Ah, sports. My dislike for physical activity is rivalled only by my utter incompetence at any mathematical problems that may come my way, making me a sort of very special breed that can neither mask my academic failings with athletic prowess nor claim I’m too busy doing smart equation-related things to avoid putting on a coloured bib and running around a muddy field for an hour. Memories of forgotten PE kits, indifferent teachers insisting asthma is just something girls put on for attention, and poorly-explained rules that seemed to change with the weather make up most of what I know about physical competition outside of the world’s greatest sports documentary, Space Jam.
So, with a few exceptions, games based on real-world physical activity are normally something I try to consciously avoid or at the most show some mild polite interest in before backing away and going back to whatever very serious and worthy game I was already busy playing: I have no doubt they’re great if you like that sort of thing but they’re just not for me – unless we’re talking about Numan Athletics.
First discovered by mini-Kimimi completely by chance in the corner of an otherwise unremarkable arcade next to an equally impressive Samurai Shodown cabinet, the unbeatable combination of catchy Ridge Racer-y music – sampled “C’mon, c’mon!” voices and all – (there’s a very good reason why the two share such a similar sound) and screen-filling sprites had me utterly mesmerised even if I never did quite drum up the courage to pop some money in and have a play while I was standing right there in front of the cabinet (arcades can be intimidating places, especially for young kids who’ve wandered away from the safety of the Virtua Racing machine!). I did however wait very patiently for a home port – either SNES or Mega Drive would have been fine, I wasn’t fussy or format-loyal – but it never came. OK so “never” is not entirely true – many many years later the game had its first and only home release on the Wii Virtual Console, and only in Japan: If you look up “Too little, too late” in a dictionary you’ll find the definition reads “See: Numan Athletics”. The long wait did at least allow me the time to grow up and become financially irresponsible enough to purchase the arcade board for personal home use, and to thank the heavens for MAME’s ability to allow everyone else to easily enjoy this wonderful game without going through such extraordinary hoops.
The “Numans” of the title are a group of super-strong, super-fast, super-humans with themed projectile-firing abilities thrown in for good measure, presumably competing in sporting events against each other when they’re not busy saving the world from lair-dwelling villains and brightly-coloured monsters. There may only be four of them in the game (the sequel Mach Breakers would completely discard them in favour of an all-new and expanded roster) but they’re an instantly likeable bunch – even the permanently sunglass’d guy avoids behaving in the typical “I’m too cool to be enjoying this” manner – and this is the real key to the game’s enduring appeal amongst those lucky enough to have played it: Numan Athletics isn’t really a sports game at all, it’s a fun party game that uses a loose near-future sports setting as its theme. Whether you win, lose, or effortlessly blow a world record out of the water all of the reactions and (spoken!) one-liners make it feel like everyone’s here to have a good time in the spirit of friendly competition. Lose an event? No problem! Failure’s met by Road Runner-like clouds of smoke, goofy expressions all round in the cast’s group photo, and ridiculous comedy KA-POWs that look like they came straight out of an old episode of Batman – and if you do choose to continue you’ll find the pass requirement lowered just enough to help you push through next time. That doesn’t make the game some disengaging “Everyone gets a participation trophy” non-event but more that it’s balanced in such a way that means winning is celebrated, but not to the point where your other potentially human competitors are made to feel bad, and losing is noted and “punished”, but not so much as to be off-putting. There’s no doubt this tirelessly supportive behaviour is due in part to the arcade nature of the title – no arcade owner would want to spend money on a machine that didn’t try to get players to add more coins as the continue timer counted down – but seeing the way this positivity is incorporated into every aspect of the game makes it feel like there’s a genuine sincerity to it, that the game really does hope you and everyone else will have a good time playing it.
The ridiculously over the top nature of the events all help support the idea that this isn’t a game that’s meant to be taken seriously: Here even the straightforward opening sprint has you outpacing a drag racer as energy sparks flare up from your heels and your character starts to smear like they’re in a high-speed Tom and Jerry chase and from there the game only goes and insists on outdoing itself with every one of the seven events that follow. This need to push the imagination of the development team and Numan Athletic’s superstars is how you end up playing a game asking you to zap sea monsters in in the Antarctic, leap between Parisian buildings like the most nineties anime ninja imaginable, and my personal favourite: stop a train with your bare hands, all in the name of sporting competition. The climax to this supernuman series of challenges and the final test of your skills could only be a hop, skip, jump contest… on the edge of a waterfall. I can think of at least two very good reasons for doing away with the traditional shot putt, hurdles, long jump, etc. athletic events: They’re not all that enticing when trying to draw potential customers to a cabinet in a busy arcade for starters – especially in a room where they’d be competing with some of the hardest-hitting graphical powerhouses in existence – but realistic events can also put people off. If you already know you’re a poor swimmer or have unpleasant memories of performing the high jump you’re not likely to spend money seeing if digital recreations of these events are any better. Breaking rocks with your bare fists or shooting down missiles being fired at you from a battleship though? That just looks like a slice of daft arcade fun. The absence of individual character stats and specialities (at least there’s nothing like that presented to the player in-game) also mean there’s no single “best” athlete for experienced players to hog leaving everyone free to pick a favourite based on nothing more than where they like to stand around the cabinet and who they think looks the best before settling in for some friendly competition. And it does remain friendly competition as the game very rarely pits one player against another: Many events will have players taking individual turns and for the challenges that don’t you can’t actually interfere with another person’s efforts meaning you get some of the (finger) exertion and all of the excitement of a big sporting event but as there are no teams to go against each other and no me-vs-you going on there’s never a time when another player can turn to you and dish out some “We could’ve won that if you played better” or “I could’ve broken my record if you hadn’t…” unpleasantness to sour the mood.
Numan Athletics may be infused with a cheerful and bright attitude but there’s still a challenging arcade game lurking underneath that’ll take some serious skill and practise to master: it’s not a given that you’ll topple the default world records on your first (or second, or third) attempt and a few events demand nothing less than perfect execution on your part as a single mistimed button press can be enough to instantly fail the entire task. So it’s tough – but never unfair. The difficulty and your eventual success stems from a combination of fast reaction times and learning how to play the included events well – it’s got nothing to do with how badly blistered you’re prepared to let your thumb get in the name of high scores because the game never confuses skill for “pressing buttons really fast”. The Turbo Dash is an excellent example of the thought that went into what could have very easily been a mindless contest: Blindly mashing buttons here will get you nowhere except last place and a sore hand – what you need to do is maintain a steady left-right-left-right rhythm (as fast as you can) if you want to win. While we’re talking about the controls it’s well worth highlighting that the game uses just three buttons for absolutely everything, and some events only use one of them! Entirely in keeping with Numan’s can-do mood, this simple setup makes it easy to rope in friends, relatives, and random newcomers that might have otherwise been put off by the perceived threat of performing either regular arcade sports or the game’s extraordinary souped-up super-sports – all backed up by clear and concise sub-ten second tutorials that really do tell you everything you need to know, allowing anyone to grasp the game’s sometimes outlandish concepts quickly and easily.
In those quiet moments when you’re waiting for your turn to come around you’ll find the events almost as much fun to watch as they are to play, with every location boasting some amusing background detail, special pose, or unique reaction “cutscene” to keep spectators entertained – startled zebra race across the plains, the Eiffel Tower comes into view as you ascend from street level to the highest heights of the Tower Topper event, and characters get bonked on the head if they lose the Non-Stop Rock Chop. However there’s more to this pixel paradise than an artist’s desire to stretch their creative muscles; this beautiful work not only adds flavour and individuality to every scene but genuinely useful visual feedback too: You can not only “feel” the weight of the missile your chosen athlete’s about to toss into the air but you can (and have to) judge the optimum throwing angle purely by sight as well. It’s the same with every challenge: The best time to wall-jump or brace yourself for an incoming train isn’t marked by a gauge or an icon, it’s something you can see.
Whether Numan Athletics itself personally appeals to you or not the positive attitude woven into the very fabric of the game is well worth celebrating: This is an engaging and enjoyable game that proves over and over that competition can be fierce without being unfriendly, that people can lose but don’t have to be discouraged, that a game can be welcoming and accommodating without being a pushover. It’s probably the best party game you’ll never see at a party, an overlooked dose of sunshine that feels as energetic and entertaining as it did almost thirty years ago.