The Beautiful Games - Part One
Just as playing football has been an integral part of culture for approximately as long as civilisation has existed, so too have people always sought out new ways to replicate it indoors. Whether using a straw to blow around a scrumpled up bit of paper, flicking little plastic men at an oversized ball across green cloth on the dining room table, or spilling pints onto a wooden box filled with identikit blokes spinning around on poles, we love to play at playing football almost as much as we love actually playing it.
It's unsurprising, therefore, that ever since computer games first began to appear in the mass market around the early 1980s, one of our longest strives has been to find a way to create a perfect recreation of the world's most beautiful game. Indeed, the evolution of the football game can almost be measured side-by-side with the evolution of the videogame itself, right down to the fact that some of the earliest TV-plug-in versions of Pong included a pseudo "football" mode, with two paddles on each side and rudimentary "goals". Football games have taken many different forms over the years, and many would argue that we still haven't got it quite right (others would argue that we got it bang on with Sensible Soccer and that everything since then has been a step backward, but that's another story). As both a gaming nut and a football nut, I've played a good percentage of those games in my time; and so here, I present to you Noise To Signal's potted history of football games. It makes no claim to be exhaustive, nor fair or even-handed - these are the games I've experienced over the past couple of decades, what I thought of them, and how I feel they relate to one-another (and, indeed, to the sport itself). Hopefully this will inspire friendly nostalgia for certain games in some of you reading. Hopefully it won't make you go out and play FIFA '97 out of morbid curiosity.
Really, don't. I've tried it.
We start in 1989, which in many ways is something of a "year zero" for the modern-day football game. There had, of course, been a fair number of Speccy and Atari football games before, but none of them had really been particularly good. 1989, however, saw the release of Dino Dini's Kick Off, a game that is often credited with being the first game to use an overhead viewpoint and to offer such things as "aftertouch" swerving on the ball. It wasn't - Sensible Software had made Microprose Soccer the previous year - but it was at least a significant watershed in terms of football games, not least due to its popularity (although it attracted its fair share of vehement detractors, as well). It would be followed a year later by Kick Off 2, which didn't exactly break massive new ground, but was a solid tweak and improvement and another bestseller. This one does hold a number of fond memories for me, mainly through playing it on the Amiga of the kid across the road from me. I don't know why, but I always particularly liked that there was a rudimentary kit editing feature.
It was in 1989, though, that another of my favourite classics was released - one that I vividly remember playing as a child, and still enjoy today through the joy of emulation - Tecmo World Cup '90. Not to be confused with the following year's NES game Tecmo World Cup, TWC90 is an arcade classic - indeed, you can still find units in arcades today, so lasting is its legacy. Despite not being officially licensed and thus bearing little relation to reality (it has eight nations in it, and only Brazil wear the right colours, England playing in a rather fetching orange), it offers a representation of the world game that would go unmatched for some time. It's got an excellent learning curve (the difficulty of your opponents increases gradually as you go on - playing each team in a random order in the manner of a beat-em-up), being very easy to pick up and play straight away but difficult to truly master. The playing system is simple enough - one button passes along the ground, changing to a shoot button when you're close on goal, while the other lobs it in the air - but you quickly pick up the tricks and tactics that are possible, and get a good feel for such things as at what point in the game it becomes impossible to lob the keeper any more. It feels solid, too, rather than the lightweight feel of many footy games of the time, particularly when you're defending, sliding into tackles and coming away with the ball. This is helped in part by the immensely good sound effects, which still give me a nostalgic shiver whenever I hear them. The graphics are great, with lots of neat touches such as the way the net (which is beautifully angled so as to look huge and inviting) bulges satisfyingly when you score, the ball sometimes even bouncing back out if you've hit it hard enough. All in all, for its time, this is an absolute wonder - pick it up today (and with the existence of Mame and a decent ROM of it readily available, there's no excuse not to) and it's still far more playable than many more recent efforts. It's limited by the fact that, as an arcade game, there's no competition structure or anything - but for a quick blast of simple football goodness, it doesn't get much better.
Building on the success of games like Kick Off and Tecmo World Cup, the World Cup year of 1990 was arguably the first one of which computer games were well placed to take advantage. It's just a shame, then, that of no less than three officially licensed efforts, none were particularly playable, with a just-about-passable Master System version (that could only cope with eight players per side) the best of a bad bunch. However, there was one great game released in 1990 with the words "World Cup" in the name, despite having no license whatsoever from FIFA. Nintendo World Cup (chiefly on the NES but an equally good Gameboy conversion also existed) is a bit of an oddity. Whenever a game comes along that places you in the role of a single player on the pitch, rather than controlling the whole team (and there are more of those games to come later in this article), people always claim that they're the first to do so. But NWC might actually lay decent claim to being pioneering in this regard. It puts you in the role of a single player in the midst of a weird five-a-side variant of football with a uniquely Japanese bent. It's an extremely simplified version of the game, even down to the fact that fouls go completely unpunished, and while you are ostensibly only controlling the one player, you can bark orders at your team and make them shoot and pass at your will. And yet somehow, it works surprisingly well. It's good in a completely different manner to a lot of the games I talk about here, but that doesn't mean it's not worth playing. Particularly in handheld form, it's really good fun.
After 1990 kick-started the football gaming boom, there was a bit of a lull for a year or so before the next generation of 16-bit consoles really began to get in on the act. Console conversions of Kick Off were about the only thing of note that showed up in 1991, namely Super Kick Off, on various formats. The first football game I ever actually owned, on the first console I ever owned, I have many fond memories of late-night sessions on the Game Gear version (usually due to the fact that, thanks to the lack of a save feature, if you wanted to win the league you had to play every game in one go), although in retrospect it really isn't that great, and it's got one of those annoying "score every time" bugs, this one involving running about a third of the way into your opponent's half, hoofing it up long, and heading it practically out of the keeper's hands and into the net before he can reach it.
The next major milestone in terms of football games, however, came on the Amiga (and later on the PC) with the arrival of Sensible Soccer. A similar sort of game to the one that Dino Dini would spend his entire career replicating, Sensi is still considered by many to be the definitive football game. The product of Jon Hare and his Sensible Software team, it's football in its simplest, purest form - there's only one kick button, and to dribble the ball you actually have to carefully manoeuver your players in relation to it. There's no frills and no fuss - but it captures the spirit and feel of having a kickaround with your mates, allied with that classic Sensible sense of humour. There are those who will tell you that only the Amiga version is worth playing, but the PC version really isn't half bad either (steer clear of all the dodgy Mega Drive, SNES etc. versions, though). A game that still has its hardcore fans even today, part of the beauty of Sensi is that it's impossible to improve on it with fancier graphics and whatnot, since the gameplay was so refined from day one (although Sensible World Of Soccer - see below - is seen by many as the more definitive version, due to its staggering number of teams and exceptional management mode).
There were a couple of other big names floating around the market in 1992, though. Striker, from Rage Software, was a big hit - especially on the SNES - and became a staple of TV shows of the time Games World and GamesMaster. But many slammed the way it was fast and furious at the apparent expense of fluid gameplay, and its unique but flawed viewpoint - placing the camera behind one of the goals - has rarely been repeated. Meanwhile, over on the Amiga and the Atari ST, Krysalis were releasing the second in their long-running series of games themed around a certain team in red from (*spit*) Manchester, with Manchester United Europe. While a very pretty game, it wasn't the best in the series (that would come later with the PC's Man Utd : Premier League Champions, which had a Sensi-style viewpoint, countless teams to choose from and the excellent "Tacti-Grid"), and I mention it here simply because it's another of the earliest ones I remember playing, at my cousin's house in Birmingham. I distinctly remembering figuring out that, since it wouldn't let P1 be anyone but United, you had to plug your joystick into the 2P slot if you wanted to tonk them as, say, Liverpool...
In late 1993, a monster was born. I doubt that many could have predicted what EA Sports' first foray into football gaming would go on to become - but then, on the other hand, FIFA International Soccer was a bona fide phenomenon in terms of popularity and sales from the word go, not least because it was arguably the first game to really take proper football gaming out of the hands of Amiga and PC users and throw it into the land of consoles.
Taking full advantage of the richness of colour and resolution that the Mega Drive and SNES offered, FIFA looked absolutely beautiful. While it only offered international teams, there was a good range to choose from, as well as a decent range of tournament structures. What it didn't do, however, was play particularly well, with its players that ran as if on ice, the isometric angle making it difficult to target shots, and niggly bugs such as being able to score by standing in the way of a goal kick and watching your opponent's keeper happily bounce it off you into the net. Not that this bothered legions of console owners, who snapped it up by the bucketload in what was a triumph of style over substance - although you can hardly blame them for pouncing on the fact that they had a top-line, well-promoted, good-looking game after years of Amiga and PC dominance in the genre. The next few years would see seasonal updates that tweaked the gameplay and added such things as club teams, but the game still wasn't the best out there - however, the might of EA's marketing, the money thrown at the series and the licenses they began to pick up saw the series through those early years until the games started to actually get good in the late '90s.
In 1994, we had a World Cup year, and instead of the license being given out willy nilly, there was just one series of official games, from US Gold. By and large, World Cup USA '94 - ported to just about every format available - wasn't half bad at all, another Sensi clone, but one with acceptably responsive gameplay, and it made good use of the license. Sadly, being a game intended for the entire world to play - since it was, you know, the World Cup and all that - its menus were largely text-free, and were something of an incomprehensible maze in the style of older Anco games like Player Manager. Another big hit in '94 was Empire Soccer, a game that sought to bring a bit more fun into the genre. With its oversized, cartoony players, and amusing animations for things like bookings, it was good fun - but suffered from a ridiculously fatal flaw in that you couldn't see enough of the pitch to render the game anything other than a random session of button bashing.
A decent arcade entry, though, hit the halls in 1994, with the quirky Japaneseness of Super Sidekicks 2. The second in the series, known as Real Fight Football in Japan, was a great improvement on the first, and would pretty much rule the roost in arcade terms until Virtua Striker came along. Bright and colourful, with massive player sprites and some neat still-picture "cut scenes" for goals, injuries and sendings-off, this also had an interesting feature whereby if your player got close to goal the word "CHANCE!" would sometimes appear above his head. Hit the "shoot" button in time, and you'd switch to a first-person mode with a targeting cross-hair, with a few seconds in which to have a shot on goal. Thankfully, this method - while fun - wasn't the only way of scoring, which is perhaps why it worked and a similar system in the awful Three Lions (see part two for more on this one) didn't.
While FIFA had yet to really make an impact on PC - thanks largely to an extremely shoddy conversion that came out a good year after the Mega Drive and SNES versions - it still ruled the roost on consoles, and would have no serious challengers until - in a pattern that would later be repeated in the latter part of the decade - Konami came along. ISS Deluxe was an update of the SNES' earlier International Superstar Soccer, and took all the potential that that game had offered and moulded it into the near-perfect 16-bit football gaming experience.
There are two kinds of football gamer - those who prefer the difficulty involved in the dribbling style of games like Sensi, where to simply change direction is something of an artform; and those who don't mind if the ball sticks to your feet a bit so long as the game captures the feel and excitement of a game of football. The ISS games, right through to the latest Pro Evo, have always been the latter sort of game, with such good ball physics when you hit the ball that it doesn't matter so much that dribbling is a simple matter of pointing your player where you want him to go. And ISS Deluxe is just an all-round masterpiece, the pinnacle of what 16-bit consoles could do with football games. It has a good, variable AI - and that extends to the goalkeepers, who are neither Richard Wrights nor Petr Cechs, but somewhere in between. It successfully integrates such considerations as player fitness and condition. It allows for tactical changes that actually make a difference. It even has basic audio commentary in it, one of the first games to do so. Best of all, though, and pretty much unique among football games for some inexplicable reason, is the scenario mode - placing you in various situations ("England are losing to Turkey with five minutes to go, and must score twice to qualify!") for you to overcome. A master touch, and probably one added as an afterthought, but it enriches the game greatly.
ISS Deluxe wasn't the only all-time classic football game to come out in '95, though, as the pinnacle was also reached for those who like their games tricky to master and with just a single kick button. Sensible World Of Soccer had debuted to not inconsiderable fanfare the year before, but the updated SWOS 95-96 eliminated a lot of its bugs and problems (Sensible apparently declared that it was the game they'd always wanted to release). Offering a quite staggering amount of teams, as well as a deeply immersive managerial mode, it was the ultimate football experience for many, and there are those who say that football games have never got any better.
But there was a new kid on the block in '95, too. Next-generation consoles such as the 3DO, the Saturn and - of course - the PlayStation were arriving on the scene, and with this new processing power came demands for graphical boundaries to be pushed. Football games couldn't survive in 2D for much longer. EA responded by having FIFA '96 place 2D sprites in a 3D setting on some formats (while the 16-bit versions were simply another seasonal update), but real waves were made by Gremlin's Actua Soccer. For starters, it looked great - the first truly 3D football game, it was a genuine revolution, although it does look pretty naff by today's standards (this is often the case with pseudo-realistic games as opposed to sprite-based ones, which never looked realistic in the first place and so tend to retain their charm). Although it only had national teams to begin with (clubs would follow the next year), it had a terrifically immersive atmosphere, helped in no small part by being one of the very first games to have proper commentary (Barry Davies would have three different levels of excitement for each player - "Shearer... SHEarer... SHEARER!"). It wasn't without its bugs and flaws, and wasn't the most fluid of games, but it was certainly a major milestone, and the first serious threat to FIFA in some time, in addition to showcasing how the PC could still be a market-leading format in football games. Indeed, as the FIFA games struggled through the early years of 3D, Actua and its three sequels would retain a devoted fanbase that made them EA's closest challengers until Konami came along.
By 1996, fully-3D football games were the new thing. As mentioned above, Gremlin's excellent Actua Soccer represented a quite decent early foray into this brave new world, and indeed that game was followed in '96 by a new Club Edition. It was clear that EA had a new challenger, and were going to have to up their game. No longer bound by the restrictions of the 16 bit consoles, they could get to work on their first full 3D effort. Unfortunately, FIFA 97 was an absolute unmitigated disaster. Perhaps the crudeness of the polygonal figures could be overlooked (although for a series that has usually always looked better than its rivals, even when it doesn't play as well as them, losing out to Actua Soccer in terms of looks is no good thing) were it not for the fact that the game was practically impossible to play. It was sluggish, and players never moved where you wanted them to - the worst side effect of this was that if you chased a ball into the area and hit the "shoot" button, which also doubled as the slide tackle button, by the time your player got round to responding you'd invariably clatter into the opponent's keeper and get immediately sent off. There was even a bug that made it possible to accidentally score an own goal from a free-kick inside your own penalty area (I'm not sure how commonly this would happen, but it certainly happened in one memorable game against my mate's brother, just after I'd had someone sent off for - you guessed it - accidentally fouling his keeper). The ability to transfer players appeared for the first time, but this was next to useless as it relied on the ridiculous system of having to "trade" one of your players for whoever you were signing, making it near-impossible to create decent seasonal updates. The one quirk to its credit was the introduction of an indoor mode, which was infinitely more fun than the main game, but still felt like some kind of incomplete beta testing version.
It wasn't just EA that were turning out rubbish around this time, though. Microsoft made their first foray into the genre with the ill-advised Microsoft Soccer. A sub-standard clone of the original FIFA games, but with even worse gameplay (the main problem being how difficult it was to just get the ball under control), it looked pretty but was ultimately completely pointless. Unsurprisingly, it was the last time Bill Gates' giants would attempt to make a football game.
Even Gremlin struggled in 1996, the release of Actua Soccer : Club Edition notwithstanding. They snagged the official tournament license despite their relative newcomer status to the genre, and it seemed they just didn't know what to do with it - and so Euro '96 was a rush-job, built on the bones of Actua but horrifically bug-ridden and best forgotten. And so the summer of '96 came and went, and football fans thrilled by the wave of good feeling surrounding the country after England's exploits were left unfulfilled by a truly shocking set of games. Thankfully, better things were around the corner...
Click here for part two...