Here’s some more pure self-indulgence just because I can’t resist a list, so feel free to go and do something less boring instead! My recent examination of Elite versus Perils of Willy (here) – as well as passing the 500 hour mark in Animal Crossing on Switch – got me thinking about what games I’ve put the most time into over the decades. There’s no question about the first two, both running into thousands and thousands of hours: 1. Kick Off on Atari ST 2. Elite on Atari ST
Kick Off is my second favourite game of all time. I can’t imagine the hours I spent either playing against my brothers or in the complex single player leagues and cups I invented where every player had a name long before that kind of thing was a thing. We turned it into far more than a top-down football game, and it extended the life of my Atari ST into the late nineties, way beyond when the first PlayStation should have consigned it into the loft.
Elite is also well within my top ten games ever, and unusually for me, that opinion is not exclusive to me either! Early experiences of the space-trading sim on the BBC astounded then fascinated me, but this version absolutely captivated me. A game that never knew there were limits from the outset, and equally there were no limits to playing it, pretty much forever.
Building out my top ten, I’ve got some other contenders that immediately spring to mind in no particular order yet: – Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on PS2 – Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 on PSP – Destiny on PS4 – No Man’s Sky on PS4 – New Star Soccer on iOS – Animal Crossing New Horizons on Switch – Football Manager on C64 on Pocket PC – Tetris on Game Boy
Thinking out loud, I reckon Pro Evo on PSP then Tetris then Pro Evo on PS2 make up the top five. The only actual point of reference (at 500 hours) is Animal Crossing, and I’m going with that next, followed by Destiny and No Man’s Sky. To round out the top ten we’re going pre-smartphone, emulated Football Manager, and its spiritual descendant (and on actual smartphone) New Star Soccer.
My wife used to go nuts about my PSP always being in my hand every evening, but actually I think it was the fact I only ever played Pro Evo that annoyed her! It was full season after full season on there, even though it was about as predictable as old-school Scottish Premier League, with only a couple of teams ever in the reckoning! Actually, in a strange twist of fate about seven years later, my top goal scorer’s son and my son would become best friends in real life!
I am very familiar with the Tetris Effect. Not the game (for motion sickness reasons), but the phenomenon. I was playing Tetris every waking and non-waking hour like it or not! I loved my Game Boy, and Tetris never stopped being an integral part of its joy, through my sixth form years, university and buying at least three houses!
PS2 Pro Evo was the first to rekindle that Kick Off experience, and now everything looked just like on Match of the Day, and like on PSP later, I didn’t need to keep score for my league and cup fixes. And that Master League was just awesome – no matter how good you got, it always seemed to come down to the wire between you and one or two rivals!
I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing New Horizons I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. In under two weeks I’d played more than 50 hours, and we’re now over ten times that. It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, making the mundane as addictive as crack!
Destiny might have delivered less than it promised in the eyes of many, but not me! The shooting is as good as it’s ever got in any game, but the continuous search for upgrade materials through a continuous search for whatever was going on in that time and place you were in provided exactly the same addictive quality as Animal Crossing; it’s a different type of mundane, but you still can’t stop! Until you move to the country and have terrible internet…
Given what I’ve said about Elite, it’s no surprise that infinite space-trading discovery adventure No Man’s Sky rounds out my top ten, and it’s a game where tinkering eventually killed it for me. I was so happy with this game when it came out – unlike the rest of the world – and the first few major updates added loads to the experience that maybe should have been there previously. But the updates kept coming, and still keep coming to this day. And the one that made my sprawling moon base end up floating in the air and completely inaccessible was the beginning of a sadly quick ending.
Football Manager was one of the first games I played on my friend Paul’s Spectrum, then played it endlessly when I got my own, but it was on that forgotten pre-smartphone gadget the Pocket PC is where I spent the most time on this. It was great for emulating the C64, and this game was great for emulation. And it’s another that used to drive my wife crazy for all the aforementioned reasons!
Moving from football manager to player, New Star Soccer on iOS is one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played, to the point that in the end I knew I had a problem and had to go cold turkey! Unfortunately (or fortunately, for my sanity) it’s now a great example of a premium game destroyed by free-to-play mechanics. As well as excessive tinkering. Again.
I’m mostly happy with my top ten, but there’s also a few wildcards that I’m struggling to quantify versus the others; I just have a hunch that they might also be up there too! – Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch – Alto’s Adventure on iOS – V-Rally 3 on Game Boy Advance – Game Dev Story on iOS
Snoopy Tennis was ubiquitous in my hands in the first half of the eighties until I got my VIC-20. Likewise in the early 2000’s, I was travelling loads and always had V-Rally on the go on my GBA, and have barely taken a break from playing it since. And by 2015 I was travelling insane miles all over the world, and Alto was my plane and hotel time-killer… Until it was almost usurped by its successor in 2018 then along came Sega Ages Out Run on Switch a year later! Game Dev Story on iPhone figures here somewhere too, but in a much more concentrated time period – I went completely nuts on that for a couple of months when it came out; also one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played!
As an aside, I can probably pick out my longest narrative-driven play-throughs without too much thought, and because they weren’t long ago I even know the timings: 1. The Witcher 3 + some DLC on PS4 – 95 hours 2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Switch – 90 hours 3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 80 hours
None of my long games list or my wildcards are much of a surprise to me. Unsurprisingly! But what I’d never thought about before was how many of these are football-related! I know your typical FIFA player is probably out-playing anything on my feeble list here every single year, but I don’t play stuff like that. Apart from the 50% of these games seemingly being stuff like that of sorts!
Wow. This wasn’t supposed to turn into an identity crisis! And let’s not even go to why a 48-year old man is spending 500 hours playing Animal Crossing in under six months… But ignoring all of that, I’m okay with representing on Atari ST with my two big hitters, and Kick Off is still my second favourite game of all time and Elite is still in my top ten, and that’s pretty cool, so let’s just stop there where everything is good with the world!
There once was (and still is) an experimental alternative rock band called Butthole Surfers, and their influence can be heard all over the place even if their music isn’t so much, from Nirvana to Marilyn Manson. Back in 1993, I had one of their albums, Independent Worm Saloon, on cassette, until my brother borrowed it to play in his Mini. Unfortunately his Mini got nicked that day and several weeks later was discovered deep in the River Ouse just outside Bedford, and whilst the cassette did eventually find its way back to me after the car was recovered, it had seen better days and would never be played again! Before that, in 1987, Butthole Surfers released the delightfully named Locust Abortion Technician album, and the opening track of that was called Sweat Loaf. It started with a sample of a boy asking his dad what does regret mean? His dad replies, “Well son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. And by the way, if you see your mum (mom) this weekend, would you be sure and tell her Satan! Satan! Satan!” And yes, I could have got with the far more well-known early nineties Orbital dancefloor-filler Satan, which sampled the Buttholes, but I don’t have any good stories about Orbital!
Anyway, since then, I’ve always thought that’s a pretty good philosophy. I also like the one about never regretting something (or someone) that made you smile. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and we often have little control over our cognitive or emotional responses. In most cases there’s also no undo button, although in my case, just £14 for a legit copy of Elite on Atari ST would actually go some way towards undoing what was previously my only standout regret in gaming! That said, I’ll never be able to buy back the time spent that the lady who worked where my grandma was a cleaner and very kindly and very illicitly photocopied the mega manual for me over a period of days so I could answer the security question when the game loads. She did get a box of chocolates for her troubles after my mum found out what had gone on though! Anyway, aside from that, from day one I’ve always felt a bit dirty about what turned into thousands of hours on my number nine favourite game of all time all being done off a copied disk, care of my school-friend Thomas! And despite my little slogans, I have regretted never buying a legit copy – even now, as I write this in full knowledge of the low entry cost!
At the time of writing, the rediscovery and subsequent reinstallation of my Atari ST as a permanent feature in my study has made all those years of regret over Elite a bit redundant though… There’s a bigger crime, you see! Those thousands of hours in Elite make it my second most-played game of all time, but on trying to remember how to fire up an Atari ST (and subsequently ordering new TV cables to make it viewable), I pressed the stiff old disk eject button and came to the terrible realisation that the game I’d played more than any other, including Elite – and also my number two favourite game of all time – was also pirated! Kick Off + Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is what the fading pencilled text on the 3.5″ floppy said. I think it spent so long in my machine during the second half of its very long life, and then its even longer hibernation, that I’d completely blanked it being dodgy. And now my foul deeds are more than doubled and we have a total of even more several thousand hours of gaming that I’ve never paid a penny for; it’s like The Gasman episode of Bottom, where Ritchie and Eddie are siphoning off Mr Rottweiler next-door’s gas and eating his sausages and cakes and pickled eggs and stuff! That all said, this newly discovered heist didn’t involve retrospectively bribing anyone to photocopy manuals, so by my reckoning I can make my greatest crime against gaming 100% right for under a tenner on Ebay, meaning all in we have a life without regret for about £25 should I ever feel the need! And yes, I know the developer will never see that money, but I’ll be spending it all the same!
The next little mystery is where this copy of Kick Off (or Kick Off: Extra Time to be precise) came from. Most of my ill-gotten Atari ST gains were from the aforementioned school-friend Thomas, but neither him nor his cronies would have ever bought a copy of a football game – way too distant from Dungeons & Dragons! Ghouls ‘n Ghosts isn’t giving me much of a clue either, apart from dating it from the end of 1989 onwards! The other stuff written on the disk also isn’t helping much – Disktool (ahem!) then “(Hi Res Emulator)” and “Acize (Norm)” appear to be lost to the mists of time. And it’s all in my handwriting, meaning I probably copied it, though it can only have been from another copy because until I was looking up stuff just now, I don’t think I’d ever laid eyes on the boxes for ST Kick Off or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. By the way, I’m not going into it here, but that version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is superb! You can’t get turned into an old man, and the incredible rain effects in the arcade version are definitely toned down here, but otherwise it’s a great way to run about in your pants chucking daggers at some great-looking undead, as they mercilessly and brutally team you how to play the old-school way!
I’m reaching the conclusion that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was probably the reason behind this disk, and that might also be the case for whoever I got it from. I was a huge fan of its predecessor, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, on both Spectrum and C64 (see here), but that’s not to say that I didn’t have some pedigree in football games too! I’m not sure the double-bat version of Pong that called itself Football (and also Hockey!) on the Interstate 1160 console (or similar) is ever really considered in the annals of football games, but the dreadful Artic Computing World Cup Football on the Spectrum – which I think is the first proper football game I played, back in 1984 – certainly would be. It was Match Day on the Spectrum that became my first football love though! That also came out in 1984, but it would be a couple of years later that I became surely one of the best players in the world when I had my own Spectrum, and I think I got it on the They Sold a Million 2 compilation. Playing it today, it runs a bit slow to say the least, but it’s an incredible piece of football game history, with ground-breaking proper football features like throw ins, corners and even dribbling, all on a side-on but kind of isometric proper pitch! The player sprites looked like proper players too, even if they were lifted straight out of BurgerTime-inspired platformer Bear Bovver! My next love was the sequel, Match Day II, but in its 128K guise of International Match Day, which added more players, more directions of control, and – for the first time in a football game – deflections and a shot power gauge… Which was a bit dodgy and often resulted in a back heel!
Aside from these (and not counting the wonderful Football Manager – another game in my top few most hours spent in gaming ever titles), I enjoyed player-sim Footballer of the Year, and dabbled with the Emlyn Hughes and MicroProse Soccer games, plus budget stinker Advanced Soccer Simulator, and I think there was a five-a-side budget game too, but nothing ever really topped my affection for Match Day and its sequel on the Spectrum. Around the time I bought my ST, I’m not sure if I wasn’t really in the market for football games, or if there just wasn’t a lot around. I definitely picked up Football Manager 2 early on, with its wonderful realistic 3D match highlights, and I played it to death. And at some point I was given a copy (real, not pirate!) of MicroProse Soccer, but I’ve a feeling that was post- Kick Off, meaning it never got much of a look in. Same with the later Manchester United game – it was really good, and definitely an historic stepping stone between something like Match Day and what we now know as FIFA or PES style, but it wasn’t Kick Off… Even Kick Off 2 wasn’t Kick Off, but we’ll come back to that! Aside from that, and back to the earlier days of having an ST, I remember some Peter Beardsley, Kenny Dalglish and Gazza games making their way to 16-bit, and the Footballer of the Year sequel, but certainly nothing memorable.
Thinking about it, maybe nothing else is memorable when you consider the arrival of Kick Off in the summer of 1989! “Best computer game ever” said Amiga User International. “Probably the best sports game ever” said The Games Machine. And so on. My own beloved Computer & Video Games magazine lauded its realism, if not its graphical thrills, and called it the best ST footie game yet… But as we’ve already discovered, that’s not such high praise, and the 84% it scored also possibly wasn’t the high praise that demanded I rush out and get a copy when there was stuff like Dungeon Master (more here), Defender of the Crown and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to grab my attention… If not necessarily my cash!
All that said, we’ve now established that I was something of a connoisseur of football games by this point (far more than I could say I am now!), and by whatever means, the second I eventually clicked “2” for Kick Off rather than “1” for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Pompey Pirates’ dodgy disk splash screen, a new chapter in my life in gaming began, and it was one that would span the end of my school years, the whole of my university life, my first job and most of the next-generation PlayStation’s life, right up to buying my first flat and moving in with my then-girlfriend and then wife almost a decade later, when my ST got put in a box for several decades!
Where Match Day and its sequel were ground-breaking in bringing real aspects of football into a video game, as C&VG noted, Kick Off was ground-breaking for bringing realism. And a lot of that realism was down to the ball not sticking to a player’s feet, though Kick Off can’t actually take credit for that. Back in 1985, Nintendo released NES stinker Soccer, which did exactly the same thing, though that would have gone well under the radar of most of my brethren in the UK particularly, where the console never really got much of a look in, and anything that didn’t have a Mario in it certainly didn’t! NES Soccer reminds a bit of Artic’s aforementioned stinker, but is more formless, slower, and moving a defender makes the keeper mirror his movement! Reviewed alright though, with C&VG only scoring it 1% less than Kick Off! It’s also worth mentioning Sensible Soccer here – another dearly beloved 16-bit footballer, and as far as I know is very similar to Kick Off in all but the ball sticking to your foot.
Everything in Kick Off is top down. You’ve got a full size pitch, scrolling in all directions, with everything properly proportioned. There’s a scanner showing player positions, and all the players have their own abilities, based on pace, accuracy, stamina and aggression. I’m not sure if this was a first, but the referees had their own style too, dishing out yellow and red cards, awarding penalties and adding injury time, with all the “accuracy” of a real-life referee! A single button and your joystick were all you needed to dribble, pass, shoot, chip, head and tackle. The goalie did his own thing until he had the ball, which was the cause of all kinds of blaming and shaming when you lost a game! There’s five difficulty levels, from International to Sunday League, and a great feature is being able to test yourself against higher level teams (where you being Sunday League versus International will eventually become the default). Otherwise, it’s a fast-paced, realistic game of football!
Kick Off was always about how it played more than how it looked, and no one was ever blown away by screenshots on adverts! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in the looks department though. Despite their size and the angle you’re seeing them from, the players have a lot of character, and there’s just enough detail in the model and its animation to make you feel like you’re in complete control of the ball and the part of the player’s body that it’s in contact with. Otherwise, the pitch does its job with a nice sense of scale and everything moves on it at just the right speed – fast! The game comes alive in the sound department though, with dynamic crowd noise especially creating real atmosphere, bringing to life a stadium that you’ll quickly forget isn’t even there!
I should also mention the Extra Time bit of Kick Off: Extra Time. This was a data disk with four new playing surfaces – wet, soggy, hard and artificial – that affected ball physics and player pace and stamina, plus wind effects, more tactics, more types of goal kicks, more player attributes, more league options and 20 unique referees. What might be called a sequel today! I’m not sure of the exact release date for this, but it must have been very quick after the original game launched.
The main source of joy in Kick Off is the controls, and how they allow you to interact with the ball, which in itself is a joy as it responds to ground and air friction. The manual referred to the controls as “instinctive” and picking it up again now, I can’t think of a better word. Yes, there might be some muscle memory at play, but a beginner could still pick this up and enjoy it. Then, over time, the pioneering nature of Kick Off’s ball not sticking to a player’s foot comes to the fore, with endless possibilities for heading, trapping, spinning and turning, switching feet, passing and shooting and volleying; and not to mention running onto the ball too, or – when you know exactly where each teammate is going to be – letting them run onto a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered pass too. With skill you can put together the most intricate, free-flowing and sometimes outrageous passes, dribbles, crosses and shots, and there’s no doubt that this freedom is behind the compulsion to keep playing. You never know what’s next, just like the real thing! This all works when the opposition are in possession too, allowing for controlled tackling and tactical delaying like never seen before, but yeah, there’s no denying that Kick Off’s wild slide tackles are another joy!
As well as single player, multiplayer and various practice modes, there’s a league competition. I don’t think until I was playing it again a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing that I even realised that this mode was there, let alone trying it out! Which I’m now struggling to find a reason for, except that I was too busy with my own competitions! To spice single player things up, I took Arsenal and England and applied my Kick Off team to their matches. We matched Arsenal’s league, European, FA Cup and League Cup campaigns, as well as every competitive or friendly England match, as well as European Cup and World Cup, all in real time, and all noted down in dozens of pocket notebooks! If they went out of a competition we just carried in with the team that knocked them out, then maybe the team that knocked them out too. Some serious attention to detail and serious work needed to stay on top of it! Eventually we won everything, but not all the time. The FA Cup was a particular hoodoo, and between 1991 and 1996 we never even reached the semi-finals. Eventually, in 1997, everything came right. Real-life winners Chelsea (but Arsenal for these purposes) were playing Middlesbrough in the final. My aforementioned then-girlfriend and now-wife and me were on our first holiday together in Luxor, Egypt while the actual FA Cup Final happened, so I had to delay the Kick Off version by a couple of weeks. It was worth the wait, with a 5-0 win!
On top of years’ worth of mirroring actual football competitions, every player in my team had a name, from David Seaman in goal to Roberto Baggio wherever he fancied playing. Same team regardless of domestic or international – my fantasy game, my rules! And every player was rated at the end of each match, and had their goal tally recorded, and imaginary awards were given at the end of every season! Andy Cole and Ian Wright were generally the top goal scorers, but Marco Van Basten was usually voted best player on the planet. My brother Phil’s team all had names too, and we spent hours and hours and hundreds or thousands of matches playing against each other for bragging rights that lasted until the next final whistle, relentlessly abusing each other’s players (by name), and often resorting to local bedroom football hooliganism when the ref made an outrageous decision or there was a particularly vicious slide tackle that could have put an end to your player of the year!
Kick Off wasn’t just a great game, but it also absolutely nailed a love and understanding of football and all the reasons why people are so passionate about it. It got the tension, the unpredictability and all of the excitement just right, and on top of that it absolutely nailed how it feels to play, win and lose. And in providing everything you needed to make you keep coming back for thousands of hours, there was still enough missing in terms of player names and team licensing (that would later win or lose the football game wars) to make you use your imagination and create your own football fantasies, which prolonged its life even more… Filling in the blanks, just like all the great 8-bit games of any genre had done just a very short time – but also what was also a video gaming lifetime – before. And that’s why its no surprise that Kick Off is the game I’ve played more than any other, and is unlikely to ever be replaced as my second favourite game of all time.
Of course, Amiga User’s “best computer game ever” was always going to get a sequel, but before Kick Off 2 arrived, we had Player Manager in 1990, which used the Kick Off match engine to power a football management sim where you played as a single player in the team. And apparently it was very good! The same year, the sequel proper brought a more tactical game and more tactical player movement, as well as slightly enhanced ball physics. There were complex league and cup competitions, loads of distinctive refs and some kit editing and other stuff. There were a load of expansion disks too. But there was also after-touch, and this ruined the game for me. Apparently you could turn it off, though I didn’t know at the time (and I don’t even have the excuse of no instructions this time having actually bought it)! Anyway, it let you change the direction of the ball in flight, and over time you could just use it all the time to become unstoppable, and that just became frustrating, especially against other human players doing the same thing. I know everyone else loves it, but I was just still so in love with the first game that the after-touch thing is possibly just glossing over that I wasn’t ready for it to be for me!
Also not for me was Super Kick Off on the Gameboy. You could only see a tiny bit of the pitch, and if you weren’t close to any pitch markings you had no idea where you were, and more importantly where anyone else was. The players were just too small and moved too quickly to have any degree of ball control with too. This was a bigger disappointment for me than not clicking with Kick Off 2. Partially because by the time it came out there was a lot less disposable money available to student me, but also because I was desperate to love it – can you imagine carrying your almost favourite game ever around in your hand?
I don’t know much about Kick Off 3, 96, 97, 98, 2002 or the unreleased 2004, except that they didn’t make much of a splash, but I did pick up the 2016 Kick Off Revival on PS4, from original Kick Off mastermind Dino Dini. It was elected second worst game of 2016 on Metacritic, and accused of being the worst football game ever made by Vice. You can pretty much copy and paste my disappointment from the Game Boy version here, except that after decades apart I tried even harder to love it! I even studied the series of post-launch screenshots of spreadsheets that told you how to kick the ball. And I’m not exaggerating – look them up! But they did me no good…
And you know what, having parted with a load of money on three sequels that disappointed me enormously in one way or another, I’m feeling a whole lot better now about that regret thing. And I’m going to send that regret right back to Elite. And Elite photocopy lady!