The Russian World Cup wasn’t such a disgrace after all

soccer nes logo

Soccer (1987)

The 2018 World Cup is long over now, and it was really a terrific tournament, despite all of my initial fears and misgivings. Firstly, it was hosted in Russia, which always quickens the old pulse and gets the fear receptors running red-hot, and secondly FIFA decided to roll out the Video Assistant Referee or VAR for a major tournament.

Both the Soviet hosting and the video doo-hickery worked out great even though football is long dead and has had its soul unceremoniously stripped. In the aftermath of this hugely successful competition, in which the limited Ireland team were probably lucky not to feature, I had football withdrawals to deal with. That all changed when I discovered the bluntly titled Soccer for NES.

The first thing that demands attention is the interesting box-art. I do always enjoy the classic black box NES titles, but Soccer’s is a real beauty. It features a horse jockey doing a kung-fu kick on a line-dancing construction worker, as a round die mysteriously floats up into the air. You begin to wonder if this is a sign of things to come.

Even the title screen is a real amateurish effort, just a flashing screen saying Soccer, which is an unusual way of spelling Football. I know the lads in Japan were just getting to grips with this crazy Famicom hardware, but come along, make your game stand out a bit. Perhaps they were suitably embarrassed?

You do at least have a 2-player mode, but I can’t even imagine having the complete lack of social wherewithal such that you’d actually invite someone to play this. You might just as well encourage them to jam a fork into a plug socket, or recommend death by hanging to them. Playing alone spares you a certain degree of embarrassment here, but it also allows you to witness first-hand the crude limitations of mid-80s AI.

When you’ve gotten past the garish title screen, you’re presented with an even more rudimentary customisation screen where you can select your team, your opponent difficulty and your half length. There are seven teams in the game, known only by three letter codes as if they were airports, and I am presuming the likes of FRA and USA are countries. Although seeing GBR play in not-very-royal purple makes me doubt this somewhat.

It’s worth noting that Germany, or rather West Germany, are in the game as FRG and wearing what looks like the classic Stasi uniform. They don’t quite have the blonde hair and blue eyes, but you can be certain that this was only down to severe palette limitations present on the feeble cartridge.

Then the game begins and, oh boy. It’s a six-a-side match, which sounds great at first. It might make you cast your mind back to playing a bit of ball on Astroturf. You know when you turn up to a “friendly” game of football up at the community centre and you have wannabe Roy Keanes and Stuart Pearces going ruddy-red in the face, shouting and roaring at everybody? That’ll be you after 45 minutes of this NES claptrap. Not that 45 in this game means 45, because the clock doesn’t really move at a consistent pace. The players on the other hand do move consistently; they all move at the same speed, and that’s pretty damn slowly.

It’s kick-off for the match, and it’s liiiive! And then you immediately lose possession of the ball. What’s happened? Your player has tried to pass it to a teammate, only to find that the football being used isn’t quite one of those floaty Jabulanis that everyone complained about before the vuvuzela-infested 2010 South Africa World Cup.

No, this is a bona fide medicine ball, easily weighing about 15 kilos, and it’s little wonder your dwarf players can barely make the thing move. The physics engines available to game developers in 1987 evidently weren’t quite good enough to make a ball roll, although that didn’t stop the mad geeks behind Marble Madness, did it?

Getting the ball from one end of the pitch to another is a rather dull affair. When you were in school, just prior to giving you a wrist-breakingly long essay to write out, the teacher would tell you to make sure every essay or story you write has a beginning, middle and end. Soccer NES decided to take this approach to the football pitch, by having the camera work in instalments.

Seriously, you’ll see a third of the field at any one time, which would be fine if any of your players were visible, and when the concrete football eventually trundles to the next part of the pitch, the camera moves slooooooowly to catch up with it. Think of it as like attending a tennis match, and you’re courtside right by the net, but you’re locked in an austere neck-brace and you can only move your head by follicles at a time.

You can forget about whizzing past opponents with skilful dribbles. Actually, you can even forget about tackling. For the duration of the match you’ll just be moving the football down the pitch, two yards and two broken toes at a time, until an opponent gets in your way. When this happens, you’ll just start crashing into each other until the collision physics tosses a coin and someone gets through with the ball.

You could attempt to pass it to a teammate of course, initiate a bit of build-up play, but the pass button simply refuses to work. In actual fact, the shoot button does the same, so you have no real way of getting rid of the ball once you’ve gained possession. So the best way to score? It’s simple, honestly – just draw on your learnings from The IT Crowd, do as Arsenal do and try to walk it in. Against the unfairly quick Level 5 AI, this won’t wash, but anything lower than that and you can just stroll on in there, unchallenged.

In a similar fashion to Blades of Steel, the direction of your shot on goal is governed by an arrow on the goal-line that moves up or down according to your D-Pad inputs. This means that from the moment you get into the opponent’s penalty box, you’re suddenly controlling players and medicine balls and ball trajectory and all sorts. You’ll try to keep all these plates spinning and line up the arrow in a place where the keeper ain’t standing, only for the shoot button to not work anyway.

The oppo keeper will just follow this goal-line arrow blindly, so you can use this to misdirect him. Think of it as being like giving the keeper ‘the eyes’ before taking a penalty, and then just moonwalk it into the net, because otherwise he’ll just save the ball from ten feet away anyway. For your trouble, you’re rewarded with a bad whistle sound effect, and a flashing message squealing GOAL IN. Is that like Shine Get?

Soccer NES conforms strictly to the old offside rule, where any kind of forward pass to a player caught in the wrong position will trigger an offside and a foul against you. I won’t mangle an explanation of the offside rule here, but suffice to say you’ll be hearing that shrill whistle a lot, caused by your forward players being in offside positions.  And since you will have lost all control (not to mention all sight) of your forwards minutes previously, this gets quite annoying.

As for set-pieces… you are just about guaranteed to lose possession from a throw-in, or at least see it being thrown to nobody before touching the ball again with the thrower-inner (not given as a foul), the corner kicks barely function and there are no fouls and therefore no free kicks to speak of except for offside.

The defenders do the goal kicks, which is delightfully old-school, and there’s a penalty shootout in case of a draw, although curiously the teams alternate ends during the shootout. And curiouser still, this too can end in a draw. I’m not expecting the full FIFA Code of Laws to apply here, lads, but let’s at least have more rules than Mario Strikers, eh?

Even the rudimentary cheerleaders that float onto the pitch during the Half-Time interval don’t give you any kind of thrill. It’s worth noting that Nintendo deemed this game as one of the twenty games strong enough to kick off the NES wing of their doomed Nintendo Switch Online experience. But of all the clag that the online service debuted with, this one sticks out as a real hangnail.

23 October 2018

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