It's tough to create an exciting simulation of the decathlon, for one simple reason: As grueling a test as the decathlon is in real life, it doesn't give a gamer very much to do in front of her monitor. Once you've mastered the techniques for running, jumping, and throwing - which usually involve little more than pounding two buttons in smooth rhythm and then hitting an action button to jump or throw - there's just not much else to do.
Of course, the real challenge of the decathlon is achieving that perfect balance of speed, strength, and stamina through various types of training. A decathlon simulation without a training feature that actually affects those physical attributes forces you to simply do your best with whatever qualities you've been handed by the program, robbing the sim of any depth or true challenge.
And that brings us to the main problem with 3DO Games: Decathlon. It's bad enough that a given athlete's attributes can't be altered through training, but to make matters worse there's also a little case of misleading advertising. On the back of the box, a caption for one of the screen shots proclaims, "The Training Mode improves your athlete's strength, speed, and stamina." But turn to page 23 of the manual and you read that "training will not impact your athlete's strength, stamina, or speed." If you don't think the athlete you're using has enough stamina, for instance, your only recourse is to "roll the dice" and get an entirely new set of unchangeable attributes. All the Training Mode does is let you practice the mechanics of each event.
That's not the only misleading aspect of 3DO Games: Decathlon. The box copy says that "Real-time texture mapped 3-D stadium and field graphics are portrayed in picture-perfect TV sports style," implying you get announcers and commentators. But Decathlon is about as far removed from a television broadcast as it gets. The only sound you hear during an event is a wash of white noise; after each athlete's turn in an individual event (not races), you hear what sounds like the development team shouting after a successful debugging session.
The same two crowd noises - one for a successful attempt, another for a fault or extremely poor showing - are used for every athlete, and all the athletes can manage is the occasional "unnh" as they lunge for the finish line. After hearing what's been achieved with play-by-play commentary and crowd noises in sports sims like NHL 97, FIFA Soccer 97, and Full Court Press, the lack of any commentary and the lameness of the sound effects in 3DO Games: Decathlon are even more glaring.
Real decathlons take place over two days, but you won't have that luxury in 3DO Games: Decathlon - there's no option to save a decathlon or track meet in progress. Though you can change viewing perspectives for the athletes you control, that same basic feature doesn't apply when watching computer-controlled athletes perform. And for what it's worth, there's a question of realism: When I played (and won the gold medal) on the "Stud" difficulty setting, I set a new point record for the decathlon, nearly 2,000 points higher than the real-life world record held by Dan O'Brien. But I wasn't the only one who surpassed O'Brien: Three computer-controlled players also broke his record in the same decathlon.
3DO Games: Decathlon has support for up to eight players over a local area network, but whether you're competing against your friends or computer-controlled opponents, the action remains the same: finger-wearying button tapping. That might have been good enough back when 8-bit Nintendos ruled the market, but it just doesn't cut it on the PC.