World Cup Special: The Top Ten soccer games of all time
Soccer - or ‘kickey', to give it its proper name - is generally considered to be the most popular sport in the world. They're completely bananas for football in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, and pretty much anywhere there are people with legs.
It's therefore unsurprising that so many video games have attempted to replicate the sport over the years. While other genres come and go, the football simulation remains eternal - from the spritely 8-bit era right up to the high-def photorealism of today.
In celebration of this year's impending football World Cup, we've assembled an all-star team of the world's 10 best soccer games. [Er, surely that should be eleven? - Ed.] For variety's sake, we've deliberately cast our net wide, with cutesy arcade games jostling alongside football management sims.
Every (world) game on this list delivers top-shelf entertainment that's worthy of appearing in Match of the Day. So without further ado, let's kick off this feature in traditional hackneyed countdown style...
#10: Intellivision Soccer (1980, Mattel Electronics. Intellivision.)
This is pretty much where it all started. Before the Intellivision console came along, most soccer games were derivative Pong rip-offs that consisted of a few bats on a monochrome 2D screen. Intellivision Soccer ushered in the 3D revolution - in an astonishing five colors. The isometric viewpoint and scrolling pitch would dominate sport games for years to come; everything from NBA Jam to Madden NFL owes it a huge debt.
If we're being brutally honest, Intellivision Soccer doesn't really hold up today - for starters, there's no single player mode, passing is buggy and the ball glides around like a deformed blob on wheels (a bit like this year's Jabualni World Cup ball, in fact). Nonetheless, the game's legacy has earned it a spot on our list. (It was either that or Atari's rubbish Pelé's Soccer).
#10: Intellivision Soccer (Cont.)
"A game with unbelievable realism." - Intellivision console commercial
#9: Kick Off 2 (Anco, 1990. Atari ST.)
Before FIFA or Pro Evo came along, Kick Off 2 was widely considered to be the best soccer game of all time. Developed by the fabulously named Dino Dini, it was one of the first games to incorporate proper football tactics and an accurate representation of the pitch. To be honest, the gameplay has more in common with pinball than football, but it was still loads of fun, especially with a chum in tow. Whenever you scored a goal, your in-game avatar would do star-jumps and back flips, much to the annoyance of the losing player.
Kick Off 2 was released on pretty much every format going, including Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Amiga, MS-DOS, ZX Spectrum, and the Nintendo NES. A PC retro-remake was released by Dini's successor Steve Cambeby in 2005 - a full 15 years after the release of the original.
#9: Kick Off 2 (Cont.)
"Kick Off 2 is the best footy game to have appeared on any machine. Period." -- Amiga Format, 95%.
#8. Super Mario Strikers (Nintendo, 2005. GameCube.)
Super Mario Strikers is not a game for the faint of heart. Despite starring Nintendo's lovable kid-friendly mascot, it is one of the most violent and unapologetically brutal soccer games to appear on any system.
The game is essentially Super Smash Bros. on a soccer field (indeed, it was renamed 'Mario Smash Football' in the UK). Players are given free rein to tackle and punch their opponents into the dirt, even if they're not in possession of the ball. The gameplay was suitably fun and frantic, with the addition of ‘Super Strike' shots adding a dash of strategy to proceedings. A sequel was released for the Wii in 2007 that ramped up the violence to 11. From deadly environmental hazards to the real-world danger of flying Wii nunchucks, it was even more savage than its predecessor. Who ever said Nintendo was for kids, eh?
#8: Super Mario Strikers (Cont.)
"The Mario Kart of soccer games. Even if you think you're a confirmed soccer hater, Super Mario Strikers just might rock your world." - GamePro, 5/5
#7: On the Ball: World Cup Edition (Daze, 1994. Amiga.)
Back in the late '80s and early '90s, soccer management sims were a dime a dozen. You couldn't get away from the bloody things, with multiple titles hitting store shelves on a bimonthly basis. (This was mainly due to a thriving UK games industry, which naturally had a predilection for all things football.) Unfortunately, most of these games were boring as bat poop, and twice as dry to boot.
Cold and deeply impersonal, they consisted of statistical spreadsheets and very little else. It wasn't until Daze's On the Ball came along that the genre was given a human face. Instead of making remote decisions based on skill-based numerals, the player got to know their team inside and out, just like a real-world coach would. Marriage break-ups, love affairs, beating up unscrupulous journalists - the managerial problems the game threw at you were wonderfully authentic.
It also let you make rousing or scathing speeches at halftime, which is surely the best part of the job.
#7: On the Ball: World Cup Edition (Cont.)
"Football management gets a human face in this interesting and playable game." - Amiga Power, 85%
#6: Virtua Striker 2 (Sega, 1997. Arcade.)
The Virtua Striker series never really caught on in the West. More's the pity, as it's easily the most accomplished soccer franchise to hit arcade parlors. At the time of release, Virtua Striker 2 looked astonishingly realistic, much like its Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, and Virtua Racer siblings. The game took a streamlined approach to gameplay, with controls that consisted of a long pass, a short pass, shoot and tackle. Virtua Striker 2 may not have been a deeply tactical experience, but it was fast and entertaining - two essential ingredients to any arcade game.
In its native Japan, Virtua Striker 2 proved so insanely popular that it received six cabinet updates over the space of three years. Even EA Sports isn't quite so prolific.
#6: Virtua Striker 2 (Cont.)
"This is the finest arcade football game ever. Some might criticise it for a lack of depth, but the massive adrenaline rush you get from playing more than compensates." - C&VG, 5/5
#5: International Superstar Soccer Pro '98 (1998, Konami. PSX.)
International Superstar Soccer Pro '98 very nearly resulted in the loss of my life. After a particularly unfair penalty was awarded to my friend, I physically dived towards his PlayStation, hell-bent on switching the offending console off. Unfortunately, I completely misjudged my aim and slammed headfirst into the coffee table. The collision knocked me out cold. To this day, I still suffer from occasional migraines. (For my own safety, the disc was snapped in half and burned some weeks later.)
As this chilling anecdote illustrates, ISS Pro '98 is a dangerously addictive video game. The rivalry it engendered in competing players is legendary; resulting in fistfights, frayed friendships and endless hours of sledging. It has personally caused me long lasting emotional trauma - an affliction I now wear like a badge of honor.
#5: International Superstar Soccer Pro '98 (Cont.)
"A must for any soccer enthusiast's collection." - Absolute PlayStation magazine, 87%
#4: Football Manager Handheld 2010 for iPhone (Sega, 2010. iPhone.)
Huh? What are two football management games doing in the Top Ten? Surely that's a foul, ref! To be honest, we can't quite believe it ourselves. Somehow, Football Manager Handheld 2010 managed to slip past the net to join its precursor On The Ball. When you consider all the blistering arcade games that failed to make the cut, this is quite an achievement indeed.
Football Manager Handheld 2010 for iPhone allows wannabe coaches to carry the hopes, dreams and fortunes of their favorite football team in their pocket. It allows you to edit your formation, request detailed reports on athletes you're interested in signing, negotiate playing contracts, and criticize or praise players for poor or excellent form. While it lacks some of the features found in the PC version, it remains one of the most detailed iPhone games on offer in the App Store. It boasts 34 leagues from around the world and a database of more than 20,000 real life players. In short, it's footy manny heaven.
#4: Football Manager Handheld 2010 for iPhone (Cont.)
"A credible and entertaining game that will keep you occupied for hours on end." - GoodGearGuide, 4/5
#3: FIFA 09 (EA Sports, 2008. Xbox 360)
Once upon a time, FIFA was the football series that gamers loved to hate. The officially endorsed franchise was widely criticized for valuing style over substance, with more attention paid to Golden Balls than the actual ball on the field. The cynical annual ‘updates' also left a nasty taste in the mouth -usually, the only difference was the music and some reshuffled stats. While it still sold by the truckload, any soccer fan worth his bootstraps stuck with Konami's ISS/PES.
All that changed however, at the tail-end of 2008. In an epic turnaround to rival Liverpool's 2005 Champions League Final, FIFA 09 leveled the playing field against its archrival PES. The shallow gameplay that FIFA was infamous for became a distant memory, with complex controls and realistic collision detection replacing the gimmicks of old. Ironically, many bemoaned this move towards realism and begged EA to return the license to its arcade action roots. Just goes to show that you can't please everybody!
#3: FIFA 09 (Cont.)
"FIFA 09 returns to the pitch full of swagger. A step ahead of the opposition." - IGN, 8.9/10
#2: Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (Konami, 2005. PlayStation 2)
Modern gaming has come to be dominated by two rival football ‘clubs': EA's FIFA and Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer (formally International Superstar Soccer). In recent years, FIFA has evolved from a casual kickabout into a full-blown simulation, much to the consternation of old school fans. By contrast, PES has always offered the best of both worlds - it's the perfect marriage between realistic ball control and blistering arcade action. Pro Evolution Soccer 5 was no exception; presenting a deeply tactical experience that anyone could pick up and play.
As the fifth game in the ‘Pro Evo' series, PES 5 could have easily been a glorified expansion pack, yet it managed to deliver more improvements than anyone dared hope for. The game placed a bigger emphasis on passing, leading to plenty of grueling back-and-forth duels on the pitch. Tackling was also more complex, taking a long time to master. The fact that the game forced you to relearn the simplest of mechanics was bold but ultimately rewarding.
#2: Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (Cont.)
"PES 5 is a genuine triumph... unimpeachable in its ball simulation, player personality and individuality, and tactical awareness." - EuroGamer, 9/10
#1: Sensible Soccer (Sensible Software, 1992. Amiga.)
AKA the Citizen Kane of soccer games. For footy fans growing up in the 16-bit era, Sensible Soccer was more than a game - it was a way of life. It stripped the core mechanics of soccer down to their purest elements; and achieved sheer bloody perfection in the process. The innovative bird's eye view allowed you to plan out attacks with beautiful precision: to this day it remains one of the most effective representations of the pitch. Like the very best video games, Sensi took seconds to grasp, but hours to master.
In the words of lead developer Jon Hare: "I think [Sensible Soccer] has an element of timelessness about it in the same way as games like Chess, Tetris or Monopoly." The game topped Amiga Power's All Time Top 100 four years in a row, and is still a fixture in Edge magazine's 100 Best Games list. In 2007, it was named one of the ten most important video games of all time in a Stanford University report for the US Library of Congress.
Sensible Soccer proves that you don't need a stack of controls or photo-realistic players to make a great soccer game. Indeed, it still holds up incredibly well eighteen-years later. We wonder if the same thing will be said about the latest PES and FIFA in 2028?
Sensible Soccer is currently available on Xbox Live Arcade -- if you haven't already, try it out for yourself.
#1: Sensible Soccer (Cont.)
"Definitely, without the merest inkling of a suggestion of a shadow of a doubt, the best football game ever." -- Amiga Power, 93%
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