Retro Gaming Challenge Week Twenty: Athlete Kings (Sega Saturn)

Forget the Olympics. To be truly great, you need to be a King amongst Athletes.
This week’s retro gaming entry is a little shorter than the previous entries. It’s been a challenging week, and that’s putting it mildly. One of the casualties of that week is that I’ve spent very little real time at the retro gaming challenge, although I did at least play some Athlete Kings during the seven day span.
Also, all week long, I’ve felt mildly guilty.
No, not about the corpses. They’ve stopped twitching… mostly. Instead, I felt slightly guilty, because Athlete Kings is a game that I have history with. Specifically, I picked it up during the period when the Saturn was essentially dead, and retailers were doing everything they could to get stock off shelves, because if you weren’t a PlayStation game in that era, nobody really cared.
(You’re free to dislike that outcome, but it’s undeniably true. From a retail perspective, there was PlayStation and then… probably Gameboy games, actually. Then everything else.)
Anyway, Athlete Kings was a total impulse, very cheap game that I then discovered was actually very good in the company of a good friend of mine who I will simply call VGO. He knows who he is. Anyway, it quickly became our go-to competitive game, with the target times or distances for every event a hotly contested matter.

First person to complain "BUT IT LOOKS SO BLOCKY POLYGONS EUGH" gets a javelin TO THE FACE.
First person to complain “BUT IT LOOKS SO BLOCKY POLYGONS EUGH” gets a javelin TO THE FACE.

Side note: I have a Saturn Memory cartridge, and I nearly outright fainted when Athlete Kings loaded up with no high scores. Oh my. Thankfully, it had simply been knocked out of the slot at some point, so a reboot was all that was needed to restore all of those hotly contested records.
Games get better over time. Sure, I could comment that No Man’s Sky is really just Elite with fancier Thargoids, or indeed that Halo is just Space Invaders with less of a sense of urgency, but generally, new games build on the foundations of the old ones, getting better along the way.
There’s one exception to this rule, however. Games about Olympic events. There’s a debt owed to Konami’s Track and Field, obviously, as well as the seminal Epyx Summer/Winter games titles, and (you can see this coming, right?) this all leads to Athlete Kings, or Decathlete as it’s known in some markets.
I’ve played more than a few Olympic (official or otherwise) games since, and I’m yet to play one that’s objectively better. Yes, the Mario/Sonic Olympic games look a bit better, but the key appeal there are the silly dream events. There’s no practical way that Mario should even be in the same final of the 100m as Sonic in the first place!
In most games, jump is just a button. In Athlete Kings, you've got to really WORK for it.
In most games, jump is just a button. In Athlete Kings, you’ve got to really WORK for it.

Still, that basic rapid-button-thumping mechanism with a few difficulty twists for alternate events is the absolute norm for any Olympic style game. Some struggle with making this “Fun” — I’m looking at you PlayStation International Track & Field 1 and 2, not to mention the official Sydney and Beijing Olympic game games — but this is where Athlete Kings manages that balance between being skilled and fun neatly. It’s simple enough for standard party play, but get experts playing and both the sweat and threats can let fly rapidly.
One random discovery; player two can fly that blimp around while you're trying to balance the perfect shot. Why? Well, why not?
One random discovery; player two can fly that blimp around while you’re trying to balance the perfect shot. Why? Well, why not?

Playing it this week as a solo affair, however, lost much of that urgency. Naturally, my skills were rusty, so many of the now-more-than-a-decade-old records were never in much trouble, although I did come close to beating my own hurdles record, and VGO’s long-standing javelin record too. With more time, it could even be possible.
Still, while I do think it’s the best general track and field event game money can buy, it definitely loses a step when you play it solo. As a two player challenge it’s exceptional, but standalone, not quite so.

I too thirst for glory. How can I play it?

Sega’s sold off just about everything else feasible to keep itself afloat, but there’s never been a really big push for Athlete Kings/Decathlete emulation, at least not officially. Which means you’d need to track down a second-hand copy.
You can hunt for a copy on eBay here. It’s not even terribly expensive!
(As usual, that’s an affiliate link. Something’s got to keep the lights flickering on here.)

Next week: Finis

Yes, technically next week is meant to be Star Wars: Battlefront, and it’s actually somewhat likely I might play some of that in the upcoming seven days. It’s hardly a game I don’t like.
But that being said, things have become increasingly tricky for me, time-wise of late, and something’s got to give. Amongst other things, that’ll be writing up the weekly retro game challenge. I still adore the retro games I play, and I’m getting increasingly resistant to the hype around new titles — I think I’m the only games-interested-tech-journo who hasn’t yet played No Man’s Sky for example — but I need to free up some time for some more important personal matters.
So after twenty weeks, I’m drawing a line on this experiment and moving on.

Retrogaming Challenge: The story so far

Want to catch up on the action you’ve missed? Check out the list below:

Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Road 2: The Next Generation (N64)Toukon_ReversalDonkey Konga (Gamecube)DonkeyKonga_2
The Firemen (SNES)Firemen_FiresSpace Invaders (2600)SpaceInvaders2600_1
Three Dirty Dwarves (Saturn)3DD_BossFightTrog (NES)TROG_EAT
Robocop vs The Terminator (Megadrive)RBvT_gunsJames Bond 007: Everything or Nothing (Xbox)EoN_Bond_Corner
Godzilla Generations (Dreamcast)Zilla_1Devil Dice (PSOne)DD_Trial
Asterix (Sega Master System)Asterix_RomansToki (Atari Lynx)Toki_1_600
Backyard Wrestling: Don’t Try This At Home (PS2)byw2Super Monkey Ball (Gamecube)SMB_Goal
Unirally (SNES)Unirally_1Mutant League Football (Megadrive)MLF_Ref_600
Q*Bert (Atari 2600)QBert_2_600Alien 3 (SNES vs Megadrive)Alien3_MD_600
F-Zero X (N64)F-Zero_Countdown_600

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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