Right about now, I am a sucker for two things: the carefree bliss of summer and the festive beacon of sportsmanship and competitive spirit that is the Olympic Games.
Of course, reality has a way of shattering those idyllic comforts. Depending on where you live, summer often means suffering with inhospitable heat and/or oppressive humidity. In my case, it means choking on wildfire smoke for a couple months while holed up in a stuffy, non-air conditioned apartment.
As I write this, the “2020” Tokyo Olympics kick off this week. I still find the Games great fun to watch, and I’ve always found the court events like water polo and beach volleyball especially enjoyable. When the legendary volleyball duo like Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings dominated the sands — and medal podium — in three consecutive Olympics, it was quite an inspiring feat.
Unfortunately, it’s a bummer that the spirit of the games are so often diluted by overproduced primetime television broadcasts which play out like emotionally manipulative infomercials and jingoistic highlight reels. There’s also the bribery deals, state-sponsored doping, and the social and economic havoc wreaked on the few cities still willing to host the Games. Further, these challenges are hardly new. Olympic scandals stem all the way back to at least 67AD when the Roman Emperor Nero bribed his way into a chariot race he wasn’t qualified to compete in, lost and nearly died when he biffed it, and then declared himself the winner anyway. And that’s to say nothing of the murder plots he faced from the livid Italians back home. Shit was wild.
I forgot where I was going with this, except to say that while both summer and the Olympics often disappoint, at least I can count on video games to pick up the slack. To that end, I’ve been playing a ton of summer sports video games lately, including classic button mashers like DecAthlete and Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
However, the game that’s really gotten me into the spirit of summer sports gaming this year is 2002’s Beach Spikers.
Originally developed by Sega AM2 as an arcade title on Sega’s NAOMI 2 hardware, Beach Spikers distills the concepts and iconography of summer beach volleyball into a simplified and instantly-gratifying virtual experience. In many ways, it exists in a similar vein as Hitmaker’s brilliant Virtua Tennis series. Comparatively, Beach Spikers is a more niche title, receiving zero sequels while making its lone console appearance on the Nintendo GameCube.
For me, Beach Spikers is one of the most overtly summery games in Sega’s catalogue, which says a lot given the blue skies and ocean sides imbuing much of its work. Aesthetically, this game drips with sunny, summer vibes, with all the sandy beaches, palm trees, and rampant outdoor advertising that entails.
The video game Beach Spikers boasts all the Sega summer charms immortalized by numerous classics before it, including OutRun 1 & 2, Daytona USA, Samba de Amigo, Green Hill Zone, Crazy Taxi, Sonic Adventure’s Emerald Coast, Jeffry’s stages in practically every Virtua Fighter game, and, uh, Greendog: the Beached Surfer Dude. However, AM2’s first and only foray into the beach volleyball is not a particularly robust package, featuring an obligatory arcade mode, a multiplayer for up to four players, and a small handful of training exercises and mini games. Functionally, most of these are diversions at best.
However, the true heart of the game lies in its World Tour mode, where you progress your custom-created tandem of players through eight tournaments over the course of a season. Playing through the game recently, this mode is where I spent nearly all of my time.
Kicking off the season in World Tour mode, I first had to forge a duo of players for our team. To this end, Beach Spikers offers a surprising breadth of customization options. It features dozens upon dozens of facial presets, hairstyles, and uniforms to adorn your players with. Hell, there are even unlockable silver and gold metallic Dural skins for your players.
Being an AM2-developed title in Sega’s classic “Virtua” lineage, I figured it’d only make sense to pay homage to a couple of iconic characters from Virtua Fighter, a series I’m fond of but always kinda sucked at. Maybe there’s some irony in how I cribbed the game’s branding and font style for this very blog. I dunno.
I decided to play as Pai Chan, a Hong Kong martial arts film star whose swift, flowing combat style has made her one of my favorite characters in the modern Virtua Fighter titles.
Pai’s/My teammate is Sarah Bryant, a trash-talking mix martial artist who seeks revenge against a shady syndicate called Judgment 6 after they brainwashed her into trying to murder her brother Jacky. Yeah, it was a whole thing.
As far as I know, neither Pai or Sarah are professional volleyball players (canonically, at least) so I was expecting to hit some bumps along that learning curve. Then again, that never stopped the Dead or Alive gals. Surely Pai and Sarah will make excellent volleyball stars, especially in a less pervy video game.
Despite whatever bad blood Pai and Sarah might have amassed over decades of sweep kicking, spin kicking, and flip kicking each other in countless fighting tournaments in the Virtua Fighter series, I hoped they might set aside their differences for long enough to reign victorious in Beach Spikers.
With their work cut out for them, I was eager to kick off the season’s inaugural tournament. It was sponsored by Pringles…
Sadly, the (potato) chips were stacked against us. Our first opponent was a talented Japan team and we gave them loads of help. Thanks to me, Pai was hardly top form. Having not played Beach Spikers in the greater part of two decades, my GameCube controller was practically caked in rust. Also — and I feel bad for throwing her under the bus like this but — Sarah’s utter lack of training and experience was perhaps our largest hindrance at the outset.
I shouldn’t really blame her, though. In this situation — as in many situations — I do blame greedy corporations. Sarah started with zero training and negligible stats in basic hand-eye coordination, yet the league’s organizers — the ominous Sega Beach Volleyball Federation — saw fit to make her compete anyway. It was a baffling decision. Whatever their reasoning, the folks at Sega set her up for failure from the start — much like their video game consoles.
Hoping to make the most of the situation, Pai/I adopted a “do everything myself” strategy.
It worked about as well as you’d expect.
Amid a self-sabotaging barrage of missed receptions and shanked balls on our (Sarah’s) part, we just couldn’t compete. Team Japan quickly ushered us to an early exit in the opening round. In another life, Sarah can kick anyone’s ass all around the dojo — but here on the court, she lacked the most basic motor skills to hit a volleyball. Unlike Pringles: once we popped, we were easily stopped.
The next tournament rolled around and our struggles continued. Prolonging our rocky start, we were again ejected from one of the early rounds by an elite Australia team. After a quick pep talk or two, we did manage to win a consolation match. We hardly felt consoled. In that moment, I vowed that even if we couldn’t win, I’d at least make damn sure Sarah could hit the ball more often than it hit her face. Then I dumped several skill points into her receiving and response stats — I at least owed her that much.
The turning point came in the third tournament, courtesy of Holiday Inn.
Escaping the first round against our neighbors from the mainland, we set our sights on an equalizer with Team Japan. We had to work for it but Sarah’s improved setting skills started paying dividends as Pai narrowly spiked us into the quarterfinals.
Then — in a stunning upset — we somehow managed to defeat the venerable United States team in the semis, before squeaking past Cuba to win the whole damn tournament.
Holiday Inn turned out to be a most hospitable host, indeed.
High off our first major victory of the season, we got cocky.
We had legitimately stepped up our play, to be fair, but we’d soon find that continued success would prove elusive. We were still playing amongst giants but now they were pissed.
Oh well, at least the sunset was pretty.
In the wake of their narrow defeat in the previous tournament, the Cuban team returned the favor by dispatching us from the quarter finals in the next tournament, eventually placing second to Team USA, who established themselves firmly atop the season standings. Meanwhile, our hopes of world domination stalled with a fifth place finish. No one ever said progress was a straight line.
What followed was a roller coaster of triumph and despair over the next couple of tournaments, beginning with back-to-back comeback victories against Cuba and Australia in the Nissan tournament. Pai and Sarah made it all the way to the final round, where we endured a humbling loss to an unstoppable Brazilian team. We proved we could hang with the big dogs but only just.
Meanwhile, Sarah Bryant kept honing her craft. We built up her stats, dumping training points into her net skills. Overnight, Sarah blossomed into a legit blocking powerhouse. The front of the court was now her domain, while Pai dutifully had her back in the deep court.
For the first time all season, Sarah and Pai felt in sync. Neither were perfect but, as a decreasingly stoppable tandem, they developed a deep, mutual trust with one another. It was them against the world, and they were winning.
Our teamwork level was now at 92%.
We arrived at the sixth round Coca-Cola tournament. Its night sands illuminated in the harsh stadium lamps. Deep down, we knew this was our time to shine. And it was. We crushed the Netherlands in the opening round, then Japan in the quarter-finals, then USA in the semi-finals.
And then we surfed through Team Australia to win the finals.
It was a refreshing victory — just like an ice cold bottle of Coke*
* Mexican Coke with cane sugar, mind you; not the high-fructose corn syrup garbage.
Amongst the rest of their volleyball skills, Sarah and Pai had mastered a small handful of prepared victory celebrations. They practiced them frequently.
But the most improved player award easily went to Sarah. Soon there was nothing she couldn’t do. With tremendous grace, she could block, spike, and everything in between. She was master of all the trades! In a few short tournaments, she had grown into the Kerri Walsh to Pai’s Misty May.
We were the giants now.
With two tournaments to go in the season, we were now within striking distance of the Americans Mayer and Garnett. With us breathing down their necks, I did not envy them.
Working on all cylinders, Pai and Sarah trounced every reputable opponent en route to cruising to victory in the penultimate Nintendo tournament. All the other top teams — USA, Brazil, and Aussies — fell like dominos.
At last, we arrived at the final championship tournament, sponsored by Sega. By this point, Sarah and Pai amassed great confidence, albeit tempered by healthy nerves. The wounds of their earlier losses were still fresh enough. Yet by all accounts, they were on the precipice of ultimate victory.
Until they weren’t.
Inexplicably, a massive friggin’ Godzilla-hog had been unleashed into the stadium, disrupting the proceedings.
What was once conceived as a gaudy promotional stunt born of corporate hubris, it had morphed into a monstrosity all of its own. Technically, I’m not sure if there are any specific SBVF rulebook violations for such a freakish occurrence. It ain’t right, though.
Goddammit. Shut it down. Just shut it down.
Fucking kaiju Sonic. This is why we can’t have a nice things.