A strange coupling of pseudo-retro presentation and inconsistent game mechanics, riding on the coat-tails of nostalgia.

When I was just a young nerdling, I used to play a vaguely absurd joystick-destroying game called Track & Field on my Commodore 64. It was an early ancestor of what we now call minigame collections -it offered a range of events, each of which played out differently. Track & Field was great fun, as it was the definition of a quick hit. The events lasted anywhere from ten to thirty seconds. This could have been a great iPhone game concept based on the pedigree. Emphasis on could.

First, let me talk a bit about this classic series.

Track & Field was originally an arcade game from 1984. It consisted of two buttons for running, and a third for “action”. There were six events on offer: 100M Dash, 110M Hurdles, Long Jump, High Jump, Javelin Throw and Hammer Throw. It could be played with up to four people, in pairs for the running events and individually for the rest. Players could regularly be seen hooting and hollering around these machines as they encouraged a very physical level of competition, mostly due to the fact that in order to run faster, you had to do your best rapid-fire smacking of the alternating run buttons. It took actual effort to play well.

International Track & Field

Track & Field was a huge hit for Konami. They ported it to every system under the sun back then, and even went so far as to license “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis for the high score music in the Nintendo and arcade versions. And ever since 1984, some version of the game has re-appeared every few years, most recently on Xbox Live and the Nintendo DS.

The iPhone edition, called International Track & Field, misses some key components that made the original a hit.

It features the same lineup of events to the original game, minus the Javelin Throw. Curiously, the running events are presented in landscape mode while the others stay in portrait orientation. Controls have been reworked to fit the interface schemes offered by an iPhone, with wildly varying success. For instance, the 100M Dash simply involves tapping the screen as fast as you can. This event is the most true-to-life of the original, and yet is just about the shallowest game you could possibly play. There’s no nuance here. Just see how fast you can tap.

Others events took this reviewer numerous tries to simply suss out what to do. This is the first and most glaring problem with the game -the instruction tips are fleeting and vague. The player receives no pre-event guidelines or tips, but is thrown into the action and left to fend for themselves which results in a lot of trial-and-error on the outset. The Pole Vault still remains a mystery to me; I landed a single successful leap after at least two dozen attempts, and was utterly unable to replicate it afterwards. The Hammer Throw was very sketchy as well, requiring a swirl of a finger with just the right flick upwards at just the right time. And the Hurdles event, which requires you to rub your finger rapidly in opposite directions, actually came dangerously close to giving me a friction burn. Conversely, the Long Jump was enjoyable, made sense and behaved as one would expect, with no odd behaviour or perplexing controls.

International Track & Field

The presentation style used for International Track & Field is also a mixed bag. While obviously going for a retro feel both visually and aurally, the developers seem to have been unable to resist a few modern visual tricks which results in a game that looks more budget than retro. For instance, while sprites and track elements are appropriately simplistic, they are not low resolution. Furthermore, background props and artwork employ a number of subtle gradients – a technical feat that was simply impossible for the hardware of yore. The result is essentially the worst of both worlds, sharp but dumb graphics with bad CorelDraw-style gradients plastered on them. Also, in perhaps a too-faithful nod to the arcade roots, the event “stinger” musical interlude that plays every time you re-try an event starts to grate pretty quickly.

Another element of the original game, lost in the iPhone edition is the multiplayer aspect. There simply isn’t any, not even pass-the-phone style rounds. A global high score list is all you’ll get for competitive motivation and there is no support for social networks like OpenFeint or Plus+. A toggle is available for switching the game between “3G” and “3GS” mode, which I can’t imagine is actually necessary, so meager are the game’s demands on the hardware.

For an ultra-budget price of $1.99, it’s hard to call International Track & Field a complete failure, but clearly this was a quick-and-dirty port of an old Konami property made to cash in on nostalgia. If you squint, imagine some Bluetooth multiplayer support and reworked control schemes, you can almost see how it could have been a fine diversion. Unfortunately what we have in the end is a curiosity at best.