Track & Field by Konami: Classic Arcade Games Reviewed
Today there are no end of games based around physical sports, games that using Wii controllers or the Xbox Kinnect system enable players to control characters on screen with physical movements rather than joystick and button presses.
In the 80’s however, the closest thing that an arcade gamer got to a workout was the Konamo's Track & Field.
Konami launched Track & Field in 1983, an arcade game that was based on stadium athletics, a bold move at a time when Konami’s competitors were releasing wave after wave of Space Invader clones. This title stands alone as an 80’s arcade game that required genuine physical exertion to play, even if it still used traditional arcade controls.
By linking the speed of button presses to the speed of your on screen athlete, Konami introduced a whole new kind of game, one that put equal importance on stamina as well as hand to eye co-ordination, and added a genuine element of competition to 2 player gaming.
In this article, part of my series on classic arcade games, I will be looking back at Track & Field to understand why it is such an enduring favourite amongst retro gamers.
Track & Field Cabinets
The Track & Field game came in two versions, a standard upright cabinet and a low cocktail table version, both featuring classic "stars and stripes" graphics. On walking into an arcade the most remarkable thing about a Track & Field cabinet was the sound, with the "attract" mode pumping out music and sound effects from the game, including the sampled speech, and the "Chariots of Fire" theme tune.
The Track & Field cabinets were very simple due to the limited controls, having just 3 buttons per player and no joysticks. Up to 4 players could use the cabinet in a game, but only 2 players at a time, so only 2 sets of controls were needed. The cabinet was unusual in that single player games were operated from the right side of the control panel, with cabinet convention being that solo games are played on the left.
Although the game was originally released with buttons for running, they were later replaced with trackballs due to issues with the buttons breaking, with players using their fists to beat the control panel into submission. This issue was not limited to the cabinet, with many home gamer's joysticks being destroyed due to overly enthusiastic waggling.
The World record for Track & Field was recorded on 18th December 2008 by American gamer Hector Rodriguez, who racked up a score of 95,350
Playing Track & Field
The game concept is simple – as an athlete you must complete 6 stages, with each stage representing selected events from a Men’s Decathlon competition. Unlike a Decathlon however, you must qualify in each event in order to progress to the next.
The game can start with between one and four players, who unusually for an arcade game must enter their initials before the game begins, so that they can be called to compete either singly or against one of the other players for the running events. When playing solo, the opponent will be computer controlled.
Failure to qualify in any of the events will result in the player losing a life, lose 3 lives and it’s game over.
The first event is also the easiest, as it requires nothing more than bashing alternate buttons to move your athlete’s legs. Rather than just bashing the button indiscriminately, it is better to make sure you are hitting both buttons in sequence as this will build a higher speed. Avoid jumping the gun otherwise you will be accused of a “foul”, jump 2 starts and it’s game over.
Although this is the simplest event, it does require you to bash away constantly for 10 seconds or more to qualify, and this soon become tiring. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win the race against your computer opponents, as long as you complete the race under the qualifying time of 16 seconds, then you move onto the next stage.
The long jump is the next event, and this combines a run up and more button bashing with a timed jump at the end of the runway. In order to achieve a good distance, you need a high speed on the run up (as indicated by a bar at the bottom of the screen), and as your reach the white foul line, a press of the “action” button to jump. The length of time you press the jump button dictates the angle of the jump, around 38-40 degrees should give you the best distance.
Fail to hit the qualifying distance of 6m, or take off past the foul line, and your jump does not score. Like in a real competition you have 3 attempts to record a qualifying jump, which is a lot harder than it might sound! Most players will not get past this event on the first few attempts.
The Javelin throw is in many ways like the long jump in terms of gameplay, with a good run up required prior to launching the javelin with a well timed button press, which also sets the angle for the throw. Again, like the Long Jump, the optimal angle for the Javelin is around 40 degrees, which with a good run up will result in a huge arching trajectory, and a qualifying distance over 65m.
Hold the button for too long and the Javelin will fly off the screen and hit a bird, scoring a bonus of 1000 points but not setting a qualifying distance.
This is like the 100m, but with the added complexity of hurdles to overcome, which slow you down if you don’t manage to clear them effectively.
The trick with the hurdles is to get into a rhythm, an intense period of running interspersed by a jump with the action button to clear the hurdle, and repeat until you hit the finish line and hopefully record a qualifying time of under 14.5 seconds.
The Hammer throw is unique in the Track & Field game as being the only “top down” event, with your player being viewed from above the Hammer cage. The Hammer requires some gentle button presses to get the player spinning, which happens automatically once he is moving.
It’s then a question of timing to release the Hammer when the player is facing the opening of the cage, but as you are spinning so fast this means pressing the action button early to anticipate. Angle as always is also very important, this time the ideal being around 45 degrees to get the perfect qualifying throw over 85m. The hammer is a particularly tricky event, so prepare to hit the cage a few times until you get the hang of it.
The high jump is not so much about speed and more about timing and finesse. Following a leisurely run up, tap the button to launch your athlete upwards into the classic Frosby Flop position, with your back to the jump. Tap the button again to arch your athlete’s back just before the zenith of the jump, and then again to pull them over the top just before your athlete begins to fall.
Practise is needed on this event which is not so much about pace but timing and accuracy, and you need to score over 2.3m in order to progress. Unlike the other events, you keep playing this round until you score 3 faults, much like the real thing, and this means you can rack up a big score as the height of the bar increases.
Complete all 6 events successfully and you will be rewarded with a podium place, and a chance to repeat the game on a harder level, with more difficult qualifying distances and times.
Track & Field Sequels
Due to the popularity of the game, an arcade sequel was produced a year later in 1984, entitled Hyper Sports, this time featuring events from both inside and outside of the athletics stadium. Joining the more traditional Triple Jump and Pole Vault events were shooting, archery, gymnastics, swimming and weightlifting competitions, bringing some interesting variety to the gameplay.
Whilst not as popular as the original Track & Field this is still a great game, my personal favourite being the skeet shooting, which uses a novel timing mechanic to replicate the fast reactions required to compete in this sport.
There was a later arcade game entitled Konami '88, which took the Track & Field formula but with much improved graphics. This game was not however as popular as the original games, the enhanced look not improving on the gameplay.
There were few decent conversions of this game considering how popular it was, although there was a good version released in 1985 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This lack of decent home versions created a void which was filled by unofficial clones unsanctioned by Konami.
In the UK, Ocean released Daley Thompsons Decathlon, named after the World and Olympic champion. This game was a fantastic homage to Track and Field for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and became famous for destroying the joysticks used by over-enthusiastic players as they attempted to run ever faster.
In 1988 Track & Field II was released to tie in with the 1988 Olympics, including events from both the original arcade game and Hypersports. The original NES game was re-released in 1991 as an official game for the Olympics in Barcelona the following year.
Track & Field Legacy
The closest experience that modern gamers will get to Track & Field is on the Wii with titles such as "Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games", which uses the motion sensors in the Wii controller rather than buttons to power your athlete, and covers a similar set of running, jumping and throwing events.
In 2007 the Track & Field game was released on the XBOX Live Arcade, enabling contemporary gamers to experience Konami's classic title.
The feeling of bashing away at an original cabinet is however difficult to replicate on modern controller, and with so few of the classic games still available in usable form, it is very difficult to recreate the competitive buzz that fans remember so fondly.