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A History Of The Beautiful Game

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rain came down in Microprose Soccer, and that was ample excuse for the kind of sliding tackles that

Published on Aug 20, 2010

Forget about young boys in the park and jumpers for goalposts. A far more enduring image could be pictured indoors, with kids gathered around a computer or console, playing the latest football game. Simon Brew goes back to his youth and traces the virtual development of association football.

Sitting comfortably? Ready for one of those features that eulogises over how wonderful retro games are? This is not that feature. No, we’re going to take a tour of yesteryear’s football games, which will prove quite handsomely that game publishers have been making mugs of footie fans for some time. Fortunately, there are some shining beacons in the quagmire, and we’ll get to them before it’s time for lights out.

In the beginning, of course, there was Atari, and its 2600 console had numerous football titles available for it. Even the most heart-felt retro gamer would be charitable to describe them as passable, mind you. Pelé’s Championship Soccer, for instance, was a three-a-side game in which you moved all your players in one block at the same time. Think the old Arsenal backline, but less sophisticated.

Atari’s own Real Sports Soccer was more realistic, but by the time it was released in 1983, the competition from 8-bit formats was putting it to shame. Mattel’s International Soccer didn’t fare much better. But nonetheless, the seeds had been sown for a genre that some 25 years later would routinely have a title in the top 10 – week in, week out.

8-bit highlights

But let’s start right back in the early 80s, at the point where arguably the first significant game in the football genre emanated. We’re back in 1982, and it’s the tale of a bearded man who liked putting his picture on the box of his games. The man was Kevin Toms, and he put together the hugely influential Football Manager on the Addictive Games label.

At heart, Football Manager was a straight­­forward game. With two leagues and a limited transfer market, you could justifiably argue that time hasn’t been kind to it. Yet in its day, it was hard not to get caught up in it. What differentiated it from the competition of the time – remember Champs! on the Dragon 32? – was that it bothered with graphical match highlights. It may seem silly now, but grown men were on tenterhooks watching these stickmen kick a square around. It even made up for the time it took for the league table to calculate.

Kevin Toms went on to program a few games away from the Football Manager franchise, but his beard did make the eventual return to its roots in 1988 with Football Manager 2. The long-awaited sequel featured many more management options and the match highlight graphics had been polished up.

Football Manager: World Cup Edition (1990) and Football Manager 3 (1991) followed, although the latter was produced without Kevin’s input. Nonetheless, his place in history was assured, with the original game appearing on every popular 8-bit platform and reportedly selling over 400,000 copes. In fact, to this day he’s working on another football management game designed for the iPhone.

Ritman Rovers

For arguably the first defining action football game, you didn’t have to wait too much longer. Jon Ritman would ultimately be famed for the classic isometric adventures Batman and Head over Heels, but his football game Match Day is still a definite highlight.

First released on the Spectrum in 1985, and viewed from a side-on pseudo-3D perspective, the game featured made-up teams and the curious option to play a game in real time. It also had a forced rendition of the Match of the Day theme tune at the start, before the days when things like that would set you back lots of cash.

Whilst Match Day was unsurprisingly bereft of many of the options we now take for granted – substitutions and even formations were nowhere to be seen – it was nonetheless a considerable achievement. Not until the release of the original FIFA would another game viewed from a similar viewpoint match it, and even today, it’s not an unpleasant experience to spend time in its company.

The sequel suffered from a few delays, eventually appearing in time for Christmas 1987. In the meantime, owners of souped-up Spectrum 128s could enjoy International Match Day, an enhanced version of the original game which included a World Cup competition and featured crowd noise (there was even an animated image of fans celebrating on the terraces when you found the back of the net).

Match Day II was a noticeable improvement on the original, introducing a new kick meter to control the power of your shots and passes. The game also boasted the ‘revolutionary’ Diamond Deflection System (tm), a splendid sounding feature which allowed the ball to ricochet realistically. All 8-bit versions were similar, although the Amstrad CPC version arguably had the edge.

The 8-bit era produced dozens upon dozens of football games, many of which are best left forgotten. Unlike the situation now, there wasn’t what you’d call a dominant franchise either. Despite the fact that games took a lot less time to develop, the thought of sticking the year after the game’s title and banging out a mildly different version on an annual basis was alien.

Perhaps that’s why possibly the finest football game on the 8-bit machines only appeared once, and simply got it right first time. It also served as a beacon for an even better game many years ahead. We’re talking about Microprose Soccer on the Commodore 64.

Microprose was always known as a publisher of serious games, with simulations and strategy games filling its lofty portfolio. Yet it scored big time in 1988 when it published Sensible Software’s maiden football game, a tremendously entertaining title viewed from the kind of overhead perspective that Kick Off and Sensible Soccer would later make their own.

Microprose Soccer introduced several features into the football cauldron. You can, for instance, trace the evolution of aftertouch to it, whereby movements you made with the joystick immediately after the ball had left your feet affected how it swerved.

Furthermore, the rain came down in Microprose Soccer, and that was ample excuse for the kind of sliding tackles that Vinnie Jones would have been proud of. Also, this was a title for C64 owners to savour. Despite being converted to other formats, the game never translated particularly well, and was always best by some way on its home format.

Underdogs

The games we’ve mentioned so far are probably already familiar to you, but there are several titles dotted around that 8-bit graveyard which are worth revisiting. A nod surely needs to go in the direction of CRL for its polished, professional and engrossing management game Professional Soccer (1989). It didn’t do particularly well at the time, in spite of positive reviews, and whilst it’s no classic, it nonetheless deserves a closer look.

The Double (1987) was a management game that did enjoy some glory, and rightly so. The twist here was that you had to pick up the qualities of your team over time – just like in real life, y’see – and as such the game gave you no statistics by which you could make a proper value judgement as to a player’s quality. Actually, that isn’t quite true. Seasoned gamers quickly twigged that the salaries each of the players earned gave you all the indication you needed. Clever sods.

One positive result of the football management genre was that it kept the proverbial candle of home-grown games burning. Thus, small companies such as D&H Games and Tanglewood Software were able to slowly build up a legion of fans off the back of titles such as Football Director and Football Fever. D&H in particular took its success to the nth degree, eventually putting its games up for sale in retail outlets, and setting up a budget label called Cult, on which virtually every game was football related.

Then there was Track Suit Manager – a sorely underrated 8-bit international football management game that initially couldn’t be bought in shops. It pioneered the textual commentary approach that worked so well with the Championship Manager franchise, and as it continued to receive good review scores and positive word of mouth, Goliath Games ultimately put it out at retail around the same time as Football Manager 2. It was a decision vindicated by impressive sales.

It’s worth mentioning at this point a groundbreaking, if not particularly good, C64 (and also 16-bit) game called I Play: 3D Soccer (1991). This pushed the boundaries graphically, introducing camera angles that we take for granted now as an option on the menu screen. Sadly, the game just didn’t hang together particularly well.

16-bit super league

Like I Play: 3D Soccer, Kick Off graced both 8-bit and 16-bit machines in 1989, although it’s the Amiga and Atari ST versions that are most fondly remembered. In fairness, 16-bit owners probably didn’t know what to expect when they first picked up a copy of Kick Off. The box art was innocuous, the publisher – Anco – had just a handful of middling Commodore 64 games to its credit, and the overhead viewpoint of the screenshots didn’t inspire confidence.

But what a game. Kick Off, the work of Dino Dini, introduced fast, flowing football, with the big novelty being that the ball didn’t stick to your feet. It was also the first game to properly introduce referees as characters who could have an impact on the outcome of a game. Frankly, it was something of a revelation.

People who didn’t like football games played it, most who played football games loved it, and in multi-player mode, it was dangerously addictive. It wasn’t without flaws, such as a slow, laboured lob that could easily fox the most accomplished of keepers, but Kick Off genuinely broke new ground, and gave Anco a space in the software industry, until the publisher shut its doors in 2003.

Kick Off was also arguably the first football game to try and exploit its franchise potential. An add-on disc, Extra Time, followed, and then Dino Dini had the idea of marrying up his game to a football management engine. The result was Player Manager (1990), a game that nothing since has been able to replicate (the nearest was David O’Leary’s Total Soccer on the GameBoy Advance).

Player Manager cast you in the position of a young international footballer, who takes a job in the Third Division as a player manager. The idea then is that you could play as the full team, or choose to be one player on the park. And it was the latter that added something new.

Effectively, you were still playing Kick Off, but you were playing it as one member of the team. Sure, it highlighted some of the original game’s AI deficiencies, and it was nigh on impossible to get a decent pass from any of your team-mates, but the concept hung together and the game worked a treat. That’s in spite of a management engine best described as basic, too.

Such was the success of Player Manager that Anco took out ads in the gaming press, at one point inviting readers to submit ideas for Player Manager 2, with the lure of a free copy of the eventual game for the winners. But when Player Manager 2 did appear, several years later, Anco and Dino Dini had parted company, but not before a full-blown sequel to Kick Off had been produced.

Alive and Kicking

Kick Off 2 (1990) continued the franchise approach, but crucially, it was a much improved, much tighter game. It featured more tournament options, too, toughened up AI and smarter graphics. It also had its share of detractors, who argued it was so fast and zippy, it was more a game of pinball than a game of football. But that didn’t seem to bother Anco, which was on the receiving end of rave reviews and huge sales.

Thus, keen to capitalise on its success, it announced a range of add-on discs, most of which did make their way to market. Yet these discs did little to improve the game, and in some ways made it slightly worse. Final Whistle, for instance, introduced the offside rule into the game for the first time, but did it in a clumsy fashion. There was slightly less fluidity to the gameplay too. Then there was Winning Tactics, which – as the name suggests – simply added some tactical options and took eight quid off you in the process.

Dino Dini continued developing what was supposed to be Kick Off 3, but when he and Anco parted company, Anco took the rights to the name, and Dini took his game off to Virgin Interactive. They christened it Goal!, and it was rightly met with a lukewarm response when released in 1993.

Amiga owners will no doubt fondly remember that it used to drop a frame just as the ball passed into the goal, although it was the first big football release to introduce the no backpass rule. An improved version, re-titled Dino Dini’s Soccer and featuring a new four-player feature, appeared on the Megadrive the following year.

Anco wasn’t deterred by the loss of Dini, though, and turned to his co-author Steve Screech to come up with the eventual Kick Off 3. The game swapped the top-down 2D perspective for an isometric viewpoint. It was not good. The series plumbed further depths with Kick Off 96, an abhorrent waste of time and money, before a partial recovery with the underrated Kick Off 97.

But by that time, FIFA was marching into town. Anco focused on its Player Manager franchise, at various times endorsed by Kevin Keegan and Alex Ferguson, although they ultimately turned it into a decent but conventional management game, far removed from the Player Manager roots.

Get Sensible

Among the fans of the Kick Off games was Sensible Software. After Microprose Soccer, it’d continued to develop some cracking games, with Mega-lo-Mania being one the finest 16-bit strategy games out there. However, it took on board the fact that Kick Off and its successors didn’t give you much control over the ball, nor did it let you see much of the pitch at a time.

Keen to do another football title itself, it started work on the irrepressible Sensible Soccer. Originally appearing on the Amiga and ST in 1992, the game was an instant hit and was ported quickly to the PC and Megadrive among others.

Now it’s tempting at this stage to slightly glorify the game, and say that it instantly became the successor to Kick Off’s throne. That’s not quite true. Certainly not everyone who came over from Dino Dini’s games got to grips with it immediately. However, it did earn terrific review scores and quickly shot up the charts, where it rightly stayed for a good period of time during 1992/93.

And even those initial sceptics were pretty much converted once they’d invited the game into their homes for a day or two. The compromise of having the ball sticking to your feet for some of the time – depending on the skill of the player involved – worked well, and the sheer speed of the game resulted in fast, frenzied matches.

It also succeeded in a time when developers were looking at changing perspectives again. It’s ironic that 8-bit football games were more successful when viewed isometrically, and yet once the gaming public migrated to more powerful machines, the less sophisticated overhead view took hold. Certainly the trend was slowly moving away from the overhead perspective.

In 1991, Krisalis enjoyed some success with the admirable Manchester United Europe (all the more admirable considering its original Manchester United game was poor). Then there was Rage, which now rests in the great software developers’ graveyard in the sky. It released Striker in 1992, and quite good it was too. It continued in many guises over the following decade, right through to UEFA Striker on the Dreamcast, although the original was the best.

That’s not the case with Sensible Soccer though. A 1.1 version patched some initial gameplay issues, and then the team got to work on its finest hour – Sensible World Of Soccer (1994). This added a management game to a tweaked version of the original, although it didn’t allow you to take control of just one player as in Player Manager. Frankly, it was, and still is, an outstanding game.

It wasn’t without initial issues – how on earth could your leading striker bang in 40 goals and find his transfer value halved? But again, a freely available patch disk took care of that.

A European Championship Edition followed (to tie in with Euro ‘96), and the series peaked with SWOS 96/97 before the best forgotten and clearly unfinished Sensible Soccer ‘98 ushered in a 3D graphics engine. The shift to 3D was hardly surprising, especially as the FIFA franchise was now dominating the scene. But we’re coming to that shortly.

Meet the Manager

For now, we’ll cycle back a few years to the Collyer brothers. They were a pair of gamers, fed up with what the lacklustre football management games on the market. Feeling they lacked detail and could be significantly improved upon, they set to work on a game of their own.

Eventually, Domark agreed to publish it, although it seemed trouble was looming. Krisalis was working on a management game of its own, and had secured endorsement from then England-boss Graham Taylor (file that one as a good idea at the time). And, to be fair, Graham Taylor’s Soccer Challenge (1992) was a strong game, albeit one that relied a little too heavily on repeating the same tasks over and over again.

Domark, though, had Championship Manager up its sleeve, and the game was released in 1992 to… well, hardly rave reviews. Most football gamers already know the ins and outs of the CM franchise, but it’s worth remembering that the original had problems.

Whilst it offered shedloads more statistics and options than anything before it, it was painfully slow to play. That was primarily because it insisted on making you sit through a vide-printer of results after each game, that took several minutes to compile.

Fortunately, it did well enough to warrant an update, and the subsequently released Championship Manager 93 was a solid improvement that, crucially, speeded things up properly. It established the franchise, and set a pattern for regular season updates that continues to this day.

It’s worth remembering that the Amiga and ST were hardly short of quality management games. US Gold’s The Manager (brought in from Germany), Gremlin’s slowly-improving Premier Manager series, and the aforementioned Graham Taylor and Player Manager titles were all high performers. Yet Championship Manager set a far higher benchmark, and no game has come close to it since.

In 2003, the developers of the franchise finally split from Eidos, which owns the rights to the name. Thus, when looking for a title for what will effectively be the next generation of CM (Eidos itself is developing a Championship Manager 5), they dug into the archives, took one look at Kevin Toms’ beard, and bought the rights to the Football Manager name, releasing Football Manager 2005 under new publisher, Sega.

Before we finally get to FIFA, a few other games deserve an honourable mention. We’ve touched on Manchester United Europe already, but Krisalis also developed two further games around the Manchester United licence – Premier League Champions (1994) and The Double (1995).

These get an inclusion because of the Tacti-Grid, a way of setting up your formation that didn’t stick rigidly to your 4-4-2s or your 4-3-3s. Instead, it split the pitch into a grid, and you ascertained your formation by placing players into the various boxes. Sounds odd, but it worked. Also, Live Media’s Total Soccer (1998) kept the overhead view flag flying. It never captured the past glories of Kick Off and Sensible Soccer, but was still reasonably playable.

Console contenders

Consoles had given us the first football games, and in the shape of FIFA International Soccer (1993), they gave us one of the defining ones. Produced by Electronic Arts, which was nowhere near the giant it is today, it looked so much different from everything else out there.

Before FIFA, Sega and Nintendo consoles had made do with the likes of Super Kick Off, rather than playing home to a distinguishing title in their own right. FIFA changed all that. Its isometric viewpoint looked the business, and whilst the game had a habit of playing too much of the football for you, it was a blast nonetheless.

FIFA gave birth to several firsts. You can trace the growth of in-game advertising to it, and you can certainly chart the birth of the annual update template for football games to FIFA’s door.

And then there’s proper match commentary. That wasn’t part of the Megadrive version, as the cartridge-based system was far too limited for such extravagances. However, PCs at the time were starting to ship with these new-fangled devices called CD-ROM drives, and thus EA drafted in John Motson to deliver the lines. Motty has remained with the franchise ever since.

The original game will also be remembered by many for containing a great bug that could be exploited as a cheat: whenever the ball went back to the keeper, all the opposition striker needed to do was stand in front of him; then, the attempted clearance up the field would bounce off the striker and usually end up in the goal. We never did that, though, of course. Ahem.

FIFA has been continually developed on an annual basis since its debut. However, it wasn’t until FIFA 98: Road to the World Cup (1997) – the first game to ditch the Megadrive completely and appear on PC, PlayStation, Saturn, N64 and GameBoy Color – that the series really got its act together.

Up until then, Gremlin’s Actua Soccer (1995) for PC and PlayStation had hung together better as a rounded football game. Yet FIFA 98 finally got the marriage of fancy graphics and quality gameplay right. Sure, the inevitable World Cup 98, FIFA 99 and so on continued the work, but it was the ‘98 incarnation that made FIFA the fixture it is today.

Gremlin, fresh from the success of Actua Soccer, tried to emulate FIFA and the EA Sports model, yet Actua Soccer 2 (1997) was a big disappointment. By the time the improved Actua Soccer 3 (1999) arrived, it felt like too little too late. Instead, a stronger competitor was cutting in from the East.

Big in Japan

The history of the International Superstar Soccer (ISS) series can be traced back to Konami Hyper Soccer, the Japanese developer’s first ever football game. Released in 1991 for the NES, it introduced the fluid passing game that would characterise the ISS series.

Three years later, the first proper ISS game appeared on the SNES. A straight port of the Japanese Perfect Eleven game, ISS benefitted from the greater visual prowess of the SNES, delivering sharp graphics and smooth player animation. But the emphasis was clearly on gameplay, and in particular the passing game. That’s right – proper football! In fact, the original ISS redefined the radar system, so you always knew exactly where your team-mates were on the pitch.

The tweaked ISS Deluxe followed in 1994, and this was ported to the Megadrive in ‘96 (complete with an eight-player mode). The game was ported to the PlayStation in ‘97, and the first fully 3D version, ISS 64, appeared on the Nintendo 64 in the same year. This was ported to the PlayStation as ISS Pro, and yearly updates have followed since, with each one fine-tuning the trademark passing game.

The defining ISS Pro Evolution appeared on the PlayStation in 2000, and then the series split in two, with next-gen consoles receiving both ISS and Pro Evolution Soccer games. It’s the latter, created by Konami Tokyo, that has gone on to seriously challenge the efforts of EA Sports.

Title Race

Now, we’ve come down in the action stakes to an annual two-way battle between Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA. Contenders come and go – David Beckham Soccer, the This Is Football franchise, UEFA Champions League and Red Card Soccer to name but a few – yet the market is harder to crack than ever.

Football games are big business now, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that heavyweight franchises like Championship Manager were started by two brothers working from home. Given the incredible number of people behind the latest games, a new contender emerging from the bedrooms of Britain is simply inconceivable. Put simply, the game has changed, and that’s a crying shame.

Whilst there’s a reasonable argument that the games we have today are the best the genre has produced what’s seemingly lost forever is that spark. In the 80s, an exciting new football game was seemingly always around the corner, and you didn’t need a big licence, the rights to use players’ names, or a mass development house to jump on the gravy train.

So now the 2010 South Africa World Cup has played out, and your instant urge is to fire up your PC or console and load up one of the latest games, why not treat yourself to some old-skool action? Dig into the archives and spend some time with the football games you used to love. The likes of Match Day, Microprose Soccer, Track Suit Manager and Kick Off will be pleased to see you.

 

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