Precious few things unite football fans but the latest edition of the FIFA gaming series, released every September, comes close. Each iteration improves on the last. Dynamic match engine, photo-realistic graphics, an active intelligence system, other marketing words… it really is a staggering achievement how far football on a computer has come.
It’s not just FIFA either. PES and Football Manager both add beauty and depth without fail every single year. FM18 has new player roles this season, including a Segundo Volante and Mezzala. Me neither. But I bet if you can get Ashley Young for less than £5 million he’ll be perfect for all of them.
As we now have the ability to dive as deep as we’d like, play out our dreams at any stadium in the world, or even go on The Journey to make it as a pro, it’s worth considering where we came from.
It would be easy to talk to you about the joys of Sensible Soccer or ISS, and if you read this site regularly you’ll know all about Championship Manager. But instead it’s worth considering the games we used to sink hours into simply because the alternatives were so limited.
There was a time when even a bad football game was worth sticking with as options were scant. An era where bad graphics met awkward controls at the junction of screen-freeze and button lag.
Without further ado, let’s get into the worst five football games I’ve ever willingly given my time.
Matthias Sammer Soccer – Game Boy
Purchased from an airport, MSS – as literally no one has ever called it but I will here for brevity – felt like an illicit treat. It probably was released in the UK but I never saw it, so I felt like the kid who found the *bongo mag in the **woods when playing this in front of my friends.
I also felt bitterly disappointed. MSS was a re-skinned version of J-League Big Wave Soccer and was without doubt the slowest football game I’ve ever played. This was like having a team of Gareth Barrys play against another team of Gareth Barrys.
If you could stomach the clunky menu system to set up a game (as a non-German speaker this was at times impossible if you took a wrong turn) you were nearly always Sammer’s own Bayern Munich. You then played as the player in possession or nearest to the ball, and moved at glacial pace around a pitch you saw so little of you rarely had a teammate to pass to.
Seriously, the window the game allowed you to play in was so small that even when you took a penalty you couldn’t see the goal – you just had to pick a direction and hope it was on target.
Because I’m largely an idiot I persisted and watched every single game finish 0-0 or 0-1. I don’t recall scoring a single goal in this game in the entire time I played it. I also don’t recall a single successful tackle as the collision detection was so bad you had to be impossibly perfect with both timing and positioning or it was a foul and yellow card every time.
Pitifully bad, and we’re just getting started.
*bongo mag – a form of printed British pornography found strewn across the British countryside in the 1980s and ‘90s.
**woods – an area outside where people used to play or walk before we had iPhones.
Soccer Kid – Various
Fusion food – sometimes good, sometimes chicken tikka lasagne. The elevator pitch for Soccer Kid was: Mario, but with football. But instead of Mario, but with football, we got a mess of lots of things – racial stereotypes, linear platforming and stupid boss battles to name but three – and this whole hateful mess is even more confusing when you hear the set-up.
Essentially, an alien pirate called Scab searches from planet to planet looking for trophies to put in his alien trophy cabinet. This won’t be the last time I say I’m not making this up before I’ve finished. Scab’s ‘Cup-O-Scan’ radar spots the World Cup and beams it up into space. Whilst travelling through our atmosphere the trophy hits a satellite and breaks into five pieces. Again, I am not making this up.
Rather than leave such things to the relevant authorities, an unnamed child decides to travel the world finding the pieces and remaking the trophy in time for the 1994 World Cup final. To do this he will ‘play’ his way through England (didn’t qualify for USA ’94), Italy, Russia, Japan (didn’t qualify for USA ’94) and the USA, in that order. Each country has a piece, collected by defeating a final boss as you jump around kicking your football at everything.
This was a terrible game. Stupid, difficult to control and way too long, with no level select cheat I ever found. Worst of all, playing it made less sense than the storyline itself. With collectible items like sweets and food, and ‘bad guys’ who were literally just people going about their jobs, from policemen to gardeners, it was hard to guess the football theme.
The only good thing in the entire game is the fact it makes a rugby player a bad guy, and we all know that’s the natural order of things.
Dino Dini’s Soccer! – SNES
A game so bad that the man with his name on the box didn’t even like it. This one needs some explaining.
Dino Dini was something of a legend for a brief time. He was the driving force behind Kick Off, a game I can personally report is still very playable now and was incredibly innovative at the time. It was surpassed by its sequel, as all football games are at some point, and Kick Off 2 is rightly considered a classic by most who bother with such lists.
It was the wealth of options in both games that broke new ground, and Dini was poached by Virgin for their fledgling video games department.
With the move came all the groundwork for Kick Off 3, quickly landscaped into Goal!, itself then ported to the Mega Drive as Dino Dini’s Soccer!. Complicated I know. That was an okay game, nothing to get upset about, but we’re talking specifically about the SNES version here. It was an absolute bin fire of an experience.
Buggy as all hell (more crashes than the entire Fast & Furious franchise), way too easy (ball sticks to your foot so defenders regularly ran the length of the pitch to score) and with ridiculously simple features either plain wrong or weirdly named (kick off = ‘centre kick’), it was just bad. Very bad.
Dini stated he had very little to do with the conversion and didn’t really want his name on it, but the big Virgin contract said otherwise.
It’s just a very sad experience. Having played it again recently it’s clear that the conversion was done by people who don’t like football or easy menu systems. If you have to play it, look for the Amiga or Mega Drive versions; the SNES one should be buried in the desert with all those Atari ET cartridges.
If you won the World Cup, as I did, the credits featured a single line bearing the creator’s name: “Based on a game designed by Dino Dini.” He knew. We knew. They knew.
Epilogue to this story: Dino Dini himself developed and launched Kick Off Revival in 2016 to quite a fanfare. It was voted second worst game of the year across all platforms and genres.
O’Leary Manager 2000 – Game Boy Colour
There is very little point retelling the story of David O’Leary’s time in charge of Leeds United, but if you know the gist of Icarus’ downfall, you’ve pretty much got the idea.
When he endorsed this game, life was good. Leeds were flying high and O’Leary was thought of as potentially the next truly great manager from these islands. As it turned out, his last job was 15 games in charge of Al-Ahli six years ago. This game stands the test of time no better than O’Leary’s career in the hot seat.
It was a hybrid management/simulation game. The simulation side was a Sensi knock-off with awful sound effects and pitch graphics that actually put you off when playing. All wavy lines and weird grass rendering, it looked like a child’s drawing of a pitch.
The management was essentially just a transfer market. Denilson was the game’s most expensive player but was unobtainable, so you were left over-paying for Sylvinho and Darryl Powell.
Training consisted of watching your players get injured if you altered anything. I have a vivid memory of playing as O’Leary’s Leeds and losing Michael Bridges, Alan Smith, Darren Huckerby and Harry Kewell for the season within the space of a fortnight because I naively decided to apply a level of training.
Finally, the youth players you could promote were all universally useless. In that save I promoted two kids as I had no fit strikers and both returned me zero goals in 12 games before I was sacked. It was painful.
Cruelly, and I hasten to add I never personally experienced this, there was allegedly a bug in this game that mirrored real life. If you spent a fortune on transfers and went up to the limit, the game would glitch and put £70m in your bank account so you could continue to spend without consequence. Whether Peter Ridsdale was involved in creating this bug is unknown to this day.
Emlyn Hughes International Soccer – Amiga
In terms of power the Amiga was limited. I’d wager you could get most four-disc Amiga games on an iPhone these days for less memory than the photos you took at New Year’s Eve. You know, the one where you wore that Iron Man costume. Classic you.
Even so, it was easy to do football brilliantly on it. World Cup 90, Sensible Soccer (various versions), Total Football, Kick Off 2 (and Kick Off 2: Return to Europe), Striker, Championship Manager 93/94, Goal! – there really was a boatload of quality games that laid the foundations of things we take for granted today.
And so we come to what I will now call EHIS. Lots of people bought this game because it came with a Question of Sport’s Emlyn Hughes’ endorsement on the box. Hoping for something fast, fun and easy to get the hang of, what they actually got was a buggy game that was so difficult to score in that most matches finished with a single goal.
The biggest problem was the angle they took to view the pitch. By going from the sideline they squashed it so much there was never any room when you needed it and even less space when you were on the ball. This meant an eternal amount of time played out in midfield and the odd shot from distance unless you became Jedi-levels of good at the game. It also suffered from the every-tackle-is-a-foul glitch that ruins a lot of football games.
It was rubbish, but still we played it as there wasn’t much else about. Not only did we play, we listened. This was one of the first games to try and capture crowd noise accurately and what this actually entailed was variations of dur, dur, dur-dur-dur, dur-dur-dur-dur, dur-dur from car horn to fuzzy voices, the odd unintelligible chant of something vaguely like ‘you only sing when you’re winning’ and random words shouted with no relation to on-pitch action.
We’ve come a long way, baby.