When my friend Stephen got his Commodore 128 for Christmas, I couldn’t spend enough time at his house. And his house was so close to ours that I couldn’t even use the racing bike I got the same year to get there! The best Christmas present I never got… Except maybe my brother’s Mini Munchman and BMX Flyer handhelds! Anyway, that Christmas, and any other time I could get away with until I got my Spectrum +2 a year (or possibly two) later, I was at his house playing almost exclusively C64 games on his C128!
I think my very first experience of his better Commodore than my VIC-20, possibly the day after Boxing Day, probably in 1985 though I’m not 100% sure, was Impossible Mission. To this day I still have no clue what was going on, but somersaulting over electric robots, searching computers and stuff, and going up and down those awesome huge lifts where you could see “under the ground” either side of the shaft was more than enough to say this was the best game I’d ever played!
It was certainly better than the next game we played, Special Delivery, where you flew about in Santa’s sleigh avoiding lightning while you caught presents from angels in the clouds, then landed on a roof, climbed down one of three ladders in an unfeasibly oversized chimney dodging unspecified baddies, then crept around a crude 3D house to deliver it under a tree while avoiding its inhabitants. I recall landing was pretty cool, and actually the variety did give it a bit of life, but there’s a reason why it’s not mentioned alongside stuff like Impossible Mission or The Last Ninja and the like!
What can be mentioned in the same breath as those classics, though, is what came next. And that was, of course, Winter Games! And Impossible Mission instantly became the shortest-lived best game I’d ever played of all time!
As a graphical showpiece for what any home computer could do in 1985, I can’t think of anything more mind-blowing than Winter Games on the C64. The trees were undoubtably the standout, with multiple shades of green that made them look more like trees than anything I’d seen on a computer screen before. Even in Horace Goes Skiing! Then there were the clouds and the snow-capped mountains, and incredible details like the shadows under the fences in the biathlon… The whole thing just transported you to an alpine environment with almost no imagination needed, which is saying something for even the greatest games of that golden age! More than anything, it felt suitably cold!
But we’re jumping way ahead of ourselves! What about that opening ceremony when the game first loads, with its bombastic anthem playing in the background as the torch-carrying athlete runs towards the huge Olympic cauldron and lights a fire that looks and acts like real fire, as doves fly by the fluttering flags in the background! And such was the depth of attention to detail throughout the game, this was just the first of many incredible first impressions you’d be getting for hours to come!
Epyx had released Winter Games earlier in 1985, and it followed the previous year’s Summer Games and then its 1985 sequel, neither of which I’d ever played, but distinctly remember being very impressed by in one of my earlier copies of Computer & Video Games magazine – actually, I think it was the great-looking fire from the opening ceremony that got me in that advert screenshot too!
Now, I recently responded to a Facebook post about albums where you never skipped a track… I was aghast that people actually did that! I mean, I was never a big fan of Round and Round on Spandau Ballet’s Parade album, but I’d have never dreamt of skipping it! I could say the same about Kiss on Prince’s album of the same name. If you’re playing an album you’re playing an album! Especially when it’s on vinyl and skipping involves a steadier hand than you’d need removing the funny bone in Operation if you don’t want to scratch your disc up! And anyone that’s played Winter Games knows exactly where I’m going with this diatribe!
Once you’d torn yourself away from the opening ceremony, there were a very generous seven events included in Winter Games. You had Hot Dog, where you did ski tricks off a ramp. Then there was Biathlon, which was all about skiing speed versus breath control to make sure your shooting bits were up to scratch. The big glamour event was Ski Jump, with its massive ramp and massive tension as you fly past some of the game’s most beatiful scenery. After that you’ve got the rhythmic joystick waggling of the Speed Skating event. Another glamour event was the unique Bob Sled with its big turns and big crashes. And then there was Figure Skating (Spandau’s Round and Round)… And then there was Free Skating (Prince’s Kiss)! In one you had to do a set number of tricks and in the other you could do what you wanted but it went on longer. Which wasn’t ideal, but regardless of the ability to play individual events or some events and completely avoid these two stinkers for the rest of your life, it was not an option. You shall not skip the skating events!
Actually, they weren’t that bad, but when you could have had slalom or downhill or moguls or something else instead of at least one of them, and when everything else was just so cool, your heart did sink a little bit when they appeared as the next event! And as a 13-year old at the time, I didn’t play computer games to pirouette! At the time of writing my son is the same age, and if I went and suggested to him now he should turn off Fortnite and try something where he has to pirouette instead, I know what the answer would be!
There was also a practical reason to not only play them, but to be really good at them, and that was multiplayer, and even in spite of its graphics and sounds and music, this is where Winter Games really shone! You could do an incredible 8-players turn-based, or two players simultaneous (at least in events like Speed Skating where that was practical), and with occasional help from Stephen’s sister and my brother, we caned the hell out of both to the point that Free Skating at least became critical to overall success or failure. And it’s definitely worth looking at the events from the viewpoint of the expert player (which is a viewpoint I’m rarely familiar with so need to take advantage of whenever the opportunity presents itself)!
Going in order of choosing “compete in all the events” you’re starting off with Hot Dog. This is marked out of ten, so getting ten is essential to start competitive! And to do that, you’re pressing fire to start, then doing one trick (for example a mule kick which is joystick left down) then returning the joystick to neutral and doing one somersault (for example joystick right), or doing two different somersaults, then returning back to neutral in time to land. Those tricks are all about timing though, and you’re holding the joystick in position for the duration of the trick, no more and no less!
After a little awards ceremony, national anthem and maybe one of your multi-loads that cue up the next set of events (yes, I know, but it’s a small and very bearable sacrifice), it’s Biathlon. You’re cross-country skiing across a perfectly animated little alpine stream at a nice steady rhythm onto a downhill screen which is also fairly laid-back, but you want to get three downward thrusts in to give you some speed on the uphill screen that you need to frantically waggle your joystick up and is going to completely ruin your breathing, highlighted by an increasingly fast-beating heart indicator. This is important because every few screens you’re going to be shooting five targets (down, up, shoot, down, up shoot…), and the higher your pulse, the less accurate you’ll be. This event is all about overall time, with each missed target giving you a five second penalty, but you shouldn’t be missing anything so whether or not you’ve taken the lead after the second event is going to be about tenths of seconds.
That’s your fun over for a while because now it’s Figure Skating! As I said, it’s not that bad, but it’s just so very bland compared to other events. Most of the screen is ice white, with some crowds behind some flags scrolling by at the very top, though I have to say that the music – which wouldn’t be out of place in a Robocop game – is fantastic! Your execution of the mandated tricks is going to be down to how well you judge foot positions and the little shadow that signifies where your skater is jumping or spinning or whatever. I am being really harsh here again though, because the absolutely stunning character animation is far more useful for getting your timing right than the also well animated shadow alone! Anyway, do your sixty second routine with enough double-axels and triple-lutzes without falling over and the honours for this event should be even with maximum points all around as you get back onto the mountain!
Ski Jump is going to be most people’s favourite event. It looks great and it’s skilful, but it’s also unpredictable and is somewhere else where you’re going to need to score points! You start in a tower at the top of this enormous ramp, then a second fire button press as close to the end of the ramp as you dare is going to launch you onto the jump proper screen, with its wonderfully vibrantly coloured ski resort welcoming you at the bottom. Once you’re in the air, it’s all about the keeping your posture as perfect as possible to get the maximum distance, with continous joystick adjustments of your little man shown in close up in a second screen in the top right as you see him flying through the air in the background. If the skis are crossed, joystick down, leaning back too far, joystick right and so on. The longer your posture is good, the further you’ll go, and the more likely the next anthem played will be yours. Which would probably be the same as your opponent’s too if you’re sat in their bedroom unless you’re trying to be cool and choose USA instead of UK…
Now we’re Speed Skating. I always found this a bit disconcerting because youv’e got four lanes for four racers but I’m sure you only ever saw two of them at the end, and regardless of whether or not you won I’m also sure one of them was always in front on you. I might be overthinking my memories though, and regardless this was a lot of fun, especially because in simultaneous two-player play you’ve got a very clear and instant winner (if you ignore the other two)! You’re waggling your joystick rhythmically rather than especially frantically to try and get your speed guage to the max and keep it there, but actually this one is all about getting the best possible start. Of all the events, this one just feels really good once you’re in the zone.
Just Free Skating between you and the home stretch now! Precisely two minutes of Free Skating… This is like the other skating event, where you’re looking at big air and perfect landings care of a well-timed press of fire when the shadows are right for decent points, though you’re going to want to perfectly transition from pirouette to sitting piroutte with perfect timing for the best possible points! This is free style so you’re needing to do a decent mix of tricks and transitions, and because it’s less prescribed than the other skating event, it’s not all about both of you making sure of maximum points so don’t fall over now!
Of all the events on offer here, Bob Sled is probably the most memorable to me. By which I mean I can still hear in my mind the swish as you hit the corners, and feel exactly how hard do push that joystick from middle to left or right! Half the screen is taken up by an overhead view of your progress on the course, but you’re going to be staring intently at the other half, anticipating the glorious 3D turns with a bang of the joystick to the left, then a bang to the right, and don’t forget that double right at the end. And even more glorious is you and your fellow players watching that all-important big stopwatch underneath you! This one is over in less than 22 seconds, but play this game enough and it’s going to boil down everything that’s happened in the half an hour or so before it into that short period of time, and as the final standings appear, someone it going to be jumping up and down on the bed like a loon, and someone is going to be trying desperately to be sensible with the Atari joystick still in their hands!!!
Winter Games was baked into the wonderful C64 Mini, so around 2018 I did eventually own my own copy (complete with that clunky old-school joystick we used to use), but naturally, when I got a Spectrum long before that I had Winter Games there too, and became just about perfect at everything all over again! And while it doesn’t look or sound quite as good (and that all important skating shadow is completely missing in action), it still looks and sounds very good, and most importantly plays just as perfectly.
As an aside, around the same time I also got a very similar game called Winter Sports, which did have downhill and slalom skiing, and ice hockey too, and it was a lot of fun, but in a world where Games existed with all of its polish, just wasn’t enough fun to be in the mix for what I’d later consider to be in my top five favourite sports games ever. Or, indeed, one of my top two winter sports games ever… Sorry Winter Games, you might beat Horace in the tree department, but with its lack of ice skates, SSX 3 on my PlayStation 2 and my GameCube just edges it!