Even during the days of utmost upheaval at Sega, one feather remained consistently in their cap – quality arcade ports. While during their 16-bit coming of age some would complain that Sega’s arcade ports were shallow and too short to market as consumer products, during the 32-bit era, the rapid evolution of arcade technology was inspiring just the opposite opinion as fans clamored for home conversions. Many of these found their way to the troubled company’s equally troubled flagship console of the time, the Sega Saturn, and went on to be some of its most acclaimed titles. Like the Genesis and the System16 before it, the Saturn had an arcade board equivalent in the ST-V, or as it was otherwise known, the Titan, and, with specs overarching the Model 1 and 2 boards as well, this meant a plethora of source material. A lot of these top-of-the-liners – mostly from the early days, and mostly prefixed with ‘Virtua’ – should ring a bell to the Western ear, but a greater many that don’t resound with familiarity here were egregiously left in Japan (and sometimes brought to Europe).
Such is the case with the ST-V game Decathlete. A quirky track-and-field venture by Sega Sports circa 1995, many combined factors mystify the mind as to why the game was overlooked for American release, especially when Sega of Europe (the most autonomous, and thus, the sanest subsidiary of the lot) would release the game as Athlete Kings to the smaller installed Saturn base there. First, aside from baseball, the Japanese market is not considered the domain of sports games. Decathlete slips under the radar by virtue of its colorful, unrealistic cast, action- and reaction-oriented events, and button-mashing control scheme, making it equal parts sports and action (if not more so the latter). None of these factors would mitigate success in the American market, however, where both realistic and fantasy sports titles coexisted on the Genesis (just look at Mutant League Football for proof of how wild they could be). The variety of events as well as the simplicity of gameplay meant that players of all skill levels could enjoy this game, which was also SystemLink and NetLink-compatible for a truly global competition, but not all were given the chance.
Decathlete takes the ten events of Greek Olympiad fame – the 100-metre, 400-metre, and 1500-metre races, the High Jump and Long Jump, the Javelin, Discus Throw, and Shotput, and the Pole Vault and Hurdles – and, by applying a healthy injection of arcadey action, produces a medal-worthy effort. One or two players can compete for bragging rights and world records just like real Olympic athletes, minus the public humiliation of the real thing – but, with the true trigger-finger workout supplied in some degree by each of these events, they might produce just as much sweat. Play Decathlete in a well-ventilated area and, if possible, only with those who observe proper hygiene, because although each event is expectedly short in duration, the replay value of perfecting your technique over multiple tryouts is a real step up from spectator sports.
A bevy of modes await our Decathletes, with two being the full game. First is the whole enchilada – Decathlon mode, featuring all ten events in turn as they were meant to be. The rules in this console original mode are the softest – you aren’t required to qualify in any event to advance, making this a good battleground for a strictly score-based competition between two human players. You can still set records here, mind you, but the real challenge is in the Arcade mode. There, the first five events are served up to be attempted in any order you like, and in order to progress to the next 5 and eventually beat the game, at least one player must qualify in each. Before each event in either mode, a short tutorial plays with step-by-step, button-by-button instructions for each stage of the event, so you’ll more or less know how to gather speed, choose power and angle on a throw, or throw your legs over the high jump bar as the event requires. If you fail to qualify in Arcade, you’re allowed to continue where you left off, and with the inconsistency in the difficulty of qualifying, you’re going to need to. The difficulty is somewhat adjustable via the Options menu, and you can have a go at the Practice mode to prepare for the real deal.
Aesthetically, Decathlete is pleasantly first-gen Saturn. The character models are the main draw, with razor-sharp anti-aliasing, clean-cut polys, and crisp textures that stretch and morph seamlessly as the models animate. These brawny folk animate pretty well, too, with virtually non-existent clipping (a common Saturn development) and natural-looking motions. The characters run the gamut from a muscle-bound, square-headed Russian to a 15-year-old Chinese girl, each with a specialty in Run, Jump, and Throw plus two All-Around’ers, and each with a signature victory and loss animation to denote their personalities (and sometimes, stereotypically, their nationalities. Nothing objectionable, though). Scrolling is smooth and slowdown entirely absent even with all the onscreen action of the 1500 meter, which is to say a lot of movement. The backgrounds are of some lesser impact, the crowd having some three states of animation, the computer competitors looking rather papery on the track, and the field looking rather uniformly… green. Ostensibly the worst part of the visuals, but not altogether bad, the stadium is large enough that it doesn’t figure into the forefront of your gamer’s eye, while the more eye-catching, photo-realistic sky backdrops – which change from day to night – improve the overall visual appeal. The sports implements and equipment are more than adequately realized, and special effects, like the trail effect when your character is ‘in the zone’, are also adequate, if lacking transparency.
Sound brings us to yet another baffling point over the lack of localization. All the character voices that should be in English, or, in any case, shouldn’t be in Japanese, are in their respective languages, and acted well enough given the circumstances of an international event. The rest is music, general crowd noise, and sound effects – which are peppy, suitable, and clear yet sparse, respectively. Therefore, only the menu items and tutorial text were a foreseeable obstacle in translating… but the PAL version rectified that.
+ Pros: For superior fun at the Summer Games with first-class graphics to boot, look nowhere else.
– Cons: An inability or distaste for button-mashing will preclude you from liking a great many of the events in Decathlete.
Overall: Although in the end Sony’s home-focused Playstation efforts would prove the more successful, perhaps they wouldn’t have if Sega had just brought over more fun, easily-accessible games like Decathlete to the world’s most profitable market.
Written by Katie Montminy.
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