05/06/2018

WORLD CUP STRIKER (SNES)

The 2018 World Cup is mere days away, and despite the problems of modern football I cannot help but feel excited about it. The history, the drama, the impassioned arguments about whether England will exit the tournament during the group stage or in the first knockout round (I vote for the latter). A welcome stopgap between Halloweens, then, and in the spirit of the occasion here’s Rage and Elite’s 1994 SNES kickabout World Cup Striker!


If you’re wondering why World Cup Striker’s logo is emblazoned upon the Stars and Stripes – the USA being famously disinterested in the world’s favourite sport – that’s because this game was released around the time of the 1994 World Cup, which took place in the USA. Brazil won, no British nations took part and Diana Ross proved she couldn’t handle the pressure of taking a penalty kick. Hey, it's a stressful situation, okay?


So, a football game, then, or soccer if you prefer. World Cup Striker is part of a series that began on the Amiga with 1992’s Striker, a game that was ported to a wide variety of platforms, including lots of home computers and the SNES. After this the genealogy of the Striker franchise gets a little tricky to navigate, mostly because it seemed to get a completely different name in every region it was sold in. For example, (I think) the original Striker was called World Soccer ‘94: Road to Glory in North America and World Soccer in Japan… but there was also a version, possibly released only in France, called Eric Cantona Football Challenge as a tie-in with Manchester United star and occasional thespian Eric Cantona. Ironically, while Cantona may have been a footballing legend in England, he was never particularly highly-regarded in his own country.
As for World Cup Striker, it’s a very slightly enhanced version of the first Striker – the changes being slight enough that I’m not entirely sure what they are. All the teams include the real player names now, if verisimilitude is your thing. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to see WCS as much more than a re-release of the original.


WCS has a lot of options for a SNES football game, from referee strictness – which is what’s depicted above, not a referee about to be lead in front of a firing squad – and weather conditions to a few more involved changes that we’ll get to later. There’s also a good variety of competitions, from friendly matches and leagues to the World Cup itself, which is the tournament I’ll be tackling today.


My original idea was to recreate the groups for this year’s World Cup and then take control of England and play through the tournament, but I encountered some problems. One is that there are more teams in the World Cup finals nowadays than there were in 1994, so I couldn’t fit all the participating nations into my little tournament. The other is that a bunch of countries aren’t included in WCS, so hard luck to nations like Panama and Iran who battled hard through qualifying and made it to the tournament but then suffered the indignity of being left out of this stupid article about a 20-odd-year-old SNES game. I’m sure they’ll get over it, and I replaced them with other teams roughly chosen by geographical proximity. The USA is fairly close to Panama, right? Cool, they can join England’s group.


Also in England’s group are Belgium, and they’ll be my first opponent. Fortunately this game is from 1994 so the Belgian national team isn’t going to be packed with superstars like it is today – it’s been a long time since I played a Striker game and it’d be hard to get back into the swing of things if I had to deal with the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. No offence intended to, I dunno, Lorenzo Staelens, of course.


The action is underway, and the first thing you’ll notice about WCS is that it’s fast. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about the gameplay, at least – for the game as a whole your immediate attention is likely to be captured by the digitised voice that sings “world… cup... striiIIiiker” every five bloody seconds while you’re in the menus. But gameplay wise? Definitely the speed. Players move around at a rare old clip and very smoothly, too, with it never taking more than a few seconds to get from one goalmouth to the other.


As expected from a SNES football game the controls aren’t hugely complex, but they’re still a bit more in-depth than something like Super Soccer. You’ve got buttons for kicking the ball a long way in a straight line, and two short-range kicks that are mostly used for passing. I think one of these passes will sort of automatically guide the ball to one of your other players, in the same way that the passing in modern football games like FIFA works, but if that’s the intent then it’s definitely not very consistent about it and the two short pass buttons become fairly interchangeable.
As for defensive options, you can win the ball back by either bumbling around in front of the opposing player until you come away with the ball at your feet, or you can resort to the ever-popular sliding tackle. Sure, a mis-timed slide is liable to make your opponent’s legs pop like the paper snaps in a Christmas cracker, giving them a free kick and potentially getting your player sent off, but sometimes you’ve got to throw caution to the wind. Plus, on the information screen before each match you’re told how strict the referee is going to be and you should definitely pay attention because it does actually make a significant difference. If the referee’s weak, you’ve got much more freedom to put in the kind of tackles that commentators would call “agricultural” but a judge would call “five to ten years for aggravated assault.”


It didn’t take long for England to make the breakthrough, and after dispossessing the Belgian centre-back the ball was coolly slotted home by all-time Premier League top scorer, incredibly dull pundit and the man who lends his name to the unfortunate ‘Shearer Island’ hairstyle – it’s Alan Shearer, everyone! As you can see, every player in WCS has their own unique stats although unless you’re comparing two players at the far extremes of the scale the stats don’t seem to mean all that much.


You even get an action replay when you score, a nice touch for a 16-bit sports game and especially useful in multiplayer, where you can use the frame-by-frame capabilities to show your opponent exactly where they screwed up.


Eventually England run out two-nil winners, with a second half goal by Carlton Palmer completing the victory. It’s nice to see Palmer in the side. Regarded (wrongly) by some as one of the worst players to ever wear an England shirt, I always like Palmer as a kid thanks to his ungainly but none-more-determined style, his tenacity and his commitment, neatly summed up in a famous quote from one of his former managers: “Carlton covers every blade of grass – but that’s only because his first touch is crap.”


Before moving on to the second group stage match against the USA, I took a more in-depth look at the strategy options available when setting up your team. As expected, you can change your formation. The most useful formation change I discovered was putting an extra player or two up front when facing weaker opposition or teams with a very good goalkeeper, because you can pick up a lot of goals by smashing the ball against the keeper or the post and having one of your now-numerous forwards tap home the rebound.
There’s also a “strategy” setting, with various different (and quite vague) playing styles. You can commit more players forward when on the attack, or force your midfielders to hang back in defence, that kind of thing. There’s also a the “open” option, which moves your players so far apart from each other that they have to resort to carrier pigeons to relay vital tactical instructions. It’s nice that the options are there, and they do have some (albeit limited) practical value, but for the most part a 4-4-2 formation with the standard strategy provides the best balance for your team.


Frustrated by my inability to break down a stubborn USA team, I resorted to violence. “The Ref Needs Glasses,” says the digital scoreboard. Maybe the ref can buy himself a nice new pair of spectacles using the large brown envelope I must have slipped him in the dressing room. I can’t think of any other reason I’m getting away with these challenges.


The game against the USA ended in a one-all draw, and bumper profits for whatever company provides the official World Cup crutches. However, the final group game against Greece went much more smoothly, the path to the group stages being almost assured when Alan Shearer scored a fantastic overhead kick within the first fifteen minutes. World Cup Striker definitely has a sense of style about it, and while it’s mostly presented as a serious football game it knows that things like the occasional diving header or bicycle kick really help to capture the excitement that keeps The Beautiful Game popular the world over.


Now it’s into the knockout stage of the tournament, and England’s next opponents are Morocco. They’re about the same level of quality as the other teams I’ve played so far, so between the last few matches and my resurfacing childhood experiences I can take the opportunity to discuss the quirks of WCS’ gameplay.
WCS occupies a level of complexity somewhere just between earlier console football games like Super Soccer and the more realistic titles that began to appear on the 32-bit consoles, like ISS Pro. WCS can offer a slightly more accurate passing game than the almost rugby-like smash-n-grab gameplay of Super Soccer, but there are no through-balls or one-two passes and, for all its options and strategy settings, the most effective way to play is to get the ball to your fastest player and have them run as far as they can. Dribbling the ball is the most expedient way to get results, especially because tackling is quite difficult – it’s fairly common for one team to dribble the ball the entire length of the pitch, only to be dispossessed by the last defender or goalkeeper, allowing the other team to run the length of the pitch, and so on. When two evenly matched teams are playing, WCS can have a tendency to get stuck in a loop of sprinting that makes the action resemble a relay race more than a football match.


Then there’s the business of actually scoring goals – always an interesting proposition in retro football videogames, because they usually have a few tricks that allow you to score easily and consistently from certain positions. Well, I can say that WCS has a mixed record on that front. If you move towards the goal at an angle and shoot diagonally, you’re much more likely to score – but it’s not 100 percent guaranteed, especially against better teams. The players can head the ball and perform some pretty acrobatic manoeuvres, which makes crossing the ball from wide positions a perfectly viable tactic, and that’s something surprisingly rare for football games of this vintage so be sure to take advantage of it. One of the Striker games’ selling points was that you can put a fairly hefty amount of bend on your shots by pressing left or right on the d-pad when you shoot, and this can definitely help when trying to put the ball just out of the keeper’s reach.
The biggest flaw with the goalscoring in WCS, however, is that it’s nigh-impossible to score from any kind of range. I’m not saying you should be able to consistently bang shots into the top corner from thirty yards, but I tried hundreds of shots from just outside the penalty area and the keeper saved every one of them, no matter who I was controlling or what goalie I was facing. Long shots do serve a purpose, though: I scored the vast majority of my goals by poking in a loose ball that the keeper dropped. Sometimes you’ve just got to take what you can get.


After a quarter-final match where I swept Japan aside with a comprehensive four-nil thrashing, it’s on to the semis and a much sterner test against Cameroon. This is where WCS really begins to shine: with two more evenly-matched teams, the game’s strengths come to the fore, most notably the sheer speed of the action and the desperation that comes with said speed. The last-gasp challenges, the mazy runs, each shot that crashes against the crossbar, they all fold together to form a rich, creamy batter of arcade-style action.


Things took an unfortunate turn when the Cameroonian striker’s shot hit the post, ricocheted into Tony Adams and bounced over the line for an own goal. Conceding in this manner is unfortunate, but we can always score a goal of our own and get back into the game. No, the real damage here is psychological, and I fear the defender will never recover. Just imagine the scene. It’s the World Cup semi-final. The most important game of your career so far. The dreams of a nation rest heavy upon your shoulders when suddenly, through no fault of your own, you score an own goal. You look up, hoping to clear your head, but there on the stadium’s scoreboard is a massive picture of a weeping clown giving you a thumbs-down. A more soul-destroying vision can scarcely be imagined.


The game ended in a draw, which means England face a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals of a major tournament. You’ll forgive me for lacking confidence.
WCS’ penalty set up is straightforward enough: the white arrow moves back and forth across the goal line, and you press shoot when it’s in the place where you want to kick the ball. Easy to understand, but ultimately pointless because the arrow’s movements are so fast and jerky – plus there’s a massive delay when you press the shoot button – that taking a penalty becomes entirely random. It’s a bit weird, honestly, because the rest of WCS is a quality product and the penalties really aren’t, so I assume they were the last thing worked on and the developers were running out of time.


And finally, it’s the, erm, final. By gripping tightly to the bucking bronco of fortune, I made it through the penalty shootout and into the deciding match against Brazil. Things took a... turn at this point. So far I’d been merrily making my way through the game with little problem, own goals notwithstanding, but now I’m facing Brazil and they are insane. They’re ludicrously fast – we’re talking “the unspeakable offspring of Roadruner and The Flash” fast – so once they’ve got the ball it’s almost impossible to get near them, let alone tackle them. They’re consistently able to nip between your players and steal the ball whenever you try even the simplest of passes, their keeper is a near-impassable wall and if the ball ends up at the feet of legendary forward and current Federal Senator Romario, you might as well put the pad down until he’s scored.


I played this match ten or so times, and each time the result was that I was beaten in the same manner that the dinosaurs were “beaten” by a ruddy great meteor. This sounds like it’d be frustrating, but I never really felt that way. They were exciting games, full of desperate challenges and creative curse-word combinations that’d make a Quentin Tarantino script blush.


Somehow, against all the odds, I eventually managed to win via the most unlikely of sources: former Liverpool right-back Rob Jones took advantage of a slack clearance and stabbed the ball into the Brazilian goal, leading to roughly seventy minutes of sustained defending where Brazil somehow managed to not score a goal, hitting the bar more times that Oliver Reed along the way. With this combination of resolute defending and, yes, pure luck, England managed to win the game and lift the World Cup!


And here’s your reward. A picture of a generic footballer and a crematory urn. Presumably Rob Jones’ reward is that he now gets to live in an alternate timeline where he’s world-famous and fabulously wealthy rather than having to retire at the age of 27 due to knee injuries. Ah, what could have been.
Having played through the World Cup, I’ve covered most of what WCS has to offer, but there are a few things left to see before I’m done.


One is that there’s an edit mode, where you can change each team’s kits and the names of their players, allowing you to either keep WCS up-to-date with all the latest team selections or create you own daft teams in the vein of Sensible Soccer. Naturally I’ve gone with the latter, putting together Silent Hill FC. Pyramid Head’s the big, physical striker – think of Pyramid Head as akin to Diego Costa, although obviously less vicious than Diego Costa. I’ve always loved creating my own teams in football games, and I’m still doing it to this day: a friend and I are playing the latest Pro Evolution Soccer at the moment with a team filled with characters from The Sopranos. Tony “El Buitre” Soprano was player of the season in the Premier League last year, although we had to drop Artie Bucco as our first choice keeper because, appropriately enough, he was a bit rubbish.


With the Silent Hill team assembled and resplendent in what I think is a very appropriate “blood and rust” coloured kit, I tried out one of the Striker series’ other big selling points – the indoor mode. Six players on a team and smaller play areas and goals make for an even more frantic experience than the already amped-up full-size matches, and it’s a lot of fun. The walls around the pitch mean that the ball can’t go out of play, further increasing the pace of the action, and I’m sure anyone who’s played this mode in WCS before will tell you that getting around a defender by kicking the ball against the wall and running around to collect the rebound is intensely satisfying. I can confirm that this is still the case.


The SNES had a host of good football games, and World Cup Striker is definitely one of them. Is it realistic? No, not really. It’s too reliant on pure speed and running the length of the pitch for that to be the case. But it is fun, in a madcap, goalmouth-scramble, occasional overhead kick way, especially when played against another person. In an age where FIFA is pretty much the be all and end all of football videogames, it’s nice to go back to a time when soccer titles had a variety of personalities: Super Soccer’s chunky, robust weirdness, the colourful exuberance and semi-realism of Konami’s International Superstar Soccer series and Striker’s high-energy arcade stylings. Some of the computer teams can be brutally difficult, shots on goal can sometimes be hard to follow as they bounce off other players or the woodwork and the penalty system is rubbish, but those things do little to detract from the overall experience and I can definitely recommend you give World Cup Striker a try. And hey, if England win the World Cup by beating Brazil one-nil in the final, I swear I will use my newly-revealed prophetic talents only for the betterment of mankind.

2 comments:

  1. There was also Ultimate Soccer, and it had options for everything, including ball weight, which made the shooting from distance much easier and sometimes comical.Striker (and all following titles - I think I have Striker 95 for the PC, 96 for the Saturn and UEFA Striker in the DC) all felt too stiff compared to it, and I think they continued the strange licensing thing: Microsoft Soccer 2000, UEFA Striker and David Beckham Soccer were all released at around the same time, each with different distributors, but were basically the same game at it's core. And coming to think of it, I have all three.

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  2. Maybe Cantona reminds the French of their failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup? He opened the scoring in the final qualifying match vs Bulgaria, but they ended up losing 1-2 and losing their WC spot to their opponents. At home, no less.

    Good thing they don't use the thumbs-down clown in real life. It would've completely broken poor Karius in the CL final.

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