So that’s Australia out of the World Cup then. Tch, eh? To keep the celebrations (and heated debates) going, I've assembled my personal dream team of favourite football games. Shock horror: FIFA isn't #1!
This story has been updated since it originally appeared in 2014, when Australia was also bundled out of the FIFA World Cup after a soporific display.
Soccer — or "kicky", to give it its formal title — is generally considered to be the most popular sport in the world. This makes FIFA's World Cup the biggest televised event in history. (Okay, so the Summer Olympics is technically viewed by more people, but that's a bunch of sports mashed together so it doesn't count.) With millions of fervent fans around the globe, it's no wonder that so many video games have attempted to replicate the sport over the years. While other genres come and go, the football simulation remains eternal — from the spritely 8-bit era right up to the high-def photorealism of today.
Below you'll find the best all-rounders from more than 30 years of soccer-based gaming. For variety’s sake, we’ve deliberately cast our net wide, with cutesy arcade games jostling alongside football management sims. So er, let's go.
#10: Intellivision Soccer (1980, Intellivision.)
“A game with unbelievable realism.”
Before the Intellivision console came along, most soccer games were derivative Pong rip-offs that consisted of a few bats on a monochrome 2D screen. Intellivision Soccer ushered in the 3D revolution in an astonishing five colours. The isometric viewpoint and scrolling pitch would dominate sport games for years to come — everything from NBA Jam to Madden NFL owes it a huge debt.
If we're being brutally honest, Intellivision Soccer doesn't really hold up today; there’s no single player mode, passing is buggy and the ball jitters around like a half-deflated Jabulani. Nonetheless, the game’s enduring legacy earns it a spot on our team. (It was either that or Atari’s rubbish Pelé's Soccer).
#9: Kick Off 2 (1990, Atari ST.)
"Kick Off 2 is the best footy game to have appeared on any machine. Period." — Amiga Format.
Before FIFA or Pro Evo came along, Kick Off 2 was widely considered to be the best soccer simulation of all time. Developed for Anco by the fabulously named Dino Dini, it was one of the first games to incorporate proper football tactics and an accurate representation of the pitch. To be honest, the gameplay has more in common with pinball than football, but it was still loads of fun, especially with a chum in tow. Whenever you scored a goal, your in-game avatar would do star-jumps and back flips, much to the annoyance of the losing player. (It was the equivalent of corpse-humping in a more innocent time.)
Kick Off 2 was released on pretty much every format under the sun, including the Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, ZX Spectrum and the Nintendo NES. A PC retro-remake was released by Dini’s successor Steve Cambeby in 2005 — a full 15 years after the original made its debut.
#8. Super Mario Strikers (2005, GameCube.)
"The Mario Kart of soccer games. Even if you think you're a confirmed soccer hater, Super Mario Strikers just might rock your world." — Gamepro.
Super Mario Strikers is not a game for the faint of heart. Despite starring Nintendo’s lovable kid-friendly mascot, it is one of the most violent and unapologetically brutal soccer games to appear on any system. It makes the '62 Battle of Santiago look like a Sunday kickabout in a local park.
The game is essentially Super Smash Bros on a soccer field (indeed, it was renamed "Mario Smash Football" in the UK). Players are given free rein to tackle and punch their opponents into the dirt, even if they're not in possession of the ball. While the arcadey gameplay could never be mistaken for a simulator, the limited "Super Strike" shots do add a dash of strategy to proceedings.
A sequel was released for the Wii in 2007 that ramped up the violence to 11. From deadly environmental hazards to the real-world danger of flying Wii nunchucks, it was even more savage than its predecessor.
#7: On the Ball: World Cup Edition (1994, Amiga.)
“Football management gets a human face in this interesting and playable game." — Amiga Power.
There was a time when footy manny games were more ubiquitous than Flappy Bird clones. You couldn't get away from the bloody things, with multiple titles hitting store shelves on a bimonthly basis. (This was mainly due to a thriving UK games industry, which naturally had a predilection for all things football.) Unfortunately, most of these "games" were tediously dry, consisting of nothing but statistics and spreadsheets. They were cold and deeply impersonal affairs that had more to do with mathematics than football management.
Daze’s On the Ball: World Cup Edition finally gave the genre a human face. Instead of making remote decisions based on skill-based numerals, the player got to know their team inside and out, just like a real-world manager would. Marriage break-ups, sex scandals, beating up unscrupulous journalists — the managerial problems the game threw at you were wonderfully authentic. It also let you make rousing or scathing speeches at halftime, which is surely the best part of the job.
#6: Virtua Striker 2 (1997, arcades.)
“This is the finest arcade football game ever.” — C&VG.
Sega's Virtua Striker series never really caught on outside Japan. More’s the pity, as it’s easily the most accomplished soccer franchise ever to storm arcade parlours. At the time of release, Virtua Striker 2 looked astonishingly realistic; much like its Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop and Virtua Racer teammates. The game took a streamlined approach to gameplay, with controls that consisted of a long pass, a short pass, shoot and tackle. It might not have been a deeply tactical experience, but it was fast and entertaining — two essential ingredients for any arcade game.
In its native Japan, Virtua Striker 2 proved so insanely popular that it received six cabinet updates over the space of three years. Even EA isn’t that prolific with its sports games.
#5: International Superstar Soccer Pro '98 (1998, PlayStation.)
“A must for any soccer enthusiast’s collection.” — Absolute PlayStation.
Many soccer games have caused me anguish over the years — but only International Superstar Soccer Pro '98 almost resulted in the loss of my life.
After a particularly unfair penalty was awarded to my gloating mate, I physically dived towards the PlayStation, hell-bent on switching the game off. Unfortunately, I misjudged my aim and slammed headfirst into the coffee table. The collision knocked me out cold. To this day, I still suffer from occasional migraines. (For my own safety, the disc was later snapped in half by my parents.)
As the above anecdote illustrates, ISS Pro ’98 is a dangerously addictive video game. The rivalry it engendered in competing players is legendary; resulting in fistfights, frayed friendships and endless hours of sledging. It has personally caused me long lasting emotional and physical trauma — scars I now wear like badges of honour.
#4: Football Manager Handheld (2014, iOS/Android.)
“Football Manager Handheld 2014 remains the best football management game on iOS.” — Pocket Gamer UK.
Huh? What are two football management games doing in the Top Ten? Surely that’s a foul ref! To be honest, we can’t quite believe it ourselves. Somehow, Football Manager Handheld 2014 managed to slip past the net to join On The Ball. When you consider all the blistering arcade games that failed to make the cut, this is quite an achievement indeed.
Football Manager Handheld 2014 allows wannabe coaches to carry around the hopes, dreams and fortunes of their favourite football team in their pocket. If you've played any of the previous versions, you'll know what to expect here: you can edit your formation, request detailed reports on athletes you want to sign, negotiate playing contracts, and criticise or praise players for poor or excellent form, among numerous other responsibilities.
Football Manager Handheld 2014 ushered in a completely new look, with a slicker graphical interface and simpler control system. Your interaction with the press is also more complex this time around, with players tasked with balancing the expectations of the media, board members and the fans.
#3: Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (2005, PlayStation 2)
“PES 5 is a genuine triumph… unimpeachable in its ball simulation, player personality and individuality, and tactical awareness.” — EuroGamer.
Modern gaming has come to be dominated by two rival football ‘clubs’: EA’s FIFA and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (formally International Superstar Soccer). In recent years, FIFA has evolved from a casual kickabout into a full-blown simulation, much to the consternation of old school fans. By contrast, PES has always offered the best of both worlds — it’s the perfect marriage between realistic ball control and blistering arcade action. Pro Evolution Soccer 5 was no exception; presenting a deeply tactical experience that anyone could pick up and play.
As the fifth game in the ‘Pro Evo’ series, PES 5 could have easily been a glorified expansion pack, yet it managed to deliver more improvements than anyone dared hope for. The game placed a bigger emphasis on passing, leading to plenty of gruelling back-and-forth duels on the pitch. Tackling was also more complex, taking a long time to master. The fact that the game forced you to relearn the simplest of mechanics was bold but ultimately rewarding.
#2: FIFA 12 (EA Sports, 2008. Xbox 360)
“Not only is it the greatest football game we've yet seen, it's a masterclass in how to capture the essence of a sport.” – Gamepro.
Once upon a time, FIFA was the football series that gamers loved to hate. The officially endorsed franchise was widely criticised for valuing style over substance, with more attention paid to Golden Balls' grinning noggin than the actual ball on the field. The cynical annual "updates" also left a nasty taste in cash-strapped gamers' mouths: usually, the only difference was the music and some reshuffled stats. While it still sold by the truckload, any football fan worth his bootstraps stuck with Konami’s ISS/PES.
All that changed at the tail-end of 2008. In an epic turnaround to rival Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League Final, FIFA suddenly levelled the playing field against archrival PES. The shallow gameplay that FIFA was infamous for became a distant memory, with complex controls and realistic collision detection replacing the gimmicks of old. (Ironically, many bemoaned this move towards realism and begged EA to return the licence to its arcade action roots. Tch.)
To date, we reckon FIFA 12 is the high-point of the series' career. It was arguably more true to life than any soccer game that came before it and contained a stadium's worth of significant improvements, including completely overhauled player controls and a wilier AI that never felt like a machine going through the motions. Crucially, you felt like there were lessons to be learned even in your most crushing defeats.
#1: Sensible Soccer — and I don't care. (1992. Amiga.)
“Definitely, without the merest inkling of a suggestion of a shadow of a doubt, the best football game ever.” — Amiga Power.
AKA the Citizen Kane of soccer games. For football fans growing up in the 16-bit era, Sensible Soccer was more than a game – it was a way of life. It stripped the core mechanics of soccer down to their purest elements; and achieved sheer bloody perfection in the process. The innovative bird’s eye view allowed you to plan out attacks with beautiful precision: to this day it remains one of the most effective representations of the pitch in gaming. Like the very best video games, Sensi took seconds to grasp, but hours to master.
In the words of lead developer Jon Hare: “I think [Sensible Soccer] has an element of timelessness about it in the same way as games like Chess, Tetris or Monopoly.” The game topped Amiga Power’s Top 100 games poll four years in a row, and is still a fixture in Edge magazine’s Best Games Of All Time list. In 2007, it was named one of the ten most important video games of all time in a Stanford University report for the US Library of Congress.
Sensible Soccer proves that you don’t need a stack of controls or photo-realistic players to make a great soccer game. All you need is a ball, a pitch of grass and some mates — much like soccer in real life, in fact. It's been eighteen years since Sensible Soccer made its first appearance and people are still gushing about it. Do you think the same will hold true for FIFA 14 in 2032? 'Sif.
Well, that's my list anyway. Doubtlessly many of you are outraged by certain omissions (Mark has already sledged me for not including International Superstar Soccer 64.) Feel free to make your own soccer substitutions in the comments section below.
Editor's Note: While I loathe to argue with Chris's picks above, I would like to call out some favourites of my own: Pro Evolution Soccer 4, for the sheer sense of speed; FIFA Road to World Cup 98, which Luke has made a good case for; and Tiki Taka Soccer on mobiles, an outstanding replication of the Sensi games on your phone. Works on Windows Phones too, if you have one of those.
The latest sports games are not always the best. There's an obsession with incremental changes and bullet-point features in the sports game scene, one which challenges fan's ability to take a step back and assess each game as its own standalone title.
Having been educated in the error of my ways by Mark, I've learned to accept the beauty and purity that is Sensible Soccer. And while most modern tributes to SWOS are fairly ordinary, Tiki Taka Soccer does a remarkably good job of being faithful.