Forty Years of Joystick Hustle: The Glory of Multisport Video Gaming | Games
Jhe 1984 Los Angeles Olympics are memorable for many things – the jetpack in the opening ceremony, the historic performance of Carl Lewis, the focus on female athletes – but for the nerds of a certain age , they’ll always be remembered for something quite different: broken joysticks. It was the first Olympic tournament of the era of mass video games, and it sparked a whole new genre of sports simulations, designed to replicate the physical exertion of playing a sport. I pretty much remember watching the real LA games on TV, but it was the family tournaments I hosted with friends that really brought back memories.
There is some disagreement about the origin of multisport simulation. At the burgeoning game studio Activision, pioneering designer David Crane had long thought of creating a sports game that simulated physical exertion and his title The Activision Decathlon, arrived in late 1983, riding the growing hype for the upcoming Los Angeles Olympics. It allowed players to participate in 10 events, wiggling the joystick left and right as quickly as possible to run faster and jump higher. Around the same time, Japanese company Konami brought multi-event sports simulations to the arcade with its brilliant athletics game. This game allowed up to four players to compete in six athletics events, but instead of wiggling a joystick, players used a two-button interface, alternately pressing (or rather “bashing”) each as quickly as possible.
At the start of the Los Angeles Olympics, there was a sudden influx of new competitors. In addition to the home computer versions of the Activision Decathlon and athletics, we had the summer games from the American studio Epyx, which innovated on the formula by adding events such as diving and gymnastics which required timing and style rather than furious joystick movements; and then there was Daley Thompson’s famous Decathlon from Manchester-based software Ocean, with its chunky visuals and glorious soundtrack. In a time before the mass home internet, these titles were the original multiplayer games, often featuring up to six friends in epic all-day tournaments. I remember spending entire school holidays in my Commodore 64, surrounded by friends from my street, all trying to break someone’s latest record in the pole vault or 110m hurdles, creating our own record charts of the world.
I loved how, like true sports stars, we all discussed and developed our own playing techniques. We argued over the best joysticks for fidgeting – the sturdy Competition Pro stick, based on the classic design of ‘Atari, was considered the crème de la crème for serious competitors (it was so good we even considered banning it from our tournaments), while the showy but rather flimsy Quickshot 2 could easily be ripped in half. during a particularly competitive 100m sprint. Later, when the excellent International Track and Field came to PlayStation, I was working for video game magazine publisher Future and every reporter in the building had their own take on button-hit events. A co-worker had a special cloth he placed over the buttons to optimize finger travel and reduce friction. No one thought he took it too seriously.
Multi-sport games have always been about inclusivity (at least for able-bodied players). Simple controls and widely recognized events meant that almost anyone could play, without having to figure out a lot of complicated instructions. With the release of Wii Sports in 2006, Nintendo took this concept to its logical conclusion, with the console’s motion-sensitive Wii Remote providing touch and gesture control over events such as boxing, golf, and tennis. Selling over 80 million copies, the game has become a staple of social gatherings, a way to bridge the generation gap between the oldest and youngest members of a family. There is still a thriving Wii bowling league in retirement homes across the United States.
I’ve always loved those games, especially the Epyx titles. I loved how they introduced me to new sports – Canadian skateboarding at the World Games, freestyle roller skating at the California Games – and how the controls have been honed over the years to integrate new technologies. It’s also hard to overstate the impact Mario and Sonic at the Olympics had on a generation of gamers who grew up taking sides in this momentous rivalry. What a beautiful – but also completely bizarre – symbol of the unifying power of sport.
So it’s nice to see the new Nintendo Switch Sports introducing a new generation of gamers to the joy of multi-event sports gaming. They continue to challenge old, old stereotypes about games: that they are antisocial and sedentary activities. Even in this era of Fortnite and Fifa Ultimate Team, it’s fun to gather around a screen in one place, competing to break records, discussing techniques and tactics. It’s just that these days we aren’t surrounded by a graveyard of broken gamepads.