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‘International Track & Field’ Was the Game That Broke Me

Broken skin, mild RSI and hallucinogenic dreams about obscure sports were the signs of a minor obsession.

by Nick Hagan
18 August 2015, 12:59pm

A bunch of men, we think, under starter's orders (screencap via YouTube)

My teeth are clenched and the palm of my right hand is on fire. It's a good sign.

Cartwheeling against a sky of midnight blue, the ball and chain arcs towards its destination and the crowd, pixelated as potpourri, goes mental.

I glance round at the screen-washed faces behind me, raising my eyebrows triumphantly. My friend Chris shakes his head, arms folded. "Not enough," he declares.

As the hammer strikes the luminous green pitch and the men in the turquoise jackets jog in, I hold my breath. The tight little circle of pain in my hand throbs and the announcer's voice, staccato and American, echoes through the stadium.

"The distance of the third attempt was 96.25 meters... meters... meters..."

Chris's face drops. It's enough.

This dude isn't German, but he's definitely about to toss that (screencap via YouTube)

On screen, the German hammer thrower turns his moustache and muscles and swaggers away like he's just ridden a motorbike over the Grand Canyon. Game over.

In the days after our International Track & Field: Summer Games sessions on the N64 – the game was also known as International Track & Field 2000 (and, in Japan, Ganbare Nippon! Olympics 2000) – all of us would face blisters. Big, watery, unsympathetic opals that popped at the worst conceivable moments, flooding exam papers and dampening handshakes. Broken skin, mild RSI and hallucinogenic dreams about obscure sports were also symptoms of what, frankly, was a minor obsession.

To this day, I have never played a video game as physically gruelling as Track & Field. This was, to quote from the movie Rocky Balboa, good old-fashioned blunt force trauma. Indeed, to master the game your fingers needed to weave, stretch, jab, pound and pummel with all the versatility of a world-class boxer. No pain, no gain.

If it sounds like I'm exaggerating, consider this. In a gloss of Nintendo-related injuries, British Medical Journal research from 2014 linked the N64's distinctive grooved joystick with ulcers on the palms of the hands. In a brilliant mash-up of medical speak and pop culture creole, the condition was termed ulcerative nintenditis. "Nintendo thumb" – classified as a form of RSI – was another health concern in circulation at the time.

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Track & Field wasn't even the most prominent N64 game to jeopardise players' appendages in the name of a good time. In 2000, Nintendo committed $80 million to provide free protective gloves for owners of Mario Party, a game also responsible for excessive joystick abuse.

In a sense, the N64 epitomised the tail end of a certain period in gaming, when consoles were still – to an extent – viewed as toys. They were lifestyle statements too, after the PlayStation's edgy marketing had smuggled gaming out of the nerdy/kiddy ghetto with panache in the mid-1990s. But, in classic Nintendo fashion, the philosophy at the heart of the N64 was simple, knockabout fun. It was a chunky, tactile beast you could chuck in a plastic bag, take round a mate's house and, should the need arise, bash the bejesus out of.

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Titles like International Track & Field: Summer Games truly embodied this.

Arriving on the N64 in characteristically late fashion, the sports sim was ported to cartridge in 2000 after its 1999 PlayStation release. The format essentially aped an Olympic tournament, featuring a series of sporting challenges spread over consecutive days. Each of these demanded a range of motor skills, and I still wonder if Konami hired sadomasochists to ensure the standard was as brutal as possible. First-time outrage after button bashing your way to 11th place in the 100-metre swimming was a bittersweet rite of passage.

While the hammer throw made blisters blossom, weightlifting just took the piss. In a recreation of the "clean and jerk" Olympic method, players had to rhythmically tap buttons at high speed before slamming the Z trigger at the precise moment to execute the lift, three times in a row. A fiendish cocktail of stamina and hand-eye co-ordination made this the Marquis de Sade of Track & Field events, the undisputed harbinger of finger torture. Controllers were hurled at walls, their plastic shells dented in fits of anguish. Never have I called a jerky clump of pixels the c-word with such bitter vitriol.

The Marquis de Sade of 'Track & Field' events (screencap via YouTube)

As teenagers, there's little doubt that regular wanking sessions contributed to the hand conditioning. But Track & Field upped the stakes, demanding palms of granite and digits of spun steel. Injuries incurred in the pursuit of sporting glory became badges of honour. As you sat through another biology class, seeing your hand tremble from the night before's exertion brought with it a fierce rush of kudos. It was like Fight Club, for 15-year-old virgins who had never been in a real fight.

In the games mags of the time, outlandish techniques were recommended for success. Hammer throw caning your hand? Wrap a Velcro wallet around it! Can't smash the 100m dash? Try the pen method!

You may have guessed by now that none of us were into sport. But Track & Field provided a vicarious gateway. The intense rivalry and punishment meted out by the game somehow translated the thrill of sport into a language we could all understand.

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Returning to the game now, aged 28, is like opening a time capsule containing a neat distillation of my teenage friendships. A slightly pungent yet familiar sense of humour greets me on the memory card, where longstanding world records are enshrined. Apparently, Stalin was a major contender in the breaststroke, while an athlete simply named Cockboy is a javelin legend. In the pole vault, Clitlick and Dicko are undisputed champs.

Puerile: yes. Dumb: undoubtedly. But also just another part of the messy process of growing up.

As with so many teenage boys, our sense of masculinity wasn't first seized on football pitches or in sweaty clubs, but in suburban bedrooms, hunched over TVs, insulting and congratulating each other as we hammered at pieces of plastic. Looking back, all those blisters were a trade in: the price paid for a glimpse of something much bigger.

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