24/08/2011

THE TRIATHRON

I've mentioned before that despite being the nerd that I am, I'm still a fan of some sports. I love football, and I'm into boxing. There are even some sports I don't like which, through the transformative properties of videogaming, I've enjoyed playing a digital recreation of. Everybody's Golf springs to mind, and as a kid I spent countless hours playing NBA Jam (possibly the game that most solidified my love for digitised speech samples). I've never been a fan of athletics, though; all that running around a track brings back dismal memories of mandatory cross-country events at school which had all the cheerful character of a death march. That could all change today, however, as I play K Amusement's 1988 NES Ironman-em-up, The Triathron. No, that isn't a typo.

Some kind of three-headed rainbow man appears on the title screen, perhaps representing the final product of a government experiment to create the world's greatest triathlete. Yes, as you may have deciphered from the title The Triathron is a NES version of the triathlon. You know the one - a bit of swimming, then a bit of cycling, then some running, then a massive cardiac arrest. Okay, so maybe it's just dough-bellied lumps like me whose hearts would explode at the end, but I'm not competing, am I? Of course not, the triathlon is an event for only the fittest of men and women. Only men in The Triathron, actually, although with NES sprites you'd be hard-pressed to spot any gender differences anyway.
Before you begin the gruelling competition, there's the somewhat less grueling task of selecting your character. There are six in total, each with slightly different stats.

For example, number six is William Baker. He's from Canada, and as you can see he has high stamina and "dush", but relatively low speed. He is also The Terminator in a neon-green tanktop.

Or maybe Scott Anderson takes your fancy? Why are you looking so glum, Scott? Is it because they've given the name of your home country as "Austlaria"? You should cheer up, you're pretty good at swimming. That'll come in handy.

In the absence of a British character to select based on patriotism alone, (I assume there's no British athlete because he couldn't make it out of the qualifiers,) I'll be playing as Shingo Takada. He's got a lot of dush, you see. Girls love dush.

Chicago is the venue for the first event, and you're presented with what is possibly the most useless map in videogaming history. The first part of the race is swimming.

The game helpfully reminds you to "Swim" at the top of the screen, just in case the picture of men bobbing chest-deep in water and wearing goggles didn't tip you off.

And here you are, swimming. As with pretty much every athletics game of the time, The Triathron is about button mashing. Pressing the B button repeatedly gets your character swimming forwards, which is all fairly standard. The first problem you might have is getting your swimmer to face in the direction you want: strangely, the controls are relative to the direction of your character, so pressing left on the pad makes your swimmer rotate to their left. It feels unusual at first but it just requires some practice, and once I'd figured out that it's easier to turn if you tap the d-pad rather than hold it I started to get the hang of the swimming. More challenging than the controls, however, is the sea itself.

As we all know, the ocean is a terrifying stygian otherworld filled with devastating natural phenomena and creatures made mostly of tentacles, spines and poison glands. The ocean in The Triathron is no different. Jellyfish impede your progress, (and getting a jellyfish in the face would be bad enough,) but the race organisers decided that hey, if we're trying to find the ultimate athlete, why not make it a real challenge? To this end, they placed the race course in an area of the sea filled with raging whirlpools, because what else did the spectators come to see if not a man struggling for his life as the current inexorably pulls him to a slow death by drowning? Yes, you can die in The Triathron. The race continues without you, just another victim of the triathlon's insatiable bloodlust.

If you manage to survive the horrors of the deep, you can move on to the next event. This is the cycling segment, and it's my favourite of the three: this is probably because the idea of sitting down appeals to me.

Much like the swimming, cycling involves hammering the B button to build up speed. Once you stop pressing B, your speed gradually decreases, which is useful for getting around corners. Apart from the occasional sections where the roads haven't been finished, the bike course seems a much more sensible setting than the swimming route. The problem with the cycling stage is your opponents, who appear to have taken the "Iron" in "Ironman" literally. You're racing down fairly narrow streets most of the time, and your co-triathletes take up an awful lot of space.

Run into them, and you'll fall over. They won't, though. They just keep on riding, oblivious to the impact even if you sideswipe them at maximum speed. Just make sure you don't try and overtake them on a corner and you should be okay. With the cycling complete, it's on to the third and final event: long-distance running.

Is it just me, or is the way it says "...RUN..." at the top of the screen a little menacing? Is something going to be chasing me? Well no, not unless you count the constant feeling of your parent's disappointment weighing heavy on your shoulders, forcing you to compete in triathlons to prove your worth.

The running switches to a side-on view, but it's the same basic concept: hammer B to build up speed while trying to conserve your stamina. Actually, I never managed to deplete the stamina bar despite mashing the B button so furiously that my right thumb now looks like Conan's bicep. I'm not sure why that is: perhaps I picked up a lot of stamina power-ups, or maybe I was placed on this Earth solely to be good at The Triathron.
As well as running, the A button now comes into play and pressing it makes you jump. This is important, because in the worst display of town planning since, erm, the last time I played Sim City, someone has planted hedges directly across the road. So, The Triathron isn't just swimming, cycling and running - it's also jumping, and the racing stages are more a steeplechase than a marathon.

Oh, and you can hop on a skateboard. Normally I would say that this is way beyond the realm of good sportsmanship, but then again they did make me swim through a whirlpool, so fuck your sportsmanship. The benefit of the skateboard is that you don't use stamina when you're riding it, and your thumbs get a rest because it automatically accelerates. Good use of the skateboard, especially if you can get it through the pothole-filled sections without crashing, it a good way to secure victory. Speaking of victory, The Triathron is over!

It's about time someone praised my fighting spirits.
Once you've won, you get a couple of "bouns" points to spend on increasing your athlete’s stats, and then it's straight back into the next Ironman Triathlon, this time in Japan. And then another, and another. To be honest, I gave up after the third triathlon in a row, because the tendons in my thumb had melted to the consistency of applesauce and the pain was affecting my ability to avoid other cyclists.
That's not all The Triathron has to offer, though. If you select "special" from the title screen, you can play a new triathlon with altered stages. This is the first one:

Personally I would have gone with "Oh Shit It's A Shark", but "Splash Fight" is fine too.

It's pretty much the same as the standard swimming sections, except with more obstacles to avoid. Yes, and a shark too. Jaws here chases behind you, and if you slow down too much he eats you. Strangely, there are other swimmers on the same course (which you have to avoid) but the shark completely ignores them and remains fixed on devouring the player character, which just goes to show that wearing chum-scented cologne isn't a good idea on a date or during a triathlon.

The biking event is reborn as "Galaxy Course II", and you must ride your bike through space, avoiding meteors and UFOs whilst trying to stave off explosive decompression. It's a lot easier than Splash Fight, because you can slow down without being eaten by a shark. There are no sharks in space, silly. At least... not yet.

And finally there's "Midnight Running". Let's just take a moment and look at that title card. Nice, isn't it? Anyway, Midnight Running is exactly the same as Daytime Running but with more obstacles. The hedges are replaced with giant trenches, there are trampolines and enemies that fall from the sky, but after the previous two stages it's a breeze.

Forget "dush", there is nothing the ladies love more than a man who can outswim a shark, ride a bicycle through the stars and, umm, jog at night.
And that's it for The Triathron. I admit I only gave it a go because the misspelled title promised a world of poor translation decisions, but I ended up sort of enjoying it. Sure, it's basic and rough around the edges, and all it really amounts to is steering something while pressing a button repeatedly... but it does what it sets out to do quite well. The graphics are decent, the music is okay and the gameplay is interesting enough to keep you diverted for at least a little while. However, I think my favourite thing about the whole game is that during the running stages you can grab a drink from the refreshment table on the way past, and your character glugs it down as he runs along. I love little touches like that.

Its main flaws are a lack of a two-player mode, something which I'm sure would have injected some fun into the proceedings, and the fact that you can't save your progress. This is particularly irritating given that you can upgrade your character, but hey - it's a button-masher for the NES, what do you expect?
In the end, I can't really recommend it to you: you should either play a modern title, of if you're set on a NES sports game there are better ones around. What I can say is that The Triathron wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting: it even managed to charm me a little, and that's not bad going.

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