Was there ever a game more overshadowed than Winter Sports? Well, we’ll come back to that question in a second, but I bet whatever we come up with never had the ignominy of being shoved into a double-sized cassette box belonging to the game that overshadowed it for over thirty years like that did! And we’ll come back to that too, but when I thought about things being overshadowed, I wasn’t so much thinking about being made redundant by a sequel or released in the wake of something huge, like Horizon Zero Dawn and Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or Horizon Forbidden West and Elden Ring… Poor old Horizon can’t get a break! No, I was thinking more along similar lines at a similar time – like Winter Sports and Winter Games, just to confirm the main culprit early on!

Actually, an obvious example is a bunch of the stuff on the ZX Spectrum that got superseded by superior 16-bit versions… Batman the Movie, Robocop, Bubble Bobble, Rampage and Super Sprint, for example. Too obvious, maybe, so staying on the Atari ST, how about all those wonderful flight sims with their 150-page manuals like Falcon and Gunship that were then eclipsed by F-19 Stealth Fighter and F-16 Combat Pilot, for no other reason than your brain could only cope with so much of that at once! Bit niche, but there was Barbarian on there too, a side-scrolling fantasy hack and slash with a funky control scheme that never really got a look in once Onslaught came along with its glorious colours and weird soundtrack; by the way, we’re talking the Psygnosis Barbarian, not the Wolf from Gladiators and Page Three girl one, which could never be overshadowed! Actually, when I come back to sharing cassette boxes, remind me to come back to Onslaught too!

Quite hard this! There is Wild Arms and Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation, but I came to both so late I wasn’t really part of that overshadowing, although it’s probably a way better example than anything I’ve come up with so far! I’ve got one… Blur and Split/Second on PlayStation 3, two big budget Hollywood-style racing games from around the same time in 2010. I rented both of them knowing I could only afford to buy one, and while Blur was and still is, without doubt, absolutely great fun, it simply didn’t have Split/Second’s power plays, where you could build up a meter and then trigger enormous environment-changing events, like blowing up dams or bringing down a huge crane on a highway. Total chaos! Reminds me, I really should cover Split/Second here sometime, and maybe it’s about time I splashed out and gave Blur a proper chance all this time later too! There was Prototype and Infamous on PS3 too, both offering superpowered open-world adventures within mere weeks of each other, although in their case I did the same thing renting both but decided I could live without buying either!

Let’s do one more, because that’s all I’ve got! It’s a quick one but it’s an interesting one all the same, and we’re heading right back to the earlier days of the ZX Spectrum and Ultimate Play the Game, who would, of course, eventually evolve into Rare and finally get hoovered up by Microsoft in 2002 for crazy money at the time. Thinking about it, such was their output in the mid-eighties that there are probably even better examples, but what sticks out to me are Underwurlde and Knightlore. Now, while one is a regular platformer and the other an isometric action-adventure, they do both belong to the Sabreman series and they did both come out not far apart in 1984 (together with the first in the trilogy, Sabre Wulf, come to think of it), but knowing that they had something revolutionary on their hands, they actually held back on releasing Knightlore to give the others a chance at selling! Coming late to the party though, and with zero cash, I’d played a bit of Sabre Wulf at a friend’s house, but Underwurlde was never going to get a look in until Rare Replay on Xbox many, many years later.

Phew, I think we got away with that slightly unplanned line of questioning, so let’s head back to Winter Sports! I have to admit I’d totally forgotten this game even existed until I was covering my top ten ZX Spectrum loading screens not that long ago, when it got into my original shortlist of about twenty-five. It took writing about Combat School here even less long ago for me to rise to its bait though, when talk of Track & Field and Hyper Sports led to talk of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon and Winter Games, and there it was looking back out at me from its competitor’s very box, and I couldn’t resist giving it another spin! And no, it’s not Winter Games, but in some ways it’s more…

It’s Electric Dreams Software, it’s 1985, and it’s “the most exciting sporting event since the 1984 Winter Olympics on your computer, you can’t afford to miss it. All the thrills and spills you’d expect from the real thing in the comfort of your own home. Eight different events to choose from: Slalom, Giant Slalom, Downhill, Ice Hockey, Ski Jumping, Bobsled and Biathlon. Can you ask for more!” And don’t say yes, Winter Games, because even if that’s what we’re all thinking it would be very rude to do so! Well, let’s see if you spotted the obvious in a second, but worth pointing out here that the latter three events are what the two games have in common. And in case you’re half asleep, it’s also worth pointing out that the instructions forgot the eighth event, Speed Skating, which is also in common with Winter Games!

Unlike Winter Games, the events here are very much presented as eight separate mini-games, with no over-arching competition. The title screen is barebones to say the least, apart from the terrifying sampled speech saying “Winter Sports by Software Images” coming at you out of the silence if you don’t press the key for one of the eight (not seven) numbered events quickly enough! There is a high score table here too, which you’ll be needing for any longevity. Once you decide what you’re playing, the event loads and you get a sub menu; in the case of the three skiing events, they all load together, but bizarrely they’re now in a different order to the screen you’ve selected one of them from. Not a big deal I guess, but if it’s 1. Downhill on the title screen then why would it be 1. Slalom on the sub-menu? Once you’ve picked your control method, you’re good to go, so let’s have a look at each event in turn… Once I’ve decided if Downhill should come before Slalom!

Okay, I’m going with the order of the sub-menus so I don’t have to keep going back to the title screen, meaning it’s Slalom first! You’re faced with a split-screen, with a 3D view of the your descent on the left and an overhead view on the right, with your progress downwards represented by a black line behind you. A push up to speed up will also set you off, and you’re heading right of the first gate then alternating as you go down, without missing a single one and also without hanging about if you want a chance to get on the high score table. While the thought of hurtling down towards the sickly green, snow-capped vista in the distance might sound appealing, in reality the Etch-a-Sketch simulator on the right is where the action is because not only is it impossible to judge your position versus the gates in the 3D view, it’s also moving so slowly that you’ll be fully asleep in the three minutes or so it takes to reach the bottom! Making the progress of a line more exciting than a first-person ski view takes some doing, but once you accept that there is some satisfaction to cutting around the gates as closely as possible. Hardly a thrill ride though, so let’s see how the next event does!

Giant Slalom is very similar to the first event, but this time you’re going between two sets of gates rather than around one for the first part of the course, and then it switches to single gates again further down, which you can alternate around as you wish as long as you don’t fail any. As much as it is effectively more of the same, I do find this event pretty fun; seems to move a fraction faster, even if the 3D view remains mostly useless and you are just drawing a line around some smaller lines, but I don’t know, there is a bit of a thrill here. A tiny bit! As I don’t have much more to say on this event, a quick mention of the sound in these skiing events, and there’s not much of that either! It’s a kind of repetitive stab of white noise, like you might get if you were sticking a ski pole into the ground. Or playing 8-bit Silent Hill!

The last ski event (or first on the main menu!) is Downhill, and now we’re talking! The 3D view looks exactly like the last one, but this time we’re properly motoring down the mountain through much wider sets of gates that are all about speed and fast turns. Well, relatively speaking – I’m generally very forgiving (or totally blind) when it comes to framerate, but none of what we’ve seen so far could move any slower! This is the best of what we have seen so far though, even if it is just more of the same again, so with that it’s time to leave our crudely-drawn slopes and see what 4. Ice Hockey has in store for us!

Once we’ve reminded the game what joystick we’re using again, we’ve now got a choice of adding a second player! Team A is red, Team B is green, and up, down, left, right and hit puck is all you need to master! After what seems forever (because it is!) the two teams have skated out onto the ice, two by two, taken up their positions and the action gets underway. Four periods of five minutes each… You control the player nearest the puck, and tackling is done by colliding with the opposition. And it’s all a bit slow and boring. Again! This reminds me of that dreadful World Cup Football game Artic did for the Spectrum, although thankfully without that game’s horrendous music, even by Spectrum standards! Actually, there’s no sound here at all, except the beep to signify the end of the quarter, but what it lacks in audio it more than makes up for with colour clash – red and green, of all things!

Time for that Winter Games bias to creep back in now, because Ski Jumping is the first of their competing events, and I’m really, really good at ski jumping on Winter Games, so that must mean it’s really, really good! It’s not that dissimilar, but we’re back to a split-screen view, with the right one showing the totally black skier, like something out of Saboteur, sliding back and forth on a totally white background, and once he’s moving forth you’re good to press the button and set him on his way. After that he’ll assume the downhill position on the right, and you need to take care of tapping left and right using the left-hand screen to keep him central on the ramp. It might not have the polish of Winter Games’ ski-jump, but that side of the screen is really pretty, with some nice perspective and good use of colour to represent the alpine forest on either side and the crowd at the bottom. Once you get to the bottom of the ramp though, it’s another button tap to launch and then it’s a case of keeping the skier balanced in mid-air for maximum distance and a successful landing. The controls while you’re in flight are more frantic and imprecise than Winter Games, but no real complaints here.

Speed Skating is another event offering two player action, and if you’re going to play it that’s probably the way because the computer opponent is a bit pathetic! It’s another split-screen affair too, with one side from behind and one from the side, and that means you’re not only waggling the joystick left and right for speed, but also up and down for position, a bit like Iron Man in that Combat School we mentioned earlier. You can choose from five different distances, all the way up to 10,000m, but why you’d put yourself through that agony I don’t know! The animation is nice from both viewpoints, but it really plods along – skate any slower and you’ll tip over. The minimal sound is particularly grating too! For all of that, I quite like it though – the added dimension really gives it an added dimension!

You’ll notice I managed to avoid Winter Games comparisons very briefly there, but I can’t not revert to form when we’re talking Bobsled! There was such physicality to heaving that thing around every bend in Games, and while the split-screen view was very similar in intent to the one we’ve got here, it looked lovely. This doesn’t, and forget about physicality! Instead, what we’ve got is another take on the skiing events, where you can pretty much ignore rear-view 3D sledding and just focus on drawing your little line inside the course as it chugs along, like one of those old buzzer games. In its defence though, it does finally have a bit of pace about it, and there is a bit of strategy around not taking corners too fast. Once again, it’s alright, but it’s really no match for the competition.

Finally we reach the Biathlon event, combining cross country skiing occasionally interrupted by shooting targets. While the other game with this event focussed on heart rate management that could compromise your shooting as well as your speed, this one takes a similar approach but with stamina regulating your propensity to waggle. When you reach a shooting range, you have to open the bolt, load and fire them repeat as you have a go at each target, with anything but perfection incurring big time penalties. The sound here is about as inoffensive as the game gets, with a slushy impersonation of some skis on snow, and although the graphics are on the primitive side as you flip through various ski resort scenes, they’re colourful and work quite well in action. Business as usual at this point though – fun enough but no Winter Games!

And there can be no better way of concluding our snowy journey here! Winter Games on the Commodore 64 was close to perfect for me. I absolutely love it, even if one of the skating events would have been better served going down a hill on two planks of wood! That said, knowing the C64’s form for that kind of thing might have soured the deal a bit… The Spectrum version couldn’t match its presentation, which I still maintain was the machine’s peak, but it wasn’t far off, and in all other respects it was equally polished and there was no question of it being equally fun, especially with a couple of you playing! Winter Sports, on the other hand, is “alright” at best, but minimal in general, from the way it looks and sounds to how it plays. And that makes for a generally dull game!

Also, while emulating today solves the problem entirely, this game was a total bummer to multi-load from a cassette! Every event had its place on the tape, and if you wanted to jump from one to the other or even back again you had to know precisely where it was. And then wait for it to load! Which reminds me, back at the start we talked about my copy being stored in the Winter Games case. And I also asked you to remind me about Onslaught! Well, it’s not really that exciting, but I’ve always been quite meticulous about my games, and my Spectrum collection is all still in the same box it was stored in when the Atari ST came along, and in turn that collection is still in the same (Lion Bar!) box it was stored in when the PS1 came along. That said, in the last couple of years it’s just about doubled in size and we’re going to need a bigger beast of a box! Anyway, my question is where’s the Winter Sports box? And what ever happened to Onslaught? And what other games are going to be revealed as sharing the same fate as we continue this journey? Already happened with Stunt Car Racer when we looked at that, and I ended up buying another copy. I’m sure it’s as mundane as they got put in another box, but where that box might be and what else might be in it is an ongoing mystery, and every time I’m in the garage or the attic or my Dad says he’s found something that belonged to me, I wonder…