As Euro 2012 is in full swing and the "lions" of England have somehow made it to the quarter-finals, (as well as the Dutch making an absolutely mockery of my predictions for the tournament by being somewhere between "woeful" and "like a North Korean over-60s side,") it seems like a good time for a quick article about a football game. That game is Taito's 1990 arcade they-think-it's-all-over-em-up Football Champ!
Football Champ was released in a few slightly tweaked and differently-named versions such as Hat Trick Hero and Euro Football Champ, so if it looks familiar but you can't quite place the name that's probably why. Whatever it's called it's an arcade soccer title where huge, colourful players hoof the ball around at supersonic speeds while the over-excitable and heavily-accented commentator shouts his limited stock of speech samples over and over again.
If you've read the Super Sidekicks 3 article you'll know what to expect, because it's very similar to Football Champ if slightly more refined than Taito's effort (plus you can play as such footballing colossi as Zambia and Vietnam). What that means in gameplay terms is that Football Champ is a very simple and not terribly realistic soccer sim, and if I'm honest it's a pretty refreshing change. The controls are necessarily basic: you've got two buttons, one each for low and high passes, and when you get close enough to shoot these buttons become low and high shots. If you're pointing towards a teammate and you press pass the ball will generally go towards them with some degree of homing ability - you're definitely passing more to the man than to a specific area.
When you're defending, one button puts in the ubiquitous sliding tackle while the other one... well, I'll get to that soon enough.
There are only eight teams to choose from, but they do represent the crème de la crème of the world’s footballing nations, plus England. As far I can tell there's no difference between the teams when you're controlling them, although they definitely have tiers when the computer is using them - Argentina and Germany, England's traditional football rivals / superiors, are the two best teams. At least it'll feel nice and familiar when they beat me in the semi-finals.
But hold on! Before you can stay playing you've got to pick a captain from four of your players. According to the arcade flyer, the captain is able to perform "special movements" to evade the opposition, but mostly it just means they're slightly faster and you get to see their face in the top-left of the screen whenever they have the ball. From this likely-looking bunch of oddly-coiffed superstars I chose the blonde with the blue eyes, partly because he plays as a striker but mostly because I was hoping it'd trigger a subplot where he reveals he's actually a young woman who has disguised herself as a man in order to show that she's just as good as these guys, goddamnit! His hair may look like a discarded banana peel, but at least he doesn't have the Richard Nixon nose of the guy on the left or the other redhead's gargantuan chin.
Captain chosen, that action begins with a match against France. For some reason England are wearing France's traditional dark blue colours, (possibly some attempted mind-games there,) so the French have had to borrow their silky lilac shirts from a group of passing jockeys.
This won't come as a surprise, but the action in Football Champ is very arcade-y. The pitch is tiny, so every move quickly becomes an attempt on goal - no intricate Barcelona-style passing play in the midfield here, and the flow of the matches feels a lot more like basketball than football. As with every arcade football game the goalkeepers are superhuman in their shot-stopping ability, which means you generally have to lure them out of position before knocking the ball to a hopefully unmarked teammate who can whack it into the open goal.
And whack it they do, with every shot sounding like a plastic flyaway ball being launched from an air cannon and every attempt on goal being acrobatic: you'll see more goals scored with overhead kicks and diving headers than in a Brazilian remake of Shaolin Soccer. For those of you who aren't fans of soccer, this is how we lovers of football see the beautiful game - not as tedious, low-scoring affairs played by donkeys whose only recourse is to lump the ball as far down the field as possible, (unless you're a Bolton supporter,) but free-flowing carnivals of class and skill where every touch is a masterpiece and every goal would make Lionel Messi weep with delight.
Of course, not everything about football is all sweetness and light. I mentioned there are two buttons for defending: one is for sliding tackles while the other is what I can only describe as the "Joey Barton button" because its sole purpose is to let you beat your opponents senseless.
That's not a conveniently-timed screenshot of a totally innocent moment: my player really is punching that Frenchman right in the face. Football Champ's fondness for a spot of the old ultra-violence garnered it a certain amount of notoriety and your ability to clobber your opponents with moves that'd make the Klitschkos wince seems to be what Football Champ is mostly remembered for. I'd normally say that that's kind of a shame, because this is a fun and frantic game even without the fisticuffs, but being able to halt your opponent's attacks with karate is so much fun that you can definitely understand why it became the game's focal point.
It's not just punches, either. If you get behind an opponent you can grab their shirt to stop them running, which doesn't sound like much fun but it is accompanied by an animation of the opposing player running on the spot like a cartoon character, unable to escape your steel grip. Oh, and you can use Sagat from Street Fighter's Tiger Knee.
The first time I did this, the opposition striker was running straight at goal with only one defender to beat. Said defender flew through the air, kneed the attacker in the face, continued his flight-path and hit another opposition player before calmly collecting the ball and passing it to his teammate while the two wounded players lay in a heap on the floor. I laughed so hard I forgot what I was doing, and another opposition player punched me to the ground. Yes indeed, Football Champ is a fun game.
But surely, I hear you cry, there's a referee around who can punish you for these... well, I was going to say "fouls" but that doesn't really cover it. Let's go with "assaults". Well, yes there is.
There he is, look. He's a waddling, overweight lump and hardly suited to the rigours of competitive refereeing, and he can't keep up with the play. This is how you get away with thumping anyone who comes near you: if the referee is off the screen when you commit the foul, you get away with it. If he's on-screen, he sees you and you get booked or sent off.
This is a pretty rare outcome. I spent the entire time attacking the opposing team like I was auditioning for a role in a Kickboxer remake, and I only managed to get sent off once. The two guys pictured at the bottom of the above screenshot are the managers, by the way, England on the left and Argentina on the right. Just look at how smug the Argentinean manager is, and it's not just him - smugness is the default facial expression of almost every person in this game. Here's the England manager when he's not holding his head in his hands:
How about the Dutch manager?
Status: smug, also looks like a sex offender.
Even the referee is at it!
Status: doing the DreamWorks Face, for some reason.
The only face that escapes this smarm epidemic is the Brazil manager...
...and that's only because he looks like one of the aliens from They Live.
Just to go back to the referee for a moment, not only can you outrun him and commit your crimes with impunity but you can also take him out of the game entirely by knocking him over. You can do this a few different ways: the traditional flying knee to the chin is a good one, or you can kick the ball at him really hard, or sometimes he just trips himself up and falls flat on his face.
You know what this reminds me of? The WWE / WWF, whatever you want to call your sports wrestling entertainment brand. Football Champ features large, brightly-coloured men inflicting violence on each other while an ineffectual referee is either too incompetent or too devoid of consciousness to officiate the proceedings. Sounds like the WWE to me.
As fun as the presentation is, it doesn't mean much if the game isn't enjoyable to play but luckily Football Champ acquits itself pretty well in that department. It's a good example of a game in a genre that has essentially ceased to exist, and that's the non-serious football game. There's only really FIFA and Pro Evo worth bothering with these days, the balance of football games as a whole has shifted to realism and when combined with the decline of arcades it means games like Football Champ simply don't get made any more, games where you don't have time to learn the intricacies of a control system like FIFA's, you've only got two buttons at your disposal and the action is immediate and brief. It's a nice change to play one like this because the whole experience is geared towards pure fun.
Every movement and touch of the ball is designed to look exciting, the practical moves like trapping the ball and releasing a pass replaced with players dribbling by bouncing the ball on their thighs or leaping over tackles with a rainbow flick, every shot on target a contender for goal of the season, every tackle requiring immediate hospital treatment (or at least it would in the real world).
The game's most ridiculous moments come in the form of "Super Shoots", special moves that you captain can perform that unleash a shot so ferocious is blast the goalkeeper out of the back of the net and into the stands. The trouble is, it's almost impossible (and entirely reliant on good fortune) to pull one off and I never managed to perform one. Luckily, someone on YouTube has spent a lot longer than me playing Football Champ and has uploaded a video collection of these super shots in action.
Football Champ is a blast in two-player mode, too - as long as you play against someone who isn't going get to get upset when they're about to score and your goalkeeper knocks them unconscious. You can even play on the same team against the computer, which is a nice touch.
I will say that the game does get difficult towards the end, particularly against (surprise surprise) Germany and Argentina, and scoring goals against these two teams can become a matter of luck rather than skill. However, any issues I may have taken with the difficulty level were quickly wiped away after I beat the Germans 1 - 0 following a flukey own goal.
Beautiful, just beautiful. The manager has a right to look smug for once.
The difficulty level isn't that important, though, and winning this tournament shouldn't really be your goal - just go out there and have fun, as my high-school P.E. teacher never said to me. There's not much reward for completing the game anyway, although it is nice that someone recognises my frankly amazing contribution to humanity for once.
YES I AM HERO.
I really like Football Champ, you know. I like it for the simplicity, the sense of fun and the hyped-up level of action that's a world away from something like FIFA. It'll never replace FIFA, of course, but that doesn't mean you can't have it around for some quick pick-up-and-play action, especially when you're playing it with or against a friend.
That said, my favourite thing about Football Champ is probably the Dutch number 10. He's an... emotional chap.
In conclusion, Football Champ (or one of its many slight variations) is a cheerful little game that's definitely worth playing even if you don't like football all that much, and it's also an interesting relic of the arcade age and a type of game that has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Well done, Taito. All that's left for me to say is good luck to England on Sunday - unless you're reading this after the weekend, in which case well done Italy.