Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol.15: DecAthlete Collection

Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol.15: DecAthlete Collection brings the ST-V/Saturn sports games DecAthlete (AKA: Athlete Kings) and Winter Heat, as well as the later Dreamcast/NAOMI (released in that order) game Virtua Athlete, together for the first (and currently, only) time. All three have been rebuilt from the ground up especially for the PlayStation 2 rather than emulated, yet in spite of this huge change behind the scenes they remain mostly accurate to their old selves, with the same events available for play and all of them won or lost in the same old ways.

The events are as much fun as they’ve always been, the raw energy of the opening button bashing sprint giving way to a wide variety of athletic competitions packed with clever ideas. The hurdles’ sprint/jump/sprint action demands rhythm as much as it does rapid input bothering, in much the same way Winter Heat’s skating forces you to ease off—but not stop—your speed-increasing assault on your controller’s buttons during those high speed curves, causing the race to alternate between bouts of intense action and tense luck-pushing tapping. The high jump event is another great example of DecAthlete Collection’s emphasis on personal good judgement, as blindly racing up to the bar at top speed is only going to leave you starting your leap almost directly underneath the object you’re trying to clear: you need that bit of a gap between you and your target to travel over the bar, not just upwards, and finding where that ideal jump point lies is all on you.

This added depth relative to general expectations of the genre does mean some events will probably take a few more goes than usual to successfully clear—I personally struggle with the discus event’s stick twirling wind up motion—but the early pains are more than worth the overall gains. There is never any doubt that good rhythm, timing, and accuracy are at least as if not more important to your success than any instance of merely rapidly hitting the front of your DualShock 2, and that clear and constant proof that your own input really matters makes it easy to promise yourself just one more go, because you know if you break a record it’s because you actually played better, not wore out your thumbs faster than before.

Sadly this is the point where I run out of nice things to say about DecAthlete Collection, because I have to move on to this disc’s huge flaw. Ready? OK, here we go: for some bizarre reason, the three games are no longer separated out into their original experiences but instead reduced to names in a rather bland shared menu. So instead of starting up Winter Heat and then picking Exhibition mode, you pick Exhibition mode, then select Winter Heat. Is that the part where you’re finally whisked away to the game’s title screen? Oh no, don’t be daft. You then pick your character using a disappointingly generic menu shared between all three games, and cut straight to the first event. There’s no attract mode, no pre-game hype to get you in the mood, nothing. This puzzling omission robs these distinctive games and their sunny palettes of much of their personality, a few businesslike menus replacing the sights, sounds, and INSERT COIN build up to a thrilling competition.

Free mode is even more disheartening, as this reduces every event to mere icons arranged in a simple grid pattern and leaves you to decide what to play. In theory it’s a practical and frictionless way of getting you straight to your favourite minigames, but in truth it only comes across as cheap and bland. There’s no spectacle or competition here, just a few seconds (literally, in many cases) of play before you’re unceremoniously kicked back out of the fun to the same dull menu you just left.

The reason behind this self-sabotaging decision to lump everything together only becomes clear if you choose to play the blandly titled Edit mode. Here you can select up to ten events across all three games to play through, mixing them up entirely as you see fit. Want to open with a bobsleigh race and then switch straight to pole vaulting? Go for it. With your selection made, you (and a friend, if you like) then pick an “athlete type” character (anyone from DecAthlete or Virtua Athlete) and if appropriate a “winter type” character (anyone from Winter Heat) as well, before playing through your invented competition. Yep, that’s right, you can finally race DecAthlete’s Rick Brade against Virtua’s Bruce Lenzi and determine once and for all who’s the better Sega sprinter… a faint glimmer of curiosity that is resolved in mere seconds and utterly undermined by the fact that player performance always matters more than any virtual athlete’s strengths and weaknesses (which is usually to the game’s credit).

Trying to bring these three together under one roof was always going to be a challenging task as they’re all different from each other, and to make matters worse they’re all different from each other in different ways. DecAthlete and Winter Heat visually resemble each other, but cover totally different events. Virtua Athlete plays very similarly to DecAthlete but goes for a far more realistic look, so combining the two feels a bit like Sony hypothetically adding Road Runner to Gran Turismo. It just feels odd that someone seemed to think a basic menu would be enough to paper over the cracks. Why didn’t they make any attempt to dress up your inevitably disjointed multi-discipline, multi-game, selection as a special “3D Ages Championship”, or even just a basic “Custom Competition”? Anything to make a dream-match mix of your favourites characters and events feel like something other than a hacky stop-start flit through the code of three only broadly related games? Why include Winter Heat in this voluntary mash-up at all if there wasn’t going to be any attempt to add the absent members of the DecAthlete cast to the winter sports, or bring Winter Heat’s new characters in from the cold?

In spite of this fumble, these three are always going to be good games and for the brief moments you’re enveloped in them, rather than picking your way through Collection’s soulless UI, they’re as much fun here as they are in arcades or on Sega’s classic consoles. On the whole I’m glad they appeared as part of this Sega Ages collection even in this blended state (although I’d still recommend buying the older individual releases every time)—it’s just a shame to see the collection stumble at the finish line.

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