The strange appeal of non-sports sports games
When you tell someone you don't like something, their first response is often that you don't understand it. They often can't comprehend how you can't love something in the same way they do.
And I really don't like football.
That's not because I don't understand it. Lord knows, as an English person, I've been forced to endure it often enough over the years. I don't even mind the game itself, having a kickabout in the park with jumpers for goalposts; it's the sport of football that I find incongruous, by which I guess I mean all the trappings that surround the game that plays out on the pitch. From the rampant capitalism and the obscene wages, to the cult of celebrity and the deification of people with a minor skill, to the tribalism and irrational hatred it breeds in the fans - I find the whole thing rather unsavoury.
Just because the sport of football and I do not get along, however, doesn't mean I can't enjoy football-based video games. And maybe it's not just football. Over the years I've become a devotee of a hard-to-pin-down genre you might want to call non-sports sports games, or rather games that tackle a sport but don't tackle it in the way that you might expect.
Example: I don't enjoy playing FIFA or Pro Evo - a coefficient of how faithfully they try to represent the wider sport I loathe, no doubt - but the pared back, knockabout action of Sensible Soccer? That was my jam back in early nineties.
It may not have been the most sophisticated sports simulation ever made, but Sensi benefited tremendously from being adjacent to a real sport, without having to toe the line with official licenses, football associations and sponsors. While EA's first FIFA game was released in 1993 - only a year after the first Sensible Soccer, but looking significantly more advanced and evolved - everyone I knew favoured the top-down, accessible action of Sensi. FIFA International Soccer (as it was then known) was a polished, prettified boy band, playing an arena tour with the financial backing of a mega-label; Sensible Soccer was three-chord punk, sticky shoes, and the distinct possibility of a split lip and ripped clothes. And I loved it for that. We all did.
Wrong analogy. In truth, Sensi felt like not getting picked for the football team, but being able to have a 30-a-side match on the quad with a busted tennis ball instead. It was less impressive, and sometimes a little sad-looking in comparison to Fifa, but it was far more fun and inclusive for everyone involved. And it was hardly alone: 1989's Basketball Nightmare - a game which asked the question, "What if we made a basketball video game, but what if that game was also Teen Wolf?" - was also more popular among my non-sporting peers than the official Tecmo/NBA efforts of the time, for similar reasons.
These accessible sports games aren't relegated to the past, either. While the quest for graphical fidelity and telly-realistic presentation might be inexorable, the charm of these sports-adjacent video games, sports games for non-sports fans, hasn't been lost to the sands of time.
One of the best indie titles on the Switch is Golf Story, a 2D JRPG with golf at its heart. Visually somewhere between Earthbound and the early Pokémon games, Golf Story is a charming, self-effacing little three-button golf game, with all of the trappings of seriousness cast off in favour of RPG world-building and character progression.
Like Sensible Soccer, Golf Story whittles the sport down to its bare essentials - you want to get the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible - but it's the non-sports elements that really sell the whole thing. From its central theme of working your way up the golfing ladder, fulfilling the dream your father had for you as a child, you'll also find yourself: taking part in mini games; completing side quests for the locals; battling the corrupt establishment; rebuilding your childhood golf course; travelling the world taking on other champions; and getting into fights with geese. A lot of geese. It's context, but it's a different kind of context to the kind you get in a typical PGA game. And therein lies the charm.
Nintendo's handhelds have form in this area. Where the N64 versions of Mario Tennis and Mario Golf are traditional, behind-the-character 3D sims (albeit with the zany visual trappings of the Mushroom Kingdom) their Game Boy Colour namesakes are 2D role-playing games, just like Golf Story. And do you know what? The portable versions of Mario Tennis and Mario Golf are superior as a result.
But not all non-sports sports games are so charitable in their recreations. This hidden genre is capable of stretching from silly parody to being downright insulting. Enter Behold the Kickmen.
Kickmen's violent, arena-based football combat has more in common with the classic fantasy sports game Speedball than England's national pastime, while its ludicrous career mode is a whistle stop tour of cliche, panto, and snide jabs at the sport that inspired it.
Talking to Donlan last year, it's clear that Behold the Kickmen's developer, Dan Marshall, feels the same way about football as I do. From his feelings on the sport proper (he "can't stand it"), to the genesis of Kickmen itself (a "reflection of football as half-remembered by someone who played Sensi and Speedball 20 years ago"), he didn't let that stop him producing a brilliant little non-sports sports game.
Some elements among 'real' football fans might even have found Behold the Kickmen insulting, with Marshall admitting he'd had "genuine anger from some [people], especially when they didn't realise it was a big joke." You can't please everyone, and I'll wager that Marshall knew that before he started. You just have to look at the disparity between critics' opinions and user reviews to see the divisiveness of his creation.
To those of us who feel distanced or disenfranchised by the trappings of the sport proper, but still enjoyed kicking that tennis ball around the quad or playing with jumpers for goalposts in the park, Kickmen's a rare opportunity to enjoy a video game representation of the sport for the first time in nearly twenty years. There's a welcome undercurrent of inclusivity running through these types of games, from Sensible Soccer to Kickmen, to Golf Story and beyond, and it proves that truly great games about the likes of football, golf and basketball don't have to just cater to the hardcore fans. Video games can do anything, so why shouldn't they make a familiar pastime surprising every now and then?