Everyone happens to get a great idea every once in a while. Those brilliant concepts that almost approach pure genius, at least until they are actually discussed, some time passes and everyone suddenly 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 home computers a year later.
What is Hunchback at the Olympics? Well, it is a collection of Olympic events starring the famous mascot Hunchback, literally a hunchback-like green-clad guy who starred in one moderately successful arcade game in 1983, just a year before. With the Olympics taking place in Los Angeles in 1984, Century Electronics must have jumped at the occasion and sure enough, Hunchback is now obviously competing at the Olympics: definitely a case of an appropriate title for the experience. The original arcade coin-op was pretty basic and straightforward, nothing more than an average clone of Track’n’Field: destroy hands and joystick to get the guy moving and try to win the events.
The player would compete in a selection of eight events: 100m sprint, long jump, shot put, discus, javelin, 110m hurdles, and high jump. After that… well, nothing. In less than five minutes, Hunchback at the Olympics has already looped to the beginning, with no end screen nor big reward. Since no one ever bothered to complete it a hundred times to see the “real ending”, my guess is that there’s no end screen whatsoever. There are also no additional game modes, no “training”, no “single event mode; not even in the conversion.
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 – somehow – enjoy two more exclusive titles for the Home computer market, someone was betting on our dear old Quasimodo becoming a hit with the kids. A mascot for what, correct posture? This same someone evidently decided that the arcade “sport” title also needed a C64 (and MSX) conversion, handled by Colin Porch, who will then go on to work on other rather more famous 8 bit ports (Operation Wolf, Contra), with graphics by Tom Lanigan. In a short review, I wrote at 17 years old, probably on drugs, I commented: “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 “oh God why?”. At least, it is the way I try to explain his attempt to add a bit of off-the-wall fun to the 8-bit port. Indeed, the conversion has a pretty exciting new feature (probably, the only exciting thing about the whole package) that manages to add even more head-scratching weirdness to the package. If possible.
Hunchback at the Olympics on the Commodore 64 features a punishment system.
Each time the player fails an event or Quasimodo gets a false start, he will be punished accordingly. These punishments are shown via a series of weird animated cutscenes, with a clearly different art style from the rest of the game, where the Hunchback (which honestly seems to be standing fairly straight, good for him) gets in all kinds of trouble. Honestly, they play more like humorous vignettes than outright punishments.
Hunchback 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 why these vignettes feature modern commodities like toilet paper and a dial phone. It is understandable though, something had to be made up, it’s not like medieval times are famous for torture devices, right?
In these vignettes, 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 you hoo” like the wench already knows what’s going to happen soon. Colin knew the audience he was catering to: or at least, that is my personal way of explaining the reason why he made four different punishments but only one single reward screen, with the pink fairy kissing Quasimodo on the cheek.
As weird as it might sound, no one seemed to care about the overall Hunchback at the Olympics narrative making any kind of sense and Zzap! responded in kind, awarding the game a rather harsh 23% rating: “Certainly should have an XXX rating just for the mental effects of sitting through the ‘funny’ screens a few times”. For what it’s worth, though, Colin made a pretty faithful conversion: graphics are fairly standard, the sound is very basic and gameplay repetitive enough for what will last most players 5 minutes.
It is interesting to think about the overall duality of punishment in Hunchback at the Olympics, since playing it is not really what I would define as entertainment and, actually, might be considered by most players to be a punishment in itself. Adding mental torture to the physical extorsion of having to waggle a joystick to get the character to run and get to the finish line before the time runs out, only to see him fail for no clear reason. Indeed, playing already feels like a punishment. So it is possible to see an attempt at metacommentary in the vignettes, which might make sense with the fact that they take place in modern times. Not only the player is getting punished by playing Hunchback at the Olympics, but the main character is also coherently put through hell, just because he had a bad idea of participating in said events.
Indeed, it might be the only kind of sweet relief the player gets.
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. While it might easy to be attracted by the sheer weirdness and craziness of the concept, the gameplay is nothing but repetitive, even for me when I was but an inexperienced cub. Frankly, I just played to find out if there were more punishments, I was not interested in seeing Quasimodo being kissed. Again… says a lot about me. Is this turning into a piece examining how bad game design turned me into a sadist and/or a glutton for punishment?
Anyway, I felt I owed it to Colin to celebrate the sheer nuttiness of the Commodore 64 conversion, which at least tried to ooze some bits of entertainment from a rather forgettable arcade title. Imagine Out Run having punishment cutscenes featuring the blonde girl torturing the guy by forcing him to pedal 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 title 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, well, I wouldn’t know what is.
As a final note of weirdness, the cherry on top: the Italian pirates distributed the game under various titles, all pretty ordinary. The one exception was Algasoft, from Naples, which distributed it with the name Hunchback Sex Game. Now, I can’t be 100% sure they didn’t add *something* to it, but frankly, I don’t think they’d even bother. I’m pretty sure that title was just a last-ditch attempt to make this sound more appealing than it was.