Sports games aren’t popular with collectors because everyone thinks they suck. But there are some hidden gems out there to enjoy — and their lack of popularity means you can pick ’em up pretty cheap, too! Let’s explore this unloved genre!
As is probably abundantly clear at this point, I have a lot of time for multi-sports games, whether they have an Olympic license or not. And so it was that, in the wake of the recent Tokyo 2020 Olympics, I grabbed myself an armful of official Olympic video games from over the years and decided to put them through their paces. Today, we take a look at Athens 2004, from Eurocom, released for PlayStation 2 and, in slightly gimped form, for PC.
Athens 2004 is, of course, an official adaptation of the Olympic games from that year, but as with most video games of this type, the context doesn’t really matter — no reference is made to the fact the games are taking place in Athens other than the official livery of the 2004 Olympics being all over the place, and as such this is a game that can be enjoyed at any time, even 17 years after it was “relevant”.
And you should — because Athens 2004 is actually a really enjoyable multisports game, offering a variety of different disciplines to compete in, many of which aren’t commonly seen in games like this.
On the track side of things, there are three broad types of event: races where you need to hammer buttons as fast as possible, races where you need to manage stamina, and hurdles.
The former are pretty self-explanatory, though the difficulty balance when competing against computer opponents can, at times, feel a little questionable; the 100m and 200m are extremely difficult to get anywhere near first place in, while the 400m is surprisingly easy.
Still, your performance on this may vary according to your own individual finger dexterity; I tend to find my fingers “lock up” after rattling away too hard, so the rapid pace of the 100m and 200m isn’t especially compatible with me. The slightly more leisurely pace (relatively speaking, obviously) of the 400m felt much more comfortable, however.
The 800m and 1500m both require stamina management. No button bashing is required, here; instead, you control your athlete’s speed with the right analogue stick, paying close attention to your stamina meter. The lower this gets, the slower your athlete ends up going, so ideally you want to save as much as possible for the final sprint. The final lap of both races also features a “second wind” mechanic which allows you to unleash a speed boost for a limited period of time; this is best combined with a full stamina bar to sprint your way to the finish. Because if you don’t do it, the computer sure as hell will.
I completely messed up the 800m the first time I tried it, and it was for the exact same reason I messed up the real 800m at my secondary school’s sports day, aged about 13. I got off the blocks with good speed and was consistently a good distance ahead of everyone — then I was knackered by the time I got halfway around, meaning that everyone promptly overtook me and left me in last place. At least I can’t fault Athens 2004 for being unrealistic.
The hurdles events are straightforward enough — bash buttons, hit a shoulder button to jump. Timing is tricky in these; unlike later Olympics games such as those produced by Sega, there are no visual cues for the correct timing, so you’ll simply have to learn what the best way to approach the hurdles is. Expect to balls these events right up the first few times you try them.
On the field, there are a number of different events to turn your hand to. Long jump and triple jump are similar in that they require you to build up power by hammering buttons, then press a shoulder button at the appropriate time to jump; triple jump adds a timing element by requiring you to press that shoulder button a few extra times for the “hop” and “skip” part of the jump also. Mercifully, the game slows down slightly to make this a little more manageable, and provides helpful on-screen cues to determine timing.
High jump is handled in an interesting way; rather than requiring you to mash buttons to accumulate speed, instead the approach is all about timing. Synchronising the correct button presses with footprint markers on the floor, you need to make a good rhythmic approach to the bar, then time your jump and the swing of your legs appropriately to clear it. This takes a bit of getting used to, but after a few attempts it’ll become second nature — and it’s entirely possible to smash some Olympic and World Records after only a couple of tries!
Pole Vault is another of Athens 2004’s button mashers, with your power this time determining the size of the “accuracy marker” you need to hit once the actual vault begins. If your power doesn’t reach the minimum of this accuracy marker you won’t clear the bar regardless, but if you exceed it you have a much greater margin for error; this is a good implementation of this event and is a lot of fun.
Discus I found absolutely indecipherable. Supposedly you’re supposed to circle the analogue stick to build up power, but this simply didn’t seem to work properly on all the occasions I tried it. Evidently I was doing something wrong, but with the instructions not providing much in the way of insight, I couldn’t figure it out — and my zero point score for this pretty much ensured my place at the bottom of the leaderboard for Athens 2004’s Competition mode where you play the events in sequence!
Javelin, meanwhile, made much more sense. Run up by mashing buttons, then as you approach the throw line, set an angle with the analogue stick and fling the pointy stick with a shoulder button. Simple, but challenging enough to provide varied results with each attempt.
Finally on the field, the shot put is a matter of timing. Hit the button on a pulsating power bar to set your power — ensuring you don’t hit a “foul zone”, which causes you to step out of the throwing circle — and then hit the button again to set an angle. This one moved a little bit fast for my liking, particularly when setting the angle — it would have perhaps worked better if it used an analogue stick-powered system similar to that seen in the javelin event.
Away from the track and field, the pool events in Athens 2004 all unfold in a very similar manner. Button mashing determines your speed, but the twist is you need to breathe every so often. When an on-screen prompt appears, you need to hit a shoulder button to take a breath — and the quicker you do this after the prompt, the higher your maximum speed until your next breath. Each swimming event has a distinct “rhythm” to how often these breath prompts come, so mastering this will let you keep your speed up consistently — it’s a nice approach that does something a little different from simple button hammering.
The gymnastics events are some of the most interesting in the game by virtue of how different they all are from one another — even the same event for men and women is implemented differently.
Men’s floor exercises requires you to bash buttons to build up power, then carefully time button presses to successfully tumble across the floor. This is followed by the “flares”, which require hitting the face buttons of the controller in sequence in time with an on-screen prompt, and then returns to the tumbling. It’s fun, and gets across the idea of the event needing skill, stamina, strength and speed to succeed at.
By contrast, the women’s floor exercise event is just Dance Dance Revolution. It’s not even trying to hide it — the arrow markers on the screen look identical to Konami’s classic and you can even play the damn thing with a dance mat in Athens 2004’s multiplayer Party Mode. This isn’t a bad thing, mind; it’s very enjoyable and the multiple difficulty settings allow players of all skill levels to try their hand at the event. It’s just amusing how shameless it is.
The men’s rings event, meanwhile, requires you to move the two analogue sticks to simulate establishing a hold, then bashing the shoulder buttons to maintain your grip. This is then followed by a button sequence to press while dismounting in order to do so in as stylish and controlled a manner as possible. Again, this is a simply executed event, but it managed to get across a pleasing sense of physicality, as well as providing scope for variation between competitors. It’s not a game you’ll get a “perfect” score on every time, in other words.
The vault event, meanwhile, is perhaps a little overly simplistic: hammer buttons to approach the horse, then simply squeeze in the on-screen combination of buttons before the “slow motion” effect generated by your run-up expires. It’s pretty easy to get the maximum possible score on the lower difficulties in this one, and the particularly nimble-fingered will master the “gold” routine in no time.
After that, it’s back outside for the one and only Equestrian event in the game: jumping. In this event, you have to control your horse’s speed with the right analogue stick and its facing with the left. Upon reaching a fence or other obstacle, a tap of a shoulder button will cause the horse to jump if you time it right, though it will refuse if you’re too late or too early. Trouble is, you can only have two refusals before you’re disqualified, and the timing is very difficult to determine on your first few attempts — one worth spending some time with in Athens 2004’s practice mode before trying real competition.
Then we have weightlifting, shown through the +105kg men’s clean and jerk event. This is mostly a button bashing affair once again; firstly you’ll need to hammer the buttons to increase the power enough for the initial part of the lift, tapping a button to bring it up to chest height, then hammer the buttons again for the next push over the head, again with a shoulder button press when you’re ready to bring it up. Finally, one last bit of button mashing requires you to hold your power gauge over a certain limit for a count of three in order to keep the bar raised. It’s a simple, exhausting event; while the button mashing may be a cliché for Olympics games, here it at least gets across the strength and stamina required for such a taxing event.
Finally, we have archery and shooting. The former is very simple — observe the wind, train a wobbly sight on a target and release your arrow, hoping for the best. Straightforward but effective. Skeet shooting, meanwhile, is exceedingly difficult to determine the correct timing for; the skeets move incredibly quickly and it seems neither firing slightly “ahead” of them nor right as they cross your sights is quite the correct approach; again, another one that will doubtless reward a bit of time spent in the practice mode.
All of these events are presented really nicely, with some extremely well animated and enormously expressive athlete models seen throughout. All the athletes pull convincing facial expressions while in the midst of their particular discipline, and the reactions to the results they get are all suitably emotive; when coupled with the excellent crowd noises, surprisingly varied and responsive TV-style commentary and solid performance, Athens 2004 does a fantastic job of creating an exciting sporting atmosphere even to this day.
Naturally, as with most games of this type, Athens 2004 is designed to particularly shine with multiple players. All the game modes support more than one player, with the “arcade” modes specifically designed for multiplayer competition. The aforementioned party mode features a limited selection of events with simplified controls intended for play with dance mats, while the Challenge mode allows more experienced players to be handicapped in order for newbies to have a fighting chance.
Alternatively, between one and four players can compete in the main Competition mode, which adopts strict Olympic rules and uses a scoring system based on your performance in each event. Competitions can play through all 25 events in sequence, follow a men’s decathlon or women’s heptathlon format, or make use of a custom combination of events. It takes about an hour and a half for a single player to play through all 25 events; the more players you add, the longer it’ll take, so bear that in mind before kicking off a multiplayer competition as it doesn’t appear to be possible to save your progress midway.
The conclusion of Competition mode is a little underwhelming in that there’s no end sequence, closing ceremony or even real celebration of the winner; presumably Eurocom was counting on players providing their own celebrations and commiserations. Still, it’s a curious omission; not exactly a deal-breaker by any means, but rather odd to see, particularly as even the old Epyx games at least said who won and played their national anthem after all the events were complete!
A few niggles here and there aside, which we’ve already covered above, Athens 2004 is an excellent sports game that provides fun arcadey-style action for the single player and convincing, enjoyable competition between friends. The fact it supports up to four players is a welcome bonus — though of course, being a PS2 game you’ll need a Multitap to take full advantage of this — and the inclusion of the dance mat-centric party mode is a delightfully 2004 touch that rounds off the whole package.
And, of course, being a sports game and thus perceived as something that no-one wants in their collection, you can pick it up for next to nothing these days. So what are you waiting for? Go smash some records!