30 Years Ago Today: Remembering Football On The ZX Spectrum
Sometimes, a piece of technology comes along that not only comes to be regarded as the zeitgeist for the era from whence it came, but also as something which as critical to the future architecture of the sphere that it inhabits. Thirty years ago, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum first hit the streets. This was not a machine that dropped out of the sky with no warning – in the two years prior to 1982, Sinclair Research had already released two home computers: the ZX80 and ZX81 – but the Spectrum, in full colour and with a sound chip, was the great leap forward in terms of home computing in Britain.
It encouraged the birth of an entire industry, from large companies to cottage industries, and amongst the genres of game that would come to manifest themselves over the next decade or so, football would come to be recognised as a market share grabber.
With little upon which to base their games – earlier football video games had, for the most part, been little more than variations upon Atari’s 1972 arcade hit, Pong – designers and coders had little to base their games on but their imaginations, and the result of this was a disparate assortment of titles, which often seemed to only have their subject in common. In keeping with the waves of nostalgia for this long-lost era, then, here are ten football games that were produced for the ZX Spectrum with links to where even now you can play them online.
1. Football Manager (Addictive Games, 1982) - Before Championship Manager there was Football Manager, a game that made a very unlikely celebrity of its writer, Kevin Toms. Taking control of a team in Division Four – and it was always Division Four, even if your club was Manchester United or Liverpool – your job was to steer your team to Division One and the still then valid glory of the FA Cup final. Building a squad through selling high and, where possible, buying low, there were few tactics to speak of other than selecting more defenders or strikers than may have been necessary, with battling runs of injuries that would occasionally leave your team with just eight or nine fit players being one of the keys to success in it.
In amongst the numbers and text came the undoubted of the game – highlights of each match your team played. These highlights were purely decorative – the game’s engine wasn’t powerful enough to be able to manage anything more than a representation of the number of goals each team had scored – and the players were disproportionately small in comparison with the size of the goals, but somehow this didn’t seem to matter. Although released just months after the launch of the ZX Spectrum itself, Football Manager would remain a favourite with many for years to come.
2. Match Day (Ocean Software, 1984) - The physical restrictions of the machine and the fact that nobody had a couple of years’ worth of games development experience meant that few games got the most out of the ZX Spectrum in its early years. The 1984 release of Match Day by the relative giants of Ocean Software, however, proved that it could be done after a fashion. Match Day came to be regarded as a rival to International Soccer, a game which had been released a year earlier on the Spectrum’s nemesis machine, the Commodore 64, but it was a game that proved to be a big step forward in the lineage of games that would end up with Pro-Evolution Soccer and the Electronic Arts FIFA series of games.
The game had plenty of limitations, of course. It moved at a glacial pace, with the ball seeming to hang in the air as if matches were being played in something close to zero gravity. Still, what would now be considered relatively minor and trivial touches such as the ability to select the colour of the team kits seemed innovative at the time, and the success of the game was such that a follow-up – the not particularly innovatively-titled Match Day II – was released in 1987 and included such improvements as the ability to control the strength of shots and more accurate heading.
3. World Cup Carnival (US Gold, 1986) – The 1986 World Cup finals were a major marketing opportunity for US Gold, the Birmingham-based company that had bought the official gaming rights for the competition, but the company ran into trouble just weeks before its launch, when the developer working on it sent through a copy of it that was unplayable. With the tournament due to start, the company purchased a two-year old game called World Cup (which had itself been distinctively average upon its release), covered it in their livery, added a hastily-written “practice sequence” and through it together in a VHS tape box with some sew-on patches and a poster.
This episode would come to be regarded as one of the great marketing disasters of the ZX Spectrum era. When US Gold released the game (to universally derisory reviews) at what can only be described as a premium price of £9.95, they were inundated with complaints and plenty of letters were also received – and printed – in the gaming press of the time. In a sample of the sort of critical reception that the game received, the review for the popular Crash! magazine commented that, “‘World Cup Carnival is an appalling game and it’s a disgrace to see a big software house like US Gold releasing it.” More than a quarter of a century on, the game remains a byword for hype over substance during the formative years of the British gaming industry.
4. FA Cup Football (Virgin Games, 1986) – Described by Sinclair User magazine as a “sorry little apology for a strategy game”, Virgin’s FA Cup Football was an attempt, of sorts, to rewrite the rules of the management game. FA Cup Football’s apparent strength was its database. It was the idea of Tony Williams, then the editor of the League and Non-League Directories and contained a hitherto unheard-of 124 clubs in its first round stage. With the abilities of the teams painstakingly coded, though, this game fell down on not leaving the player with much to do after they had picked their team. Instead, they were left to sit back and watch the results coming in, with the occasional question being thrown in, presumably to test their managerial mettle.
Nicely presented but lacking in the sort of detail that would lead to many return visits, FA Cup Football seemed to divide reviewers, with the castigation from Sinclair User being offset by an almost-favourable review in Crash! which concluded, “Worth a whirl if you’re nuts on footy.” With the benefits of a quarter of a century’s worth of hindsight, however, it’s difficult not to regard this game as an experiment that didn’t quite work out.
5. Footballer Of The Year (Gremlin Graphics, 1986) – The 1986 World Cup finals brought a glut of football-related titles, as producers sought to cash in upon the attention brought about by that summer’s jamboree in Mexico. With Footballer Of The Year, Gremlin Graphics sought to present the game from a different angle, this time that of the player themselves. In this game, the player takes on the character of a professional footballer, working his way through the game with the ultimate goal of winning an end of season award. The original concept for the game was as a board game, the remains of which can be seen in picking up “Incident Cards” (think Chance cards from Monopoly with more reference to agents and less to birthdays), which allow the player to buy themselves a little more luck.
This is followed by an arcade sequence in which the player has to score as many goals as he can. Criticised at the time as being a little too easy, it certainly feels as if Footballer Of The Year was written with the considerably younger games player in mind, and it feels as if those “Incident Cards” have rather too great an influence over the outcome of the player’s career, although some could argue – with a degree of justification – that a heavy reliance on luck actually makes this game more realistic than even its writers might have realised at the time of its release.
6. Super Soccer (Imagine, 1986) – Another game produced by one of the bigger gaming companies of the era, Imagine’s Super Soccer incorporated some nice effects but ultimately failed to work because of sloppy design. This was another arcade game, in which the player was given a raft of options of things that he could make his player do during the course of a match and a training mode in order to hone those skills. Once in play, the player nearest the ball was the one controlled by the player (with, of all things, a halo above the head indicating which player it was at any given time) and players could be moved around into position for set pieces, but all of this counted for very little.
Although the graphics were nicely rendered – in particular their animation – carelessness in terms of players blending into each other as they came near each other ruined the effect and the brightness of the colours (the pitch was a particularly lurid shade of green) seemed likely to give the player a migraine within five minutes of switching it on rather than anything. An opportunity, we can’t help but feel, missed.
7. Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona (Grand Slam, 1986) – The final game in this list from 1986, Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona was licensed with the England goalkeeper’s name but, we presume, not with that of the Argentine midfielder that made the World Cup his own that summer. This was, wait for it, a goalkeeping simulation in which the player has to save shots for his team using a variety – and not, it should be added, a great variety – of different moves while his team-mates score goals at the other end of the pitch.
There is, of course, a major problem with this. Goalkeeping is not the most exciting positions to play, and to have a game that is based on not conceding goals rather than scoring them feels counter-intuitive. On top of this, the variety of saves that the player’s goalkeeper can make are very limited and the feeling of repeating yourself doesn’t take long to kick in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the goalkeeper simulation wasn’t a sub-genre of game that ever really took off.
8. Football Manager 2 (Addictive Games, 1989) - It took seven long years from the release of the original game for Addictive to come up with a follow-up to it, and by this time the legendary status of its predecessor led perhaps to hopelessly unrealistic hopes for the long-awaited follow-up. There were certainly improvements – although not the most important element of the game, the highlights graphics were a huge improvement upon the original, while the introductions of substitutions and a wider variety of tactical options made this a more immersive experience than the original.
This game, however, came out around two or three years too late. For all of its innovations, FM2 was the updating of a game that had been released just months after the machine itself had been launched and this came through in an unpolished display and other limitations. It may well have been a technically superior game when it was released in 1989, but the original is still regarded with considerably greater affection than its successor.
9. Kick-Off (Anco, 1989) – By the end of the decade, the ZX Spectrum was starting to feel like yesterdays news, and a reasonable barometer of this decline can be seen from the story of Kick-Off, Kick Off World Cup Edition and Kick Off 2 by Anco Software. The superior capabilities of other machines was already starting to put the Spectrum in the shade, and Kick-Off was an example of a game that was ported from the Commodore Amiga to the Spectrum with mixed results. The game did at least manage to replicate the break-neck speed of the original, but the graphics were weaker and controlling the players wasn’t necessarily easy.
Anco would return with Kick Off 2 three years later, and better controls and graphics made this version of the game a considerably more pleasurable experience than its predecessor, whilst the introduction of “after-touch” (the ability to curl the ball after a shot, pass or clearance has been taken) was another strength and one that would last through to Sensible Soccer. By this time, however, the ZX Spectrum itself was starting to feel like a dying medium, a relic from an earlier, less sophisticated age.
10. Italy 1990 (US Gold, 1990) – Four years after their World Cup Carnival fiasco, it’s difficult not to admire the chutzpah of US Gold in releasing another World Cup themed game in time for the World Cup finals in 1990. This time, the tournament lacked much of the excitement of its immediate predecessor, but the game itself – although again padded with an almost troubling amount of merchandise, including a sixty-eight page guide to the tournament – turned out to be reasonably playable this time around, if little more innovative than Ocean’s Match Day series.
This game favours the then-popular overhead view that would come to be familiar to all through games such as Sensible Soccer, and it runs at a pace that was unfamiliar to Spectrum users at the time. Without much else to go for it in terms of the innovation stakes, though, it plays without a great deal of attention to realism. By the time of the next World Cup finals, the ZX Spectrum itself would be yesterday’s news and was being replaced in many by other machines such as the Commodore Amiga and the Sega Megadrive. Few computers and games consoles released since, however, have been considered with the same affection as the ZX Spectrum.
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