After over 25 years, Kick Off is back. But even for a budget proposition, the stripped-back package seems too miserly to be truly enjoyed.
Talk about kicking it old-school. The signing of one-man brand Dino Dini should have been a real coup for Sony. Coming over 25 years after Kick Off 2 - still a totemic 16-bit scrambler, as beloved in its own weird way as the all-conquering Sensible Soccer - the announcement of Dino Dini's Kick Off Revival had the makings of an irresistible comeback. Here was the return of a coding legend with a thumping reboot of his signature game, promising a stripped-back antidote to the iterated bloat of the FIFA/PES monetary industrial complex. Kick Off Revival would also be a six-month exclusive on PS4 with a Vita version apparently warming up on the touchline. For the players, indeed.
Somewhere along the way, that FA Cup underdog narrative has veered wildly off course. It must have seemed a smart move to get the game into the hands of fans during the airhorn hoopla of a major football tournament - Kick Off Revival's cup mode defaults to the official UEFA Euro 2016 groups, albeit with teams of fictionalised players. But it also makes the final product's simplistic presentation and sparse feature set seem like the inevitable result of a rushed release. So far, the critical reception has been hostile. Most of the reviews make at least one fair point: even for a budget-priced game, Kick Off Revival is so bare-bones, it resembles the singing skeleton from the old Scotch VHS ads. (And at least that dude had the ability to record highlights - Kick Off Revival doesn't even have an instant replay feature.)
If the main selling point of Kick Off Revival is the spartan purity of the gameplay, you could argue that piling on screeds of cosmetic options would be a distraction. But even Kick Off 2 ultras might agree that things like yellow cards, red cards and substitutions aren't silly extraneous distractions that need to be ruthlessly sliced away to get at the beating heart of football. Extra time and penalties to definitively decide a draw don't really seem like outrageous impositions either. And if the tacit implication is that Kick Off Revival will require many hours of play to intuit all of its subtleties, being able to extend the duration of a match - or even just offering more than one pitch to break up the monotony - might have been nice too.
For players who can remember their first tentative experiences playing Kick Off 2, there are certainly moments of rushing nostalgia. Here you are all over again, staring rather glumly from a fixed top-down viewpoint at an unmolested ball while performing a series of scything sliding tackles that all seem to fire off in the wrong direction. Dini's obsession with a football that doesn't automatically stick to a player's foot, therefore requiring an improvised ballet of pinball husbandry, is still in full and demanding effect. The pat-pat-pat of the ball rebounding off players is also unchanged, of a piece with Kick Off Revival's emaciated suite of retro-crummy SFX and Teletext jazz muzak. Elsewhere, there are more welcome returns. You can still pull off emphatic banana aftertouch and players still celebrate scoring with overexcited somersaults (sometimes even if they've just scored an own goal).
If football really is just a branch of science, Kick Off Revival feels like chaos theory. In the bad old days, most football sims had at least one surefire technique for scoring. Kick Off Revival steers so hard in the opposite direction it feels like you are required to invent a new approach from scratch every single time. The fact that you have no control over your keeper - they punt out goal kicks automatically and arbitrarily - could, charitably, be seen as one less thing to worry about. Instead, it feels like yet another way in which the game itself limits your potential effectiveness.
There is simply no satisfying way to put together a strategy. Cycling through the limited formations - an option buried deep in the control system - seems pointless, since players on both teams consistently loiter offside without punishment. Instead, Kick Off Revival's core gameplay loop is moment-to-moment reaction, with your would-be galactico firefighting and/or swashbuckling through every single interaction in the plucky hope of herding the ball toward the goal. It is exhausting, imprecise and frustrating, right up until the moment where you successfully manage to hash together some passes and curl an unexpected shrieker into the back of the net. Then, admittedly, there is a tangible endorphin rush.
The no-frills approach extends to online but matchmaking seems robust enough. With such chaotic gameplay, the easiest way to work out whether your opponent is any good or not is to wait for the first dead ball situation - discovering that your rival still hasn't got to grips with the unintuitive processes required to perform decent throw-ins, free kicks and penalties usually means you might have a chance to scrape a win. With no yellow or red card deterrents, there is nothing to stop games turning into hard-tackling slogfests, and the bumbling keepers are somehow even more irritating when playing against a human opponent. A desultory online leaderboard tracks the top 30 Kick Off Revival players but doesn't indicate where you are in the global pecking order. As it stands, Kick Off Revival's netplay does not feel like the crucible in which any enduring reputation will be forged.
The thing that really torpedoes this comeback is the lack of any instructions to help new players or returning veterans get to grips with the initially unfathomable one-button control system. Instead of a tutorial, there is a bizarre Practice mode, which abducts the opposing team and lets you run riot on the pitch for ten minutes. It's an unstructured training session scattered with poorly defined and completely optional challenges that seemingly exist only to make you feel even more embarrassed when you cannot string together more than two passes.
In the wake of Kick Off Revival's bumpy launch, Dini tweeted out explanations for various facets of the control system as a series of comically complicated flowcharts. If you are prepared to grit your teeth and put in the time, it is possible to get a more intuitive feel for trapping the ball, flighting a long pass and adding some aggressive topspin. But even mastering the control system still leaves you adrift in a game where huge swathes of strategy are simply locked beyond your grasp. It feels systemically unfair, requiring players to put in a lot of hard work but offering up little in its sparse framework to reward such efforts.
Why, then, isn't it receiving Eurogamer's own red card, the dreaded Avoid rating? Partly it's because the arduous gameplay presents a hardcore challenge that, while currently unfashionable, can still be surprisingly moreish. What Kick Off Revival does emphatically is scratch a certain retro itch of user unfriendliness, to the extent that getting the better of the CPU or a human opponent within its shock corridor of ricochet gameplay feels like a genuinely hard-won achievement. When things are going your way, there are fleeting moments of euphoria to be found in its exaggerated physics and sense of teetering calamity. And when you're getting unfairly thumped, there's still a grim, chew-toy satisfaction in straining every sinew to get back in the game. It might not be a dead-on Kick Off revival. But it's not quite dead on arrival either.