Like a lot of millennial Americans, the first real exposure I had to soccer was the 1994 World Cup. But it wasn’t until four years later that I really got into the sport.
The summer after I graduated high school was another World Cup year, and my job before heading off to college was at a fantasy sports company called Small World. For a good chunk of the summer, the routine was working as hard as we could through the entire morning, so that when afternoon rolled around, we could go out to lunch at the dearly departed Coffee Shop by Union Square, where World Cup games from France were shown on a big screen.
After returning from lunch and soccer, we’d finish up work for the day as quickly as possible so we could then continue with more soccer. In this case, video game soccer. The company had a deal with EA Sports to give away some of their games as prizes, and we had more copies of World Cup ‘98 than were going to be given away. So, yeah. We played over the office network.
I don’t think I would have gotten into soccer as much if not for all those afternoons playing the video game, and I still have a deep affinity for Steve McManaman (I generally played as England) and a deep antipathy for Filippo Inzaghi (my friend Erik always played as Italy). I loved playing FIFA 99 on my roommate’s N64 in college. Although I’m not much of a 21st century gamer at all, I regularly played the 2010 World Cup game on my iPod while commuting on the subway.
As much as I’ve enjoyed soccer video games, I never played one on the console I grew up with: the NES.
And that brings us to the latest installment of the Deadspin Sports Quarantine Nintendo Club. It’s 1989’s Goal! by Jaleco, the company known to me for the Bases Loaded series.
In a stirring bit of infringing on FIFA’s copyright, which everyone should do if given the chance, the first thing that pops up upon starting the game is the chance to select modes, first among which is WORLD CUP. And you’re darn right that’s what I’m going to do.
There are 16 teams to choose from, divided into four groups — er, zones. As World Cups go, it’s not terribly worldly, with one team from Africa and one team from North America.
A Zone: Argentina, Holland, Denmark, USA
B Zone: England, Italy, Japan, France
C Zone: Brazil, Spain, Algeria, USSR
D Zone: West Germany, Belgium, Poland, Uruguay
England is in a zone with Italy, eh? Well, here’s a chance to relive another video game for me. As it works out, Italy is indeed England’s first opponent. Here we go.
The screen renders the field diagonally, but the directional buttons guide your selected player as if you were looking at the field straight-on. After taking the opening kickoff, I work this out by clicking around on my way up the field, and the Italian defenders seem to be offering little in the way of resistance. One tap sideways, and they’re thrown off. The next thing I know, I’ve dribbled all the way from midfield to the box, and when I launch a shot, it goes right into the back corner of the net.
What in the name of Gianluca Pagliuca?
I have a 1-0 lead before Italy has even touched the ball, and that’s reassuring because I quickly find out that my defense is equally bad. Tapping the B button switches the player you control, while the A button either attempts a slide tackle or does absolutely nothing.
It also becomes quickly apparent that the way to defend is not necessarily to follow an opposing player, or even chase the ball, but to get a defender back and be able to move him side to side to try to disrupt the other side’s attacks. This is because the user-controlled players are able to run very fast up and down field, and side to side, but when they try to move diagonally, it’s like they’re wading through a tub of spotted dick batter.
As I struggle to figure this out on defense, Italy fairly quickly finds an equalizer. It’s 1-1, but now I’m getting the ball back with that famous English quick-strike offense.
There’s just one problem: I discover that passing is a theoretical concept in this game. Your player gets rid of the ball, sure, but is equally likely to send it to an opponent as he is to send it to a teammate. Or maybe the “pass” will just consist of kicking the ball into some open space downfield, where all three of the closest players to it are on the other team.
So, that opening goal and the Italian response are all the scoring for the first half.
The halftime show in this game consists of two cheerleaders, who stand in pink circles between the sideline and stands, and dance out of sync with each other. There is no way to skip this.
The second half begins with another quick strike for England, this time off a counterattack following a rare successful slide tackle and a smart decision, by me, to eschew passing in favor of dribbling as much as possible. Because those computer defenders aren’t exactly up to typical Azzuri standards.
At 2-1, I’d perhaps think about parking the bus, but without really being able to defend reliably or pass at all, that’s not an option. In this case, the best defense is going to be a good offense, controlling the ball as much as possible.
I can’t just dribble all over the field, so I figure that I’ll try the old Route 1 approach by shooting instead of passing, and let my forwards reel in what they can. It works stunningly well, to the tune of four second-half goals as the English attackers seem to relish chasing down balls in open space, then dribbling at will through the Italian back line.
Is this at all true to life? Well, did any of that sound true to life? I come away with a 5-3 win, and maybe that’s par for the course in this game, because in the other Zone B game, Japan notches a 5-4 win over France.
I look forward to continuing on my path to the unlicensed World Cup, and I’ll get to do that because there’s a password to pick up where I left off, provided by four cheerleaders dancing amid confetti on an ethereal semisolid plane in outer space.