The Game: Let the games begin! The Activision Decathlon puts players in the middle of ten summer Olympic events, each of which requires fast and furious joystick action, and careful timing on the fire button, to measure the player’s physical prowess. Events include 100 and 400 meter dashes, long jump, discus, shot put, high jump and more. (Activision, 1983)
Memories: Olympic-themed video games began to pile on pretty thick starting with Track & Field in the arcade, and Activision was ahead of the curve as well, getting The Activision Decathlon on the market a year before the 1984 games. Like Track & Field, Decathlon made use of a unique control scheme that brought some real physicality to the game, requiring players to work up at least a little bit of a sweat. It also cost many an otherwise well-constructed controller its life.
The brutal punishment to which Decathlon subjected otherwise sturdy Atari controllers was as such: to work up the power or intensity of their on-screen athlete, players had to madly jiggle the joystick left-to-right. Events such as the long jump and shot-put required this action to continue long after the fire button had been pressed. Atari’s joysticks were rated for many an hour of use, but The Activision Decathlon shortened the life of many a joystick.
Atari produced its own home version of Track & Field the following year, missing the opportunity to get there first, but the delay allowed it to learn from Activision’s game: Track & Field came with a sturdy controller with arcade-style buttons built to withstand the serious abuse to which they were subject on the actual coin-op. But ironically, Atari learned something else from The Activision Decathlon too: their specialty controller, in reality, triggered left-and-right movement in lieu of the joystick – Track & Field could, in theory, be controlled by exactly the same means as Decathlon – and that means that the Track & Field controller can also be used to improve one’s Decathlon performance. A Starplex controller – an all-button replacement controller intended for Asteroids-style games – could also be used, though its mechanisms aren’t quite as sturdy.
Though entertaining, The Activision Decathlon seems like an awfully timid game. There’s barely any sound for much of it, which robs the game of something on a subconscious level: where’s the roar of the crowd? Decathlon is prettier than Atari’s Track & Field port, but for once, Activision loses out to Atari for sheer playability.