Today I'm going to be writing about a football game. I know, I know, many of you will be distinctly uninterested in this topic. Blocky representations of overpaid ball-chasers? Not everyone's tray of half-time oranges, and while I'll try my best to keep it interesting I don't blame you if you decide to skip this article. Sadly I seem to have little choice in the matter, because the ageing memory centres of my rapidly-crumbling brain have recently been flickering incessantly with nostalgic thoughts of the SNES's early days and one of the most-played games of my youth - Human's 1991 football title Super Soccer. Consider this article a kind of exorcism, then.
So much for my attempts at keeping this interesting: that's quite possibly the most boring title screen ever to be featured here at VGJunk. That's ironic, given that my abiding memory of Super Soccer is how impressive it was. Here in the EU, Super Soccer was one of the SNES' launch titles, (or near enough,) and while there was not a chance in hell of me getting a new console on release day a friend of mine did get one, and he got Super Soccer too. Up until then my only exposure to console gaming was the NES and the occasional go on a Master System, so it felt incredible when my friend clicked big switch into the "on" position and these huge, colourful sprites leapt onto the screen.
Much as they are now, when I was a kid my two passions were videogames and football, so seeing a giant German striker making a fool of an Argentinian defender and launching a spinning, Mode 7-assisted shot out of the screen felt like some grand cosmic alignment had focussed the energy of the entire universe into the unassuming grey block in front of the TV. Oh, and this little intro was accompanied by music, too:
Someone make me a hard-rock, wailing-guitars-and-pounding-drums version of that, please. I'll beg if I have to.
It's a good job I'd already had a taste of the SNES' power thanks to some exposure to Super Mario World before I saw this intro, otherwise I think I'd still be struggling to compose myself even now. The opening to Super Soccer convinced me that the SNES was something special, but that was just the intro: what about the actual game? Well, that's what the rest of the article is going to be about.
I'm sure even those of you who don't know much about football understand the basic concept: two teams compete against each other, trying to get the ball into the goal using their feet, heads and on one hilarious occasion, a beach ball. Super Soccer features sixteen completely unlicensed national teams, sorted from best to worst based roughly on their performance in the 1990 World Cup. At the time Germany were the world champions, so they're the best, with Belgium at the bottom. Super Soccer is really showing its age by having Belgium be the worst team in the game, because the Belgian squad these days is far superior to footballing minnows like the USA, Romania and England. Also, one of these countries doesn't exist any more. I'll let you figure out which one, it'll be a fun little game.
The main gameplay mode in Super Soccer is the Tournament, where you pick a country and play all the other teams in order, starting with the lowly Belgians and finishing with the final against Germany. That's not how football tournaments work, but I'll give Human a break. They're obviously just really proud of every team they made and they want you to have the pleasure of facing them all. I'll be playing as England, which will use up my patriotism quota for the next two years.
Before you start, you get the chance to fiddle around with your team and pick a formation. Human seem to think that choosing your formation is an extremely important part of this game, so much so that in Japan Super Soccer is called Super Formation Soccer. That's a pretty terrible name for football game, especially when there are games out there called things like Goal! and International Superstar Soccer. You might as well have called it Corner Flag Football or Rainy Tuesday Evening Johnstone's Paint Trophy Fixture Simulator.
Here's the kick-off, and there are three things to mention. One, you see that player with the big arrow hovering over his head? That's not the player I'm controlling. The arrow is for something else I'll mention in a minute. Two, England are not playing in their traditional white shirts but rather a light blue number which looks as though they were originally white but were accidentally washed along with the blue shorts and well, you know how colours can run. Also Belgium tend not to play in maroon shirts with grey stripes, but then again this was the Nineties and the football kits of the era were the foulest, most aesthetically-challenged garments in recorded human history. The Belgium shirt would fit in nicely amongst them.
Thirdly, and this is the big one: the game is played from a straight-on, vertical viewpoint, which is unusual to the point of possible uniqueness. I haven't played every single retro football game, but I've played a lot of them and they all use one of the more standard camera positions. Side-on, top-down and isometric are common, but Super Soccer has gone off and done its own thing thanks to the power of Mode 7 graphics. It takes a little getting used to.
The controls are simple, so simple that they don't even use all of the buttons on the SNES pad. When you've got the ball at your feet, you have access to three whole kinds of kick: pressing A kicks the ball low in the direction you're facing, pressing B does the same but in the air and Y is pass. Super Soccer's passing system is an interesting one, and it's the only part of the game that feels even close to a modern football title. Press Y, and the ball will be automatically passed towards whichever player has the giant arrow over their head. Pressing L or R switches the arrow from player to player so you can choose who the ball goes to. It's actually a fairly decent system, once you've realised that you have to manually wrangle the receiving player towards the ball every time in order to collect the pass, so it's a shame that passing the ball is not recommended if you want to win at Super Soccer.
What you will need to win is a commitment to physical violence, because when you don't have the ball, the best way to win it back is by pressing Y to perform a shoulder barge. There's a sliding tackle, too, and while it's less violent and therefore less likely to get your player sent off it doesn't grant you immediate possession of the ball like a successful shoulder barge does. Another plus to the shoulder barge is that every time a successful one is made, a voice sample plays. I always thought the sample was saying "shove off!" but now that I've listened to it with adult ears I'd concede that it also sounds like someone saying "yellow!". It's not a very clearly enunciated sample, is what I'm saying.
As I say, the drawback of the shoulder barge is that sometime you will be penalised for it - here I've managed to get England's star player, Brock the centre-forward, sent off. There's no rhyme or reason to which challenges will attract the referee's attention, and yellow and red cards are completely random so you might as well go all-out with the brutal body checks. Going down to ten men isn't much of a hindrance, especially not against Belgium.
Despite what this screen says, I haven't given away a penalty. Or a penarlty, for that matter. It just always says that when you get a red card. Look at Brock's gesticulation in that picture, he's got some Italian blood in him somewhere, but all the innocent shrugging in the world can't save him from an early bath. Not to worry, this game's already in the bag.
The first game is over, and England have won by the incredible scoreline of eleven goals to four. Amazing, right? I know, I can't believe I only managed to score eleven goals against Belgium. Don't worry, I'll up my tally in the next match.
As an aside, those arrows at the bottom of the screen aren't the joypad command for a Street Fighter II-style super move, sadly. They're just the password, which in Super Soccer is made of arrows instead of letters presumably because football is truly an international language that belongs to all of us regardless of the alphabet we use. Either that or it's because many footballers are too thick to read.
Ah, that's better. Nineteen goals past Uruguay and there's still ten percent of the match left. Two games into the tournament and Brock has scored twenty-two goals, more goals than Scotland have managed between the end of 2011 and now. If these ridiculous scorelines haven't made it obvious, Super Soccer bears almost no resemblance to an actual game of football, making it feel much more like an arcade game than one of the more serious simulation-type games that would follow.
Due to the limitations of the game engine and the controls, there just aren't that many parts of an actual football match that are recreated in Super Soccer. Fluid, passing football is out of the question because passing isn't accurate enough and the emphasis on slamming into people with your shoulder means you never have the time to measure your passing options anyway. Wing play is totally absent because crossing the ball just does not work - players will jump and they can head or volley the ball, but never with any power and in over twenty years of playing Super Soccer on and off I have never, ever seen someone score with a header. Free kicks are useless, as the player has no finesse over their shots at all, and corners are even worse because it's impossible to clear the first defender.
Thanks to all these limitations, Super Soccer ends up feeling more like a hybrid of football and rugby than anything else: the two groups of players slam into each other, shoulder barges are exchanged and harsh language spoken, until someone breaks free of the pack with the ball at their feet and runs down the other end to score. You can get some use out of the passing system, but mostly mazy runs are going to serve you much better than other tactics, especially in the second half of matches when passing becomes even more useless than before. Why is this?
Well, in the first half you're trying to score in the goal at the top of the screen. This means you can see the goal at all times, as well as any players in front of you. However, in the second half you're shooting towards the goal at the bottom of the screen. The goal that you can't see most of the time. Hmm. Running with the ball is by far the best way to attack in the second half, because not being able to see the defenders near the goal means it's easier to dribble out of the way than it is to pass the ball forward. It doesn't help that your forward players are almost always just off the bottom of the screen and the pass-to-this-guy arrow will not highlight them. In practise this means that in the second half you can only pass backwards. That's not a great situation for a game about football, and it's Super Soccer's single biggest flaw.
So it's a game that doesn't have as much in common with the sport it's trying to recreate as you'd expect, it has one glaring problem and a few smaller ones, but Super Soccer still somehow ends up being fun to play. Is that down to nostalgia on my part? To a degree it probably is, but the midfield battles are still enjoyable and jinking your way through a team's defence and slotting one in the bottom corner never gets old, everything moves at a good pace and there's enough charm in the presentation to carry the game through its weaker moments.
For example, at half time you get a quick animated scene of your players walking off the pitch. If you press B during this scene, your players jump into the air in unison. Why? I have no idea, Human just included it because they thought it was fun and it is, especially when you use it to annoy someone you're beating in a two-player game. It's even better if you're using a pad with a turbo-fire button, because then you can hold it down to make your players float into the dressing room like a team of mystical fakirs.
Part of the fun with any retro football game is figuring out the exploits that lead to easy goals, and Super Soccer is no different. Part of the reason I was racking up those ridiculous scores at the start of the game was because I remembered the two main ones as soon as I started playing, and boy are they helpful. One is that if you come in diagonally at the edge of the six-yard box and do a low shot, you'll score almost every time as the keeper jumps over the ball. Useful, but it can be difficult to get into the right position. The other method for easy goals is to line your player up so they're just slightly inside the post and then press B for a long kick. This confuses the keepers and, especially with the weaker teams, they can't save these shots at all. If you're using a player who can kick it fairly hard, you can score from just inside your own half with alarming regularity.
I know that sounds like it'll just ruin the game, and it does honestly make the early rounds of the tournament laughably easy, but it gets less and less useful as the game goes on - you gradually have to put it closer and closer to the post until it doesn't work at all, and before you get that far you'll play a team using the sweeper formation and this magic goal technique won't work against them because the spare defender will get to the ball every time. Also, you'll have to play against Ireland.
Ireland have an extremely average team, with one exception: their goalkeeper Riley is a nigh-unbeatable brick wall of a man, far and away the best goalkeeper in the game and a right pain in the arse. If you've blundered this far into the game relying on that one easily-exploited goal to see you through, Ireland are the team that force you to actually play the game properly in order to progress. Beyond that, it's nice that despite being interchangeable palette-swaps of each other in a visual sense, certain players have their own unique stats and emerge with almost a feeling of personality to go with those if you play the game long enough to encounter them multiple times.
Japan, for instance, have a truly abysmal set of players on the whole but lurking in their midfield is Jiro, who is probably the best player in the game and who can easily catch you unawares the first time you encounter him. Once you've figured out that he's the Ronaldo in a team of Lee Cattermoles, every subsequent match against Japan becomes a mission with one clear objective: batter Jiro into submission the moment he gets the ball.
None of the players are officially licensed or anything, so you won't see the names of world famous superstars, mostly because Super Soccer makes the odd decision to distinguish players by their first names - this feels particularly strange with England, as their subs bench have the names of 1950s factory workers - but some players are obviously based on real-life counterparts. Germany's midfield is dominated by Lotar, who is clearly Lothar Matthaus, the extremely good Diego in the Argentina side can only be overweight, cheating coke-fiend Diego Maradona and World Cup legend Roger Milla appears in the Cameroon side as, erm, Roger.
My favourite is definitely to be found in the Colombia squad, however. Their goalkeeper is called Loco, he's their best (and fastest) player by a long shot and is based on (in)famous Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita. Higuita's nickname was el Loco, and for good reason - he was a keeper who played like he thought he was a striker, he spent time in prison after getting involved with Pablo Escobar and he once did this in a professional international football match.
He is, in short, bonkers. Apparently he wants to get into politics. I can see how that would be a good fit.
Anyway, if you're playing as Colombia your best option is probably to give the ball to Loco and have him run up the other end of the pitch and score.
I personally find it extremely pleasing that Human bothered to use a different (or at least recoloured) sprite for a keeper's goal celebration. It's not just Loco that can put them away, although he's the best at it, and if you're feeling confident then sending your goalkeeper out on the attack can be surprisingly effective.
Granted, that's mostly because if you run the keeper up the pitch the game will only allow one opposition player to chase him - you can see in the screenshot above that all the other players are just standing still, waiting for a goal kick that's never coming. Even if you do get dispossessed during one of these seemingly suicidal runs, the computer AI isn't intelligent enough to hoof the ball into the open, unguarded net, so you'll have plenty of time to recover if your goalie manages to cock it up.
Something I should address: around the time I reached the match against Holland, my screenshots stopped working and I didn't notice until I'd completed the game. I needed those screenshots, but while I do really like Super Soccer I'm not a masochist and so I cheated my way through the game rather than go through those hard-fought victories again. That's why I have scored ninety goals against Italy. Sorry if you thought I was some kind of SNES football game genius.
After many long and arduous matches against the better teams, including a tense penalty shoot-out win over Argentina that you'll just have to take my word for, England met Germany in the final match of the tournament. Unlike in screenshot above, the first time I played it I didn't get a defender sent off within ten seconds of the match starting. No, instead I scrapped out a tough five-three victory, helped onward to glory by Brock scoring a hat-trick and taking his total for the tournament to around one hundred and fifty goals. Realism is not Super Soccer's thing, and if you hadn't figured that out by now then England beating Germany would have made sure you did.
Ah, sweet triumph. Good work, lads, you've done your Queen and Country proud. No-one will care that you accumulated around twenty red cards along the way. History is written by the victors, after all, and this shiny golden trophy makes us the most victorious victors of them all. Soak it all in, boys, you're on top of the world and there's nothing that can bring you down. Nothing!
Hold on, what's happening? I'll tell you what's happening: the greatest plot twist in 16-bit gaming! Okay, maybe that's going a bit far but the first time I completed Super Soccer only to have glory snatched from my grasp by the machinations of an evil referee I think it's fair to say my mind was blown.
I'm pretty sure that's exactly what it means, you smug prick.
Yes, in a moment of sudden drama so powerful that M. Night Shyamalan cries himself to sleep at night wishing he'd thought of it, the referee steals the trophy and challenges you to one final game against his elite team of footballing behemoths. Never has the chant "who's the bastard in the black?" been more appropriate.
To prove your mastery over the wondrous art of kicking a ball between two sticks, you have to conquer the all-powerful Nintendo team. I do mean all-powerful, too, with their maxed-out stats and their menacing all-black kits. I can only hope these Brave English Lions™ are up to the task.
Look, just because I'm up against the greatest football team ever assembled doesn't mean I'm going to deny England goalkeeper and proud mullet wearer Aaron his chance at glory.
Naturally, the Nintendo team are extremely difficult to beat, bordering on annoyingly cheap - they almost never miss a shot from any half-decent goalscoring opportunity and they're ridiculously quick - but I never got annoyed about having to play them. For one thing I was still too impressed by how cool their existence is to hate them, plus they feel more like a bonus round than true final opponent. I've already won the tournament, so beating the Nintendo team would just be a bonus.
It took me a few attempts, but in the end I emerged victorious through some staunch defending, a couple of the same low, angled shots I've been scoring with through the whole game and the ruthless shoulder-charging tactics of a herd of really pissed-off bulls.
Now England really are world champions, although I'm sure FIFA would have recognised us as champions even if we hadn't beat the Nintendo team. Nintendo isn't even a country, for starters. Also the referee was quite obviously on their side. The entire situation is farcical, and frankly they should have left me to continue with scoring hat-tricks using my goalkeeper and scoring ten fifty-yard goals right into the bottom corner every match. You know, like real football.
The fun doesn't stop there, either: once the credits have rolled, you're given a password to make the game more difficult. Nostalgia has played a big part in this article, nostalgia for being ten years old and spending countless hours trying to break Jiro's legs or playing the penalty shoot-out game against a friend and cheating by looking at their pad, but I never felt it more strongly than when I was copying those password arrows down. For those five seconds, I really did feel like a kid again.
That's just about it for Super Soccer, then. If you stuck with me through this article despite having no interest in the sport, then thank you very much. I hope I did manage to keep it interesting.
In summary, it's hard to recommend you play Super Soccer, particularly if you're looking for a more realistic version of the beautiful game - that's not to say that Super Soccer is bad, but simply that the SNES had more than it's fair share of quality football games like ISS Deluxe, World Cup Striker and Sensible Soccer that are technically better than this one. If you're after something arcade-like in style, simple, fast-paced and outright videogame-y, though, you could do a lot worse. It's got heart, it's got a sense of humour, it's got graphics that have held up fairly well and a soundtrack that I'd rate as one of the SNES' best if it wasn't for the brevity of the tracks. Check out Ireland's theme and tell me it doesn't sound like a lost Mega Man tune.
In the end, Super Soccer is a game that simply makes me happy. Happy to remember being a kid, happy that it's still fun to play two decades later, happy to think that I'm still playing football games with my friends even now. What more could I ask for? Well, the ability to narc on that bent referee before the final match would be nice. Let's see how smug he is when he's in referee prison.