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When you think of football games today - alright, America, soccer - there's only one name in the mix, realistically. EA's FIFA series has been a chart-topper since its debut on the SEGA Mega Drive in 1993, and its most-recent entry, FIFA 21, was the best-selling game in the UK in 2020. It is a monolith without competition. As much as Konami might want to argue that Pro Evolution Soccer remains a thing, its lack of licenses and significantly diminished profile in recent years, notably since it rebranded to eFootball, has made it something of a plucky League One underdog compared to FIFA's Premier League consistency.
But it wasn't always like this. There used to be more to digital fantasy football than just FIFA. So join me, please, as we take a little trip down memory lane for some favourites from back in the day - and be sure to share your own on Twitter and Facebook.
This is one of the first football games I can recall that had a famous player's name attached to it. The late Emlyn Huges, who passed away in 2004, was already retired after a career taking in over 470 appearances for Liverpool and 62 for England, but was a captain on the BBC's A Question of Sport. He remained a very visible ambassador for the sport, then, and his game, developed by Audiogenic Software, was a huge hit on home computers including the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. It offered players both a basic control scheme and a more advanced one, where passing was a lot more nuanced, rather like how FIFA today has the option of a two-button mode. Its side-on view made it somewhat harder to work the pitch's angles than you could in Kick Off, but International Soccer had features to make up for that, including on-screen 'commentary' and fluctuating player fitness and morale over the course of a season.
Before Sensible Software developed a superlative football game bearing the studio's own name, the Chelmsford-based team produced this still-pretty-excellent kick 'em up for the Commodore 64 and Amiga. (It was published by MicroProse, hence the name.) I played MicroProse Soccer on the latter, and while it could never be considered an accurate interpretation of the beautiful game, in either 11-a-side play or indoor 6-a-side, its banana shots were the stuff of legend. Never had you seen a ball bend quite how it did in the top-down MicroProse Soccer, which was also released for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST and DOS. I'm not saying David Beckham learned everything from this game, but... maybe? (Weirdly, while writing this, MicroProse Soccer was added to Steam.)
Another big one for gamers of the 1980s who had Amigas or STs, Kick Off was fast, furious, and absolutely the go-to game for after-school virtual kickabouts. Unlike other football games, Kick Off didn't stick the ball to the player's feet, which meant it felt like a more demanding, more realistic game than most of its contemporaries. That also made it hard to get to grips with initially - but as its incredible review scores illustrate, once you clicked with Kick Off, it was hard to put down. Several sequels followed, and in 1990 developer Dino Dini merged its action with the management side of football in Player Manager, the first game to mix on- and off-field activities and another huge hit. It even simulated the hooliganism that was painfully prevalent at the time.
1980s Honourable Mentions:
Match Day II (ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC)
World Soccer (Master System)
Fighting Soccer (Arcade, later ported to home computers)
Developed by the Rotherham-based Krisalis Software, this side-on sim is one that you might well have played under a different name. In the UK, on the SEGA Mega Drive, it was European Club Soccer; but in the States it was World Trophy Soccer, and in Japan, J-League Champion Soccer. A year earlier, the game - well, basically the same game - had released on the Amiga as Manchester United Europe, and I played so much of that version, taking the Red Devils to glory (even as a Southampton supporter IRL). Throughout its variations, the game remains much the same: detailed player sprites representing some 170 clubs shoot and slide their way around the park, with very elementary controls (big kick, small kick, that's your lot). In the States' version, the extensive club teams were subbed for a limited range of national squads - bad luck, Rotherham United - but wherever you played this one, it was a fine little number that's still worth a look today.
Did football games in the 1990s get better than Sensible Software's Sensible Soccer? Inarguably, reader, they did not. Upon its release in 1992, the original Sensi was an instant hit with players and critics alike, taking Kick Off-style perspective and control but upping the presentation value, the arcade-quality immediacy, and simply being a better game of football than anything else on the market. Sensible World of Soccer, released two years later, added a comprehensive full-season simulation with management options and transfers, and upped the game for a series that was already a reigning champion. When I say that Sensi is the game I'm most looking forward to playing again in 2021, when it comes to the Evercade (so, no dodgy ROMs or plugging in ancient consoles, anymore), I completely mean it. This is a legendary game, against which every football title that came out after it was measured.
In the mid and late 1990s, Konami's Winning Eleven and Jikkyō World Soccer series of football games made their way West, under the titles of International Superstar Soccer and ISS Pro. Sure enough, it soon got very confusing, with different Konami departments making different ISS games for different platforms, at the same time. Truth be told, I'm still not clear which Konami made what football game in what year - but I do know that ISS Pro 98, for the PlayStation - which is to say, not International Superstar Soccer 98 on the N64, although that's also excellent - is one of the very best football games I played back then (and having had it on again recently, it's still a terrific, arcade-accessible experience). ISS Pro 98 comfortably found a middle ground between slick interplay out of defence and bomb-on-down-the-wing attack-mindedness. It's like a proto-PES - and is, really - in its four-face-button play and no funny business. There's also something very sweet about the gentle commentary from the late Tony Gubba, who passed away in 2013. Highlights on Konami TV, at 7pm, you say? I'll be there.
1990s Honourable Mentions:
International Superstar Soccer 64 (Nintendo 64)
Actua Soccer: Club Edition (PlayStation, Saturn, PC)
ISS Pro Evolution (PlayStation)
LiberoGrande (Arcade, later ported to PlayStation and notable as you only controlled one player per team)
Picking one Pro Evo title to include in the '00s is tough - but I've gone with the second main game due to it being perhaps the quintessential PlayStation 2 football sim, in an era where the PS2 was truly the most dominant console. Pro Evo 2 builds on its predecessor with refinements rather than wholesale changes - the new commentators of Trevor Brooking and Peter Brackley aside - but when your foundation is already so strong, coming off the back of those amazing ISS games, there's no need to tear up the rule book. All the unlicensed player names and teams were an annoyance compared to the FIFA entry of the same year (FIFA Football 2002, funnily enough), but in my memory at least, this was the superior big-game experience.
With SEGA's own traditional-style football games largely failing to meet much acclaim - Virtua Striker, that's a pass from us - Soccer Slam on PS2, Xbox and GameCube was a punt at doing the beautiful game rather differently. And, mostly, it worked. It adds considerable rough and tumble to the mix, as exaggerated players can punch their opponents and one mode includes an explosive football. Totally standard, nothing to see here. No throw-ins or corners, either, as matches are played in a walled arena. Teams were also pretty far removed from your usual squads of burly defenders and spritely strikers, with notable players including an eco-terrorist, a geneticist, an alligator-wrestler (really), and, um, a team of girls all clad in pink. Look, I said it's mostly alright. Fast-paced and very easy to click with, SEGA Soccer Slam is a game that its publishers could be encouraged to revisit for the modern era.
This GameCube classic, also known as Mario Smash Football, definitely isn't a simulation of football as fans know it, but its powered-up take on five-a-side remains a hugely appealing fixture for any gamer looking for a twist on a familiar formula. Starring Mario and many other franchise mainstays, this pits iconic team captains and a crew of 'sidekicks' against each other, following rules that aren't quite the Association standard. Two points for a goal, if it's scored a certain way? Ridiculous - yet, also, a lot of fun. (Flashbacks to primary school football matches where a goal was worth four points and a corner, one.) Classic Mario-series items like red shells and bananas can be used to gain an advantage - or you can simply remove all the extras, if you're boring. (Don't be boring.) A decent follow-up for the Wii, Mario Strikers Charged, came out in 2007, but since then the only Mario-themed football we've had was on the 3DS's Mario Sports Superstars compilation of 2017. C'mon, Nintendo. Sort it out.
2000s Honourable Mentions:
Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (PS2, Xbox, PSP, PC)
RedCard (PS2, Xbox, GameCube)
New Star Soccer 3 (mobile, PC)
Ronaldo V-Football (Game Boy Color, PlayStation)
Here's where it gets tricky. It's FIFA, or it's PES, with not a lot else of note to talk about, in the past decade of virtual football gaming. Soccer Stars? Maybe, sure, I'll give you that. Naturally there are football management games that are neither FIFA or PES branded, but I've been ignoring those to focus on the playing of the matches. Sociable Soccer has tried to revive the Sensible Soccer formula, but with very limited results. Dino Dini's Kick Off Revival of 2016 was a disaster.
So I guess it's easy to see why FIFA has become the sole dominant force in the market - nothing else can get near it. While I'm certainly partial to a spot of FIFA, to pick me up after another spanking for Southampton FC, I wish that it wasn't the only football game worth my time in the present. But at least we'll always have those wilder, weirder games of the past, to replay in the here and now.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo, Konami, Greenwood/Gremlin