Oh God, the week we put time aside to research this one. My writer was a broken shell of a human when they finished this because of all that mashing, that tapping, that Repetitive Strain Injury-baiting menace known as the Multi Event Sports Game. Anyway, this is our very first DS game, which means we had to improvise with the screenshots a bit. The shots themselves come from the emulator DeSmuME which has the proper colour saturation you'd see on a DS Lite as opposed to a vanilla DS, but we used the screen template from NO$GBA to split the two screens properly. No mistake though, this review was thoroughly conducted on original DS Lite hardware (and believe me that poor thing took a beating) with emulation used only for screenshots. As an unfortunate side effect though, we can't show shots of the final four events or the secret Konami characters, because we can't unlock them. With button controls we cannot beat Rowing in time, and with touch screen controls we cannot get Archery to work. If anyone out there has a completed save for this game, please send it to us, we were tearing our hair out with this one!
Back to the track for us, it seems!
Last time we talked about the multi-event sports genre, we basically crafted a love letter for the peerless duo of games Namco made in the field, Numan Athletics and Mach Breakers. At the start of that article, we talked a little about the origins of the genre in the form of Konami's Track & Field, and that's where we're returning to set up the final proper release in the series, New International Track & Field. Well, until Hyper Sports R, wherever the hell that disappeared to. The first game, Track & Field (Hyper Olympic in Japan), set the template for the genre, and Konami quickly followed it up with Hyper Sports (Hyper Olympic '84 in Japan) the next year, then later '88 Games (Hyper Sports Special in Japan, yes this is already confusing) and the console-only Track & Field II (Konamik Sports in Seoul in Japan, you have a headache now) also in 1988. What's interesting is that aside from Track & Field II, these games are aesthetically pretty similar, and while the sports are real, the presentation is cartoon-like, with goofy athletes and silly touches like UFOs and birds you can knock down in certain events.
After that, the series went into hibernation until the Playstation era, returning as International Track & Field (Hyper Olympics in Atlanta in Japan, Hyper Athlete in Japanese arcades) which was a big success, making its way to the Platinum range of PS1 rereleases, but obviously the move to 3D, and the general presentation trends of the time, lead to a more realistic approach, similar to Sega's DecAthlete. There's still things like dinosaurs and the like hidden in there, but the setting and athletes themslves are much closer to real life. This would continue for Nagano Winter Olympics '98 (Hyper Olympics in Nagano in Japan) and International Track & Field 2000 (Ganbare Nippon! Olympics 2000 in Japan, maybe this is the last name change) which had elements from ESPN integrated, and was later rereleased with ESPN in the title on PS2. This one also has a hidden spaceship, but the realistic athletes and settings remain. So there's a potted history of Track & Field for you. What fun!
We're bringing all this up because while it has the International part in the title, New International Track & Field (New International Hyper Sports DS in Japan, haha gotcha!) is definitely an homage to the first three games in the series, rather than the later 3D entries. Gone is the ESPN license, the dramatic 3D camerawork, and most importantly the realistic appearance of the stadium and the athletes- cartoonish backdrops and chibified characters (specifically designed by UDON of Street Fighter comics fame) are the order of the day! This also boasts the most events of any game in the series, taking events from Track & Field, Hyper Sports, '88 Games and Track & Field II and adding in its own for a total of twenty-four, and adds in a ruck of unlockables including Konami guest characters, new outfits and even a Classic Mode with a looping set of the original six events. This one wasn't handled by Konami themselves but it was in pretty capable hands- Sumo Digital, a British development studio that started with ex-members of Gremlin then later staff from Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studio, they made a name for themselves with their feature-heavy ports of Outrun2 and the home-console Outrun 2006 Coast 2 Coast, and would create the superb Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed a few years after this. Specifically, this was made by their Sumo Handheld division whose main strangths should be obvious from the name. So, a pretty good pedigree, it's in capable hands. Let's see what they did with it.
The thing we absolutely have to start with, as there's no getting around it, is the control scheme. Or control schemes. By default, the game uses the touch screen for building up power or running using a few different interfaces such as a horizontal bar for races, a spinner for power events, and a segmented circle for others, and actions can be performed either with the touch screen or any of the face buttons. For the arcade warriors out there, you can switch to a more traditional buttons-only scheme where smashing the A and B buttons is the key to victory, with X, Y and the D-Pad serving as action buttons. As a DS game, touch-screen controls were inevitable, and there's nothing inherently wrong with them. In fact, some events really benefit from playing like this- Skeet Shooting, both Rowing and Cycling and, to a lesser extent, 110M Hurdles and Steeplechase are much easier playing with the touch-screen. They're not perfect, though- in particular, in running events it's very easy for your frantic rubbing to just barely move off the bar and stop building you power, and whether in button or touch-screen mode it's also quite easy to slip and press the action button when you don't mean to as they're above your running controls, rather than between them as in arcade games like this. The buttons are also quite small and it can be difficult to find a comfortable way to lay the system down to mash without moving it or the screen. It speaks volumes that, when I went to emulate the game and used my arcade stick, it felt so much more comfortable for the majority of events, especially footraces.
Further compounding all this, the game does a very poor job of explaining how each event works, with some extra mechanics simply never being detailed. The tutorials are presented entirely in text with modest button / interface diagrams, but it doesn't really come across as sufficient for teaching you how each event works. As an example, in the Steeplechase event, the game never tells you that you actually have to press the action button twice- once to jump, another to successfully vault over the obstacles- and if you don't you'll stumble and lose time. There's also the aforementioned Rowing and Cycling events that have their button controls explained so poorly I have to play it with the touch-screen instead. You could say that you just need to learn how each event works by yourself, but better games in the genre- in particular I'm thinking Numan Athletics, Mach Breakers and DecAthlete, and even previous entries in the series like International Track & Field- provide introductory game clips that explain exactly what to do and, crucially, provide little tips to help you along. It doesn't help that some events are very unintuitive to begin with- Hammer has the camera at ground level and behind where you have to throw, making it far more difficult to judge when you're facing the right direction for the throw, and both Rowing and Cycling are so baffling that the fact they end their respective group segments is a pretty bad decision. Put them at the start so I can at least fail them with dignity, please!
The next fly in the ointment is the general structure of the game. The Career Mode does the job fairly well- each difficulty, unlocked one after the other, has six groups of four events to participate in, where you're always pitted against three CPU opponents as well as a qualifying time or score to hit in each event, and points are awarded depending on your performance and place you take in each event. Attain at least a bronze medal and you can move on to the next, with the ultimate goal being gold in every group. On the plus side, when you first start unlocking groups, you also get those events for Single Event mode so you can learn how they work to prepare yourself for the battle ahead- disqualification means restarting the group. Also, in Easy and Medium, the CPU is OK- they don't put up too much of a fight in Easy, but Medium is just about right. Hard, though, is a different beast, and they are on World Record pace constantly, and the fourth difficulty that, full disclosure, I was unable to unlock, is most likely even more punishing. That's OK though, you can practice in peace in Single Event Mode...
Except you can't, you are always pitted against a full roster of CPU opponents. For directly-competitive events, I can understand, but it's unnecessary for things like Discus or Long Jump, and even worse they are always a little under World Record pace in Single Event Mode. The final nail here is that the CPU only reveal their results once you're done, so you can be in the lead by your 1st attempt at, say, Skeet Shooting, then have it robbed from you at the last minute. Mach Breakers in particular worked around this by displaying the (one!) CPU rival score on-screen as soon as you start the event, giving you a clear indicator of what to shoot for. Here, it makes getting individual gold medals (needed to unlock everything) a lot more frustrating than it should've been. Eventually you will get them, but it's very defeating to land a personal best and then no, sorry, Oolong did better at the last second, try again.
Of course, a big part of the game's appeal is lost to the march of time- its networking features. Sumo Digital obviously realised that the multiplayer and competitive aspect of the game would benefit from internet connectivity, and while there is support for single-card and multi-card multiplayer (with some punishing load times and restrictions in single-card mode), the game's online features were really quite something. You could play multiplayer sets, have lists of friends and rivals, keep track of player progression, and in particular have a news ticker of when friends and rivals had beaten their old records, and register on the official site to share your progress with the world. In a game all about high scores, this is ideal! Sadly, when Nintendo pulled the plug on the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service, all of those features for this game died with it (meaning there are several trophies and an entire character, the panda Ming-Ming, that can no longer be unlocked).
Now, that's a lot of bellyaching from me, and yet I don't think this is total wash- really, I think this one's OK. New International Track & Field DS clearly wants to evoke the feeling of the arcade Track & Field games, which is fine! It does the job reasonably well for the most part, with many of the original events faithfully translated, some being redesigned for the better (Archery in particular) and some interesting new ones such as the Horizontal Bar and the 400M Distance. Add in the excellent presentation throughout- the remix of Chariots of Fire, the cute Konami guest redesigns, the art assets from UDON (although the non-guest characters lean a little heavy on stereotypes, par for the course I suppose) and the vibrant, colourful presentation overall- and it's as a good a reimagining of the original Track & Field as you can get. It's just that taking that route means it has to go up against the king and queen of arcade button-mashers, Numan Athletics & Mach Breakers, and with the little issues we listed piling up, it can't meet that battle head-on.
It also feels like it was released for completely the wrong system. The original Track & Field had, at this point, already been rereleased on Xbox Live Arcade, and this would've benefited so much from being on a big screen with a proper arcade controller to play it on. If anything, it would've been perfectly suited to a download-only game, because at that point PSN was already open and Xbox Live Arcade was in its stride, and something like this would've been readily accepted. Perhaps Sumo Digital and Konami felt that the game was 'too small' to warrant a console release and so went to the handhelds, but the DS itself- with its sometimes awkward touch screen controls and less-than-ideal button controls due to the nature of the handheld- was perhaps not the right system for it. There's the core of a great multi-event sports game here, but it's let down by things beyond its control. Oh well, at least they gave it a try!
For being responsible for more than its fair share of RSI, New International Track & Field is awarded...
In a sentence, New International Track & Field is...
A decent game on the wrong platform.
... My hands hurt now.
GAMING HELL, SUFFERING FOR YOUR AMUSEMENT SINCE 2008 (IT'S OK, WE GOT OVER IT)