• ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    ESPN International winter sports 2002 is one of a range of games released by Konami. ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) is a sports channel in the USA, so a useful license for Konami. Released in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics on the PS2, Xbox and Gamecube, Winter Sports 2002 fits in the narrow niche genre of the "joystick waggling, button mashing game". As is usual for this type of game, it only comes into its element when playing against friends. The competitive streak turns the game from essentially having to pressing a couple of buttons at the correct time, to being the most important bit of gaming ever, with reputations to lose and demanding team mates to please.

    Konami has tried to add more competitive element to the single player game by an Internet ranking system, which also features in some of the other ESPN games.
    The controls differ greatly depending on event and this complexity will be confusing to a group of people trying to sit down and play through a championship for the first time. On a second attempt, the techniques for each event should have become apparent, but the game is still a little more technical when compared to other games of this type. This is not a problem for regular players, but is off-putting to less frequent gamers. Helpfully though, the instruction manual is not needed for most events, since a detailed explanation precedes each event. There is no option to turn them off, but they can be quickly bypassed with a button tap.

    The major flaw in ESPN Winter Sports is the lack of some 4 player simultaneous events. The downhill skiing, slalom skiing, bobsleigh and speed skating events can be played by 2 players in split screen mode. The other events are turn based, if in 2 player mode. This means that team play is the only option if more than 2 people want to play at once. This is a pity, since far older games such as Winter Heat on the Sega Saturn had 4 player events, which build the tension and competitive spirit far more.

    The Gamecube version is based on the PS2 engine with no graphical improvements and visuals are not groundbreaking on the PS2 let alone the Gamecube. As such the graphics are lacklustre but smooth. The main play areas are good enough, but the backgrounds and trees are particularly flat in appearance. Most of the spectators and non-player characters are sprites and could so easily have been polygons in places. Even as sprites they could have been executed better. However, some of the graphical effects do look very good and thus a bit out of place. For example, when downhill skiing, the plume of snow that arcs outwards during tight turns looks spot on, as does the scratched ice in the speed skating arena.

    Frame-rate is not a problem except in a couple of the replays, which stutter once in the same place each time, but do look good. The back of the box states "brilliant graphics that feature weather effects and facial animations". The characters do indeed have facial animations, but since they don't actually speak, it's completely wasted. It is also very creepy when, having selected a male or female character from the list of eight different countries, the character turns towards the camera and starts mouthing something; exactly what though is never revealed. The visuals actually become slightly redundant in many of the events because the player becomes so intent on hammering buttons or concentrating on a power gauge that what is actually happening on the rest of the screen goes unnoticed until the replay, thus taking away much of the sense of involvement.

    A brief rundown of each of the events reveals the different play mechanics involved.
    The downhill alpine skiing is a straightforward race to the bottom of the hill using the stick for direction and the A button for tighter turns. The sensation of speed is good and the course is long enough to contain a lot of different types of corners and a couple of jumps. The only gripe is that when coming off jumps, gravity sucks the skier towards the ground far more rapidly than when compared to the soaring jumps of real life downhill courses.

    Slalom skiing requires a similar technique, but the skier is quite twitchy and turns very quickly if necessary. A momentary loss of concentration can lead to missing a gate, disqualification from both runs and no score.

    K90 ski jumping takes a bit longer to figure out. The L and R analogue buttons are held down and released before the end of the ramp. They are then pressed again, just hard enough to follow two dropping power bars. If the left and right triggers get out of sync with each other, the skier starts to rotate and lose distance. Tapping the A button at the right moment lands the skier. When done correctly, the jump is very satisfying and the increase in jump distance obvious. The skier wobbles convincingly on landing if something has gone awry and tumbles to a nasty stop if the player misses the landing tap. Most of the game's motion capture is very good, but the transition from one type of movement to another can be unnatural.

    The longer K120 ski jumping is a button masher. A and B must be tapped alternatively as fast as possible whilst a press of the L trigger times the take-off and then landing. One finger can be used quite effectively to slide from A to B and back again, but the controller has to be wedged against a leg to keep it steady and allow confident L trigger timing.

    Freestyle mogul skiing is a timing and trick event. A meter at the top of the screen bounces to the left and right. A tap of L or R at the right moment increases speed through the moguls and speed of meter bounce. When nearing a jump, a timer bar appears and rapidly diminishes, during which the two control sticks are used to pull off trick patterns.

    Halfpipe snowboarding is an odd one. A button tap stops a rapidly moving bar, hopefully in the correct zone. The difficulty of trick attempted depends on which button is pressed (from A, B, X and Y). Then the boarder goes into slow motion, while a sequence of control stick or D-pad movements is followed, to successfully complete the trick within a tight timeframe. This is an event where looking at the rider never happens for more than a glance because all the action happens in the meter and very quickly. Real life boarding is exciting. The ESPN version is not.

    Speed skating is more promising, especially in 2 player mode. The controls are very old-school; hammer A and B alternatively as fast as possible and back off during the corners to a steady pace to stop the skater sliding out. A few goes at this could possibly be classed as exercise and repeat play will bring on blisters.

    Bobsleigh involves a short A/B hammering session with a tap of the L trigger 4 times to make each racer jump in at the right moment. Then once in the run, the control stick is used to lean the racers safely around the corners. The whole experience is not fast enough and control is very detached and unresponsive. Then again, perhaps that is what the event is like in reality, but the bobsleighing in Saturn Winter Heat accomplished a far more "seat-of-the-pants" feel.

    Curling is like bowls on ice and just as slow. Power, aim and spin direction are chosen before releasing the stone. Hammering A and B does the ice sweeping. Bizarrely, this is good turn based, tactical fun, and just because it makes a dull spectator sport does not mean it should be dismissed in the game. This will be one to return to.
    Figure skating is based on the dance games in the arcades, such as Konami's Dance Dance Revolution. Direction arrows scroll up the screen and the control is pushed in that direction when they pass through a marker. The arrow timing coincides with the music, so getting into the beat helps the scores mount up. Occasionally, a trick will be performed by seeing how many buttons you can tap in a certain order.

    Other aspects of the game vary. The menu sound effects noises are very aurally pleasing and menu presentation is clear and intuitive. The music is inoffensive, but soon repetitive. Loading times are quite short. The code entry system for the Internet rankings is not clear. If a high enough score is gained to get a code, then that particular player name must be scrolled down to, to get the correct code. For some reason, codes are given for the computer generated hall of fame and the default position is on the 1st position computer player, thus showing a 40,000 points code. So on the rankings there are many people who have mistakenly entered this code instead of their own.

    It is hard to recommend ESPN Winter Sports 2002, when an age old Saturn game has it beat in most areas. There are better examples of this type of game, but not on the Gamecube. The Internet ranking system is a good idea, but it's appeal will not extend the single player game for too long. However, as a Gamecube game to bring out when some friends come round, it will deliver the usual blend of competition, frustration and also hilarity when a skier falls off the end of the ski ramp without jumping. The original control ideas could have added to the experience, but instead will just serve to confound the player who is expecting something simpler. With some extra effort and a four player mode, this would have been a better value package, but as it stands, it does not make the grade.