enter button (to draw back the bow) and then battle to manoeuvre a wobbly cursor to the centre of the target before releasing.

Though simple, it’s pretty addictive stuff, and while decent scores are possible from the outset, some practice is required to break the tournament record. A slight negative is that it may be too simple a representation of the skills required in the real-life event – you’re not required to judge wind speed or power, for example, and only the most cack-handed buffoon could manage to miss the board altogether. Still, it shouldn’t spoil things too much, unless you’re particularly keen on the finer points of archery being accurately replicated.

By contrast, the next two events, Equestrian and Kayaking, are bastard hard. My early attempts at the former were almost always curtailed at (literally) the first hurdle, although some consolation is provided by the consistently entertaining ‘falling off your horse’ animation. Using the cursor keys to control your horse, and pressing the space bar to jump, it’s mainly a case of keeping speed and direction under control while timing each leap with precision. Although it takes some getting used to, once you’ve mastered the basics and become familiar with the course it all works quite well, and though some winning times are possible, instant failure lurks at every jump should you lose concentration.

Archery tip: try and hit the centre.

Kayaking, on the other hand, never seems to get any easier, and though it’s fairly hard to end up face-down in the water, missing the gates which you’re supposed to, er, kayak through (if that’s the correct term) to complete the course can happen all too often. No matter how much it may look like you’ve lined things up correctly, in an instant the gates seem to lurch away from you, and before you know it, you’ve incurred two hours’ worth (or whatever) of penalties, and last place becomes a formality before you’ve even finished.

The other events rely more heavily on the ‘button-bashing’ mechanic (also known as ‘waggling’ in the days when joysticks were the controller of choice) well known to those with experience of similarly-themed title of years gone by, such as Konami’s coin-op original Track and Field or (my personal favourite) Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Hurdling is a case of hammering the return key to build up and maintain speed while hitting the space bar to jump over hurdles. Cycling is largely the same, except you have to steer the cycle with the cursor keys (and there aren’t any hurdles in the middle of the track). High jump requires a short spell of keyboard thumping before hitting space to jump (again, timing is important), while the pole vault involves essentially the same process, but seems to be much harder for some reason. Finally, there’s the javelin, which again involves the familiar method of building up speed before holding down the space bar to set the angle of release.

It’s difficult to know how to evaluate the fact that over half of the featured events involve roughly similar gameplay mechanics. On the one hand, it’s kind of reassuring to see them remain relatively unmolested since the days of old-school titles such as those mentioned above, but on the other there’s the nagging feeling that some kind of innovation or development of the control method must be possible. Even putting such doubts aside, it could be argued that the older games made a better job of things in places – for example, the ‘behind the athlete’ view really hinders your judgement in certain events here (the hurdles and the high-jump are the worst affected), and while it can be amusing to fail horribly, there’ll be times when you’ll pine for a side-on perspective.

If you don’t find this funny, you’re dead inside.

My only other complaint would be that you never feel that you’re actually competing against anyone – you never see the AI players participating in any of the events, you just see their scores or times. Even in the hurdles, where you’d expect to be racing at the same time as your opponents, you’re all on your own, running round a track in what looks like an empty stadium, racing against the clock rather than other athletes.

Overall, though, it’s a decent effort. Yes, some of the events are a bit samey, and actually playing through all the events in a single-player tournament takes roughly 20 minutes, but if you’ve a bit of a soft spot for this kind of thing (and I do), then there’s certainly scope for a few wasted hours (and damaged keyboards) here.