Friday, 18 December 2015

Olympic Skier (Mr. Chip Software, 1983)

Originally developed and released for the unexpanded Commodore VIC-20 as "Ski Sunday" by Shaun Southern in 1983. Expanded and refined for the Commodore 64 by Shaun Southern, with loading screen by Andrew Morris. Redesigned for the Commodore 16 by Shaun Southern, and released in 1985 by Mr. Chip Software. Conversion for the Atari 8-bits based on the C64 version written by Amin Hoque, and released in 1986 by Americana Software.



The obligatory sports title for this winter season is a fairly small title from the early days of Shaun Southern's career, because I've got a more Christmas-oriented number planned for the big event of the year. Whether or not that one will be any good is another matter entirely, but now, let's focus on this one.

Although it started off as a single-event slalom game on the VIC-20, Olympic Skier became one of the earliest multi-event winter sports games ever, predating Epyx's Winter Games by almost two years. While relatively simplistic, it was still popular due to its unique offering at the time, and its popularity was apparently even further increased after a quiz show included the game as an event. Although Winter Games certainly knocked this game off its lonely throne a bit later on, it's still a good bit of harmless fun. The current scores at our most frequented haunts are: 7.1 from 47 votes at Lemon64, 6.8 from 10 votes at Atarimania and 6.6 from 12 votes at Plus/4 World. The original VIC-20 game is a fairly unknown title, and I only found out about it through Shaun Southern's Magnetic Fields retropage, so I'm expecting an interesting comparison here.



Compared to Epyx's Winter Games, Olympic Skier is short - only three events. Then again, it's a single-load game, so you don't have to wait around for the game to load between everything, which makes up for the lack of detail and ceremony. The three events are Slalom, Ski Jump and Downhill, the obvious two of which are fairly similar. I will get to the description of all three events later on, but the ultimate goal in the game is to get a total of 1000 points... which is a virtually impossible job, but it's always fun to attempt.

Being such a short game, you would think it lacks longevity, but somehow, it still manages to be superbly addicting. It's one of those rare occasions, where the simple task of playing for a high score has been made so well that you need to have that another go, because once you've learned the basics, you can still crash quite often, but you know you can play better if you just focus more. So, in short, while it's not the most interesting multi-event sports game ever, it's still a fairly addicting one, and  well worth a look.

As for the original Ski Sunday on VIC-20, I already mentioned it only has one event, which is slalom. The game's origins can be traced to the BBC Sports weekly magazine-style television show covering winter sports called Ski Sunday, which was launched in 1978, and is still running. Apart from the theme tune, none of the versions of the game has any true official connection to the TV show. But, for the fans of Shaun's later Kikstart games, this connection might be of some interest.



Well, we might as well take a look at the loading times, since the three Olympic Skier versions' tape images can be found on the internet easily enough. A tape image for the VIC-20 game, however, is practically impossible to find, but luckily, I managed to trace down a disk image. But as this is an early 80's game, the original loading times should not surprise us at being horribly long, while the later re-releases are relatively quick. For the sake of collection, of course, the originals are more interesting, but sometimes, the re-releases do have some actual merit. Apparently, the game was only ever published for the Atari computers by Americana, which is why there is only one loading time for that one.

C64, MR. CHIP: 8 minutes 33 seconds
C64, AMERICANA: 2 minutes 21 seconds
C16, MR. CHIP: 7 minutes 39 seconds
C16, NOVALOAD: 1 minute 18 seconds
ATARI: 5 minutes 5 seconds

Loading screens. Top row, left to right: C64 - Mr. Chip, C64 - Americana, Atari 8-bit.
Bottom row, left to right: C16 - Mr. Chip, C16 - Novaload, Commodore VIC-20.

This is one of those rare occasions, when such a small number of releases have this many loading screens. The C64 Americana loader is otherwise a bit boringly informative, but it has some animation included - there are two shiny spots in the Americana logo that shine in turns repeatedly throughout the loading, once the screen comes in. The original Mr. Chip loader isn't much to look at, but for a 1983 game, it's still plenty. There are also two different loading screens for the C16 conversion - a basic Novaload screen and the original Mr. Chip screen, which, like the C64 equivalent, isn't much to look at, but in this case, it's more than the alternative. Luckily, the .d64 disk image of Ski Sunday included the loading screen, so I could include it here - and interestingly enough, it looks more flashy than the other two Mr. Chip releases' loading screens. And as usual, the Atari loading screen is as blank as the Atari tape loaders usually are.



Predating Epyx's multi-event sports titles, Olympic Skier could be considered something of a pioneer in the field of sports games that require more than just frantic, joystick-destroying waggling, although it definitely had a bit of that as well. The first and last events only require you to adjust your velocity by pulling the joystick up or down, and steering the skier left and right by doing the obvious actions. Slalom being the first event, your mission is to get through all the gates as fast as you can without missing any of them to get the highest possible score. The last of the three events is downhill skiing with similar controls, but your only mission is to get through the devious downhill track alive as fast  as you can. Easier said than done. But neither of these events require any kind of waggling or other types of controlled seizure.

It's the second one that does, which is a bit curious, since it's ski jump. You need to tap the fire button as fast as you can while going down the slope, then pull the joystick up to jump from the ledge - keep it up during flight, and then land your ski jumper by pulling the joystick down at the exact right time. Here we have one of the very rare occasions, when a re-release of an old game actually has some adjustments been made to the gameplay - you get 180 points for landing at 115 meters in the original, while the Americana re-release gives you full 200 points for that length. I also noticed a bug in the original's first event, in that you could crash into one of the flags, so the Americana version is definitely the more preferable one.

Anyway, the controls in the original version are rather easy to catch onto, but difficult to master, since the steering in the downhill events can be surprisingly vigorous. The game being the age it is, it should come as no surprise that there is very little in terms of realism in the way the skier handles in the snow, but at least this way, it should be easy enough to learn to master.

The ATARI conversion is a bit of a mess. The basic structure is fairly similar to the original, but the way all the events play is mostly very different. Firstly, it's not a very compact game - you get a title card for each one of the three events, and even with the title cards, you have to wait for the same starting beeps as you would in the original, so it's slower in progression. Second, the controls are a bit awkward. In the downhill and slalom events, you don't have much of ability to adjust the skier's velocity, and he can also steer in one angle (about 45 degrees) to each side, making it necessary to plan a certain line to follow, instead of trusting your instincts and guide the skier as he should be guided. The slalom section features two flaglines to follow, but I haven't found out if either of them makes any difference in scores or anything. Also, in the ski jump event, you actually have to waggle the joystick - although I'm not quite sure whether or not tapping the fire button does anything, because the waggling doesn't appear to do much of anything either; more yet, you have to land your ski jumper perfectly aligned with the slope to be successful.

The only thing that I considered being better on the Atari than in the original was the cursor's responsiveness in the bit where you enter your name for the high score list. The other parts are kind of arguable, but for the sake of argument, the limited controllability in the downhill sections limits controllability. For a more positive argument, the more demanding landing in the ski jump section can be more rewarding on the Atari than just pulling down in the original.

Somehow, the COMMODORE 16 still manages to surprise me in its versions of otherwise familiar games to me, although while making this blog, I have learned well enough that the said machine isn't necessarily capable of producing nearly the same experiences the other computers are, so I shouldn't expect too much from it. But the C16 version of Olympic Skier - by the same programmer as the original, too - is again very different from what you would expect, and for that reason alone, it's well worth trying out.

Instead of getting the usual style of separated events, the downhill and slalom sections come back to back, with nothing but a bit of text warning you that the next section is approaching. Also, unlike in the original, the downhill section features diagonal scrolling, which can be a bit distracting at first. The ski jump section acts as a loop joiner of sorts, and you come to it in a similar manner as in the previous section, but the style of gameplay is very much different, like it should. Also, it's not so much a proper ski jump, as it is a drop down a cliff. After the ski jumping section, the game moves on back to the downhill skiing, but now with advancement in difficulty.

Since the C16 version is structurally so different, there are other differences as well: the game now works against a timer that decreases instead of counts your time, and you can crash into things as much as you like without getting your performance stopped and disqualified - it's all based on the timer. The skier here also has a much larger radius of velocity adjustment, but he has a smaller turning radius. Finally, the C16 version has no leaderboard based on the 1000 points maximum score, but only the highest score of the day with no apparent limit for a maximum score.

I cannot possibly give a score for the VIC-20 game, at least not based on the same merits, because it feels like a preview of sorts instead of a full version of the game. And because I'm not giving scores here, I will not be giving it scores for the rest of the sections, either. But, it is a bit funny in a sad way, that the closest point of comparison from the three Olympic Skier versions for Ski Sunday is the ATARI version of the slalom level, since it plays almost exactly the same. You only have three positions for your skier, and controlling your speed is (practically) impossible.

But how on earth do you give scores to three so utterly different versions of what's basically the same game? Particularly when two of the most different ones were made by the programmer of the original one. The C16 version offers the most interesting take on the game's theme, and the most variety as well, but for what the game was originally made to be, the C64 version is easily the most playable one. Sure, even the ATARI version has its moments, but they are so rare that it wasn't much of a surprise that all the scores in the clean high score list were just 100's - Hoque probably had some sort of an idea how difficult he had made his version. It's too bad, really, that I have to put these three in an order of preference based on their playability, but it has to be done...




Funnily enough, the two C64 releases have some differences in graphics as well as gameplay. The graphical differences are much more notable, though, which is why I'm going to include two C64 pictures in the compiled picture sets for the first time now. So, let's start from the beginning. At least, the beginning of Olympic Skier. I'll get to Ski Sunday later on.

Title screens and high scores. Top left and middle: Commodore 64 (Mr. Chip / Americana). Top right: Commodore 16.
Bottom: Atari 8-bit.

In the C64 version, the title screen is really nothing more than the high scores table. In the early Mr. Chip games, you would usually see Mr. Chip in the high score table, but since Southern and Morris decided to start developing games to be published by other companies, starting with Mastertronic, the high score tables would usually be filled with 'SOUT'. The C16 version only has an empty starting point shown with scores and timers at zero, and the only thing indicating this is a title screen is the text scroller at the bottom of the screen. The ATARI version is the only one of the lot that actually has a proper title screen, and the high score table is completely separate from it. The game logo looks good enough, since none of the other versions have anything resembling one within the game, but the glaring typo in the game title on the high scores screen is a bit hilarious. 'OLMYPIC' indeed.

Screenshots from the Slalom event, left to right: C64 - Mr. Chip, C64 - Americana, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 16.

You might have noticed this in the previous screenshot compilation, but I just wanted to point this out later: there are some notable differences in the two C64 releases, and in the light of every version having such an overall simple look, even the littlest of differences can be pivotal. As you can probably see quite clearly, the trees are much more detailed and make the surrounding forest seem more dense than it is in the newer release, and the lesser difference is in the START flag, with a strange little extra bit in the letter 'A' in the original version. The C16 version follows the original C64 version more in its style, but features no obstacles other than the surrounding forest. The colouring is also a bit on the dull side. The ATARI version has the blockiest look, particularly regarding your skier, although he/she has two different colours used in his/her sprite, which is an exclusive feature on the Atari. Also, the forest has trees of two different greens, like in the C64 title screen, but otherwise, the Atari graphics are rather dull and lifeless - there aren't even any obstacles in the Atari version of the Slalom event, other than trees.

Screenshots from the Ski Jump event, left to right: Commodore 16, C64 - Americana, C64 - Mr. Chip, Atari 8-bit.

Again, some slight graphical adjustments have been made for the C64 re-release, this time the focus being on the clouds, which look bigger in the new version - almost similar to the clouds in the C16 version. All three main versions look otherwise very different, though. Not only is the location not a ski jumping slope in the C16 version, but the event is also restricted to be shown in a single screen. The ATARI version, however, reminds me very much of Ski Jump International by Ville Könönen, as it goes from left to right and scrolls through the area in a similar manner. It also has the most decorative background graphics, so it's clearly the most advanced one of the lot for this round.

Screenshots from the Downhill event, left to right: C64 - Mr. Chip, C64 - Americana, Commodore 16, Atari 8-bit.

There isn't much to say about the Downhill graphics that wasn't said in the Slalom paragraph. The only real difference is your ability to jump, and the absence of gates. Happily, in the C16 version, you get the diagonally scrolling sections, so there's at least some variety. In the ATARI version, this is the only section with any additional obstacles, although I have only seen logs so far.

As for your ability to jump, it doesn't look much like anything other than your skier suddenly moving in jump-ignited directions, but in none of the versions do you actually see a shadow for evidence that the skier is actually airborne. So, because the problem exists in all versions, it doesn't really matter all that much.

Crashes and helicopters. Left: Commodore 64 (Americana). Middle: Commodore 16. Right: Atari 8-bit.

When you crash in either of the downhill-type events, there are some minor variations as to what will happen. Basically, your skier falls down and says SPLAT!, as he does in the C64 and C16 versions, or then he rolls around a bit before he falls and settles down, as he does in the ATARI version. The C16 version features no helicopter to pick the fallen skier up, because he will move on after a couple of seconds, but the other two versions have one, that goes from left to right and pick you up on its way. Neither of the helicopters look quite right, but the C64 one has plenty of details, and it is prettier. The ATARI one has a rope that is lowered down after the helicopter reaches the spot you fell down at, and then the man grabs the rope and leaves the scene. Very strange, since your skier is supposed to be injured. More animation is more animation, but it's not a very logical thing to have there.

Text bits from different parts of the game. Left: Commodore 64. Middle: Commodore 16. Right: Atari 8-bit.

All three versions of Olympic Skier feature some sort of text bits between each event. On the C64, the messages are shown at the end of each event to tell you how you did. The ATARI version shows a title card before each event, and the scores at the end of each event. Although the C16 version plays quite seamlessly, it also features plenty of text, most of which are shown in the bottom row as scrollers, of which there are plenty. I'm not really sure if I prefer any of them, and text is never very interesting to talk about as graphical elements. Moving on.

Ratings and entering names, left to right: Commodore 64, Commodore 16, Atari 8-bit.

Well, we actually reached the end already. At least for the comparable threesome. Actually, there's nothing here that you haven't already seen earlier in this section. The only thing worth noting, or perhaps repeating, is that the C16 version gives you no chance to write your name to show off your high score. And that 'OLMYPIC' thing is increasingly hilarious.

Screenshots from the Commodore VIC-20 game "Ski Sunday"

So, what about the original Ski Sunday, then? Well, the title screen is very informative, and the title looks like a title, instead of just a part of the high scores table. The in-game graphics are not bad compared to the other versions, but the skier sprite flickers quite a lot. The only properly differing graphical element in Ski Sunday is that the screen turns red when you crash into something. And instead of SPLAT, you get a THUD. As it's a single-event game, there's not much more I can tell about it. For a VIC-20 game, still not nearly the worst I've seen.

But as you know, Ski Sunday isn't part of the comparison as far as the scores go. All three versions of Olympic Skier have their own specific sorts of exclusive elements, but it's not difficult to see, which one features the most consistently pretty and smooth graphics. The scrolling is not a problem in any version, so the only thing we need to focus on is the good looks. That said, having a proper title screen and surprisingly nice rendition of the Ski Jump event makes the ATARI version go a bit higher on my list than it otherwise would have done.




As I mentioned earlier, the only thing in any of our four versions that has any sort of straight connection to the BBC show Ski Sunday - in addition to the VIC-20's game title - is the tune "Pop Looks Bach" by Fonteyn, which has been used in the said TV show ever since it launched, albeit in different variations. The only version of the game that doesn't feature this track at all is the ATARI conversion, which uses a high-speed rendition of "Morgonstemning" from Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" for its only piece of music, which repeats throughout the game at every interlude.

Concerning the other music from the other three versions, the original VIC-20 game plays "La Cucharacha" once you pass the finish line, and something of similar ilk if you crash into a tree or something. The C64 version of Olympic Skier has a good storage of different little ditties that play at the end of each event, and apart from the Ski Jump event, you get a different tune for different results as well. The C16 version only plays the theme tune throughout the game with some incidental sound effects whenever necessary.

Speaking of the sound effects, we have an interesting lot this time. Since it's a skiing game, and an early one at that, there shouldn't be too much variations in sound types and quality, right? Wrong. For the original VIC-20 game, mr. Southern programmed a differently pitched noise for each of the three directions you are skiing to, and included a couple of dwibs and pips for indicating skidding noises and going through gates. The C16 version features a very strange Game Over sound, which cannot really be called music, since it's just a chromatically ascending short two-note thing that repeats four times. In addition to that, there is a low booming crash sound for when you crash, and a chirpy sound for when you go through gates, but not much else. So, those two are on a fairly similar level.

In the C64 version, both the Slalom and Downhill events start off with a high ding-ding sort of a countdown, and while you're going down the hill, you get a regular white noise kind of a sound for your skis' swooshing, and when you pass through gates, you hear a ding-sound. If you crash, the crash noise is what you would expect - nothing especially loud or booming, but adequate. Then, of course, if you do crash, you get the helicopter to pick you up, and the helicopter's wings' flapping noise is nicely done, if not quite realistically. In the Downhill event, your jump has also been given a sound effect, which is a short ascending and descending bleepy thing, which fits the bill exactly in the way you would expect. For the Ski Jump, there was no need to do more sound effects than just utilise filters appropriately for the take-off and landing, which sounds fairly convincing.

The sound department is where the ATARI takes some of its honour back. The countdown for Slalom and Downhill events is a more familiar "three low beeps and a high one", as you would normally hear in, perhaps, a racing game, and the swooshing of your skis is much more varied in noise type and quality - surprisingly realistic, I'd say. The crashing noises sound a bit random in their execution, but I guess you could consider that more funny than disturbing; and going through the gates will play a regular beep, so it's not all good. The Atari version doesn't even have a proper sound effect for jumping, which is just as well, because the jumping in the Downhill event isn't all that helpful anyway.

All in all, I would say that the C64 and ATARI versions are fairly close to each other, but the C64 version tops it with more little tunes and then some. The C16 version is a bit irritating in the long run, because it has that tune playing constantly, so it has to come last. If I were to include the VIC-20 version in this section, I might even place it above the C16 soundtrack.




I don't remember the last time a game had three different Commodore versions. And three so wildly different ones has to be some sort of a record. But, what Shaun Southern did there was write a suitable version for each machine, with the most addicting and playable one being on the C64. In this case, the ATARI version was perhaps the only one that was directly comparable to any of the other versions, and as these things usually go, a conversion rarely beats the original. Here are the overall mathematical results, whether you like them or not:

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
2. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
3. COMMODORE 16: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

As I keep telling you, my mathematics don't necessarily have much logic, so base your further experimentations on the scores for playability. The C16 version is really well worth checking out, while the Atari version is mostly uncomfortable. And then for all you VIC-20 fanatics, Ski Sunday is also worth testing, but whether or not you will be able to do so is entirely up to your skills at googling.

Screenshots from Olympic Skier remake by Andrew Layden and Quinn1981.

There have been at least two retro remakes made of Olympic Skier some years ago. The more direct remake was made by Andrew Layden and Quinn1981 in Blitz Basic for a Retro Remakes competition in 2003, while the more interesting remake is more like an entirely new winter sports arcade game based on Olympic Skier - Retrospec's Pen Pen Xmas Olympics from 2007. The latter one especially is very much worth trying out, but the 2003 remake isn't too shabby either.

Screenshots from Pen Pen Xmas Olympics by Retrospec.

That's it for today, hope you enjoyed it, or perhaps even learned something new - I certainly did! Next time, it's time for the year's last entry, which is not a particularly big one, but certainly seasonal. Until then, pip-pip!


  1. We have played this with Dance Pad controller on c64 emulator.

    1. Hehe, that's gotta be a hoot. =)

    2. Interesting idea. I've played the Atari 8-bit game Mogul Maniac using a dance mat, I might try Olympic Skier later on as well.