In another of his occasional guest features for Arcade Heroes – industry specialist Kevin Williams, marks the celebration of the Tokyo Olympics 2020, and charts the influences that the video amusement industry has taken from the Global sporting event. This comes full circle as the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 games showcased video game music from a variety of composers and companies in the country.
As we embrace a belated Summer Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, it would seem a good point to look back at all the occasions that the video amusement scene has drawn direct inspiration from the Olympiads over the years.
As we all know the vast sporting event that is the modern Olympic games is both an amazing gathering of athletic talents from around the world but is also a major money-making machine. With a vast number of sponsors and international brand promotions incorporated into the athletic endeavour. That said, the protection of the Olympic brand is extreme, and there is a high price to be paid in wanting to use that brand.
For the early video amusement trade the price was too high, and many companies developed games that skirted the letter of the law regarding the appropriation of the Olympics’ image. A great example of this is the 1973 release from a small video arcade operation call See-Fun, who along with making a knock-off of the famous ‘PONG Doubles’, also decided to call their game ‘Olympic Tennis’. While at the same time, Chicago Coin would release both ‘Olympic TV Football’ and ‘Olympic TV Hockey’ – all riding on the memory of the troubled Munich Olympics the previous year.
Even earlier than those video examples was the use of the term Olympics in pinball. Williams first gave it a shot in 1952; Then Gottlieb gave it a shot a decade later (interesting note on this one: The flyer mentions a “Hard-cote” for extending the life of the playfield surface! Seems we don’t just have that debate now). Another decade later saw Williams revisit the concept with Olympic Hockey, and the final Olympic-named pinball came in 1975 by Chicago Coin, seen below. Note that none of these games obtained a license, although the latter two included Olympic ring-like logos on them. The Chicago Coin game was also the only one that featured a variety of sporting events.
The official usage of the Olympic brand and creation of a lucrative licensing agreement was seen in 1983 from KONAMI with ‘Hyper Olympic’. A game developed to coincide with the 1984 Los Angeles Summer games and was promoted heavily in its marketing alongside the build-up for the Olympiad. The game offering a unique playing style and high level of competition, with exhaustive button pounding over six distinctive events based very loosely on some of those found in the modern pentathlon. This game was also sold with a trak-ball version, although this was not as popular with the player base, who discovered a trick with a pencil on the button model that allowed one to get button-mashing advantage.
The game would go on to become a smash hit from its launch, incorporating tricks to master the various events, and the company looked forward to sales into the West. But regarding the use of the Olympic name, the license had only been purchased for the Japanese market, and the American division KONAMI Inc., and their distributor (Centuri) rushed to change the name to ‘Track & Field’ for Western deployment.
Building off the smash success of this first title, and KONAMI doubled down, rushing to new release ‘Hyper Olympic ‘84’ following the bankability of the game style and brand. The new title in the Japanese marketing continued to milk the expensive brand and Olympic Mascot for all it was worth, offering seven new events inspired by the games. While in the West another change of name by Centuri, would see it released as ‘Hyper Sports’.
KONAMI was bitten with the sports game bug (and its successful revenue generated) and started a near production line of sports themed games over the years. The company would create titles like ’KONAMI ‘88’ – launched in 1988 as a JAMMA-board. Receiving a limited placement in the West, known under a raft of different titles such as ‘Track & Field ‘88’, ‘’88 Games’, or ‘Hyper Sports Special’. Offering again a selection of inspired pentathlon pursuits, in these cases including Scaled-Sprites, to give a 3D effect. They also reused the multi-sports event formula in titles like ‘Circus Charlie’ and ‘Boot Camp.’
With ‘Hyper Athletics’ amusement release, we would see KONAMI drink from the sports-well again, this time with their full polygon-graphics system and offer a 3D interpretation of the sporting event, released in 1996. While in 1998, as the CGi graphics war intensified, and KONAMI now a full-fledged supporter and sponsor of the Olympiad, created a game to celebrate the events Winter return to Japan, with ‘Nagano Winter Olympics ’98’ (also known as ‘Hyper Olympic in Nagano’), comprising a selection of the down hill skiing and snowboarding activities. But KONAMI would not be the only amusement manufacturer to look at Olympic-inspired sports titles.
As stated, the licensing of the Olympic brand can be an expensive endeavour, so being able to create a sports game that “rides the bandwagon” of popularity during an Olympic year, (but avoid a license) is a recognized move. This is illustrated shortly after Hyper Olympic’s release with games like Taito‘s ‘Undou-kai’ or Century Electronics’ ‘Hunchback Olympics’; We would have to jump forward several years to find a second wind of renewed interest in the pseudo-Olympic games, such as ‘Olympic Soccer ’92’, developed and released by Seibu Kaihatsu, and would also be launched as ‘GOAL ‘92’. SEGA rode the line in 3D with ‘DecAthelete’ in 1996 and later taking advantage of their own ‘virtua’ branding with ‘Virtua Athletics.’
When NAMCO’ gave it a go in their 1993 release ‘Numan Athletics,’ they gave the concept twist by offering a sci-fi take on the idea of “super athletes” competing in a “sports competition”. Heavily inspired by the ‘Track & Field’ style of play, both this and the aforementioned Olympic Soccer ’92 games riding on the coattails of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The NAMCO game would go on to be ported to console platforms and see a strong popularity, and even inspiring a sequel with ‘Mach Breakers: Numan Athletics 2’ in 1994.
Source: Arcade Flyers Archive
While the consumer game sector has continued a deep and lucrative love affair with Olympic sponsorship and content, the video amusement scene in its reduced capacity had been left on the side-lines. But in 2016, SEGA led the creation of an amusement version of a console release with ‘Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – Arcade Edition’. Seeing the mixing of strong Nintendo and SEGA corporate mascot star-power into a highly physical game style (as reported in Arcade Heroes previously). The game employed unique controls for the players actual movements to play a part in racing their character across the winning line. The style of play borrowing heavily from experiences created for the JOYPOLIS venue, including Sonic Athletics.
A winning formula, and this latest Olympics has seen the concept dusted off for another chance for gold. SEGA launched in Feb. 2020 ‘Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – Arcade Edition’. This version of the game offered a similar playing style to the previous release – but with altered controls, and now including new events. These included eight-events from the planned 2020 Tokyo games, and four (Retro) events, inspired from the 1964 Tokyo games, the last time the Summer Olympics had been in Japan.
The game was on display at this years’ Amusement expo (as covered here), and SEGA Amusement International (SAI), the master distributors for SEGA Corporation amusement products in the West were keen to promote the title, also offering it as an upgrade kit for the earlier 2016 release.
Returning to the current Olympiad, and the postponement and reduced sports event has impacted the appearance of other licensed amusement (and consumer) game content. But there is one aspect of the current event that sees the name of KONAMI return with. It was reported that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), had launched what they had called the ‘Olympic Virtual Series’. The IOC hoping to create an “Olympic digital experience’ and was used to open the door concerning the controversial consideration of adding eSports to roster of disciplines covered by the Olympics.
One of the many supporting game developers and eSports operations to support the series was KONAMI, who had their eSports title ‘Powerful Pro Baseball 2020’ added to the series of supported games, with the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) as a sponsor. KONAMI has invested heavily in diversifying into the eSports arena, (opening their own ‘eSports Ginza Studio’ in 2019). And while many had hoped the IOC would have moved faster to adopt eSports and be more proactive. The competitive sport is making headway into being a demonstration game at the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, (which will also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the modern games).
We wish all nations and their participants and supports taking part in this years’ summer games a safe and successful event, and we look forward to the next amusement interpretation of the game, or even seeing video gaming itself welcomed into the Olympic family.
About the Author – Kevin Williams is a widely-respected expert on entertainment and technology. A regular presenter at international conferences, Kevin is also a regular speaker at the Foundation Entertainment University (FEU), a bootcamp for FEC investors. He also holds the role as one of the senior judges of the VR Awards.
Kevin’s consultancy KWP Ltd specialises in helping international clients develop immersive and interactive entertainment. Kevin has recently become Co-Founder and Technology Director for Spider Entertainment, a Global leader in Out of Home Entertainment for retail destinations.
Kevin is editor of the Stinger Report, a-must-read for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions, and entertainment industry. Along with this, he is also a prolific writer with regular columns for the main trade publications in this market, along with presenting numerous conference sessions on the sector and its global impact. He is also the co-author of the only book on this aspect of the market – currently working on the next edition, scheduled for publication soon. Kevin can be reached at email@example.com.
The last pinball with olympics as a theme was Torch by Gottlieb in 1980. Gottlieb however decided to avoid everthing that could be a licensing problem like rings or even the name Olympics.
It was probably also a political decision since the 1980 olympics were in Moscow and there was a large boycott by a quite lot of countries.