Following the disappointment that is Nagano Winter Olympics ’98, I set out to find a Winter Olympic video game that could serve as a better alternative to the poorly done Nintendo 64 title. Winter Olympic Games for the Sega Genesis was the game that came to mind as a game that, while not exactly good either, was at least a better adaptation of the global sport event… but when I began to play Winter Olympic Games, I realized just how much I had blocked out from memory. Rather than finding something better than Nagano, I do believe I found something somehow worse.
Released in 1993, a year prior to the actual 1994 Olympic games in Lillehammer, Norway, the game at least seems to be fairly accurate to the real life sports event, porting in the courses that the athletes would be facing come the real life event. The game does make a rather big deal about its attempts at authenticity despite having cartoon kids appear on menu screens and at medal ceremonies, but everything else seems to work pretty well for that angle, and the opening where it lays out every Winter Olympics and where they were held is a neat touch. Much like Nagano Winter Olympics ’98, Winter Olympic Games also has some pretty good music that ended up better than the actual gameplay, and thankfully it sticks around during the actual events so you aren’t just playing to the sound of snow crunching. You can compete for 16 countries, the expected ones all present but this game indulging in the strange snubbing of China that Nagano also participated in. Surprisingly, this game also has a difficulty setting, which could have been the saving grace for the game as it would allow casual players and committed fans both the chance to experience the game on a fairly equal level, but the difficulty changes seem to have very little actual impact on the gameplay, with computer players still putting in expert times, just slightly less so than if they had been set to a higher difficulty.
Authentic courses and strong music don’t help to hide the flaws with the events themselves. 10 events are available in this title, all but 3 of them involving skiing in some capacity. For some reason, absolutely none of them begin by actually telling you how to compete in the event, not laying out the rules, controls, or giving any sort of hint at certain required actions during the course of the event. The manual does tell you what you need to know to play the events, but withholds the information on how you’re expected to win them. Computer players are never shown save in a few events where seeing them doesn’t actually help you beat them, so you still have very little way to learn by example. Gameplay is available across three modes, a Training Session mode where you can tackle individual events with only the goal of learning them and bettering yourself, the Full Olympics where you can actually earn medals in the events but are playing all 10 events in a row against incredibly skilled computer opponents, and the Mini Olympics, where you can just pick the events you want to play and earn medals that way. This is a nice touch as it avoids any fatigue from the gauntlet style of the main Olympic mode and allows you to skip events that aren’t to your personal tastes, although the game does trim the opening and closing ceremonies from it which were a cute touch for the main mode. Thankfully, the controls for most events seem like a fairly good match to the tasks required of you and can even be customized for certain events, but the game just finds new and unique ways to otherwise sabotage the gameplay so that you can’t enjoy the connection you have with the events on screen.
It is definitely important we take a look at each individual event to better understand where things actually went wrong, as so far, most things seem to be bad, but not THAT bad. The first two events, Downhill and Super G, are essentially the same event just with altered courses. The two events have a pretty good length to them, and while that makes it hurt if you fail during them, it does prevent them from feeling too familiar as there is more to see as you train on them. As long as you pass between the flags without missing any, you can finish the event and put in a time on the board… the only thing is, these downhill events have perhaps the worst camera angle imaginable for such an event. Rather than showing you what lies ahead, the camera focuses mostly on where the racer is coming in from, meaning that you have hardly any time to react to the arrival of the flags on screen. There is a path you can follow that mostly sets you down the right course, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be set to pass through all the flags if you stay down the center of it. If you go slowly and carefully you can pass through them without putting in tons of time to memorize the approaching flags, but the Olympics punishes caution and you can’t hope to place high unless you’ve built a mental map of the course based on constant failure. Slalom and Giant Slalom require more precise turns to pass through more complex flag arrangements, but they still face the same problems with the angle from which you view them, they just at least have the compensation that you are expected to go a bit slower for those events. It’s a shame too, as the controls for skiing are pretty spot in. You can decide how you want to control them at the start and you can even tuck in to speed up, but control can’t save you from the problems associated with looking uphill during a downhill event.
Freestyle Moguls is ridiculous, partly because the event starts with a poorly digitized rooster crow for no apparent reason. Players are asked to ski down an incredibly bumpy slope, the angle being decent for this ski event but the task required of you difficult to pull off. As you go back and forth to build up speed, the player must jump at least twice and pull off a trick before landing, the tricks assigned to different combinations of the directional buttons and A and B that you press as you jump. Getting in the air isn’t hard, but landing definitely is, and the game doesn’t really have any clear indication of when is a good time to try a trick and when isn’t. You can watch a computer player on the other half of the screen do their run, but mimicking them doesn’t guarantee success, so it’s on the player to puzzle out the clues from the manual and gameplay. Ski Jumping, thankfully, is pretty straight forward, with the manual laying out everything you need to know. You jump by pressing A at the right time, the jumper’s body moving in a certain way to indicate to the player how they need to adjust. It still seems pretty difficult to match the computer’s times, but it feels like the best designed ski event for its simplicity and the ability to gradually train up in it rather than constantly battling to even learn it. The lasting skiing event, Biathlon, is pretty strange as well, partly for what the event is, but mostly for how the game asks you to control it. During the cross-country skiing portions, your focus is actually on a bar that has its pointer moving around wildly, your goal being to keep it in the safe central zone to keep your skier moving at a good pace. When it comes time to pull out the rifle and shoot some targets though, things get pretty difficult. The crosshairs are moving around so wildly that I’ve only ever seen that effect before in games where a character is drunk, and while it is definitely meant to represent the fatigue from the cross-country sections, it makes shooting the targets a lot less enjoyable than it could have been. I’m not expecting a perfectly steady aiming reticle, but if these are meant to be Olympic athletes, certainly they wouldn’t be pointing their guns around so wildly no matter how tired they are. Miss any targets, and you get a time penalty, meaning that it pairs poorly with the otherwise pretty manageable skiing portion.
Moving onto the three ice events, you’ve got two events in acceptable conditions and one inexcusable mess. Bobsleigh and Luge both rely on the same set of controls, pressing buttons to push yourself off at the start and guiding yourself down the track safely after. The racing itself is fine and controls well, but those computer players are again netting near perfect times and you won’t be able to keep up unless you figure out what exactly the game expects of you with no indication of what that could be. Short Track Speed Skating though, that event stands out as potentially the worst one in the package. Control takes the form of pressing A and B repeatedly, but how exactly you are meant to do this is up to you to figure out, as the computer players are much faster if you take these instructions on face value. Racing around a very tiny oval with other racers present, you not only have to battle the controls, but you need to stay in the circle and avoid crashing into the other racers. While skiing had visibility issues and Moguls and Biathlon both had complications to otherwise straightforward tasks, Speed Skating looks completely fine on the surface, it just completely dropped the ball when it came to the controls. The event could have been as simple and enjoyable as Bobsleigh and Luge, with the inevitable issue being the extremely tight times required to win, but instead even completing the race is already a huge chore. Ultimately, we end up with a package of sports that only has a few scrape by as being okay, but then they are of course ruined by the utterly absurd requirements the game lays out for hoping to place anywhere but the bottom of the rankings.
THE VERDICT: I had hoped to find a game better than Nagano Winter Olympics ’98 and failed utterly. By comparison, the sometimes easy yet disconnected events of Nagano and the events that could be trained up to beat seem hardly sinful compared to how things were handled here, and while Nagano certainly still had plenty of faults that ensured it deserved its rating, there is no question where Winter Olympic Games stands.
And so, I give Winter Olympic Games for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive…
A TERRIBLE rating. While most of the game controls fine, Winter Olympic Games hides the details of play in the manual and leaves out vital tips to pull off what is required in events like Speed Skating and Moguls. For events that do control well, there always seems to be some factor holding things back, whether it be the baffling decision to have the screen hide the course in the downhill skiing events or the general issue with the computer players being experts at the events without giving the player the info needed to compete with them. While Nagano was a Terrible game sitting near the border of being simply Bad, Winter Olympic Games is pretty firmly settled into the Terrible category. Ultimately though, things do work for the most part, and fixing the difficulty so the adjustment actually meant something could salvage most every event, even the ones with some needless limitations on them.
Even though the attempts to tie the game to the actual Winter Olympics are admirable, too much focus was taken away from seemingly obvious aspects of the gameplay design. Downhill events that hide what lies downhill are the perfect example of how, despite getting the feel of many events right, the execution was completely destroyed by nonsensical design choices and unnecessary difficulty.