[Retro] The Beautiful Games: Kick Off

The Beautiful Games is a new series offering a retrospective on the seminal titles in the history of videogaming football. Each article looks at a series or title that advanced the art of computer or console soccer simulation, beginning with Anco’s Kick Off on the Amiga and ST.

Back in the late eighties football games could barely be described as simulations. Most were simplistic, or simply terrible. 8-bit consoles and computers simply didn’t have the graphical grunt to recreate a fast moving sport featuring 22 players and a ball. Intellivision Soccer, Emlyn Hughes International Soccer and Match Day on the Spectrum were probably about the pinnacle of the genre for much of the decade. In 1989 though, the era of the 16-bit computer was dawning and the power of the new breed of machines led by Commodore’s Amiga and the Atari ST was opening up exciting new footballing possibilities.

The year saw Microprose Soccer make a splash with the dying 8-bits. The original C64 version was coded by an unknown outfit called Sensible Software, who would go on to redefine the football genre themselves the following decade. Still, despite a decent showing on older hardware, Micropose Soccer failed to make a splash on the newer 16-bit machines. Instead it was Dino Dini’s Kick Off that really caught the public’s imagination.

Kick Off - tiny players, big pitch

Kick Off - tiny players, big pitch

Featuring a top down view that saw the players reduced to tiny sprites on a large, smoothly scrolling pitch, Kick Off was one of the first games to really get football in proportion. So many previous titles had featured big, cartoony sprites that took up a large percentage of the pitch. Kick Off was different. Here both ball and player were tiny parts of a far more realistic picture. The pure overhead view allowed for the precise placement of tackles and shots, creating the first true simulation of the sport.

Adding to the distinctly un-arcadey feel was the method of ball control. Unlike almost every football game released before and since, the ball in Kick Off wasn’t “glued” to a player’s foot. Turn quicky and the ball’s inertia would carry it away from the player. Shots could ricochet realistically off defenders and goalkeepers. Matches were no longer simple dribbling slogs as player after player danced around the pitch. Now genuine skill was needed just to change direction with the ball. It wasn’t the most accessible of physics models, but once mastered it made games a more realistic affair where a forward on a one-on-one with the keeper could stuff things up by getting the ball trapped under their feet, or letting it get away from them at the crucial moment.

Kick Off 2 - still played to this day

Kick Off 2 - still played to this day

On top of all that, the game looked great. The players were small but detailed and well animated, even if they only came in shirts of red or blue. The pitch was bright, with advertising hoardings and even the roofs of stands visible. Best of all, the scrolling was fast and smooth, keeping the pace of the action frantic and exciting, and setting the template for all that followed in the 16-bit era’s recreation of the beautiful game.

Kick Off’s impact can’t be overestimated. Amiga Format called it the “best footy game to have appeared on any machine”, The One labelled it the “ultimate soccer simulation”. Amiga User International said Kick Off was simply the “best computer game ever” and awarded it 97%.

Played now, it’s hard to believe that this is a game developed in the late eighties. It introduced so many familiar elements, from the on screen “radar” showing the position of players across the whole pitch, to the idea of a simple, but unobtrusive marker showing which player had the ball, that its seminal nature can be easily overlooked. Make no mistake, though, Kick Off represented a seismic shift in the recreation of sport in general, and soccer especially, on home computers. This was modern football sims’ genesis. The Beatles to FIFA’s Rolling Stones. The Gameboy to Pro Evo’s 3DS.

It was followed by an even better sequel in 1991, the imaginatively titled Kick Off 2. Keeping a similar visual style, the game ramped up the realism, making the ball even harder to control. Players were given different attributes based on their ability, and even the referees had different temperaments.A variety of pitch surfaces was introduced, along with a kit editor and various data disks that added features like crowd chants, overhead kicks on on-pitch referees. The game also introduced “aftertouch” which allowed players to add curve or height to shots after taking them by pulling the joystick in a certain direction.

Until Sensible Soccer arrived the following year, nothing could touch Kick Off 2, and even to this day it retains a small but loyal following of players who regularly meet up for tournaments; testament to the lasting appeal of a series that defined modern football games.

Several unworthy sequels limped along after Kick Off 2 and its data disks. Kick Off 3 was developed by Dino Dini’s former coding partner Steve Screech after Dini had quit Anco to join Virgin Games. The game was passable, but lost much of the series’ charm. The less said of Kick Offs 96, 97 and 98 the better.

Dini meanwhile wasn’t quite finished with football yet. He developed Goal! for Virgin, a title whose true origins were given away in magazine ads that highlighted letters in a body of text to subtly spell the words “Kick Off 3”. Goal! was far superior to the “real” Kick Off 3, but still didn’t scale the heights of its predecessors, something some players would say was equally true of every football game that followed.

The original Amiga versions of Kick Off, Kick Off 2, Kick Off 3 and Goal! are readily available online and can be played using the excellent WinUAE Amiga emulator.

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Categories: Retro

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [Retro] The Beautiful Games: Sensible Soccer « TGIGreeny.com - March 24, 2011

    […] Kick Off and its sequel had given the world realistic ball physics, and pacy frenetic action, they had done […]

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