It's not the end of the world (or the end of the World Cup). But for many of the football fans who read these pages, June was like attempting to scratch a four-year itch with a bucket of feathers covered in Paprika. Of the 14 that qualified, only four European teams remain: Germany, Portugal, Italy and France. And they're probably not reading this; they're too busy dancing in the streets (or in the Italians' case, the court room).
Throughout the tournament football's risen to the top of our gaming agendas too. Just look at the UK Charts, with 2006 FIFA World Cup, Pro Evolution Soccer 5 and even Sensible Soccer 2006 occupying spots in the top ten. We're not immune either; seldom has the day of an England match passed without a few games of PES squeezed in before or afterward. And just as Eriksson's probably sick of the sight of Scolari, we can't really bring ourselves to put either game back on now that the tournament's winding down and we're out.
But we're not ready to stop completely. There is still some amazing football to come. We may never see Eriksson singing the national anthem in Berlin as we'd hoped (and put money on), but all eyes will still be there, captivated by whatever spectacles the remaining teams produce. And though the pain is fresh, and our wounds salted by the harsh defensive lines of PES and the doddering Budweiser brew of FIFA presentation whenever we return to them, we still want to play football. This is about doing that without having to relive the pain. It's about the football games that aren't PES or FIFA. It's about our second teams. Wilkommen.
Reviewed just last week, at the height of our tenuously lofty expectations, World Tour Soccer 2 was like a breeze pumped into a 2pm kick-off; although superficially similar to most arcade football games of loose control and zippy pace, it focused its efforts on the single most enjoyable aspect of its predecessor, the Challenge mode. The result is a game that invites you to score against the clock, take long shots from shaded areas of the pitch, play tough opposition with less manpower and generally do the things that FIFA's Global Challenge mode wishes it thought of and Konami's rarely looked interested in. More than a novelty, it's a wonderful companion to a favoured football game and one of the PSP's best examples of the sport. From the review: "Clearly mindful of the strength of its competition, Sony's London team has created a free-flowing game of nearly effortless attacking that turns what some might consider shortfalls into the component parts of a high-scores game - one that arguably has more in common with the occupants of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade than the genre it represents on PSP."
Dismissed by some as a novelty, SEGA Soccer Slam nevertheless went on to inspire the likes of FIFA Street and, most obviously, Mario Smash Football. And while none of these is a true classic, lacking the depth and subtlety of the football games whose simulative approaches they completely ignore, they are all well worth playing. SEGA Soccer Slam's strength is in the balance of violence against superhuman strikes; by powering up and creating space, you can carve an opportunity to release a ludicrously powerful, slow-motion shot - but not if an opposing player gets to you first. Mario Smash Football's attempts to mimic that approach worked only in part. Given that it'll cost you about the same as a London pint and stands to occupy a goodly number of hours, particularly in multiplayer, it's worth tracking down. From the review: "Even those of you who just blew £40 on Pro Evolution Soccer 2 will find a home for its unique blend of footy and fighting." (Remarkably, the same holds true even as we splurge £30 on PES5.)
If Pro Evolution Soccer is football as it is on the world stage, then ISS is the bobbly field at the back of the garden with the goal-like trees off to one side. To the naked eye, it's one of the latter-day PES games; to the cultured eye, set into the flag-painted face of a footballing veteran, it's an ideal arcade alternative. Played with a friend, in particular, it's playing three-and-in after school. The third version, famed for its silly close-up mode, may not have reviewed well, but at the prices being asked it's a glorious remedy for any heartbreak Konami's other efforts might cause you to experience. Sink a few beers and smack in a 30-yard shot, pretend you're playing the other one and rejoice - because, after all, you're never too old to enjoy the pretence. Konami may have lost interest in ISS, but you needn't. From the review: "Even the commentary - always good for some unintentional comedy - fails to lift the game out of its trough. John Champion and Mark Lawrenson burble away, but it's repetitive, banal, uninformative, and often just plain wrong." (Some things never change.)
Oddly a game never reviewed on these pages, but one held in solid enough regard all the same, Red Card Soccer was one of Midway's last stabs at footballing success - a goal the publisher's attacked with about the same potency as England's Frank Lampard in the intervening period. Dismissed by some as a game uncertain whether to be a simulation or an arcade game, those who defend it found more balance than uncertainty. Another game unlikely to cost more than a few quid, it's also a good place to go if you feel like deliberately kicking a few overpaid bludgers in the groin without repercussions. A bit like Wayne Rooney in reverse, then. What we would have said: "Like a fleshed out Soccer Slam, Midway hit the ground running with a slick, free-flowing, and above all fun take on footy where outrageous tackles are the norm, and every player has a foot like a traction engine. Where else can you rain flaming slo-mo power shots in on goal while playing as a Dolphin or a Penguin? It's daft, and takes a while to unlock the many novelties hidden within, but for a few quid it's well worth seeking out - and it actually works on the 360. Yes."
To claim that we "courted controversy" with our score for FIFA Street would be like saying that Juventus' former general manager Luciano Moggi "liked winning" - but that's where the Moggi comparisons should perhaps end, because for all the confusion and disbelief it caused at the time, it was very much meant. We liked FIFA Street. Although the commentator was awful. Although eroded somewhat by a lacklustre sequel, that enthusiasm still exists somewhere, and the core argument - that a game with the same sensibilities as Soccer Slam but the authentic personnel of FIFA deserves a look - remains. From the review: "As you might expect, FIFA Street starts to come into its own once you begin to experiment with some of the trickery on offer, available via the right stick and a few deft combination moves that make even the most uncoordinated clogger look like a Pele in the making. The chief case in point is the way you can chip the ball direct to a team-mate and deftly hit the shot button mid-air and send a scorching header or volley straight at the goalmouth with barely any effort whatsoever. Get a decent player on the end of it and games quickly turn into the kind of exciting goal feasts that we've long since been deprived of."
On the subs bench
When approaching the shelves (or bargain bins) of your local games shop with football in mind, you might be surprised just how much there is that doesn't bear the name FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer. And while you should be fairly safe with any of the above, they're hardly the only games you'll see.
Mario Smash Football - benched here in favour of the experienced SEGA Soccer Slam - is a fine modern example of the small-teams-many-goals standard. With lots of Mario characters in it, naturally. You can't really go wrong with it, especially if you have a couple of extra Cube controllers. With the exception perhaps of Sony's latter-day This Is Football titles, the same cannot be said for much else.
Because it's not just every couple of years that something goes wrong in the football genre; until recently it happened virtually all the time. Current generation pitfalls include SEGA's Virtua Striker games (loopy arcade ports that should've been left to rot next to the 2p machines) and Codemasters' ill-advised-but-at-least-they-gave-up Club Football titles, which still haunt the shelves of many a stadium's club shop, too. And that's to ignore completely now-dead Rage Software's David Beckham Soccer (perhaps the best strategy).
Incidentally, without wishing to stamp on anyone's groin, you probably ought to put down anything you pick up that has Silicon Dreams' logo on it. And then burn down the shop.
On the other hand, if you happen across a copy of Go! Go! Beckham! Adventure on Soccer Island, consider it. It's a platform game, believe it or not. Think Yoshi's Island with a football. And if you find a copy of the PlayStation One's Libero Grande, hand over the 50 pence they're asking for; it's worth it just to see how a football game can work when you only control one player for the entire match. Understandably it flopped in England because you can't go on sabbatical for 40 minutes in the second half. Or stamp on anyone's groin.
Something that, we're pleased to say, you probably can do in quite a few of the above games. Wearing novelty sportswear. Because it may feel like the end of the world, but if you can't scratch an itch with shark-fin shin-pads, it's probably time to pick another sport.
Kristan reaches under the bed and picks through a few of his old favourites. And ones he just felt like slagging off.
International Soccer (C64)
One of the early 'system sellers' for the C64, Andrew Spencer's seminal title came bundled with the ridiculously expensive machine on a cartridge (as opposed to cassette) and ensured that the large majority of the early adopters had this game nestling somewhere in their collection. Featuring chunky graphics that were pretty unacceptable even then, this was nevertheless a pivotal title in the genesis of footy titles 'back in the day' for its (then) revolutionary touchline camera view and neat use of smooth scrolling to deliver the first title that got anywhere close to resembling real-life footy. Seen through today's eyes it still has a certain clueless charm about it, with hilarious ball physics that let you run the full length of the pitch with the ball bouncing on your head, and that old one button control system that we still love today. And let's not forget that the C64's built-in joystick support made it one of the two-player sport games of the mid '80s.
Match Day (Spectrum 48k - ported to BBC, C64 and Amstrad)
A retro classic! Actually that's a terrible lie. Match Day is terrifyingly awful through today's eyes, but it scored Ocean (and Head Over Heels creator Jon Ritman) a massive hit back in 1984 by virtue of being the Speccy's first footy title of any note. Essentially based on Commodore's successful International Soccer, it favoured the touchline cam still used today and amused many with its burbling rendition of the 'Match of the Day' theme tune as the players emerged from the tunnel in all their two-frames of animation glory (borrowed from their previous title Bear Bovver!). But if the flickery, colour clash-prone graphics, jerky scrolling and gaudy pitch colour didn't fry your brain, then the incredible absence of anything resembling ball physics made the process of actually playing the game a bit of a lottery. Still has a place in many 30-somethings hearts, but one that's best left in the mind's eye. Don't even think about firing up the emulator - and ignore the ports at all costs. According to Jon Ritman, "The versions for the BBC, C64 and Amstrad CPC were programmed by others who didn't even talk to me about it - I thought the versions were dire."
The inevitable sequel appeared three years later, adding a whole bunch of new features that allowed control over the power of your shot and headers and is arguably the best Speccy footy title ever. Again, try and avoid the ports if you can. They'll only break your heart.
Emlyn Hughes International Soccer (C64 - ported to Spectrum 48k, Amstrad, Atari ST, and Amiga)
Some five years after the 'daddy', Graham Blighe and co returned to the source inspiration to create what many considered to be the best footy title of the '80s. Originally conceived for the C64, it trod a satisfying middle ground between the frantic speed of arcade footy titles of the era (and latterly Kick Off) and the slower paced Match Day II to great effect. Deceptively simple on the surface, the controls were surprisingly sophisticated, allowing players to cross the ball for the first time. In addition, it was the first footy title to include pseudo management elements, with the ability to rename players and change the colour of the strip, while cup and league options gave the game a long-term appeal that was completely alien at the time. Visually it was blocky as hell (especially at a time when most developers had really nailed the C64s hidden depths) but there's a great deal of fondness reserved for this game, and rightfully so.
Microprose Soccer (C64 - ported to Spectrum 48k, Amstrad, Atari ST, and Amiga)
The oft-forgotten 'original' Sensible Soccer was a revelation at the time, bringing sharp, colourful top-down visuals and endless playability to the C64. Bundled with an indoor and outdoor version, it included a whole array of features such as banana shots, lobs, sliding tackles and instant replays that contributed to a hugely entertaining package that still holds its own today (if you're being kind, which we are). Admittedly, the ludicrous giant ball, large players and massively disruptive sliding tackles turn the game into a curious spectacle, but a lot of its instant playability contributed to the later success of Sensible Soccer four years later.
Street Sports Soccer (C64 and Apple II)
Part of Epyx's long-forgotten Street Sports series (that also included the rather brilliant Basketball and less interesting Baseball), this was the first ever 'street' attempt at the beautiful game, long before EA's FIFA Street corrupted an entire generation with its attempts at getting down with da kidz, innit. Epyx was unfortunately on a bit of a downward spiral by the time this came out, and reviews were rather unenthusiastic. Rightly so - the visuals were chunky and lazy, the gameplay uninspired and the whole idea rather 'back of a beermat' material. Choosing the best three players from a cast of nine sounded like a good idea, but it played pretty badly. Avoid.
Kick Off 2 (Amiga - ported to PC, Atari ST, SNES, Mega Drive, C64, Spectrum 48k and Amstrad)
A vast improvement on the 1989 original, Dino Dini's all-time top down classic threw aftertouch and more pitch types into the mix and created a legend that's still a hot forum topic even today. Taking an almost pinball-esque approach to football, it put speed and instinct right at the core of the game and introduced a radical control system that took an age to truly get to grips with. Players almost acted like running 'bats', with the ball bouncing off you as you ran. You could trap the ball and lay it off with skill, but in general the game flowed better by 'scooping' the ball, beating your man for pace and curling a shot (using the superb aftertouch) in as the keeper ran out. Featuring some hilarious bugs (like the ability to lob the keeper every time from near the halfway line), a clunky front end and rudimentary presentation, this was nevertheless one of the pivotal footy games that kept us going for the first half of the decade. Dino Dini's finest hour.
Sensible Soccer (Amiga - ported to Atari ST, Mega Drive, SNES and PC)
Having completed work on 1991 strategy title Mega-lo-mania, Sensible Software stumbled on the realisation that the charming miniature visual style they pioneered would work brilliantly in a footy game. A few months later a legend was born, taking many of the ideas from 1988's Microprose Soccer, zooming out the pitch view, upping the tempo two-fold and creating one of the most free-flowing footy titles of all time. Unlike Kick-Off 2, it was immediately apparent that a passing game was key to any success, and this crucial design decision made it by far the easiest game to pick up and play of its ilk. With stunning precision, you could quickly string complex patterns of play around the park, pulling off deft lobs, quick passes and scorching volleys and headers with aplomb, and remains one of the most refined control systems ever. Six subsequent versions were released over the next five years on the Amiga (five also on the PC), the latter of which many regard as the best footy games of the '90s. Rumours persist that Codemasters is planning to revive a 'classic' Sensible Soccer for release via Xbox Live Arcade. We live in hope...
Striker (Amiga - ported to Atari ST, Mega Drive and SNES)
Why this ever got the rave reviews it did, we'll never know. The curious 3D 'run into the pitch' viewpoint was somewhat revolutionary at the time, and the speed was impressive, but this didn't make it remotely possible to play a decent, flowing game of football. Looking back, it was one of those games which we all tried to get into but quickly abandoned to play some Kick-Off 2 or Sensible.
Hyper Soccer (NES)
Konami's top-down foray into the world of footy. Largely because the NES was (originally) a bit of a forgotten platform in the UK this didn't even register with most of us over here, but hilariously it has a top-down viewpoint with side-on players - as if they're lying on their sides on the pitch. You've gotta love the 8-bit. Let us know what it was like, won't you?
Goal! (Amiga - ported to Atari ST and PC)
Dino Dini's long awaited follow-up to Kick-Off 2 was considered a bit of a disappointment upon its eventual release (at least with the consumers - reviews were positive enough), but still stands as one of the best top-down footy games of the era. Taking the bold step of basing the entire control system around pass-and-move, there was a much greater emphasis on trapping the ball before laying it off to another player. Rather oddly, you spent much of the time holding the fire button down in order to first trap the ball, then quickly rotated your man to the direction you wanted to pass to and then eventually let go to spray the pass (then quickly pressing the button again to make sure you trapped the ball). It felt more sophisticated that the Kick-Off games at first, but was lacking a crucial spark despite technically being one of the most technically impressive footy game of the 16-bit era.
Perhaps the killer blow about Goal was the fact that - once you got the hang of the unusual control system - it was a piece of cake to score, and therefore removed the indefinable randomness of playing "the greater leveller" that was Kick-Off 2. After Goal and the related Dino Dini's Soccer (for Mega Drive the following year), his next footy project was cancelled in 1996, while he didn't cover himself in glory with his involvement with Z-Axis' forgettable Three Lions (incredibly, a No.1 hit) for Take-Two. He formed Abundant Software in Bristol in 2001 and started work on the 'Soccer 3' project for DC Studios (giving himself the characteristically big-headed title of the "Godfather of the footy title" while managing to ignore everything that came before Kick-Off), but little has been heard since this interview two years ago. His website appears solely focused on his musical ambitions these days (and freely admits he was never a footy fan), with literally no mention of any of his current gaming project. Answers on a postcard, etc...