It Really Is All Over
And we're sick of PES and FIFA. So what are our other footballing options?
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.
World Tour Soccer 2 (PSP)
Sony/Sony London, Gamepage, Play.com page
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."
SEGA Soccer Slam (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
SEGA/Black Box Games, Gamepage, Play.com page
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.)
International Superstar Soccer 3 (PS2, Cube, PC)
Konami/KCE Osaka, Gamepage, Play.com page
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.)
Red Card Soccer (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
Midway, Gamepage, Play.com page
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."
FIFA Street (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
EA/EA Sports BIG, Gamepage, Play.com page
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.