Top 10: Football computer games

Before Football Manager came Championship Manager, and before that a whole host of lovable digital football finger-bashers. Dan Ross has the low-down on the best...

Red Card

"At last -“ a game that understands football is a contact sport,"™screamed the advertising team charged with selling this, in one of the understatements of the century.

Ever played '˜foul football'™ with your mates as a kid? You know, see how many of your friends you can hack down in a lunchtime game of '˜the rules are, there ain'™t no rules'™ football?

Well, welcome to Red Card Soccer. A quick slide to 'off'™ on the 'referee strictness'™ bar, and your average football sim is turned into a tooth-and-nail battle.

You can kick your opponent in the head, perform a sneaky punch to the face, plant your studs in their chest or sweep them to the ground in Midway'™s version of Bolivian football.

The attacking play is fun, too, with fiery bicycle kicks and slo-mo Matrix volleys, but let'™s not get bogged down with that. This game isn'™t about scoring. Just to reiterate, you can kick your opponent. In the head.

Three Lions

Perhaps not one of the best football games ever made but certainly unique. Everybody loves a challenge, and the fun in Three Lions was in exactly that.

An unusual and more than a little maddening shoot-at-target system made scoring goals impossible. To score you had to set up a ridiculously responsive archery target to the exact place you wish to shoot, battle the rarely static camera, and hope that you could beat the keeper -“ who would have the performance of a lifetime, no matter who he was.

Beside the shooting problems, a photo-mapping issue leaves England with a team of Peter Beardsleys, while a wonderful decision to dispense with commentary instead has the players and referee yelling over a never-changing crowd.

The calls of "Man on!" and "Run with it!" bring to international football an unusual but oddly pleasant park-football feel.

Goals were rare, but that just made the game more addictive -“ rather than form tactics you felt like you were solving a frustrating puzzle. And when you managed to score, boy, did you celebrate. For a teenage boy, it was the best way to get carpet burns.

Actua Soccer

"There's nothing virtual about Actua." Released in 1995, this game was the first to bring the 3D environment to computer football games, using motion-capture models to create polygonal players.

It revolutionised virtual football, paving the way for many of today'™s top titles.

The gameplay was, arguably, rubbish, with very robotic movement and limited controls. It also had the most frustrating camera of any football game ever played. After working tirelessly to get your less-than-fluid players to kick the ball correctly and put a man through on goal, you'd see the camera wildly swing and the ball balloon miles away. Annoying, to say the least.

Still, Barry Davies more than made up for that. Actua's commentary wasn'™t too far off the hilarious Pro Evolution Soccer offerings today.

Besides an odd noise when keepers made a save, the sound quality of the game led to amusing misinterpretations of simple phrases, the standout example being "a neat and a short pass" sounding like Davies suggesting "knickers and a short bath". Which is, obviously, brilliant.

Virtua Striker

As a console game, this was awful. As an arcade game it was sheer bliss.

The Virtua series (Tennis, Striker, Sniper, possibly not that last one) has long ruled the sports arcade market, and has been such a success that rarely do you see another option.

Some teenagers spent their time shooting the undead or trying to impress girls by crashing a NAMCO Toyota Supra at high speeds or taking on older lads at air hockey -“ leading to bruised fingers, chipped teeth or in some cases a disc lodged in the throat.

Wiser ones chose otherwise, trying to beat Tim Henman at Wimbledon, or attempting to take Mexico (don'™t ask why) through as many ulcer-inducing two-minute halves of stressful, lump-it-about football.

The screechy, tinny sound effects (including the '*crack*™ of a keeper save and the samurai-sword *˜zhing*™ of a slide tackle), the players'™ staggering inability to do anything you asked of them, and the one chance a game you live to regret missing (the chance that makes you waste another quid) all combine to make this game a cult classic.

Thierry: Still happy even though it was rubbish

ISS Pro

As man evolved from primate, Pro Evolution Soccer evolved from ISS Pro.

And while FIFA Road To The World Cup would take the genre by storm when it hit the shelves a little later, ISS Pro gathered a cult following -“ such a dedicated bunch that Konami'™s series has become the force it is today.

It's a wonderful game to play. Konami concentrated on making the experience as simple and as enjoyable as possible, but at the same time the gameplay was deeper, with more options and outcomes on the pitch, and it was closer to a true football simulation than any previous games.

Where the game suffered (or perhaps how it achieved cult status) was its lack of licensing. While EA'™s FIFA had every license under the sun, Konami was forced into inventing player names -“ something that has stuck to this day, albeit to a lesser extent.

Konami ensured that most players bore a resemblance to their real-life counterparts, and this was reflected either in appearance or name. Stars for Italy and England had grey and bleached hair to represent Ravanelli and Gazza respectively, while the ponytail and perm of Messrs Roberto Baggio and Carlos Valderrama were also simple to recreate.

If a player had no obvious physical characteristics, an obvious phonetic reference was used, such as England right winger '˜Duckham'™.

The biggest impact this had was on the commentary. ISS Pro didn't use names, so Peter Brackley'™s play-by-play became a series of random hilarious statements.

"That boy'™s got a steel skull," "Italy rammed it in," "He must have double-vision to be shooting like that" and, at any point in the game, the brilliantly random: "With one minute passed I'™d hoped to have seen more play than this."

FIFA 98: Road to the World Cup

In the wake of Euro 96, France 98 created football fever. From barbecues to lawnmowers everything that marketing geniuses decided was a '˜man-item'™ had that annoyingly cute cockerel stamped all over it. The coming of that World Cup also inspired one of the best football games ever created.

Under pressure from the Actua series, EA Sports produced this masterpiece that revolutionised the virtual game and kick-started the domination of the FIFA series.

The game was simulated matchday heaven, with countless crowd effects in beautiful stadiums, cool '˜scene-setting'™ video sequences, and flawless commentary from the moment Des Lynam "handed you over" to John Motson and Andy Gray.

Add to this the game player/team editor, allowing users to create playable versions of themselves and a team of mates (provided they weren'™t unhappy about skin/hair colour generics), the awesome Blur soundtrack, and the fully licensed 'Road to the World Cup'™ mode and you have one of the most perfectly balanced -“ and addictive -“ footballs games ever made.

There wasn'™t a '˜feeble retaliation'™ button for Becks, though.

Sensible World of Soccer

Fast, fluid, fun -“ SWOS may have looked like Ronaldinho, but it also played like the samba superstar.

Predating games like Actua Soccer, its gameplay was far superior because it didn'™t concentrate on graphics.

With diving headers and swerving long-range efforts, the tiny, pixellated stars of SWOS'™s bird'™s-eye view were doing things that games struggle to master accurately today.

SWOS was well ahead of its time in another respect. Attempting to include the entire footballing world on the game, it had a database of 1,600 teams and 22,000 players, and was the first football game to combine on-the-pitch gameplay with management simulation.

It's far from surprising that SWOS was named by the New York Times on a list of the 10 most important video games of all time.

If you've played it, you'™ll already know why. If you haven'™t, imagine the addictive management aspects of Championship (or Football) Manager mixed with the fun Pro Evolution Soccer gameplay.

Now you see why.

Championship Manager 97/98

Originally written by two brothers in their bedroom, Championship Manager became a global phenomenon.

Essentially a text-based, menu-driven game, CM allowed the fan to control every aspect of the day-to-day activities at their club, from the team selection to tactics, from transfers to training.

This was the game that ended relationships. The depth of the database and addictiveness of the simple "If at first you don'™t succeed" formula left fanboys glued to the screen convinced that our prowess on the PC would land us the hotseat at our beloved club. 

The game included nine playable nations -“ three of which could be running at one time, allowing for a much deeper experience than previously.

A data editor was also created, allowing players to make rubbish players good, give their team a Russian cash injection, or simply create themselves to bang in the goals.

The best-selling PC game of 1997, CM 97/98 is even better now. Check out this for a shiver-inducing reminder of the way things were.

As football management games become increasingly complex and decreasingly user-friendly, don'™t fight the urge to install this classic and play as your heroes of the '90s -“ it'll be the second best decision you ever make.

The first? Signing Ibrahima Bakayoko from Everton, of course. That boy will be huge...

Bakayoko: Guaranteed goals... of the digital kind

FIFA... well, all of them

EA'™s FIFA series is a bit like Michael Owen. They have the looks and the sponsors, and towards the end of the '90s were the most exciting thing in football.

But fastforward a decade and something went wrong. Owen'™s moves to Madrid and Newcastle brought sterility, while FIFA battled with PES.

However, from the 16th iteration (2009) of a series that began in 1993, the company have enjoyed the first thing in many years of which they can be justifiably proud.

FIFA 09 baffled critics and reviewers alike, who, expecting to Tipp-ex out the date on the previous year'™s review and re-submit it, were pleasantly surprised.

No longer was FIFA the simple, arcade option. Always visually sublime with a huge database of players and clubs, this time it changed focus.

The attention to detail and dedication to realism were slavish. Goals were hard to score, defences hard to break down, the match pace slower and the impact of momentum and player attributes more pronounced. All aspects were impressive, causing many to announce that a throne had been reclaimed from PES.

Since 09's release it well and truly has, with each game seemingly better than the last. Keep 'em coming, please...

Pro Evolution Soccer Series

At one point it was, quite simply, the closest to football any computer game has ever got.

Whichever group you belonged to -“ be it the Pierluigi Colina-endorsed PES 3, the '˜Terry vs Henry'™ edition of 2005, or one of the more recent '˜next-gen' console editions - the series, as a whole, was near-flawless. Up until the aforementioned FIFA 09 it was the leading light of football games for many a good reason. 

The fun, fluid gameplay and unparalleled realism set this series apart from any other, and though it may have lacked the wealth of licensed teams, logos and badges that make FIFA so appealing, it did the '˜football experience'™ so much better.

Obviously. If it didn'™t, why would so many people have bought a game that for so long had 'Man Red'™ (Manchester United) trying to defend a swerving 'Roberto Larcos'™ free-kick? 

The graphics were photo-quality, the ball physics and player animation sublime, and game features like the edit mode and the 'Master League'™ were addictive. Endless fun - until the boo-boys at EA stole a march right back.

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