Football. All of its fans remember their first experience, whether it was through a TV screen, attending a match, or by playing it with friends. It was World Soccer on the Master System that hooked N64 Jamesy on the beautiful game, teaching him how a simple ball game could help him fit in – while starting a sporting love affair that continues to this day.
Until Christmas 1991 when I got hold of my first Master System, I wasn’t really sure about the ins and outs of football. My dad had moved up north in the early 80s to live with my mam, and being a Valleys boy at heart, he’d always been more into his rugby.
I’ve lost count of the number of times he’d told us the story of Bert Trautmann – the Manchester City goalkeeper who played out the entire 1956 FA Cup Final despite suffering a broken neck during the match – and how today’s footballers were wimps in comparison, how the “real man’s sport” was so much better, and so on.
So I was surprised and curious in equal measure when, at 7am on Christmas morning, alongside my presents of a new TV, Sega Master System with Sonic the Hedgehog built in, and a Donald Duck game – the fantastic Lucky Dime Caper – there was a football game called World Soccer as well. After helping me set the TV and console up, my dad said he was going back to bed for a couple of hours and suggested I do the same. Yeah, right. Six-year-old me just wanted to play.
It’s just 11 men kicking a ball around…
After trying – and not getting very far – on Sonic and Donald Duck, I was excited to try my other game. I remembered nothing of the 1990 World Cup that had taken place the previous year, so it was with some level of intrigue I put World Soccer on. I was wowed by the bright blue title screen, with grass across the bottom and two players jostling for possession of the ball, along with its charming music.
I pressed the start button, taking me to the main menu screen. I had the choice of a one or two-player “soccer game” or “soccer penalty kick contest”. I opted for the first, before being presented with a choice of eight available teams: Argentina, (West) Germany, France, Brazil, Great Britain, Italy, USA and Japan.
For some bizarre reason, it didn’t click with me for ages that I could pick the teams I wanted simply by moving the flashing border around the flag using the D-pad, so for a good while I was constantly picking Argentina to play as, and Germany to play against. How’s that for a schoolboy error in gaming? Goes to show how early it was in my gaming “career”.
Once I’d picked my teams, and having been treated to a beautiful 8-bit rendition of the two sides’ respective national anthems, it was time to get into the action. The teams walked out to the centre circle side by side, then moved to their respective positions. Kick off! The controls were simple enough even on a controller with just a D-pad to move the marked player – I knew how to do THAT with it, at least! – and two action buttons; 1 was to shoot, and 2 passed the ball.
The teams looked like two sets of identical decuplets; looking back, it was to be expected for a game of this simplicity. The player under my control was marked by a solid arrow with an outline, reflective of my team’s colours. Another player would be marked with a solid arrow the same colour without an outline, to indicate who I’d be passing the ball to if I hit 2. When I wasn’t in possession, to make things easier, the main arrow moved automatically to the player nearest the ball (are you taking notes, World Cup Italia ’90?).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my inexperience and the fact I’d picked Germany as my opponents, I got hammered 5-0 in my first match, even though at least one of their goals clearly went wide. It was like playground football, which I’d soon learn more about thanks to this game.
As a nipper, I’d always been shy and introverted, and found it difficult to fit in. Even at that early age, I recognised people’s characters shining through, and social hierarchies starting to form. The boys split themselves into three main groups depending on standing and reputation:
- The “hard lads” who weren’t afraid to push the boundaries, behaviour-wise (the alpha males of the yard);
- The “swots”, who were always good, always did their homework (the beta males); and
- A small handful of “rejects” (weak, omega-male types) that neither of the other groups wanted to bother with.
I imagine most of us reading this had a similar social structure forming at our own schools even early on. For me, my poor social skills and early indifference to football firmly placed me in the final category. This was until I went back after that Christmas, where the teacher asked us, one by one, to stand up and tell the class what presents they had all had. It was an early exercise in public speaking, I guess, and a nightmare for me. Despite a few kids talking about getting the newer, better Mega Drive, it still felt good telling them about Sonic the Hedgehog and World Soccer.
I sat down and talked some more about it with the lad sat next to me – one of the most respected kids in our year group, whom I’d had an on/off friendship with since being stood outside the headmaster’s office on our very first day of school. After I showed knowledge of the sport courtesy of World Soccer, I’d eventually get a foot in the door with the “hard lads”. Suddenly, “can I play?” was no longer responded to with “no, piss off!” – it became “yeah, you can go in defence. Just promise you won’t cry if the ball hits you.” I really felt like I’d made it right about then, and defence ended up becoming my preferred position.
Stats are for grown-ups
One of the things that set World Soccer apart from other football games I’ve played since was a complete absence of numbers and statistics. This was one of the things that added to the “jumpers for goalposts” feel of the game. There were no stats for possession, shots or corners, and nothing to show which teams were better. There wasn’t even a timer – just a clock/pie chart that flashed up every 15 minutes (match time), getting gradually fuller until the half/full-time whistle beeped.
The only stat World Soccer kept track of was the only one that mattered: goals! They also counted to double figures, almost as if the game was challenging me to recreate those emphatic 35-14 (ish) scorelines played out on the schoolyard every dinnertime.
It would have been obvious to anyone clued up on their football which teams would have been stronger and weaker against others. Once I’d figured how to pick from all eight countries, I was left with my intuition, trying out different combinations and “feeling” how difficult each challenge was. Once I had a better idea, my skill improved, and playing as Italy one day, I finally got my first win at World Soccer: a scrappy 2-1 victory over Japan, helped by another “ghost goal”.
Glitches and glory
The more I played, the more the glitches in World Soccer became apparent. At six or seven years old, I didn’t really care about most of them, but some were truly odd. The worst one was that sometimes, when a goal kick was conceded, the player to take the kick – an outfield player, for some weird reason – would take forever to come over and kick the damn ball. Sometimes, it’d take over a minute of real time, which felt like forever when I was sat in front of the TV unable to do anything.
Another one was the goal celebrations. Usually it involved four players lining up across the penalty area parallel to the far post and jumping up and down, while all the players on the other team ran off. Sometimes there would only be three, and I’d have to wait for the 4th one to get in line before moving on. Other times, an opposition player would get stuck running on the spot during celebrations, which I found quite funny.
And then there were those infamous ghost goals, where I’d shoot for the far post and, despite the fact the ball clearly went wide, a goal would be given. Even during the celebrations, it was clear the ball was outside the net. Whether or not this was an issue was, of course, dependent on whether I’d scored or conceded the goal. Much like real life.
Similar scenarios occurred during our football games at dinnertime. Someone would get a shot on target, and if it was above the bag/coat/jumper/whatever, would declare it a goal, while the opposition declared it ‘off the post’ or wide. This naturally led to heated exchanges and the top dog/owner of the ball would step in to cool things down and make a final decision, and some kid on the team it went against would probably kick the ball full pelt at another kid.
Luckily, for whoever it hit, it was a sponge ball. Leather balls had been banned – were we the only primary school to do this – and if this angry shot didn’t hit its target, then it got kicked out of the yard in a huff. There was a road that ran alongside our school with houses on the other side, so when this happened we’d all suddenly be friends again, calling in unison for any passer-by to give us our ball back while laughing at any muddy imprints it may have left on someone’s car or windows. It’s probably another reason leather balls were banned.
Funnily enough, that road is on my route to the town centre from my current house. Once or twice over the years, I’ve walked along there and a bunch of little faces have popped up over the wall asking for their own ball back. I’ve happily obliged – others wouldn’t – and I always felt better for my good deed. After all, I’ve been there, and I know how much it means to them…
…and in the end, Germany wins
One of the things that always had me beat on World Soccer were the humble penalty shootouts, which you could either pick from the main menu, or be forced to play to decide a match that had finished a draw. Unlike in the matches, where the footballers looked like little kids, the penalty kick scenario portrayed them as grown men, with something resembling muscle definition on their bodies.
Spot kicks simply used the D-pad to pick where you’d place your shot. You hoped that the keeper didn’t keep it out, and given how good the goalies were during matches, it was no mean feat to score. I loved how they wore caps, as an homage to football of the past when goalkeepers wore flat caps as part of their kit.
Back in the regular soccer mode, CPU keepers were so good, the best way to score was to kick the ball at goal, which they nearly always caught, then intercept the pass to a defender and hammer it in. Either that, or catch them out with a 30-yard screamer, which was always fantastic. My wins became more frequent, and my love of the game grew.
For the love of the game
It wouldn’t be until Christmas 1998 that I caught up with my friends by getting a fifth-generation console; I was still using my trusty Mega Drive up to that point. Along with the Master System Converter, it meant I was still dipping in to my Master System collection right up until that time.
Football games had come a long way up to that point, most notably one of the most recent titles I’d saved up pocket money for: FIFA ’97. It had everything a football fan could want: leagues, knockout tournaments, recognisable player names, stats, substitutions, dozens of clubs and international teams, and even an indoor mode. As much as I loved World Soccer, FIFA and all its modes made me think how much better a few more teams, and some sort of structured tournament, would have made an already great game. We played a bigger variety in the yard.
In my early years of secondary school, I was introduced to football games like squash, headers and volleys, Wembley doubles and good old “red-arse”… But nothing beat getting on the playing fields during the spring and summer and taking advantage of the actual goalposts to have a proper, damn good match against the lads from the year above and, in time, the year below.
No matter how many we all scored, as soon as the bell went it was “next goal wins”. Fuelled by youthful testosterone and with pride at stake, we’d all stay out until SOMEBODY scored that winner, then quickly grab our bags and run off to registration to face the consequences of being late.
I never did have the skill, quick thinking and accuracy to be a striker, nor the pace to be a good midfielder – my best time in our sports day’s 100m sprint was just shy of 17 seconds – and I certainly didn’t have the reflexes of a top keeper. All I had going for me was the ability to get in people’s faces, and hoofing the ball upfield, just like on World Soccer. I was a decent centre-back but I never did make the school team.
I also learned that leather and all-surface footballs were vastly superior to sponge ones. And how inappropriately hilarious it was to watch somebody accidentally catch one of the girls square in the head with a cross. I never did that myself, but I did take out the canteen window with an overhit volley from range, right in front of the headmaster. Whoops. Ah well, you’re only young once…
Football games have evolved so much in recent times, and as much as I love the realism, and the prospect of taking my favourite local team to a league and cup double (well, not now – my team, Wrexham FC, haven’t been in FIFA since 2008), sometimes overly realistic football, with its career modes and the like, isn’t what I’m after; it’s simplicity.
World Soccer has that in spades, and that’s where it’s beauty shines through. On top of that, it takes me back to a time where nothing else mattered, other than banging in as many goals as possible before the bell went, and “next goal wins” was as serious as life got.
- Pure, simple and fun football
- Really hammered home the nostalgia of ‘football as a kid’
- Lack of player identities makes it more imaginative – you can pretend it’s YOU scoring those 30-yard screamers
- Only a small number of teams to choose from
- Lack of tournament modes offered little in the way of replay value
- Some of the glitches were so bad, they were almost game breaking
N64 Jamesy’s take
For as long as there have been video game systems, there have been football video games for them. In an age where they’re becoming so realistic that they blur all kinds of lines, it’s nice to go back to a time when football was fun and simple, and to me, there are few that capture the pure simple fun of World Soccer. Ah, the good old days…