I’m fairly certain that Daley Thompson’s Decathlon was the fourth game I ever played on the ZX Spectrum! My best friend Paul had moved from an Atari 2600, and our days of playing Boxing and the one with the two tanks (Combat?) on their family TV in the living room were replaced in the most part, in my memory at least, by the distinctive sound of Spectrum loading screens in his bedroom, interspersed by actually playing the occasional game! It was the Classic setup – rubber-keyed 48K Spectrum connected to the type of small portable cassette recorder every home had at the time but didn’t belong to anyone in particular, connected to a tiny portable TV and a couple of games; all on the floor.
I think Horace Goes Skiing (more here) was my first experience of the ZX Spectrum, with it’s Frogger rip-off first screen getting in the way of what still holds up as one of the best-feeling skiing games ever! Second was Chequered Flag, and I can still remember being totally blown away by that in-car view with the moving wheels and steering wheel! Still one of my favourite racers ever. Then a bit later his collection extended to Alcatraz Harry, an early Mastertronic £1.99 title where you negotiated the maze-like prison, avoiding guards and collecting escape tools, but usually ended up caught and in front of a firing squad. We did actually finish that one once! And then a bit later still we got to what would become one of the system’s defining games, as well as the ruin of many a Spectrum itself…
Not sure if he had any other games up to then, but I don’t remember playing anything else over what must have been his first year owning it, with most of the action happening over the summer of 1984; frequent trips backwards and forwards down the network of alleyways that connected the roads where we lived. We all knew and loved every inch of those dusty, poorly surfaced, weed-strewn alleways that ran the length of both sides of each of three roads, behind the terraced houses and gardens and sometimes garages, and were connected by another at each end, one of which was interrupted by the roads. These were our hide and seek and ball tig grounds; our cycle tracks and skate parks; our football and cricket pitches; our assault courses and everything else we needed them to be whenever we were playing outside with the neighbouring kids! And from the time I was allowed to walk to Paul’s house by myself, to when we used to get the bus to upper school near there, to when as young bucks on the prowl I’d go to his house on Friday and Saturday nights to get a taxi into town to go out drinking, that was my own almost private shortcut!
As a related aside, on what was probably one of the last of hundreds or thousands of journeys down those alleyways to Paul’s house, I had music playing on something – most likely my Aiwa PX347 “Walkman” with Super Bass, Feather Touch Control and Dolby 8 NR! It was an incredibly hot summer day, probably around 1993 or 1994, and on came Heat by The Mission, and the lyrics that I knew inside out by that point somehow chose that particular listen to make an eternal connection in my brain between that song and that mundane trip on that particular scorching Friday evening:
And the heat comes down
And the heat comes down
And hand in hand
We melt in the heat
Almost exactly ten years before that, at the end of that exact journey, something similar had happened with another song, 1999 by Prince. Like The Mission’s Heat, it would have been a song I was already very familiar with by that time; it had come out two years earlier in 1982 and was obviously a massive hit, getting non-stop airtime all over the radio and in my fledgling record collection, as well as becoming a regular feature at school discos when 80’s nights really were 80’s nights! But there was something about that song that just happened to be playing in the background at the exact moment I started hammering two rubber keys as fast as humanly possible for my first ever 100m dash that forever connected 1999 with playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon in Paul’s bedroom! Actually, it was very much the concept of the song at that time that stuck with me during that particular listen, maybe taking note of what the lyrics were saying for the first time… To a 12-year old in what would have been heading into late or even Christmas 1984 by the time the game actually appeared on Spectrum, all that partying like it’s 1999 seemed like science fiction! It was literally more than a lifetime away, too far in the future to fathom. And then when we got there far sooner than this 12-year old might have imagined, that memory and that connection in my brain was still there, but it didn’t seem so long looking back as a 27-year old. And it seems even closer all these years further on! Funny how your brain makes connections just as strong for minor, seemingly random and mundane events as those it makes for remembering where you were on 9/11 or when you heard Kurt Cobain was dead or when the Mary Rose was pulled out of the sea…
Or maybe even where you were when Daley Thompson won his first Olympic decathlon gold medal in 1980 (about my limit!), or again in 1984. Daley Thompson was massive – even bigger than Prince at the time! Remember, we had four TV channels and things like the Olympics, and athletics in general, were a major factor in the summer TV schedule even if you weren’t much of an athlete. And if you owned a Spectrum, you just needed a copy of Ocean Software’s Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of my Commodore 64 owning friends ever having a copy (even though I think it came first and was the same great game and a bit more, for example having a second competitor on the screen on track events), and obviously I didn’t know anyone with an Amstrad CPC, which it also appeared on!
As well as cashing in on the man himself, Track & Field was also a big deal in the arcades at the time, sucking up my 10p’s during a church trip to Great Yarmouth that year (also memorable for playing a neighbour’s Mini Munchman on the bus journey there) and the next, and this was as close as you were getting to a home version. In fact, you’d have to wait until 1988 and the Game, Set and Match 2 compilation for a Spectrum (or Amstrad CPC) version; and it wasn’t great, especially as we’d been spoilt by an excellent port of Hyper Sports inbetween. That said, this compilation was generally awesome on the Spectrum – Super Hang On, Basket Master, Match Day 2 and Championship Sprint more than made up for any duds (and the stuff you weren’t interested in, Nick Faldo Plays The Open I’m talking about you)!
The game, predictably, has you taking part in a decathlon. I’d like to say as Daley Thompson, but your character is very white. You might justify this by thinking that’s just to cover up any colour clash, but I’m not sure how the very “white” character hairstyle contributes to that. The loading screen goes a step further, where he’s even more white than the white fellow competitors behind him! At least the hair works a bit better there, and the cassette inlay makes further strides in recognising his actual skin colour.
Anyway, regardless of whether you are playing as Daley or a white imposter, you’ve got two days of athletic pursuits ahead of you, one of each side of the tape! On day one, you’ve got 100 metres, long jump, shot putt, high jump and 400 metres. On day two, you move on to 110 metre hurdles, discus, pole-vault, javelin and 1500 metres. Gameplay ranges from the famous, keyboard killing button mashing of two keys (or joystick waggling if you really want to break some stuff quickly) to make you go faster in races or run ups, to precisely angled jumps then more strategic stamina management in the long distance races. You effectively have three lives, meaning fail to hit the qualifying time or distance or height in an event three times and you’re out. Get through everything and you’re the champ!
Things start pretty smoothly. No brains required in the first event, just hit those left and right buttons as fast as you can and you’ll qualify pretty easily. Play it safe and you should qualify in at least one of your three long jumps next too – just hit jump near enough to the line and hold it down until you get to about 45 degrees – and make note of that number! Shot putt was a variant on that, but you’re throwing a heavy ball at 45 degrees instead of jumping when you get to the line, and it’s really easy as long as you don’t cross the line. High jump is where the challenge starts, and has you hitting and holding jump a second time to adjust your body angle mid-jump, and this is going to take some experimenting until you know the right angle numbers (about 80 and 20 degrees if I remember right) and more importantly, when to hit jump to take off because there’s no distance indicator before you reach the bar; keep going higher until you’ve fouled three times. Should you get there, 400 metres takes the button mashing approach of the 100 meters but goes on four times longer, and your fingers aren’t going to forgive you in a hurry!
Turn the tape over and you’re going to load into the 110 meters – button mashing with the added challenge of timing a jump whilst staying in your running rhythm; screw it up once and you’re going to struggle but avoid crashing into any hurdles and crossing the finish line feels really great. Discus has you spinning rather than running, then timing your 45 degree let-go when you’re facing the right way having reached a decent rotational pace. Another tough one until you’ve got the timing in your head, then it’s hard to not qualify.
Pole vault is another test of timing and knowing when to start dropping the pole, but like the 110 meters, you’re going to feel great when you finally get over a really high bar; like high jump, this keeps going until you foul three times, and is great fun when you’re chasing your record scores. Javelin goes back to the standard running and chucking formula, but I always found watching it (very) slowly ascend and flatten out along the top of the screen then descend quite hypnotic! Qualify this far and you’re at the 1500 meters, the epic final event that struck fear into any Spectrum gamer, but in reality was more sedate (or even boring, some might say) than the long distance test of finger stamina it was perceived to be! This time you have an energy bar, and the faster you go, the quicker it will deplete, so it’s all about finding a rhythm and speeding things up when your energy looks like it can take it. This is definitely the most thoughtful of all the events and whilst the gameplay might not invoke a frantic final push to the podium, it certainly feels great when you get there, though it’s hard to fail once you know what you’re doing.
Sound effects are mostly non-existent up to this point, apart from some white noise of varying lengths representing a starting gun or crowds cheering when you qualify, but there are some short bursts of music elsewhere between events, and, most notably, when you win gold at the end of all this, with a beautiful (in Spectrum terms) rendition of Chariots of Fire as white Daley stands on top of the podium with his arms held high. Then you get the final score and you’re ready to go all over again. After loading side one again, of course.
Apart from Daley Thompson’s questionable ethnicity in the game, there was an awful lot to look at and be impressed by. As said earlier, the white character did avoid any serious colour clash so everything else was very colourful. That screen was really clearly presented (and pretty much directly lifted from the Track & Field user interface) – your score and qualifying requirements at the top, current attempts and records below, then the best crowd representation I’d seen up to that point, moving around excitedly with their Ocean banners; below them you’ve got the track or field area with your main man in action, and at the very bottom a speed, angle and distance guage that appeared as required. Every event was smoothly animated even if the running has aged a bit today, with nice touches like the guy with his tape measure in the long jump or the shadow under the shot putt as it flies through the air.
The game won Best Arcade Style Game at C&VG’s Golden Joystick Awards in 1984, and also Best (Overall) Arcade Game in the Crash Readers Awards, fending off challenges from the mighty Jet Set Willy and only marginally less mighty Sabre Wulf. The following year it joined both of those games and Beach Head on the first They Sold a Million compilation, so we can assume it sold a ton too. And rightly so! Play this or Track & Field or Hyper Sports today, and whilst bashing buttons for speed might not feel as natural and ubiquitous today as it did in the mid-eighties, it’s just as much fun and is just as destructive to your equipment… And don’t forget the old pro tips about rubbing a biro really fast across the keys for an extra boost. I’m sure they all work equally well nowadays!