The news that Michael Phelps has officially become the most prolific gold medalist in Olympic history got me reminiscing about my own glory days as a pole vaulter, platform diver, swimmer, gymnast, skeet shooter, high jumper, javelin thrower, fencer, and cyclist. What a time. It was a lot of work, sometimes I wondered if I really had what it takes, but when I was standing on that podium with a gold medal around my neck, hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing, I knew it had all been worth it.
Unless I was playing for Canada.
My Dad got me my first computer when I was nine years old — a Commodore 64. I’ve had many far superior machines since that one — which I named Sam, after the voice synthesizer program that came with it — but none that I have loved as much. Maybe it was how young and sentimental I was, maybe it was the fact that it was my first computer, but years later when we finally sold it, I was heartbroken, even though I had my spiffy new Windows 3.1-running IBM PS/1. Before they took Sam away, I typed “Goodbye” into the keyboard.
The games I had for the C64 back then are still some of my favorites. What’s better than Blue Max? Or the C64 version of Super Mario that was so very, very different from the Nintendo version? I even had an awesome game called Batman: The Caped Crusader, where you (as Batman, don’tcha know) matched wits against the Joker and the Penguin. I never beat the fucking thing, but it’s still the Batman game I remember the most fondly, by far.
Two of the best games were Summer Games and Summer Games II, created by Epyx Software as unlicensed tie-ins to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The International Olympics Committee didn’t sanction the games, so instead of referring to the Olympics, the competitions in Summer Games were said to be part of the Epyx Games. There was a total of 16 different events in the two games. I usually played by myself against the computer, or with my younger brother, but the game was able to support up to eight players, and a few events, like swimming, fencing, and sprinting, allowed two players to compete head-to-head. You could choose which country you wished to compete for. Being a patriot, I usually chose to play for the U.S.A., but I broadened my horizons by playing for Canada, or the Netherlands, or the mysterious nation of Epyx every now and then.
Oh, the fights it started between my brother and I. When you’re a sore loser and a sore winner (which we both were), it’s not a matter of if fists will fly and tears will fall, but when.
Playing Summer Games required a delicate touch with the joystick. It wasn’t all wagging and pushing the trigger. The triple jump, for instance, became the bane of my existence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s; you had to push the stick in just the right direction, at just the right time to make your best jump and avoid being disqualified. I don’t think I ever got the hang of it. The times when I did well in the event were sheer luck, I am now convinced.
Another challenging one was skeet shooting, which required quick reflexes and good timing. The game was realistic enough that your slugs didn’t reach the pigeons instantaneously, meaning you had to lead your shots a bit. It took me awhile to catch on to this. Once I did, I still blew it more than half the time. Apparently I’m not cut out for athletics, be they in the real world or simulated by a Commodore 64.
These games were joystick-busters. I remember having to beg my mother for more than one trip to Babbages to replace a joystick after a particularly spirited swimming competition. And where, I ask, after all the gold, silver, and bronze I won for the glory of this country (and sometimes Canada and the U.S.S.R.), were my endorsements? What, that little rip Mary Lou Retton was good enough for the Wheaties box, but not me? What a gyp.
Rusty at Commodore 64 Boxed Sets has a page devoted to Summer Games on his website. You can view screencaps, scans of the box and user’s manual, and even play the game online. The opening ceremony isn’t quite as spectacular as in Beijing — just a little pixilated dude running up with a torch and lighting the flame — but it’s a hell of a fun game to play, and boy does it ever take me back . . .