By Olly Ricketts
The festive season always brings back a host of memories from days gone by, and is a natural time for nostalgic reflection.
I remember the seemingly never ending Christmas Eves, torturing me with the promise of presents mere hours away. I remember when Christmas finally arrived, and the sheer unbridled excitement of present opening. I remember the annoying periods in-between opening presents, where you had to allow other people to open theirs.
I also remember wheeling home my brother’s mate in a wheelbarrow full of his own vomit and urine. But mostly, I remember the presents.
From very early on, these presents tended to be largely football related; when I received a Sega Master System in 1987 I began a love affair with football computer games which led to pretty much every Christmas since involving hour upon hour of football game playing.
The following is a list of my favourite (and a few of my most hated) football games of all time, both table top and computer simulated. Being a personal list, it is far from exhaustive (I know, for example, that recent FIFA games are hugely acclaimed, but it still just feels a little style over substance for me – perhaps due to lingering Pro Evo fanboyism), and can not be viewed as definitive in any way, but hey, t’is the season to be self indulgent, I believe they say…
For the record, I didn’t forget either Subbuteo or Kick Off 2, for example; I simply hated them both. I realise that it is borderline treason for a thirty-something male to hate Subbuteo. Before I ever played it I was the same as any kid, seeing adverts for it and dreaming of having the floodlights and the grandstands. Then I played it, and spent an hour flicking players who summarily missed the ball entirely, before falling over on the follow through and squashing Peter Beardsley. I do concede though, that if I could have afforded some one-to-one coaching from this winner that I may have been converted:
I also know that Kick Off 2 has similarly devoted fans, but my did I hate that game. I know, for example, that every pitch marking, corner flag and player is supposed to be spot on proportion wise. But what that meant to 11 year old me, particularly with the zoomed in camera, was that the pitch seemed humungous. It was made even more humungous by the fact that, without practice, you regularly swiped at and missed the ball. If my mate just put down his joy stick (fnar fnar, etc.) and left me to get on with it, I could just about make it from one end of the pitch to the other in the space of a half. However, I still wouldn’t score, as my fascination with the fact that you could “accurately” curl the ball always led me to try and score spectacular goals, which without fail ended with me either missing the ball entirely or slamming it out with very little curl for a throw in. I used to watch other people play, and could see what you were supposed to do; I simply had neither the patience or the motor skills to do it.
Now to the list of those games I did like:
10. World Soccer (Sega Master System) (1987)
I may as well start where it all began, with the first football computer game I ever owned. I recall reading in C&VG magazine that this featured ‘hyper-realistic’ gameplay. Being nine, I’m not certain that I knew for sure what realism meant, but adding the word ‘hyper’ to it made it a must have. Watching the clip of this now, I realise that I still remember every sound effect. I think that even today I subconsciously believe the Japanese national anthem to actually sound like it does on this game.
I also still get a sense of wonderment from watching the video; wonderment that even in the mid-1980s I ever thought that this bilge was playable, let alone hyper-realistic, or indeed good. It would appear that each player is only able to move in a couple of directions; similarly they are only able to kick the ball really high or along the ground. This certainly makes the list for nostalgia reasons only.
- Cup Final (1980s table top game)
I am acutely aware of how ridiculous it is to select this for a feature in which I express my disdain for Subbuteo (perhaps I liked this more because the players were able to survive pitch invasions – i.e. when we overstretched and fell on the pitch). Deep down I know this is rubbish: three-a-side; one of the two outfield players (who kicked the ball via a button on their back) having a Sideshow Bob foot in order to ‘chip’ the ball. Not that there was really any point in chipping the ball, as whether you continued in possession was not down to the trajectory of your pass but whether the ball landed with your team’s colour showing.
The same firm’s Test Match cricket was far superior, but I wasted many an hour on this too. It appears that this game is held in such little reverence that YouTube denies its existence (which may be the modern day equivalent of the “if a tree falls in a forest..” conundrum), so you’ll have to make do with a clip of something vaguely similar, plus a link to a website in which a table top football aficionado basically slates it.
- Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona! (Commodore 64) (1986)
This is the last of the games that were actually, on reflection, terrible, to make my Top 10. To those that think the rank commercialisation of football is a Sky-era blight then this provides conclusive proof that the problem started many years earlier. So keen were Grandslam Entertainments to get a World Cup tie in on to the market as quickly as possible, they forgot to come up with a title that made any sense. To compensate for the fag packet title, an exceptional game was required. Or, a rubbish game that made equally little sense. I’m not certain that Maradona even knew the game existed. If he did, he certainly wasn’t consulted on the gameplay mechanics. You control the goalkeeper only, having to save shots from various distances and angles with the implausible side effect of each save improving the skill set of your entire team. Oh, and the sound effect accompanying a goal being scored past you sounded like the onset of the apocalypse.
So why has this made the list? Purely because it had digitised speech when you loaded the game, which I remember genuinely sounding a bit like Barry Davies. At a time when speech in games was a rarity, and the majority of speech that there was sounded like Metal Mickey attempting to make himself heard over a particularly loud commercial aeroplane, that is more than enough for Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona! to make the list.
- Football Manager 2 (ZX Spectrum) (1988)
In many ways this game seems laughably simplistic today in terms of scope and detail. Back in 1988 though, it was one of the most immersive computer game experiences around. Being able to buy and sell players, pick a team, adjust tactics (albeit limited essentially to long and short passing), attract sponsors and watch highlights of your side in action was mind-blowing. So mind-blowing in fact that it helped me get over a childhood phobia of dogs, as to play the game I had to go to a friend’s house and brave his German Shepherd. Who said games can’t provide positive experiences?
- FIFA International Soccer (Sega Mega Drive) (1993)
Of all the games in this list, this game arguably represented the biggest single leap forward in gameplay terms from what had gone before. Not only did it feature fully licensed teams, but it eschewed traditional side scrolling or top down views in favour of an isometric camera angle which allowed for a genuine sense of being able to weigh up your options before deciding whether to pass, shoot or run with the ball. It all just seemed so much more polished than anything else on the market. In the years that followed, EA decided that actually making a decent game was far too much effort, and it was much easier to just peddle the same guff as last year, but with updated player lists and Rockafeller Skank. FIFA 99, I’m looking at you. But the first couple of iterations of this franchise were genuinely excellent. My personal memory of this game involves me attempting to play a full 90 minute game against my brother’s mate, only for my Belgian cousin, feeling neglected, to switch the Mega Drive off in the 88th minute. There’s a moral to this tale: do not let Belgian relatives in your house.
- Sega Worldwide Soccer ’97 (Sega Saturn) (1996)
I am in a unique position to speak authoritatively on this game, being one of only 11 people to buy a Sega Saturn. Actually, this was a critically acclaimed game, which until ISS arrived to make it seem positively archaic overnight, was about as sophisticated as console football got. It had proper commentary for a start, provided by none other than…Gary Bloom (me neither). You could also play something akin to proper football, with a crisp passing system and the ability to score vaguely realistic goals.
- Tomy Super Cup Football (1980s)
For some reason, my football hating brother loved this game as much as me, which meant that this electric table top game got played to death. So many memories: the god awful racket that the game made, scrambling around to find the tiny balls when they invariably went astray, the cool way in which corners and throw ins involved the ball being sucked into the corner and then spat out again, the long delays in games where the ball landed in one of the game’s blind spots where none of the players were quite able to touch the ball, er..players going up and down, other things. Sorry, this game turns me into a raving Ron Manager; wasn’t it?
- Sensible World Of Soccer – Amiga (1994)
“Goal-scoring Superstar Hero”. Need I say more? Ok, aside from its bespoke musical accompaniment, this was a near flawless combination of fluid football (its top down view was far easier to get to grips with than the likes of Kick Off 2) combined with a balanced management simulation. A very, very mid-90s management situation in which the likes of Paul Warhurst, Chris Bart Williams and, er, Ronnie Mauge were regular buys. This has been re-released on Xbox Live in the last few years; while still being extremely playable there can be little doubt that the definitive version was on the Amiga. “And every goal goal goal, says you’re the best in the land”..
- Championship Manager 01-02 (PC) (2001)
Tonton Zola Moukoko. Mark Kerr. Kennedy Bakircioglü. The great Maxim Tsigalko. Just a few of the players that are etched into the memories of any Championship Manager 01-02 veteran.
Subsequent versions may have featured an ever more bewildering array of features (I believe this year features an innovative way of making the game run at a snail’s pace on all but high end machines), but this was undoubtedly where the game peaked, featuring the ideal blend of depth and accessibility.
Sure, there were flaws – when you were playing in Europe and had a man sent off, if you attempted to discipline the player he automatically threw a wobbly, for example, but the overall game was the most addictive thing known to man. Speaking of which, if you had the game running in your bedroom, and needed to go elsewhere to have a cigarette, this game proved an excellent way of reducing your nicotine intake. Sure, you’d also forget to go to work every now and again, but you’d save money from not smoking anyway. You wouldn’t be much use at work anyway if you found yourself regularly conducting press conferences in your head relating to your big name striker’s latest misdemeanour.
Imaginary press conferences.
For a computer game.
Which doesn’t even feature press conferences.
But how else are you to get the Daily Mirror’s columnist to understand the nuances of your 4-1-3-2 (attacking full backs, one central midfielder with a free role) formation, which of course is tweaked for tough away games to a 4-1-3-1-1? I have managed to wean myself off this series of games over subsequent years, coming to realise that I prefer being able to maintain healthy human relationships. However, in the interests of research I downloaded it (for free, from http://forums.championshipmanager.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=63494), which goes some way to explaining why this list was not completed in September when I first decided to compile it.
You can even download an update to the database featuring contemporary players. God help me, and all those I hold dear..
- ISS Pro Evolution (Sony Playstation) (1999)
I’d been won over to the ISS Pro series via the 1997 Playstation version. At the time I was obsessed with and dedicated to Sega Worldwide Soccer (see 5.). One day I saw ISS Pro on offer and, as my brother had a Playstation, decided to buy it and see what all the fuss was about. Or, rather, I bought it so that when I proclaimed it to be rubbish in future I would at least be able to back up my claim by saying I had actually played it.
Before I put the game in the machine, I looked at the controls. Of course, they looked so much worse than the Sega Worldwide Soccer Controls. After all, as if ‘Through Ball’ (Triangle) could possibly work. I started my first game, with a derisory sneer etched onto my face, won possession for the first time, pressed that stupid triangle button and never played Sega Worldwide Soccer ever again.
Pro Evolution was released in 1999, smack bang in the middle of my university degree. There are a great many combinations in the world whose components compliment each other perfectly: fish and chips is a good example, cheese and pickle another. To this list I would have to add playing Pro Evo and missing lectures.
The amount of times that I would challenge my flat mate to “just one game” before a class, only to still be there seven hours later, down to our last teams (we used to play a competition whereby you got to keep a team until you were beaten, then you had to pick another team that you hadn’t used thus far), in a vegetative state as far as conversation goes, but still able to play the game to an implausibly high standard.
Now, especially as FIFA has upped its game in recent years and is actually a more realistic football simulation as well as having the licenses and the polish, Pro Evo’s lack of licensed authenticity seems anachronistic and frankly annoying. In its late 90s heyday, however, the lack of correct player names (R. Corlos, Insoghi and Geags) was a loveable idiosyncrasy.
Pro Evo was like a little indie band in a transit van taking on a vacuous major label behemoth in FIFA, and winning. The football you could play in Pro Evo was on a completely different level to its rival; far more realistic yet far more fun, and it still remains unsurpassed. Though I do also single-handedly blame it for being the reason why I am not currently writing hard hitting, award winning investigative pieces for The Guardian for a living.