Just in time to reap the commercial benefits sown by the recently held Winter Olympic games, ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 lets players compete in a number of winter events, in hopes of winning the coveted gold. While this game doesn't bear the official Olympic license, it does portray some of the most popular events of the winter games in classic arcade style. In the spirit of athletic competition and in the vein of the classic Konami Track and Field games, ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 offers the prospect of winning gold medals and nearly unlimited opportunity to improve upon your top scores. Unfortunately, none of the events are done particularly well.
There are a handful of play modes to choose from, including single-player, single-event trial, head-to-head competition, and male and female championship, which narrow down the competition in a series of events to find the most gifted all-around cold-weather athlete. Doing well in a championship run gives a password to enter on Konami's ranking Web site. There are eight different countries to choose from, with a single male and female athlete representing each of them. Most of the competitions are open to both sexes, with figure skating being exclusive to women and the ski jump to men.
While ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 doesn't bear the official Winter Olympic license, it does feature many of the events that kept audiences fixated during late nights, such as bobsleigh, figure skating, and the relatively unknown curling. Other traditional winter sports include two different lengths of ski jump, slalom, and downhill skiing. What makes each of these events a game in their own right is the way that each relies on a different form of simple control mechanics--which in turn relies on timing, pattern recognition, or frenetic button mashing. The moguls event, for instance, is performed by hitting the right and left triggers in time with a sliding bar that indicates your lateral movement. Hitting the left analog stick a few times on the ramps generates air and pulls off the tricks. Speed skating is a traditional alternating button masher in which you have to slow down the speed bar around curves to keep control. Figure skating is a rhythm game, much like a handheld version of Dance Dance Revolution, in which you need to point the stick in the right direction in time with the onscreen arrows while occasionally entering face button commands to perform the requisite jumps and spins. There are 10 events in all, and the difficulty in achieving gold-medal-caliber scores ensures that those players interested in mastering each of the events have their work cut out for them.
While the events you can compete in are varied enough to be fairly entertaining in theory, the graphics in ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 fall short in comparison. The 16 characters are fairly generic looking, and they have a stunningly low number of animations during each event. Each collision on the downhill course looks identical to the last, and the figure skating doesn't have quite the same character that the real-life skaters bring to their performances. During outdoor events with snow effects, like the bobsleigh, the snow absolutely drives in, although it doesn't seem to vary throughout the course of the race. Some of the smaller touches are rather nice, however, like the flipping medal award after a good performance or the postevent scene at the figure skating competition, during which the skater sits on the bench and watches the scores unveil. Each of the individual events features play-by-play commentary, which is adequate but doesn't bring much to the game experience. Ambient sound is downplayed for the most part, although the skiing effects and the way collisions are relayed audibly are fairly well done. The music is a mixture of disco dance tracks and other upbeat themes that, although generic, don't offend. While ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 is by no means the ugliest or worst sounding of games, it doesn't come close to matching what has already been produced on the Xbox, looking and sounding nearly identical in all regards to the PlayStation 2 version.
From a control standpoint, the game suffers greatly. Many of the events are simple enough, but almost deceptively so, because of the way the events control. The Xbox controller's directional pad doesn't lend itself well to precise movements, so you're left with the left analog stick for most events, although analog control isn't supported. During the snowboarding competition, if your stick is tilted at a slight angle, an error is recorded, and you lose precious fractions of a second while it recovers. Precise turning isn't possible during the slalom, as your options seem limited to either turning sharply or turning very sharply. Some of the pre-event instruction sessions seem to be missing crucial pointers, like how to jump out at the start of the slalom, which is necessary for a competitive time. Performing tricks in the moguls is also achieved through trial and error. While the gameplay mechanics in ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 are predominantly easy to learn, actually controlling each athlete properly during the many events can be extremely frustrating.
While ESPN International Winter Sports performs admirably as a modern-day translation of the classic NES Track and Field games, the gameplay mechanics that proved oh-so-satisfying more than a decade ago fail to impress today. Coupling lackluster graphics, a paltry selection of events, and shoddy controls, ESPN International Winter Sports can be recommended only to the most die-hard of winter game enthusiasts or those who desperately desire a throwback to the button-mashing gameplay of yesteryear.