Summer Games: how the Olympics used to be

Growing up in the early ’80s, I think my first contact with the concept of the Olympics — and of athletic competition in general — was through Epyx’s Summer Games on our Atari 8-bit home computers.

At the time, I never quite got my head around most of the events because I had no real frame of reference for them, but I was fascinated by the game’s slick presentation and variety of different things to do.

Summer Games

It kickstarted an interest in the real-life Olympics, too, even though I’m not generally a “sporty” kind of person; I found “the real summer games” interesting for the same reason I enjoyed the digital version — the sheer variety of things that were going on.

With the Tokyo “2020” (hah) Olympics about to kick off at the time of writing, I thought now was as good a time as any to revisit Summer Games and see how well it plays today.

Because it certainly holds up rather well from a visual standpoint; Epyx’s games for 8-bit platforms were always noteworthy for featuring decent graphics and impressively detailed animation, and Summer Games is no exception to that rule. But is it fun? That’s the question, isn’t it?

While I was playing the Atari 8-bit version for old time’s sake, you can also find it on a variety of other platforms, including Commodore 64, Apple II, Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Sega Master System, Amiga, Amstrad CPC and Atari ST; cartridge-based and 16-bit systems will thankfully not suffer the inordinate amount of disk flipping I’m about to describe.

The Epyx Games (which are definitely not the Olympics due to licensing issues) kicks off with the pole vault, an event which I still, to this day, refuse to believe is a real sport that actually exists. Despite having watched the Olympics numerous times since my first time playing Summer Games, I have somehow never actually seen the pole vault actually happen, so over the years I have begun to wonder if it was a figment of my own imagination. But no; here it is.

Summer Games

The pole vault event is a matter of timing; pull back on the joystick to plant the pole at the right time, pull up on the joystick to hoist yourself over the bar at the right time and press the fire button on the joystick to let go of the pole at the right time.

I have never mastered the timing for this event — not back then and not now, either, it turns out. And this highlights a slight issue with Summer Games: the fact that if you decide to jump right into a full “compete in all the events” Olympic-style competition right from the get-go, you get maybe three chances at a quick event like the pole vault at most before you’re ushered on to the next activity.

There’s no on-screen help, no button cues, no audible or visual guides to help you with timing — you just need to know when to make the various movements, and indeed what those movements are in the first place. We didn’t have a manual for Summer Games back in the day, though fortunately in this case the movements required are relatively intuitive.

Summer Games does feature the facility to practice an individual event as much as you desire, and before jumping into full-scale competition it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself thoroughly with each event through this option. It does take some of the spontaneity out of the experience, though — particularly as this is a game that really shines when played with multiple people.

Summer Games

After the pole vault — and after two disk flips, one to view the scores and another to load the next event in our Summer Games — we move on to the diving, which challenges you to not belly-flop into the water when performing a dive from four different starting positions.

This is mostly about timing again; pushing the joystick in different directions causes the diver to take on different poses and rotate at various speeds. Generally speaking, so long as you adopt the flat “layout” position by pushing the joystick upwards at the right time to enter the water vertically, you’ll get a good score in this one; the challenge comes from the fact that the timing required is slightly different according to the type of dive.

Again, though, this event is over extremely quickly; if you’re playing with friends who are new to the game, they barely get a chance to get their bearings before it’s time to move on.

Summer Games

After another disk flip — just the one this time — we move on to Summer Games’ take on the 4×400 metre relay. This one is fairly easy to understand, and mercifully is not a “joystick waggler” — rather, it’s more about energy management. Pushing right will cause your runner to accelerate but burn more energy; pushing left will cause him to lag back and recover a bit of stamina; leaving it centred will cause him to run at a regular pace.

Successful completion of this race requires you to both manage the energy of all four teammates, and time the baton pass to be as efficient as possible. This one is actually quite easy to win against a computer player; if playing with multiple joysticks, you can compete directly against a friend for a rather more interesting sense of competition.

Summer Games

Next up comes Summer Games’ version of the 100 metre dash, which unfolds on the same backdrop as the relay and as such doesn’t require a disk flip. This one is a joystick waggler and simply demands that you abuse your poor control device as much as possible for about ten seconds.

There’s no real skill at this one; it’s all in the wrist, you know.

Summer Games

Another loading break with no disk flip required brings us to Summer Games’ gymnastics event, which is similar in execution to the diving — push the joystick in various directions to do things and make sure you land the right way up.

Matters are somewhat complicated in the gymnastics event by the necessity to jump off the springboard and vault over the horse by pressing the fire button at the appropriate times, but this is one that can be learned with a little practice. Again, though, there’s no real time to familiarise yourself with this event during “real” competition; you get three shots (of about two seconds each) and that’s your lot.

Summer Games

A disk flip later and the action switches to Summer Games’ definitely-not-Olympic swimming pool, where we have two swimming events to complete — the freestyle relay, followed by the 100-metre freestyle. These both operate identically: push right to hop into the water with the right timing (taking care not to get a false start) then press the fire button as your athlete’s arm enters the water to get a “power stroke”.

Literally the only difference between the two events is that the freestyle relay requires you to repeat the entire process three times after the first two lengths, while the 100-metre freestyle only requires two lengths of the pool to complete.

These didn’t really need to be in here as two separate events; just the 100-metre freestyle would have been absolutely fine, since the relay very much wears out its welcome quite quickly. To add insult to injury, there are two disk flips — one to load the results, one to reload the same swimming pool backdrop you’ve just seen — between the relay and the 100-metre freestyle.

Summer Games

One final disk flip later and it’s on to Summer Games’ final event: skeet shooting. This is a simple but enjoyable shooting gallery event in which you’re given a targeting reticle and challenged to shoot the clay pigeons that are fired into the air either one at a time or in pairs.

The reticle is quite forgiving, so it’s relatively straightforward to get a good score — I broke the on-disk “world record” on my first attempt — but it’s a fun conclusion to the Summer Games while it lasts.

All in all, I had fun revisiting Summer Games, though the lengthy load times and ridiculous amount of disk flipping in the Atari 8-bit version put a bit of a dampener on the excitement along the way, especially since I was playing solo.

Single-player, the game lacks a certain something, since there are no computer-controlled opponents to compete against. Take the time to teach the various events to one or more receptive opponents, however, and there’s a great deal of potential fun to be had with this one; get the beers in and enjoy a bit of friendly banter between events and you won’t even notice those load times.

Screenshots from the Atari 8-bit version of Summer Games.

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