Beijing 2008

[21 August 2008]

By Jamie Lynn Dunston

The Olympic flame will soon be extinguished and the anthem will ring out for the last time.  The final medals will be awarded; the winners shall be crowned with laurels.  The losers shall return home to face their teammates and countrymen with the pride of competition as well as the sting of defeat.  The summer games in Beijing have nearly reached their conclusion, and we are soon to be thrust into the icy pool of regularly scheduled programming.  Whatever will we do to fill the Olympic-sized hole in our lives when the event is over for another four years?   

Sega would have you believe that their officially licensed video game, Beijing 2008, will allow you to step into the action of the world’s greatest international sporting event and help quench your thirst for bronze, silver, and gold.  Sega is horribly, terribly wrong.  Beijing 2008 is a virtually unplayable compendium of poorly executed button-mashing minigames shrouded in attractive character meshes, high-end graphics, and clever marketing.

I do not enjoy writing negative reviews.  I prefer to give developers the benefit of the doubt.  Although I, personally, would rather extract my own wisdom teeth with an ice pick and a bottle of corn whiskey than spend any more of my precious leisure time playing this game, perhaps there really is someone out there who would enjoy it.  It occurred to me that perhaps I’m just not cut out for the kind of twitchy button combos required to succeed here.  So like any responsible reviewer, I outsourced.  I recruited my smirking spouse, who was skulking over my shoulder like a moray eel, grinning eerily and spewing disparaging comments about my skills, to play for a while.  (More precisely, I handed him the controller and informed him that if he was so smart, he could figure it out himself.)  After twenty minutes of watching him fail to clear the pole vault, I requested that he move on to another event.  Ten minutes later, granted reprieve by our crying baby, he thrust the controller back into my hand and rushed off to retrieve our daughter, preferring the company of a teething infant to his futile attempts to master even one of the thirty-eight minigames.   

When I was hardly more than a babe, I spent an idyllic summer playing Epyx Games’ series of Olympic knock-offs (Summer Games, Winter Games, and Summer Games II) with my older brother on our Commodore 64.  Our four-person team consisted of the Butt brothers—Rusty, Dusty, and Musty—and one lone female competitor, Ima Pigg.  Although our characters were but blocky white text on a pixilated 64-bit background, they had more personality than all the participants on all 32 national teams represented in Beijing 2008 combined.  While Beijing‘s graphics are top-notch, high-res images and fidgety animations simply cannot imbue a mannequin with the breath of life that makes us care about our real-world Olympic athletes.   

Gamers in the know (read: geezers) remember Summer Games as “the joystick breaker” because of its reliance on the “jiggle the analog stick fervently and try not to hurt yourself” method of simulating foot races.  Of course, in the twenty-first century we have developed new, sophisticated methods of evoking the body mechanics of racing without requiring slothful gamers to rise from our easy chairs.  Sega, instead, uses the “waggle two analog sticks simultaneously, then stop suddenly and pull the trigger twice” method.  I wish I were joking.  The tutorial actually, literally, sincerely uses the verb “waggle.”  All other things being equal, I would rather Sega had given up on the metaphorical athletics and just borrowed Nintendo’s antiquated Power Pad technology.  When a game makes me think wistfully of indoor jogging, we are having a problem.   

I bring up Summer Games not to elevate it as the Olympic simulator by which all others shall be measured and found wanting, but rather to point out that it seems that gaming should have evolved a bit over the course of the last twenty four years.  If a designer were to pitch to a modern game house a graphically updated version Epyx’s 1984 series with the exact same play mechanics, one would hope he would be laughed out of the building.  Yet that is almost exactly what Sega has done with Beijing 2008.  The main difference being, of course, that in its own era, Summer Games was actually fun to play.

Sega’s web site declares that Beijing 2008 “offers full Olympic branding and transports you right into the heart of the action in ultra-realistic recreations of the Beijing stadiums.”  In this sense, at least, it does live up to the hype.  Additionally, the animations are based on motion capture from real-life former Olympians, which gives the models an organic and natural feel.  However, all the graphical advancement in the world can not immerse a player the way truly good design can, and compelling gameplay is conspicuously absent here.  Rather than allowing players to imagine what it might be like to actually participate in the Olympics, Beijing 2008 instead gives one the sense that only someone with innate physical characteristics unheard of in the course of normal human evolution could perform the necessary feats to even qualify for the games, let alone take home the gold.   

Beijing 2008 fails because the player neither meets immediate success nor feels motivated to pursue it.  The events feel stagnant, each one merely a slight variation on the last.  They make it extremely difficult to achieve any sort of proficiency, and even when all the steps are performed to spec, efforts are rewarded only sporadically.  The tutorials are sometimes confusing and often inadequate; completion of an event, successful or otherwise, offers no feedback to help the player repeat a good performance or improve a bad one.  In short, Beijing 2008 presents players with a game that is too difficult to begin and not rewarding enough to finish.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/beijing-2008/