Turn on the coverage of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics right now and it’s hard not to feel inspired to pick up a winter olympics video game. Athletes who’ve devoted themselves to very specific, often dangerous disciplines, braving the harshest elements and representing their nations at the very top level of their sport – who wouldn’t want a brief glimpse of what that feels like?
It’s why my classmates and I turned our shop class into a surprisingly well-equipped curling tournament (perspex, CNC machines and youthful exuberance go a long way) during the 2002 Winter Olympics, and why a lot of us are looking to video games for that elite winter athlete hit right now.
Tragically, there’s no official title on PC or consoles for this year’s games, ending a run that began way in Lillehammer ’94. So if we want to taste what it feels like to be Shaun White or Arianna Fontana we either have the NFT-laden mobile game Olympic Games Jam: Beijing 2022 or the 2018 Olympics DLC for Steep. Or, looking further back still, a pretty rich back catalog of both official and unofficial titles that chart the zeitgeist of winter sports over the years and in many cases still offer a genuine laugh. Lillehammer ’94 on Genesis, you’ve aged like an oak-smoked Michelle Pfeiffer.
Here’s a potted history of video games’ dalliances with the Winter Olympics, going right back to the 8-bit era when we were expected to pull off figure skating routines with a NES controller and taking us up through to more modern glories.
Steeped in controversy, much like the Beijing-based games themselves this year. On the surface it’s a breezy, cheery collection of minigames depicting disciplines like Snowboard Cross, Ski Cross, Skeleton, Slopestyle, and Slalom, but there have been concerns over its NFT-based play to earn element.
Olympic Games Jam: Beijing 2022 contains several power-up NFT pins which give you a real advantage in events. Throw a bunch of money at it, and you’ll get medals, basically. Good luck reselling those NFTs after the engagement bubble bursts, too. If it were a winter olympics athlete, it’d probably fail its drugs tests and be sent home. Let’s go further back, to less depressing territory.
Steep was an odd game. The winter sports were solid, but then there was a meditative, zen-like layer too, in which the mountain had a voice and, apparently, sentience. It was like shredding down the slopes with a California hippie.
The 2017 expansion Road to the Olympics changed tone dramatically, putting official Pyeongchang 2018 bibs on everyone and lending much-needed focus.
The events were on point – Slopestyle, Ski and Snowboard Halfpipe, Big Air, Giant Slalom, Downhill, and Super-G all made the cut – but what made Steep‘s take on a licensed winter olympics game especially memorable was that it didn’t just drop you into the games without any buildup. You had to qualify first, and that made even getting near the big torch in Pyeongchang feel quite special. More like this please, games industry. For 2026 we want NBA 2K’s MyCareer mode with lycra and chilblains.
2010 was quite a while ago now, true, but Eurocom / Gamehouse’s licensed PC and console game has aged incredibly well. It’s the most recent of the traditional Winter Olympic adaptations, cramming in disciplines on the short track and bobsled track as well as the ski slopes, and the control scheme’s not totally averse to some good old-fashioned button-bashing in conjunction with more co- ordinated, timing-based inputs.
There’s also an especially gnarly soundtrack comprised of local Vancouver artists’ music which gives it all a sense of place you don’t usually feel in this sub-genre. Graphically prosaic by today’s standards, but otherwise full of the zest and variety you’d want from any Winter Olympics game.
Going for pure enjoyment over realism, by the necessity of featuring a rodent and a plumber as the two dominant athletes of the games, Nintendo and Sega’s 2009 collaboration hit its intended mark beautifully for the Wii and DS.
These were the heady days of motion controllers and balance boards, so you weren’t button bashing anymore but furiously gesticulating and lolloping around instead. A quick glance into the window at your reflection would have derailed your medal hopes, but this was primarily a party game so there were usually enough other people in the room doing the exact same for the cringe factor to kick in too badly.
If by 2009 developers and publishers were taking a lighthearted approach to the Winter Olympics tie-in, in 2006 the opposite approach prevailed. Turin 2006 goes for realism with its visuals, and a TV-style presentation throughout that includes commentary and venues based on their real counterparts in northern Italy.
Sadly it wasn’t enough to distract players from the botched control scheme, which tried to evolve the traditional button-bashing methods but didn’t find a particularly satisfying or precise alternative.
We’re way back to the PS2 era now, and another licensed title that failed to ignite the spirit of the Winter Olympic games. There were just seven events in Salt Lake 2002four of them skiing-based, and although it threw some new ideas into the mix like a 3D first-person view for downhill skiing, the game as a whole was emblematic of token licensed tie-ins of the era, and perhaps part of the reason we haven’t seen a big-budget Winter Olympics title for many years now.
It was met with shrugs by critics and players, but is now just about old enough to offer some retro appeal. Sadly there’s no short track speed skating, so you can’t relive Australian Steven Bradbury’s iconic gold medal moment when the three medal places took each other out on the last corner ahead of him.
Part of Konami’s fine lineage of Track & Field games, this one released on both PlayStation and N64 in time for the ’98 Winter Olympics, and fell into many of the usual traps. 12 different events were there for the partaking in, but all felt stiff in animation, awkward to control and under-loved mechanically.
There were some odd differences between consoles, too. Looking to represent China or South Korea? Better buy the PS1 version because they’re not featured on Nintendo. Same goes for Holland and Finland on PS1 – weirdly absent. There was no Rumble Pak support on N64 either, which was the stuff of angry letters to games magazines back in those days. But the offering didn’t end there…
Konami wisely evaluated that a sport as dynamic, deft and tactically dense as ice hockey wouldn’t fit very well as a mini-game within its main Nagano ’98 offering. It also wisely evaluated that ice hockey is excellent, a major spectator draw each Winter Olympics, and should feature in video game form somehow.
It’s at this point that wise evaluations and Konami circa 1997 part ways. Because although it created a pretty competent and zippy hockey game, very much of the arcade variety, EA Sports was already well ahead with its own NHL series. The Winter Olympic branding and national teams were never going to topple that giant, but at least we got a fun hockey game out of the whole endeavor.
Even further back now to the days before 3D polygonal graphics were de rigueur. When we’d willingly sit and compete in simulated 2D biathlons, utterly enraptured, cross-legged before our Sega Genesis. An unquestionably better time. The age of Lillehammer 94.
Perhaps best remembered in pop culture for the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan saga, the Lillehammer Winter Olympics were also, for a few of us, immortalized by a 16-bit nugget of gold by Tiertex Design Studios, US Gold Ltd, and some outfit called id Software. There were ten events on offer and each played like a dream, melding the usual button-destroying control methods with subtler, directional methods. Hang on – id Software? What ??
I know. SEO suicide, isn’t it? Try googling ‘the games’ and bringing up the very specific set of Epyx titles for early PCs. Impossible. There were summer and winter editions of The Gamesand even this early, way back in 1988, a kind of visual language had been established for depicting the different winter events that the subsequent licensed titles above would make use of.
We couldn’t leave without namechecking the infamous, the notorious NES title Winter Games. Also released by Epyx, in 1985, everything about it was opaque. Athletes stood stock still or slid lamely down slopes, waiting for inputs that you were either unable to pull off correctly, or simply unaware of in the first place.
We wouldn’t recommend you dig this one out if you’re feeling like being a Winter Olympian after watching Beijing 2022, but it does serve to show us just how far we’ve come, and all the little details subsequent titles got right that we take for granted. Turin 2006 looks like Half-Life next to this.
Written by Phil Iwaniuk on behalf of GLHF.