Friday, February 12, 2021

Game 238: The Activision Decathlon

Do you want RSI and busted joysticks? This is the game for you.


Activision's rockstar developer David Crane, who developed three of their six million-selling Atari 2600 games and contributed to a fourth, wanted to simulate the physical exhaustion of the most intense competition in athletics, or at least as well as what was possible with a joystick. This wasn't the first time anyone at Activision had the idea; Bob Whitehead's Boxing deliberately intended to cause fatigue with the stiff CX-40 joysticks, causing players to tire and slow down partway into the match. Crane went a step further and made fatigue the whole point.

Normally, I'd be happy to play Atari 2600 games with a keyboard or gamepad, but for this one, it would be missing the point, so I used the closest thing I have; my arcade control panel with Happ Super joysticks. All of the events involve pushing the stick left and right repeatedly, and it takes about a pound of force to engage.

I spent a little bit over half an hour in total playing this game. First I played a single 10-event round to get a feel for each one, and then I practiced the pole vault mode separately, as I struggled with its timing. Finally, I played and recorded a full decathlon, done solo. Decathlon does support up to four players, but it's just alternating play. Later ports to better platforms would support two-player simultaneous racing during the track events.


This was my experience during each event:

  • 100m dash - Waggle the joystick as fast as you can to build speed and reach the goal as fast as you can. I couldn't really manage much more than 2/3's of the top speed, but maintaining it wasn't a problem either. I got 668 points.
  • Long jump - It's just like the 100m dash except that you have to press the button before you cross the line. The faster your speed, the farther you jump. You get three tries, and the farthest jump takes. My arm was already starting to get tired here, and it shows as I slowed down during my second and third tries.
  • Shot put - Functionally this is the same as the long jump, except that the line is very close to the start and the speed meter ramps up much faster, putting more emphasis on timing.
  • High jump - Very similar to the long jump, but instead of counting your best of three tries, you have to complete a series of incrementing hurdles, and get three chances to clear each. After failing three times in a row your highest successful jump is the one that counts. The timing is also much stricter than the long jump; if you press too soon, you might jump high enough to clear the bar, but you'll jump into it instead of over it.
  • 400m dash - Just like the 100m dash but four times as long. I really tired out my arm doing this, and never quite recovered. And I scored a pathetic 139 points in 62.1 seconds.
  • 110m hurdles - Like the 100m dash but 10m longer and with hurdles to jump over. My performance suffered here coming straight off the 400m dash - in a real decathlon, this would be the first event of the second day, but Crane gives you no rest, and I scored a nearly as pathetic 172 points.
  • Discus - Exactly the same as the shot put. If there are even subtle differences, I didn't notice.
  • Pole vault - Like the high jump but the timing is trickier and you have to press the button twice; once to mount the pole, and again to dismount.
  • Javelin - In practice this seems to work the same way as the long jump. Keeping the speed up seems to be easier though. I scored 880 points on my first and best throw.
  • 1500m - A final endurance round. Your speed is capped fairly low for the first 1300m. In fact, I maintained near top speed for the first 1300m without much trouble, even with my arm fatigue, though this takes over three minutes and my focus waned at points. It's the last 200m where you have to break into a sprint, and here my performance was a bit crap. Nevertheless, I scored 935 points in 3:39.4, which beats real-life decathlon bests by nearly 20 seconds. In fact, it slightly beats Crane's own best time, but not his score for some reason.

Apart from the arm-breaking 400m dash and the hurdles follow-up, I scored no fewer than 500 points in any event, which is hardly all that impressive, and my final score was a mediocre 6136 - well short of the 7,000 needed to be recognized as a serious decathlete. But I had no desire whatsoever to try to improve on this, ever.


GAB rating: Bad. Sorry Dave, but while waggling a joystick back and forth for thirteen minutes might make my arm sore, it doesn't make for engaging gameplay. All six of the field events boil down to waggling the joystick as fast as you can and hitting a button at the right time. And two of the track events are that without the button press. The detailed sprite animation, good for the Atari 2600, accomplishes the neat trick of multiple colors per scanline, but by 1983 there were plenty of systems that could manage that easily and do it better, and the phrase "good for the Atari 2600" gets less meaningful every few months from here on.


  1. When I was a child, these button mashing sport games were some of my favourites, for some reason. Nowadays I would agree with your rating, as I also strongly dislike when any button mashing gets into some modern designs.

  2. It's still rather amazing what has been squeezed out of the 2600 platform... the internals were so incredibly limited!

    Looking at your lineage... we played the heck out of Kaboom! and River Raid back in the day!

    1. Agreed - rather amazing is a good choice of words to describe the talents of the programmers who massaged these visuals out of a chip that was intended to render Pong and Tank variants. I just don't think that this necessarily translates to being enjoyable to play or look at. Ironically, I've only come to appreciate the skill in pushing the 2600 past its ostensible limits in recent years. The first time I was aware of the system was around 1990, and even though Pitfall! was fun to play, it was incredibly outdated graphically, and that would have been more relevant to me than all of Crane's ingenuity in working with what he had.

    2. I'm ancient... we received an Atari in 1979 or 1980 for Christmas! It was the only platform that I ever played on. I had friends with Nintendos, but by then my father had bought a Tandy 1000 that I'll mention that was our computer from Christmas '85 to '92 when I left for college... pretty much all MS-DOS. We had a TI as well, and I was always jealous of my C64 and Apple II owning friends!

      I've gone back and played some Atari games just recently (ironically on a PS 4!) and they are very limited graphically and in game play. Pretty sure they initially put the Atari chip set together by '76-'77 so it was obsolete by its heyday.

  3. I had a Decathlon game on Commodore 64, don't recall which one, and it was still just as unengaging gameplay. I don't understand how anyone ever thought these games were a good idea.

    Though there was one interesting idea about the game. The tape loader worked as a training program for your virtual athlete while you waited for the game itself to load. It was still just the same joystick waggling gameplay (with simpler graphics), but it was a clever idea to make use of the otherwise dead waiting time.


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