At some point in our collective infinite wisdom, it was decided that if you want to get something done, it's gonna take four years. Finish college? Four years. Be President? Four years. Ruin The Matrix? Four years.
The other really big four-year event is the Summer Olympics, a tradition that dates back (in modern terms) to 1896 – which, incidentally, happened to take place in Athens, Greece, the same location as this year's upcoming Games.
And apparently, 989 Sports and developer Eurocom decided to honor this link to tradition by barfing out Athens 2004, a game that features mechanics so ancient that anyone with a pulse and at least one functioning eye has already seen and played most of what it has to offer. I guess four years isn't enough time to come up with some good new ideas.
To its credit, Athens 2004 goes for the gold by offering a whopping 25 events, including classic Track and Field events (Long Jump, 100m dash, etc.), Aquatic events (four swim meets), Gymnastics, and more obtuse sideshow events like Horse Jumping and Skeet Shooting. It's a much more complete list than most past Olympic video games have offered.
But this is all marginalized pretty quickly when you consider that about half of those events require the exact same tired gameplay device that has been used in Olympic games since Konami's Track & Field first broke knuckles back in 1983: button-mashing. Smash X and Circle to run the 100m dash, the 200m dash, the 400 m dash, to throw the Javelin, to swim in all four swim events. Mash your way to victory in the Long Jump, the Gymnastic Vault, even Weightlifting. It's incredible that in twenty-one years, no one has come up with a better plan, because this is as annoying, boring and skill-less as it gets.
The events that don't employ the exhausting, incessant mash aren't particularly innovative, either. Horse Jumping, for instance, simply has you following a path through the jumping course and pressing a button to leap over the obstacles. Archery makes you first gauge the wind, then aim and press a button to shoot, which is actually more complicated than Skeet Shooting, which takes out the wind altogether. The Discus throw requires you to twirl the analog stick rather than mash buttons, while the inane Shot Put features one little meter and two little button presses to set power and angle. Riveting stuff.
And really easy stuff, too, especially if you've ever played any Olympic video game in the past two decades. Give a monkey a few cups of coffee and he could set World Records in half the events without breaking a sweat, though I guarantee he'd break the controller. Stupid monkey!
Making matters worse is the control. Though you mostly spend your time rapidly alternating your focus between X and Circle, you occasionally have to press the 'Action' button to make your guy jump or something. The obvious choice? Triangle or Square. The actual answer? L1, which I have renamed LOL1, because it's so lame it's laugh-out-loudable.
Clearly the most effective way to mash the buttons is by using your fingers rather than your thumbs, just like in Track & Field. So now imagine having to reach over and whack L1 rather than just tap either of the two other face buttons, which have no function at all in Athens 2004. In some events, such as the 110m hurdles or Weightlifting, this becomes a near dealbreaker. It's insanely dumb and cannot be changed.
In fact, Athens 2004 might be the least customizable sports game I've ever played. You can participate as any one of 64 countries, but you can't create an athlete. There are no stats, no training, and no career. You pick your country and gender, and the game then just gives you a pre-set runner/jumper/thrower/swimmer who looks the part, ethnically speaking.
This lack of depth is what kills Athens 2004 more than anything. Though there are several ways to take on the events, including such inspiring choices as 'Practice' and 'Arcade' alongside the ability to take on a Decathlon, Heptathlon or create your own little series of events, they all just toss you from one event to another and tally up points. Then you win, watch your athlete take the podium for a medal, see your flag raised and boom, back to the menu screen. How rewarding.
Party mode adds a little flavor, at least. If you have a PS2 dance mat, you can take on the events without incessantly mashing buttons, though it's likely only a few of you actually have the mat and no one should buy one just to use with Athens 2004. Plus, one of the events, the Women's Gymnastic Floor Exercises, seems custom built for the dance mat, not a normal PS2 controller. This proves annoying to anyone without the mat.
There is also some merit in Athens 2004 as a multiplayer game due to the simple gameplay; even your non-gamer friends can figure out how to smash buttons. Of course, simplicity doesn't equal long-term fun. After an hour or so, no one will want to smash buttons anymore.
Mercifully, the game looks decent. The character animations are pretty fluid and the environments are fine. The athlete textures are a little overbearing and the faces are pretty lifeless, but at least the game maintains a smooth framerate. It's not a total graphical loss.
But it sure is an auditory one. I don't ask for much out of my Olympic video games, but I sure as hell expect national anthems. You get NONE in Athens 2004. You win, they raise the flag, and that's that. Equally mystifying is the location of the Olympic theme song, because it ain't in here. Huh? Wha? Are you kidding me? They've had anthems and the theme song in just about every Olympic game since Summer Games hit the Commodore 64 back in 1984. What happened here?
I'll tell you what happened. Despite a four year gap between Olympic video games, no one gave this game any thought until probably sometime last year, when suddenly the IOC and Sony worked out the licensing fees. That's really the only way I can explain Athens 2004's total disregard for interesting gameplay. It simply feels like it was rushed out in time to capitalize on the upcoming Games, merely some advance merchandising rather than a full-fledged, smartly developed sports gaming endeavor. Maybe they'll get it right in 2008.