During the early years of the space race, NASA discovered the ballpoint pen didn't work in zero gravity. Presumably fearful of disgruntled astronauts being unable to write their postcards home, the Space Agency immediately assigned some of its brightest minds to the problem. Six months and a million dollars later they solved it, developing a ballpoint that worked upside down and in zero gravity.
The Russians used a pencil.
Whether or not this story is actually true [there appears to be some debate - Ed], it's a great analogy for attempts to simulate football on a mobile phone. Most games follow the example of the million dollar pen, squeezing ever more subtleties, strategies and tricks onto the straining phone controls to replicate the home console experience.
Playman World Soccer, on the other hand, has most definitely opted to be a pencil, albeit a fabulously colourful one with a novelty pencil top.
Instead of trying to simulate every aspect of the beautiful game, its creator, Mr. Goodliving, has concentrated on fashioning a beautiful control system that suits the mobile phone.
Hence, where other titles demand the use of eight different keys to move your players, here you simply use two (left and right) to rotate their direction of movement. And rather than have different buttons for short passes and crosses, the power of any kick depends on the length of time you hold the appropriate button. Shooting employs a similar system: press once for a snapshot, hold down for a power shot with aftertouch.
With tackles and speed-bursts similarly handled, the resulting system employs just five buttons or, preferably, one mobile joypad to give you full control. Whilst this may sound a bit restrictive (especially to those reared on other footie sims), give it a little time ooh, say the 30 seconds of 'warm-up' mode and you'll be a fan.
Admittedly the game favours a dribbling approach over intricate passing (we won our early games by turning defenders, occasionally using the speed burst, and firing in diagonal shots past some initially hapless keepers) but that doesn't preclude more subtle play. Your team-mates are permanently on the move, so short passes to create space and better shooting angles are always an option, while the results of a difficult lofted ball or cross can be a truly rewarding (especially when met by the forehead of one of your players en route to goal). Tackling is a similarly dark art to master defensive duties are hardly helped by an over enthusiastic referee and we still haven't completely aced the use of the curving power shots.
There are a variety of challenges on offer. For a Quick Match, you can pit any of the international teams against teach other, whilst Arcade thrusts you into a succession of sudden-death matches or penalty competitions. The Career Mode is at the heart of the game, though. Here you guide your redheaded Playman team through a variety of tournaments against progressively tough opponents.
Win a challenge and you earn stars to spend on improving your team, as well as unlocking more advanced levels of competition. More determined players will be glad of that option. It's only in the 'Professional' stage that you must utilise more advanced playing skills you can easily play successfully for an hour with the basic controls.
Playman World Soccer doesn't offer the intricacies of Gameloft's Real Football. You could even argue that with its simplified control system, fallible keepers, paucity of headers, and just seven players a-side, the simulation is closer to the likes of Subbuteo or table football than to the real thing.
But that's to miss the point. As with most Playman games (check out Summer Games too), the idea is to distil the spirit of the sport into a fun experience that you'll want to keep coming back to, and it does that with unrivalled charm (we particularly love the stereotypical national players).
Playman World Soccer will surely face plenty of competition in the months ahead. But right now, its accessible controls and pure sense of fun put it top of the league.
8 / 10