Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stadium Arcadium

I kind of lost contact with computers between about 1988 and 1994. At university, I lost hours (and, indeed, many pounds in cold, hard cash) to Tecmo World Cup 90 in the Students Union, but a home computer was beyond my dismal financial circumstances. So, I missed out on Kick-Off and Kick-Off 2, which apparently revolutionised football gaming. Sorry about that.

Upon my return from University, I fell back in with my friends from college, the majority of whom had spent the previous few years mastering the art of signing on, smoking vast amounts of weed, and playing "Sensible Soccer". I can't begin to tell you what a revelation it was. It ran at the speed of an arcade game. Matches were a maelstrom of running, passing, shooting, heading and sliding tackles. A good, close match left you feeling pretty damn close to physically exhausted. Yet at the same time, it was intuitive, and required some degree of tactical ability if you wanted to play it properly. We played it on a Commodore Amiga, and the graphics were smooth, and was the sound was of a quality that the home computers of sive or six years before wouldn't have been capable of. We became involved in marathon league competitions that would drag on for days or even weeks - anything up to sixteen people sitting in a smoke-filled living room as two people sat hunched in front of a monitor, swearing at the screen, more often than not, each other.

There were, of course, interlopers. Boys being boys, we were forever going out looking for that next football hit. So it was that Dino Dini's Goal and Manchester United: The Double came into my life. Having missed out on "Kick-Off", I was largely unaware of the legend that was Dino Dini, but my friends were almost apoplectic about the release of his new game. I was, largely, unimpressed. It was was chaotically fast, the graphics were better than "Sensi", and (significantly) I was better at it, but it didn't feel right to me. MUTD was, theoretically, a cash-in on United's double winning season of 1994, but it was also an excellent game. It suffered slightly from only having English club teams in it (meaning no argumentative World Cups or show-boating Champions' Leagues), and whoever it was that got to play as Manchester United had a massive advantage over everyone else, but it did have a sophisticated tactics editor, and a tremendous "muddy pitch" option that reduced even the best teams to sub-par cloggers.

Our next great leap forward came with the purchase of a Sega Megadrive, and FIFA International Soccer. Of course, FIFA was a great game. The graphics were great, and it was easy to get to grips with, but... I didn't like it. It was charmless. It took it all far too sympathy. And it all started with that extraordinarily annoying "EA Sports - it's in the game" sound-clip. It sounded like (and, for all I knew, was) written by Americans. And it was buggy. If you kicked an opponent in the face, you could escape a red card by running away from the referee (how Francis Benali must have wished that had been a real law of the game) and, worse still, you could score by punting the ball the length of the pitch and standing one of your players in front of the goalkeeper.

You have to skip forward another seven or eight years before my interest in football gaming was re-invented, with Pro-Evolution Soccer. The series had started in Japan, under the name "ISS", and the name about came about as developers tried to take it away from it's arcade-y roots and towards authentic simulation. PES has undergone many changes over the course of it's five versions (the sixth is imminent), but what is stunning about it is it's realism. There's no heads-down-running-and-belting-it-as-hard-as-you-can to be seen. You have to play it in the way that you would play a real football match. It is, like football, somewhere between an arcade game and a game of chess. All of the players have their own individual skill-sets, and the graphics are good enough to make you feel as if you're actually there. It certainly does if you're a bit stoned. There are down sides to it. I could go into a lengthy rant about the dubious "joys" of licensing here, but it's dispiriting to see teams not playing their real kits, and players and teams not even sporting their real names: Liverpool become "Merseyside Red", Celtic become "Connacht", and so on. I don't know how much these licenses cost, but they give the later versions of the "FIFA" series an edge, at least in so far as sales are concerned. Th FIFA series is licensed up to the rafters - everything looks authentic, but it just doesn't play as well. I bought two versions of it before I realised that. Each new version of PES has more licensed teams and players. FIFA should stop taking the corporate dollar from EA, and throw their hat in with the better game, but I can't see that happening in a hurry.

Finally, management games. For me, they peaked with Championship Manager 97/98. I know that the database in the CM series is monolithic, and that the gameplay has become so authentic that you can, with the right blend of hallucinogens, start to actually believe that you're Neil Warnock, but it all got a bit complicated for me. I'm too impatient. I'd just skip from game to game, having paid no attention whatsoever to training, my scouts, ensuring that everyone was happy (and so on, and so on and so on), and then start idly wondering how the hell I'd managed eleven defeats in a row with Chelsea. CM9798, though, was different. It allowed me to create tactical systems, squad rotate and generally dip my toes in the world of football management without me messing things up. It ended up with Wolves winning the double and England winning the 2006 World Cup. I should have sent my CV to the FA at the time. The CM series is moribund now, with the entire development team having upped sticks and decamped elsewhere. The last couple of updates of it have been dismal, apparently. The game that they have released as their riposte has something of the retro about it's name: it's "Football Manager". And so the circle is complete.

When I was young, magazines and TV shows would have had it that by now we'd all be wearing crash helmets with jump leads attached to them and immersing ourselves in some sort of future-tastic virtual reality. At ten years old, I'd never have guessed that the internet would have come about, allowing me to broadcast my thoughts on the subject of computer games to literally dozens of people (if I'm lucky). We have, of course, come a long way between "Match Day" and Pro Evolution 5", or even between "Football Manager" and "Football Manager 2006". We're closer to authenticity than we ever have been before, but... it's still nowhere near the majesty of the real thing, is it?


Edward said...

Aaaah, the Mega Drive FIFA games... there was something pleasing yet ridiculous about the first one I played, Fifa 95... you could deliberately punch people, and it was nigh on impossible to score from inside the box. Every game was a collection of 30 yard screamers and lobbing the keeper from 50 yards whilst standing on the left wing. Marvellous.

FIFA 96 had a feature where you could choose, if you wished, one player on the field to play as. My brother and I wasted some hours, being opposition goalkeepers in countless matches... most of which, of course, featured goalkeepers scoring and goals from 175 yards. My favourite of the FIFA series is probably 2002 on the PS2 with its bendy aftertouch passing and shooting, allowing obscenely wonderful through passes.

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