So, for my first blog, I wanted to talk about some of the games I've played so that people can get to know me a little better. And this got me thinking about Football games. I'd like to make this a series where I talk about games that don't get talked about much, games which meant a lot to me when I played them in the past, or interesting or unique games that I happen to be enjoying today.
In England, we like football. A lot. As kids, my friends, brothers and I would play it all the time. We dragged our poor parents to the arse end of nowhere to endure watching our terrible youth teams play on rainy weekend mornings. We'd play every lunchtime at school, and then after school. We'd go to the park and play with actual goalposts which felt like an honest-to-God luxury, and we'd force little brothers to play as goalkeeper/ballboy and volley shot after shot at them. We'd throw jumpers down and play anywhere. We'd play against the neighbour's garages and he'd shout and threaten us. We'd play variations like 'kerby' or 'boot' (that's real fun – let in 3 goals and everyone gets to kick you, but miss or get hit with the ball and you're in). We'd dribble footballs down the street, practising keepy-uppies whenever we had to wait to cross the road. We'd become friends through reluctant partnerships playing Wembley doubles, only to betray each other to save ourselves during the next game of boot. There was always someone with a football and someone else trying to tackle them. Football was everywhere. Football was our lives.
So it made sense that, when we finally stopped playing the real thing, we'd go home, switch on our games consoles and play football video games. So let me explain why I play football games by going through the ones I've owned and played over the years.
Microsoft Soccer (Microsoft)
This came on a disc with our huge grey Compaq. And it feels like exactly the kind of game that gets packaged with a Compaq Presario in the mid 90's. My Dad got the computer for work and schoolwork but it ended up being used by me and my brother for games. Microsoft Soccer was probably the best game we got with it but man, it was rough. There was only one mouse so player 2 had to use the keyboard which was a huge disadvantage. It was like playing Subbuteo, which is a miniature tabletop football game (don't ask me how that works. Because it doesn't). I did like the chanting, it gave it a sense of realism that the game otherwise failed to replicate elsewhere. My brother liked this game more than I did, but that can be said for most of the football games we played, and football in general.
Michael Owen's World League Soccer 2000 (Silicon Dreams)
Now this was more like it. While the control was very limited, and the game was hilariously fucked (I mean, crosses were shots and shots were shots, but you had to turn sideways to shoot. Slide tackles were never fouls when 'conservative' tackles often netted red cards and passing AI made no distinction between your player and your opponent's), it at least felt more like an actual game of football. Real commentary and distinctive players helped a lot in that regard. But the AI was never really there and the graphics, dear god the graphics. Even for a N64 game it looked like shit. But it was good fun in spite of (or rather because of) its brokenness, and at least we could compete on a level playing field in multiplayer.
Alas, it was not to be. The string of shitty football games released by Silicon Dreams came to an end when their studio was liquidated in 2003. Still, better to fall on your sword than to die at the hands of EA, like so many unfortunate souls.
FIFA World Cup 2002 (EA Sports)
IT'S THE WORLD CUP, BABY!
As a kid, I was super hyped. I still am. It's the biggest sporting event in the world and my brother got this packaged with the gamecube. That World Cup will forever be special to me because, unlike France '98, I can actually remember it. Everyone was talking about the high-tech pitches and to a kid like me Japan seemed like this crazy, exotic, wonderful place. The tournament opened with the shock result of France, the reigning champions, losing to underdogs Senegal. South Korea, the co-hosts made it to the semi finals (albeit with some very dubious referee decisions). I still remember what Ronaldinho did to our national team. They let us go to school early to watch it live and to this day nothing has silenced a room of noisy kids as hard as their dreams being crushed in front of their eyes. For ages, the big joke around the playground was 'Why is Ronaldinho a porn star? Because he can lob Seaman from 30 yards!' (David Seaman being the England goalkeeper).
It was our first FIFA and it was, all things considered, pretty good. It was the first football game I'd played which was functional, whereas the other games felt more like if you'd described football to somebody who'd never seen it before, then tasked them with making a game about it. The cutscenes and more advanced commentary really matched the big match feel of the World Cup. Movement was kinda weird and if you didn't get a grip on it, you'd end up twirling players like ballerinas, but that level of control also led to more precise dribbling and some truly great goals as a result. The game was arcadey, with features like the ball igniting like a meteor when you hit a powerful shot, and I'm not sure if I like or hate that. The game also had star players who were OP, but this was great because the World Cup is a showcase for all the best players in the world (fuck you, Ronaldinho). To the mind of kid who was spending all his money on overpriced football stickers for his woefully incomplete collection, this was the kinda shit that I couldn't get enough of. But the gameplay just wasn't deep enough to keep me hooked as time passed and the World Cup faded into memory.
Pro Evolution Soccer 4 (Konami)
It was a few years later that my brother got a PS2, and with it a copy of Pro Evo 4. And, ladies and gentlemen, this was it. The perfect football game. FIFA had been janky and without the world cup hype it didn't draw me in. Other FIFA games like FIFA 2003 and 2004 were OK, but never quite felt right and were virtually identical. Pro Evo 4 was perfect. The defending relied on positioning and timing, not button spam, which tested your awareness and intelligence. The shooting was challenging, unlike FIFA which was easily abused (you could reliably score from kickoff) and your team attacked well with you, meaning goals were less solo efforts and more like what you'd see in a real game. It was fast and responsive and required you to keep up with it. It was the best football game ever made at that point, but sadly Konami would never top it, and now Pro Evo is a shadow of what it once was. As FIFA picked up steam (and shamelessly stole from Pro Evo), Konami could never really keep up and just stopped trying. Later Pro Evos were unpolished and unambitious whereas FIFA was always adding new features and improving its presentation. And now Pro Evo is a game which crawls out every year, with more of a feeling of reluctance than anything else.
It seems that in the world of football games, you either die Silicon Dreams, or live long enough to see yourself become Konami.
Football Manager (Sports Interactive Games)
(One of the best FM youtubers, DoctorBenjyFM's playthroughs become great long-form narratives).
It was some time after playing Pro Evo 4, when the series began to decline and there wasn't really a great football game on the market, that I got into FM. FIFA had both ripped off Pro Evo's style, but had also secured exclusive player and team rights which essentially was the death knell for Konami's franchise. Who wants to play 'North London Red' and not 'Arsenal'? I fully believe that if Konami had secured rights to names, not even exclusive rights but just had real players and clubs, it would have been the leading football franchise in the 2000's, and maybe the leader today, but expecting foresight or competence from Konami is like expecting England to bring home the World Cup.
However, in the background of the football war between EA and Konami, there was another war brewing among the PC-centred football management genre.
It will always surprise me how little this entire genre of games is talked about, despite selling massively (CM 4 broke sales records for PC games). I think it's just that fans of the genre have very little overlap with the rest of gaming, meanwhile the greater footballing world considers them to be the anorak-wearing, stat-counting, moneyball-dweebs of the sport. Which is a shame, because I think the genre has a lot to offer to gaming as a whole. Even if you hate sports, I think there's a lot to appreciate.
The first one I played was Championship Manager 96-97. It was alright, for what it was, but it was less like actually managing a football team and more like fantasy football. It was simplistic and only described matches in text format. It was only the later Championship Manager games (starting with 01/02) included the 2d match engine, which at least let you see what was happening. But Championship Manager was shit. It was painful, slow, glitchy as all hell, and just not very good. It looked like an access database and was about as interesting as one to browse. After the glitch-ridden Championship Manager 4, and SI's attempted fix Championship Manager 03/04, SI games split with Eidos, joined up with Sega and created Football Manager.
The early FMs had many of the same problems as the CM games and the SI/Eidos split had me feeling like the genre of sports management game had no future. Still, it offered more depth than competitors such as LMA Manager (notable for beating Sports Interactive to the 3d match engine by several years) and CM, which Eidos tried to continue after SI Games left. But all this developer drama didn't interest me at all. I just wanted to play good football games.
What hooked me with FM (really beginning around FM 2008) was that the games didn't just get better at simulating football management, but they begun to turn that into an ongoing, emergent narrative, complete with rivalries, player interactions, squad management and the media who, as usual, are a total bunch of c*nts. While every dev was talking about emergent gameplay around the time of Skyrim's release, they didn't realise that it had been going on for years. Just not in the RPG genre. FM's stories feel much more like the stories you'd see evolve over the season when watching Match of the Day. FM also featured a lot of interesting decision making which, in all honesty push it from 'good football game' into 'good strategy game' or 'good game, period.' The biggest of which beyond tactics being giving youth the game time they need to improve, or loaning them out and putting their development in the hands of virtual strangers and relying on experienced players or big signings instead. One of the most rewarding feelings I've ever experienced in all of gaming is taking the plunge and promoting a young player to the first team, and watching them not only repay that faith by stepping up, but going beyond that and becoming stars.
Yes, FM is obtuse, and opaque, and hard to get into. It's still kinda broken (this year's release being one of the worst in that regard for years) and the annual release schedule means that long-standing problems that need to be addressed get overlooked because newfangled back-of-the-box mechanics take priority, or because there's not enough time to go back to the drawing board. But a lot of those things are part of the charm. I don't even own FIFA any more and I treat it the same way I treat, say, Mario Kart. A fun game to play with others but as a single player experience there's a lot out there that better grabs my attention. But, since FM 2008, FM has been the football game I keep going back to, that can steal entire afternoons or evenings away from me without me noticing. And that happens for a reason.