JaguarWong's Blog

Posted on Aug 14th 2021 at 08:00:00 AM by (JaguarWong)
Posted under Classic Games, retro, nostalgia, ZX Spectrum, Surfing, Sport

The first REAL computer sport?

Back in May 2020 an article appeared, somewhat bizarrely, on the BBC Sport website about a 1985 videogame designed to teach people how to surf.

It was a fascinating piece that I'll link at the bottom and I thoroughly recommend you read, but with little interest in surfing my imagination was particularly captured, so much so that I tracked down and bought myself a complete copy of the game, by the game's bespoke controller; a plastic surfboard shrunk down to a size a little smaller than the original model of ZX Spectrum. This device was designed to sit on top of the rubber keys and claimed to offer the player scientifically developed 'realistic' movement.

It's a brilliantly bonkers concept, but how does it work? And is the game any good?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly (especially if you've read the aforementioned article) the game has the air of being put together by someone who's never made entertainment software before. It's worrying enough when the loading splash screen looks to be comprised of the in game graphics which were, it should be said, very simple even by 1985 standards. But furthermore, once loaded, you're immediately presented with the questions "Choose your board 1-5?" and "Gear Selection 1..5", the latter of which inexplicably requires you to enter more than one number and then, for some reason, enter an "X" to move to the next screen.

This is a menu system that is entirely impossible to navigate without constant reference to the game manual, and once you're in-game things only slightly improve.

First up, you have to plod up and down the beach as you choose the best time and place to paddle out... or risk being washed back the way you came. How far you paddle is a variable, as is when to mount, how to turn, how to re-mount... and all this is must be achieved while watching an energy bar that constantly depletes, and is impossible to refill.

On the underside of the game's 19cm surfboard controller are a central pivot, and several little nubs around the edge that press down onto certain keys. Placing a hand on the board, you press in the various areas, relative to where you would press with your feet when real-world surfing, to perform turns, dip the nose over waves, and replicate other surfing moves that I have little knowledge of... I think you can even "hang ten".

Or so the manual says.

Everything about Surf Champ is compulsively dedicated to 'real' surfing accuracy which makes it, as a video game, arcane in the extreme. Such is the extent of its complexity and nuance that simply getting up on the board and floating straight back to the beach feels like a genuine achievement. But, as frustrating as this can be, it also brings a compulsion to try again, to be better, to learn.

And isn't that how it should be?

Gaming today gives us on-the-fly tutorial modes, hand holding, and context sensitive buttons that have us parkouring across the world's rooftops with little more effort than is required to change the TV channel. It shouldn't be a surprise that playing Surf Champ in direct juxtaposition to this feels initially tortuous.

The box proudly states that this is 'The first REAL computer sport' and that it is 'The game that teaches you to surf' and while these claims may be a little fanciful, it is a game that certainly puts failure and success entirely in the hands of the player, or, perhaps more accurately, the student.

There are accounts, in that BBC Sport article, of actual surfers at the time sitting in front of Surf Champ and picking it up instantly. The endorsements were resounding and efforts made to recreate the experience had apparently paid off. However, Surf Champ's goal is to be a 'learn to surf' simulator and, as a beginner, on a real wave, getting up on the board and floating straight back to the beach would be an achievement too, wouldn't it?

And if you failed you'd get up and try again, right? And you'd get frustrated about how hard it was, and you'd want to smash your surfboard and throw the pieces across the room beach. Wouldn't you?

So, in recreating this experience, Surf Champ must be a good game, right?

Well, ultimately, no, it isn't. It's not user friendly, it's graphics have no character, the sound is borderline non-existent, and the menu's are unintelligible.

What Surf Champ is, is an ambitious, creative, unique, and fascinatingly original failure.
And, to me at least, that's a far greater achievement than merely being a 'good game'.

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