All in the game: from Mega Drive to mega awful

by , May 18, 2014

A nostalgic trip through the history of the football simulation, in which Javier Zanetti has a schoolyard kickabout with himself, Andy Townsend rants about foreigners and Chris Kamara tells you to kick a woman in a dojo…

I am a man of simple pleasures; I don’t drift toward the finer things in life but rather plant my feet firmly in the mire of the average. I’m a house wine kind of guy, an Aldi connoisseur and I’m about 5 ½ inches erect. If I was a ready meal I’d be a cottage pie – not a Sainsbury’s Basics one mind, and definitely not a Taste the Difference lamb moussaka, just a solid, 6/10 mince and mash.

Being a Nottingham Forest fan certainly influenced this lifestyle choice – over the last decade we, as a group, have learned to settle for average. We’re very much aware that the glory days are fleeting and that what excites us now isn’t the prospect of beating Hamburg in a European Cup Final but whether the hot dogs at Dean Court are up to scratch. It is fair to say that with Fawaz’s arrival our optimism has grown, but when I was a kid I needed something to take away the pain of a Saturday afternoon. To sooth the draws at Crystal Palace and the losses at Blackburn, I turned to video games for that comfort.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had an affinity with video games, in particular football games. I played and enjoyed them for hours on end, way past bedtimes and often at the expense of doing homework. I remember my early gaming years fondly for teaching me so many life lessons: hand-eye coordination, finger dexterity, moral guidance and the basic principles of attacking wing play. I’m not saying that my parents used a Mega Drive as a substitute for care and affection, just that I knew more about the Dutch national side than I did about social skills or basic numeracy. If only Edgar Davids was the subject of more everyday conversations…

It is for these reasons that whenever a world cup rolls around, my mind instantly regresses and I get all doe-eyed at my memories of some classic football games from the past. There have been some absolute stonkers in the last 20 years and also some Marco Pascolo sized piles of tosh. Here are some of my choice cuts – revel with me…

World Cup Italia '90My first memory of football games stems from the game World Cup Italia ’90 on Mega Drive. Bought second hand in 1995 from a car boot sale near Matlock (say what you want about my dad, he had his finger on the pulse of the latest gaming trends back in the day.) Seeing as I was only two years old during Italia ’90, all my memories of the tournament are in 2D and accompany an absolutely banging 8-bit samba inspired theme tune.

The game begins with the death cry of an ailing badger before allowing you the luxury of choosing your squad for the cup ahead. My brother used to always spend an eternity picking his best 11 based on some nonsensical number ratings. Not that they meant anything, every single player was literally exactly the same – jet black hair, white and fucking rapid. There was no ethnic diversity in this game, just a squad of 10 Javier Zanettis and a goalkeeper who always wore a hat. Except when they took a goal kick, then the hat would mysteriously vanish.

The best part of this game is that there are no fouls, offsides or free-kicks. In fact, there is no ref at all, making this game the closest thing to a schoolyard kickabout possible without being placed on the sex offenders list. You can’t dribble for fear of being massacred from behind, so the best tactic is hoof the ball as far as you can as soon as you get it and hope for the best, Bolton Wanderers style. If you do get bored of looking at the plethora of mini Zanettis, there is some eye candy in the form of the advertising boards encircling the ground – just the one sponsor ‘Gillett’…. Nope, not a typo, just not the genuine razor blade company – class.

Side note – scoring is literally impossible.

I never owned the official world cup game for USA ’94…. Instead I pestered my dad for FIFA ’94 – the game that started it all… And what a game it was. Nothing prepares you for a virtual kickaround like the words ‘EA SPORTS, IT’S IN THE GAME’, or as my mate Ben Groves wittily used to say ‘EA SPORTS, IT’S FUCKING GAY.’ Top work Grovesy!

FIFA ’94 was a masterclass. Any game that has the balls to credit its lead developer on the title screen has to be bulletproof. Otherwise everyone knows who to call a prick on the playground when they lose to Bolivia. No, Jan Tian, we salute you, you started it all. You made some great decisions in this game sir. You put stars around the controllable player making us feel fucking invincible, you let us do our own celebrations by mashing the controller after a goal and best of all, Jan, in a masterstroke of programming, you allowed the players to head butt each other. Need I say more?

Fast forward to 1998. New Labour, Jumanji, Birmingham hosting the Eurovision song contest and David Beckham on the front cover of the BEST FOOTBALL GAME IN EVER.

Check this out:

Whenever I hear ‘Song 2’ these days I think back to Road to World Cup ’98. It was the first footy game I had on 32-bit, it was proper 3D, it had Des Lynam introducing the matches alongside John Motson, you could create your own country and then lead them to World Cup glory (great for my inner dictator.)

The game also introduced true-to-life stadia. I remember being amazed by the San Siro – no idea why, I just thought it looked nice, like a Lego spaceship with toilet roll tubes stuck on it – so I always played there. Aside from Blur, the soundtrack to ’98 was insanely good. Every other tune was an electronic, beat heavy, in your face stomper that made you want to double drop and go to SubDub… or at least down a capri-sun if you were my age.

One of my favourite things about this game was old Motty. His commentary was scarce, to say the least. He would literally only say the name of the player who was on the ball – subtle, to the point, brilliant. Nowadays FIFA games are filled with Andy Townsend rants about the incursion of foreign players into the premiership and his views on Nigel Farage, but back in the day I knew that if Motty said ‘Kluivert’ I was about to score a pearler.

1998 also saw the release of this little ditty:

Oh god. I can’t describe exactly how excited I was when I watched that for the first time. Ocean Colour Scene? Ince, Becks, Gazza and, to a lesser extent, Sol Campbell in the opening five seconds? Yes please!

My excitement, however, was not to last. This game is awful. I bought it because it was ‘The Official England Team Game’ and I love England. Although in retrospect that was silly logic in the same way that Harold Shipman is officially England’s biggest serial killer. Three Lions does away with commentary, in its place you get sporadic taunts from the crowd. Hearing ‘MAN ON!’ from a feckless voice in the background just makes me imagine a pixelated single father in the virtual crowd eating a square pie… alone.

The game is dreadfully slow, the pitch feels massive, like playing on the Serengeti, and the camera constantly revolves so you get a vague sense of nausea to go with the deep dissatisfaction of the gameplay. If you watch that intro video again you will also see that in the 1:44 that it lasts, you only see one goal scored in computer gameplay. That is because scoring was unheard of. A target reticule aiming system for use in play made that an impossibility. Oh yea! And also, you can only play as England. Bleak.

I need to quickly give a mention to a game that has haunted me for many years. An abomination of a game that many may not have heard of but stole precious moments from my childhood. That game, my friends, is Chris Kamara’s Street Soccer. I’ll repeat that in case you missed it: Chris Kamara’s Street Soccer.

Old Kammy gave his good name to this pile of pants in 2000 and luckily for him it went largely unnoticed. I don’t know where to start: first of all you won’t find Wembley or the Bernabeu here. You can, however, choose to play your games in a ‘Colyseum’ or on Easter Island. Cool, fine, yep. Countries and clubs aren’t licensed in this game so you can only play as cities – London vs Beijing is a salivating fixture. The players are all given first names. Joss and Paul play for London. Cool, fine, yep.

Kammy does the commentary himself and at times encourages you to punch or kick your opposition – sometimes your opponents are female. Hearing Chris Kamara yell ‘KICK HER!’ halfway through a game played in a dojo is both surreal and worrying. You can also do ‘Super Shots’ in this game… London’s is incredible. You pick up the ball and throw it in the goal…. Also, the Germans play in bright blue body warmers. You can see it in all its glory here:

These days I’m spectacularly average at FIFA and PES, but for those sacred childhood years I won the World Cup countless times. It’s safe to say that for me, football came home every single school night before tea… then again before bedtime.