Winter Olympic Curling: the greatest videogame sport of the motion control era

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By Neil Merrett

Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Released on Wii U in 2013, developed by Sega Sports R&D 

There are some sports that are seemingly better suited to video game adaptation.

In the past, the assumption seemed to be that more action intensive sports were those best suited to digital conversion. you have football or tennis on one-side, and then chess for the more cerebral of us.

Yet despite the advent of increasingly sophisticated gaming technology and hardware, the videogame industry seems a little more conservative and rigid these days in bringing a wider number of sports titles to the market.  When for instance, was the last Gaelic Games release on the mass market outside of the Playstation 2 era?

In a world of massive gaming brands such as Fifa, NBA, the Madden series and Forza, the commercial considerations of launching new games titles have seemingly limited experimentation of game adaptations of more weird and wonderful sports.

This is a shame.  Videogames after all can strip back a sport to it most basic and approachable premise.

The Madden series, in removing gimmicky halftime shows and endless adverts to focus instead on clever runs and gargantuan throws, allowed American Football to be played and understood in a much more playable and open format as a video game.

In an ironic turn, the Tony Hawks Pro Skater series arguably catapulted skateboarding and its title star into the mass consciousness of the public and the hearts of bedroom-bound gamers.  A fair few of these individuals may well have went on to embrace the pursuit as a real-life hobby, or at least as a painful short-lived leisure experiment outside.

If nothing else, it was a bridge into the world of pop-punk, Motorhead and American rock stalwarts.

The Overwatch League or the Evolution Championship Series of tournaments point to the broader ambitions for gaming to become a spectator sport in its own right.  This will raise some important questions at some point about sedentary lifestyles and becoming one with the Matrix.

Yet with the close of the 2018 Winter Olympics this weekend, it is perhaps time to lament the decline of official licensed games that cover the world’s foremost contest of track and field, or winter sports.

For decades, these titles have relied on a tried and tested formula of button mashing and precise timing to try and recreate the physical ardour and often short-lived nature of major Olympic events.

There was only so much the Nintendo Entertainment System could do with trying to recreate the literal ten second struggle to become the fastest human alive via the 100 metres sprint by running in a straight line.  How else, other than hitting a button or wiggling controls from left to right as quickly as possible,  can a game try to recreate footwork and create the sensation of a race that lasts less than ten seconds.

Button mashing has pretty much remained the method of running games for decades.

Videogames never really found a way beyond this to recreate the physical challenge, training requirements and discipline often associated with Olympic sports, where there are few variables other than instinct and physical prowess.

To this end, Olympic-style games become an often maligned sub-genre of vague sporting simulations.

Yet there are gems within these titles.  With the popularisation – largely via the Nintendo Wii console – and relatively quick fall of motion-controlled games in the late 2000’s, new ways to play and a shift in the perception of what a video game can be, saw the emergence of a bold new form of digitised sport – curling.

You know the one, the Olympic sport where four people gently try to slide coloured stones towards certain target points on a modified ice rink, using brooms to manipulate the ice to allow for a more streamlined or resistant path for movement. In its own way, this was the perfect sport for the motion control era of games.

Families or teams of four are given specific roles that they must stick to for the rest of the contest.  The captain, has the sole responsibility to pick a spot to aim their next stone at – only they can choose. Another player must then act out a sliding motion along the ground, feeling what level of power is needed to shift an opponent’s stones or hit a target area.

The remaining two then use their motion controls to frantically, or not so frantically, sweep the ice to better influence the speed, distance and slight direction of the stone’s movement without directly touching it.

Whether playing as a humanoid, reptile, princess or koopa, the curling section of Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games required collaboration, planning, precision and coordinated flailing of limbs in a way few others World Cup games have managed.

What more can you ask for in a sporting game.

If curling is, on its surface level, perceived as a mundane hobby rather than competitive sport – who wouldn’t welcome expanding up this world of precision sportsmanship and broom wielding to colourful hedgehogs as a means to open it up to new audiences.

As with all sports, the proof is in the trying.

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