The beautiful (video) game
The beautiful (video) game

Squint a bit and modern footie games are like watching a match on the telly. Only now you get to be that England player who mysteriously forgets how to take penalties during international competitions!

It wasn’t always this way. Early football games were simplistic. And while the industry gradually doubled down on TV-style realism, it occasionally veered off into experimental (and often more entertaining and compelling) territory.

Here, then, are tonight’s highlights, from four decades of home gaming…


1. NASL Soccer (1979)

During the 1970s, every sports game was a riff on Pong, only with someone having scrawled ‘squash’ or ‘soccer’ on the box. Then NASL Soccer for Intellivision arrived with a scrolling pitch and dinky players running about. Jerky movement and static teammates may fail to impress today, but in 1979, this was a huge improvement over two bats and a square ball.


2. International Soccer (1983)

Home computing technology evolved rapidly, leading to the first truly great footy game: International Soccer on the C64. Chunky players battled it out in a 7-a-side competition for a cup (apparently awarded by a hovering woman). Players could, oddly, head the ball half the length of the field – a bug left in because the programmer thought it was funny.


3. Kick Off (1989)

Side-on footy games now reign supreme, but top-down titles briefly dominated in the 16-bit era. Kick Off on the Amiga was the first standout. A huge departure from everything that had come before, it had players zooming around as if hopped up; and the ball — no longer glued to a player’s feet — pinged about with merry abandon. Suddenly, every older football game seemed very boring.


4. Sensible Soccer (1992)

What Kick Off began, Sensible Soccer refined, the development team infusing into the game how you imagined football to be, rather than what it looked like on the telly. The zoomed-out viewpoint showed loads of the pitch, allowing for silky-smooth passing and shooting. Sequel SWOS added 15,000 leagues, thereby being the first footy title to comprehensively acknowledge the entire world’s existence. Still lauded today, SWOS’s pinball-meets-kickabout larks will forever remain the pinnacle of the genre for anyone over 35.


5. FIFA International Soccer (1994)

The first FIFA was an oddball, experimenting with an isometric viewpoint. And calling it realistic is a stretch, given the stiff gameplay. But it’s a milestone for what came later (i.e. FIFA’s total dominance of the genre), and even this early effort dabbled with clever, nuanced controls. Just don’t mention the goalies, who’d merrily pelt a goal kick directly at a lurking opposing player, resulting in a rebound and a goal — the idiots.


6. International Superstar Soccer (1994)

The series that would eventually morph into FIFA rival PES also debuted in 1994. International Superstar Soccer was the better game. The visuals were smart and there were loads of moves to learn, including charges and feints. And despite occasionally requiring ‘finger Twister’, ISS retained an arcade sensibility that ensured matches were accessible, fast and furious.


7. Virtua Striker (1994)

Over in the arcades, developers in the mid-1990s still had way more power to play with than those working on home consoles. Sega’s Virtua Striker took advantage with 3D player models and TV-like camerawork, getting you closer to the action. And being an arcade game, it was very much about speed — there aren’t too many boring nil-nil draws in the world of Virtua Striker.


8. Actua Soccer (1995)

From ‘virtua’ to ‘actua’, football games hoofed another shot towards realism with motion-captured players and the kind of complex swooping 3D camerawork that was unthinkable on home systems just a few years earlier. We’re not sure it ended up much ’reala’, though, what with its ‘zombie’ players and a commentator randomly reading from a list of cliches. (On second thoughts, that second bit is bang on the money.)


9. Super Mario Strikers/Mario Smash Football (2005)

While everyone else became preoccupied figuring out how to make players’ bootlaces 43 per cent more photo-realistic, Nintendo valiantly injected the kind of speed and madness not seen in footy games since the days of SWOS. Cartoon critters pelted a ball about, unleashing combos and using power-ups to hinder opponents in a manner that’s definitely not cricket. Or even football. But it was a very special bonkers kind of fun.


10. Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (2005)

Much like Liverpool in the 1980s, Pro Evo enjoyed a period at the very top (at least critically) that couldn’t last. The peak was Pro Evo 5, a game that boasted proper teams and names, and a mix of ‘arcade’ and realism during play, devoid of the stodginess and slightly dull over-polished nature that sometimes afflicts more modern fare.


11. Score! World Goals (2012)

There were many efforts to bring console-style footy to mobile, but none felt truly optimised for touch control and quick gaming sessions. But then Score! rethought footy games for smartphones. Rather than play entire matches, you draw paths on the screen to recreate classic goals from throughout the ages. Not something you’d stick at for a full 90 minutes, but perfect for a spare 90 seconds.


Super sub: FIFA 16 (2015)

You can set your watch by FIFA’s release schedule. The latest entry is the most realistic yet, with only the slightest hint of zombie about the players. And now there are (finally) women in the mix, too, along with improvements and enhancements to everything from transfers to the interface. It’s hugely impressive, but even so, we’d unleash our finest Mexican wave if someone would have another crack at Sensible Soccer. Here’s hoping…