Everyone happens to get a great idea every once in a while. Those brilliant concept that almost approach pure genius, at least until some time has passed and everyone realizes exactly just how stupid and/or insane the concept actually was and… phew! Aren’t we all glad that no one bothered to take the project to the next step!
Luckily for the entire human race, the people behind Hunchback at the Olympics never seemed to have come to that one moment of clarity, not even when it came time to convert the game to homecomputers a year later.
What is Hunchback at the Olympics? Well, it is a sports game starring the famous character Hunchback, literally a hunchback-like green clad guy who starred in one moderately successful arcade game in 1983. He is, obviously, now competing at the olympics. Definitely a case of an appropriate title for the experience.
The original arcade game was pretty basic and straightforward, nothing more than an average clone of Track’n’Field: destroy your joystick to get the guy moving and try to win the events. The player would compete in a selection of eight events to successfully complete: 100m sprint, long jump, shot put, discus, javelin, 110m hurdles and high jump. After that… well, not much after that. In less than five minutes, Hunchback at the Olympics has already looped from the beginning, no end screen nor big reward. Since no one ever bothered to complete the game ten times to see the “real ending”, my guess is that there’s no end screen whatsoever.
Even though news are – understandably – scarce, I’m fairly sure that in the arcades nobody took a second glance at Hunchback at the Olympics, but, since the character went on to enjoy two more exclusive titles for the Home computer market, someone was betting on dear old Quasimodo becoming a mascotte. A mascotte for what, correct posture?
This same someone decided that the arcade “sport” title also desperately needed a C64 conversion, handled by Colin Porch, who will then go on to work on other rather more famous 8 bit ports, and graphics by Tom Lanigan. In a short review I wrote at 18 probably on drugs I said: “the game is fun but can get frustrating”. Shudder to think about what my idea of fun was back then.
It is easy to imagine Colin looking at the original arcade game and thinking “Why oh God why?”. That is the one reason that can explain his attempt to add a bit of fun to the 8 bit port. Indeed, the conversion has a pretty exciting new feature that manages to add even more head scratching weirdness to the package.
Hunchback at the Olympics features a punishment system each time the player failes an event or Quasimodo gets a false start. These punishments are shown via a series of weird animated cutscenes, with a totally different art style from the rest of the game, where the Hunchback (which honestly seems to be standing fairly straight for Quasimodo, good for him) gets in all kind of trouble.
He gets rained on by passing clouds and then electrocuted, a phone explodes in his hands turning him to dust and a bell falls on his head. To top it all off, he gets pissed on by a toilet while trying to avoid toilet paper falling from the sky. Since this is still medieval times, it is anyone’s guess as to there is toiler paper and a phone. Then again, something had to be made up, it’s not like medieval times are famous for torture devices, right?
Also, Esmeralda looks like the blue fairy from Pinocchio dressed in a pink dot costume, I adore the way she lovingly calls the Hunchback “it’s for youhoo” like it is clear the wench already knows what’s up. Colin knew the audience, that’s why he made four different punishments but only one reward screen, with the pink fairy kissing Quasimodo on the cheek.
No one cared about the Hunchback at the Olympics concept making any kind of sense – wrap your head around that – and Zzap! responded in kind, awarding the game a 23% rating. For what it’s worth, Colin made a pretty faithful conversion: graphics are fairly standard, sound is very basic and gameplay repetitive enough for what will last most players 5 minutes.
Obviously, the only reason I’ve wanted to finally publish an article about it are the punishments.
Hunchback at the Olympics is one of the first games I remember playing in my life and that says a lot about me and my experience in gaming, doesn’t it? I was attracted by the sheer weirdness and craziness of the concept, the gameplay felt repetitive even when I was but an unexperienced cub. Frankly, I just played to find out more punishments, not to see Quasimodo being kissed. Again… says a lot about me. Is this turning into a piece about my distorted mind now?
Thus, while the arcade version is a forgettable and forgotten affair, I felt it I owed it to Colin to celebrate the sheer nuttiness of the Commodore 64 conversion. Imagine Out Run having punishment cutscenes featuring the blonde girl torturing the guy by forcing him to ride around on a bike or Ikari Warriors, where the player is forced to play the US version of the game.
Still, even in our present time where weird indie titles abound, it is not easy to think of another medieval times game where the main character gets electrocuted, turned to ashes, crushed by a bell and pissed on. If this is not one of the greatest achievements for a videogame, almost 40 years down the line, I don’t know what is.