“Wait, Track and Field? That game where all you do is mash buttons?”
The very one!
“He’s really going to review that?”
He is, indeed!
Konami’s Track & Field originally saw life as an arcade game in 1983. It popularized – if not outright invented – the concept of smashing buttons as quickly as possible to build speed or charge up power. I know many who aren’t fans of this kind of gameplay, but it really is the only way to replicate any kind of strenuous physical activity with a controller, and really, how else were you going to create a challenge out of making virtual athletes run as fast as they can? Konami ported the game to every home system and computer it could (as was standard practice), and the NES got its turn in 1987.
The home port has you cycling through a series of eight events. Hammer Throw from the arcade was cut, but you get three new events in its place. You can pick which event to start with, but qualifying in that event will always move you to the next one in the list. That list is as follows: 100 Meter Dash, Long Jump, 110 Meter Hurdles, Javelin Throw, Skeet Shooting, Triple Jump, Archery, and High Jump – in all, a well-rounded set of summer events. All games except the running events give you three chances to meet the qualifying time and advance. Finishing out the list starts over from the beginning, with progressively tougher qualifying times for each event. If you ever fail to qualify in any event, the game ends.
Controls are simple enough, and based entirely around the controller (nope, that Power Pad game you’re thinking of is Stadium Events/World Class Track Meet). You bash the A button as fast as possible to build and maintain your speed meter. The B button isn’t used at all, and you won’t rapidly cycle between A and B as you will in later games. The direction pad triggers action, such as hopping hurdles or starting your jumps. The challenge comes from keeping up thumb stamina to keep banging on that A button, and then following up with perfect timing on the direction pad.
The 100 Meter Dash and Hurdles events are the most straightforward. You don’t have to beat the other runner (though he’s a good guide), you just have to qualify. The jumping events and the Javelin Throw are all based around angles. You’ll take off down the track using the A button to build up speed, then hold Up before you cross the foul line. Holding Up starts an angle meter in the bottom corner of the screen, which counts up quite rapidly and controls the ultimate height and distance of your jump or throw. In all cases but the High Jump, you want this number at close to 45 degrees as possible. It takes practice to feel exactly how long to charge the jump (roughly half a second), and coming in under or over on your angle will shorten your jump or result in a foul.
Skeet Shooting uses a completely different scheme. Here, you have two target boxes indicating where you’ll shoot. These move up and down on their own, so it’s entirely a matter of timing to hit the button when a skeet passes through the box. The A button fires at the right box, and the control pad fires at the left. If you keep up consistent hits, the size of these boxes expands and makes future shots easier. Miss one, and they’ll shrink back to the starting size.
Archery is different still. Your athlete stands in one place while bulls-eye targets move down from the top of the screen. Any button fires an arrow, and your goal is to time the arrow to hit the bulls-eye as it passes the middle of the screen. At the same time, you’ll also need to hold the button briefly to direct the vertical angle of the arrow. 5 degrees is the magic spot, with 0 and 10 missing below and above. The combination of these two factors determines where the arrow ultimately hits, helpfully shown with an X on a separate sub-window. You’ll need to master the horizontal and vertical timing to hit the target’s point-rich inner rings.
Qualifying in each event is the minimum limit to keep the game alive, but the world record for each event is continually updated with your best performance. While it’s fun to see how many times you can make it through the events – with the qualifying times steadily ramping up to inhuman scores – the world record lets you also challenge yourself to beat the best time you’ve previously posted. It’s a subtle, but satisfying drive to keep you playing the game and getting better at it.
Of course, challenging your friends to beat your best showing is a part of this as well. World record scores aren’t kept after the console is reset, but that’s what paper is for. For more direct competition, there’s the 2-player mode. Players hit the two running events simultaneously and switch off on every other event, with times updated accordingly. The competition serves up some pretty excellent couch co-op.
Graphics are surprisingly great, with an excellent illusion of depth. The NES doesn’t support separate foreground and background layers, so Track & Field uses pretty convincing raster scan tricks to get different elements moving at different speeds appropriate to the perspective. Information is laid out well, and I never had any confusion regarding how I was placing. Animation looks nice too, with fluid (for the NES) running and jumping cycles. There are only two generic competitors – a guy with a mustache for Player 1, and his palette-swapped clone for Player 2 – but they fill the role appropriately.
Sound is where things get really impressive – with solid digital renditions of start whistles, digital timers, and even scratchy crunching for each runner’s footsteps. The javelin event has a fantastic slide whistle style shifting pitch as the javelin flies up and then sails back down (similarly duplicated in the high jump event). The title song is even a legitimate rendition of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire theme from the 1981 film. It gets you set up and prepared to finish a slow motion montage as you fly through the finish tape, arms stretched to the sky.
I suppose the only flaw is requiring you to get skilled at very diverse events to play the game proper. You absolutely can just restart the console and jump right to your favorite event, playing against yourself for a better time, but you won’t see the progressive difficulty feature unless you clear every event. Inevitably, you’re going to get stuck on at least one – I can tear up the Javelin event, but I’m worthless in Skeet Shooting, so it would take a considerable amount of practice in an event I don’t even like that much to advance on the ones I’m good at. There is an novice/expert selection (A and B modes on the title screen), but expert mode just jumps you ahead in the difficulty progression. The necessity of beating every event remains.
Overall, the game’s an excellent example of classic NES gameplay. It’s easy to pick up, totally devoid of story, and a “high score” is your primary goal. It’s challenging on its own, a blast with friends, and the kind of addictive arcade gameplay that’s just plain fun. I played some later track and field games leading up to this, and I feel like in their rush to be more complex simulations, they forgot the simplicity that makes this game shine.
Great graphics, excellent sound. Simple and fair controls. Good variety of events. World record challenges and increasing difficulty give strong encouragement to keep trying for better times.
Game’s structure forces you to be good at every event to continue. You can select any event from the title screen, but you won’t see the harder difficulties unless you qualify in each event.