A Glance at the Past: Nagano Winter Olympics ’98 (N64)

Video games based on the Olympics have a daunting task put before them: adapt multiple disparate sports all within one title with faithful representation and accurate mechanics. Without the space and time to develop a focused experience like a basketball or football game might have, it does often mean the individual sports all leech quality from each other, potentially leading to a middling package where nothing truly excels. Konami did have some experience with adapting multiple sports in their long-running Track and Field series though, so they weren’t a poor pick for a title like this… but even they faced the troubles of such a task.

 

An adaptation of 1998’s Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, this game does at least do a good of feeling like the Olympics despite the limitations of the hardware. The weird Olympic owls with human faces continue their role as the event’s mascots, but the participating countries were trimmed down from 72 to a more manageable 16, although most of the major countries are present and accounted for save China’s odd absence. I did not see the Nagano Winter Olympics so I can’t say how accurate other aspects might be, but the athletes are all either based on names you input or seem to be made up by the game itself, so the focus definitely seems to be more about the actual sports than any of the trappings. However, that doesn’t mean the visuals were sacrificed as everything looks fairly good save people’s faces and the music has no right being as good as it is. Surprisingly soothing yet energetic songs with brass and electric guitar can be found on the game’s menus and before and after events… but the events themselves strip away the tunes to focus on the crunchy and satisfying sounds of snow and ice. The events could have done with music in addition to the sound effects though, as the empty air does allow the player to reflect too much on the faults with this game delivering on the actual events.

Nagano Winter Olympics ’98 boasts 12 Olympic events, although some of them are slight alterations of others. Hockey, perhaps a huge draw for winter sports fans, was cordoned off into its own title so that it could have a greater focus put on it, and that is likely for the best, as it managed to escape the poor state most of these events ended up in. Almost every event has some attribute contributing to it not feeling like the real sport or is wrapped in some obtuse control scheme that seems completely unrelated to the actual feats you’re performing. While trying to boil down each sport into a minigame wasn’t a poor way of trying to accommodate squeezing 12 mostly separate styles of play into one game, the focus seemed to be more on the easy way out designwise rather than trying to give the player something that connects them with the actions on screen. That’s not really the biggest issue with the sports though, as I feel that comes in the limited ways you can play them. Save the occasional variation, all the sports only have the one course to take on. For skiing, luge, bobsleigh, snowboarding, and so on, play will always be held on the one assigned area, so it quickly grows stale, especially if you’re trying to go for the medals. The computer players do not hold back in their scores, somewhat appropriate since this is meant to be an Olympic level competition, but it is a bit random, meaning that you can get a silver medal one run that would have been gold in a different random lineup. Most of the events require an fair bit of precision to get the medals which you’ll gain just by doing the same event until you’ve memorized it, but the game doesn’t really do anything to explain what works and what won’t. Experimentation is sometimes required to even figure out what you’re doing because even though it will show you a basic description of the controls prior to every event, the manual actually tells you how to perform certain actions and others are just left up to learning the hard way.

 

The difficulty does seem to be a bit all over the place too. Some events require constant attempts to even scrape the medal stand, others can be gold medalled on your first try, and some just require a few runs to actually figure out what you’re doing before they also reveal the ease of the event. It’s a poor split between ones that just require a bit of practice and the ones that require perfect performance without any guidance on how to do that. Besides playing single events, the game also has a Championship mode where you do seven of the events, eliminating the ones that are too similar, ones that are just variations of each other, and the too-long event curling. Here, you face both sides of the coin, but rather than trying to earn individual medals in events, you earn points that are totaled up at the end to determine the medalists, and since the option to quickly retry is removed, this mixed bag is a task and a half to conquer.

To really understand the issues with the events though, individual breakdowns might be a necessity. Alpine Skiing, Downhill is one of the events that requires absolute precision, the controls are incredibly simple since your character moves forward automatically at a speed you can’t influence and you need only move them left and right or brake to take sharper turns. However, the computer players always seem to have a score that requires mastery of the basic controls if you hope to be anywhere near their level. Alpine Skiing, Giant Slalom is a bit more forgiving because of the need to move between flags more expertly, and its probably one of the better events in the package since you can likely grab the gold after repeating the run enough to learn it. Ski Jumping Individual, available in K90 and K120 events, is one of the events that faces the control issues, with jumping itself involving an unusual flick of the stick and your score accommodating not only distance, but a style rating that you hardly have any hint on what is good and what isn’t. The worst skiing event has to be Freestyle Skiing, Aerials though, not because it is hard or even difficult to control, but because it doesn’t feel right at all. This is the event where your skier can perform tricks after launching off a ramp, but to do these tricks you just select them from a menu and hammer the A button to build up power, pressing B as you land in order to finish. They eliminated the most interesting aspect of trick performance from the trick event: execution. This is also true of the Snowboard, Halfpipe event where the controls are again not focused on actually pulling off the trick, but selecting a set of prepicked tricks that you execute this time by pressing a button sequence before you’ve even hit the top of the halfpipe to pull them off. It doesn’t feel at all like you’re actually doing tricks in either of these events, the animations just happen or they don’t depending on if you pressed some unrelated buttons. Snowboard, Giant Slalom at least feels more like proper snowboarding, although it’s not much different than the skiing equivalent.

 

I wouldn’t say the ice events face as many issues as the snow ones, but they do have their own quirks. Speed Skating, with 500 and 1500 meters available, focuses less on the large visible racer on the screen then they do two tiny bars on the top right. To skate, you need to press the appropriate buttons in an alternating pattern as if you were controlling the skater’s legs, which is fine in concept, but the Stamina bar makes the 1500 meter version a bit dry as you just wait to recover. You are meant to pace the presses in rhythm with the racer’s movements… but the bar tells you everything you really need to know so there’s little reason to focus on the actual action. Bobsleigh, Four-Man and Luge, Single are pretty much the same event but you start differently, although Luge is harder to maintain control and Bobsleigh is almost too easy since it seem to depend more on the initial push than the rather simple task of taking turns. Lastly is Curling, perhaps the one with the most attention paid to it as it has multiple considerations and mechanics, a competitive tournament mode, and even a way to speed up the rather slow game by holding down the Z button. The tournament structure does mean its going to be hard to medal in, but it feels like it figured out how to adapt its sport the best to the video game format. While not every event is egregiously bad, the ones that did survive in a pretty good state are mediocre at best unless you are really into curling.

THE VERDICT: It’s not too difficult to see what went wrong with this Olympic game. Nagano Winter Olympics ’98 sacrifices the substance and feel of some events for the sake of their presence, boiling trick events down to disconnected button presses and turning some events into battles with the controls rather than a test of execution. The events that did come out in better shape like Alpine Skiing, Luge, and Bobsleigh suffer from requiring extreme precision or just a bit of repetition to master, with their actual controls being too simple to be heavily invested in. Most events feel like you’re either going to medal or you aren’t once you’ve figured out the gist of what they want from you.

 

And so, I give Nagano Winter Olympics ’98 for the Nintendo 64…

A TERRIBLE rating. While curling is an an acceptable state, the other parts of the game that are decent are still pretty flat, requiring only the most basic inputs. Coupled with some events that stand out for awkward controls, ruthless opposition, no direction on what you should do, and how quickly everything becomes samey, this is a poor showing for a game based on the ultimate global sports event. Somehow, the music ends up being better than the gameplay, although I suppose at times the skewed difficulty is appropriate. Some medals for events are just as hard to get as a real Olympic medal, but there are a few that are at least acceptable challenges that you can train up in. Either way, nothing but curling feels like a truly faithful adaptation, and the ones that due trend towards the realistic side often do so by way of having no variety to the experience so that it quickly becomes too familiar. Just making the events more interactive and have the controls more closely resemble the task at hand could do wonders for making this game at least a passable winter Olympic game.

 

Competing with the computers isn’t a very enjoyable experience, but I can see some fun salvaged from the title if you only care about doing better than another human player. It won’t last long because most events are short experiences which makes retrying them not too bad, but it hardly has the hooks needed to keep you playing, especially since too many of the events are poorly done minigames. This isn’t the worst winter Olympics title out there, but it’s certainly pretty low on the ladder. It’s probably best we all move on from the Winter Olympics in Nagano.

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