Matters Of Import: Welcome To The Bizarre World Of Namco's Numan Athletics

'80s popstar Gary Numan sadly not involved

Nintendo’s Virtual Console service has been a constant treasure trove of classic gaming for many years now, covering hundreds of titles across some of the greatest systems to ever exist. It’s thrown up more than a few unexpected surprises along the way too – including this Japan-only port of the previously arcade exclusive Numan Athletics.

The game first graced arcades all the way back in 1993, the same year that also saw arcade goers faced with the terrible situation of choosing whether to put their coins into Super Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat II. Numan Athletics didn’t set the world on fire but it did gain enough fans to warrant a sequel in 1995 (Mach Breakers, again arcade only) and a couple of downgraded ports to Japanese mobile phones about a decade after that. This Wii Virtual Console release came pretty much out of the blue on the 28th of April 2009, and is sadly the only way to play this madcap sports game at home without tracking down an arcade board.

The game immediately sets itself apart from the endless procession of Track & Field clones with the setting – this is sports turned up to eleven and run through an anime filter. The standard sprint event has players running so fast they casually overtake a drag racer and the plain old triple jump is transformed into something far more interesting when it’s done over the Niagara Falls. There’s more to the game than simply giving familiar sports a lick of paint and a shamelessly '90s techno soundtrack courtesy of Namco composer Nobuoshi Sano (Ridge Racer series), though – before long players are judged on how well they can push back an oncoming bullet train at a Japanese railway station in the “VS Express” event, and how fast they can destroy a variety of oversized monsters living in the Antarctic ocean in “Numan Sniper”.

There are four characters to play as, with each one representing a different country – Sharon (France), Harry (USA), Masaemon (Japan), and lastly the dubiously-named Bongo representing — where else? — Kenya. Each athlete is tied to a particular joystick/player slot, just like old Gauntlet arcade machines. To try and avoid arcade brawls over who gets to play as who, everyone is equally capable in all fields, even if logic would dictate that the muscular Bongo looks like he’d be much better at destroying boulders in “Non Stop Rock Chop” than the demure, pigtailed Sharon. Events are a mix of single and multiplayer competitions and if the players can’t reach the pass requirements first time around each continue used makes it a little easier to get through, so even the most inexperienced button-masher can get see the end with a bit of patience.

Numan Athletics is the distilled essence of what makes arcade games so exciting – it’s over the top, noisy, bold – and fun. As with all the very best multiplayer games it’s easy to grasp and get everyone around the Wii together, but it has enough depth to reward skilled gamers and will encourage lone players back again and again to beat their best scores. At just 800 points for this excellent arcade party game, there’s no question this is an absolute bargain. It's just a shame that it never made it to the western Virtual Console service.

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