Friday, 14 August 2015

Chapter XXVII: Lothar Matthäus (aka European Champions)

“Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.” 

Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian 

I know very well the meaning of these words. Some people say I’m a bad loser. Well, those people, just like Jon Snow, know nothing. In any game, there should something at stake for it to have some meaning at all. I’m not going to try to wager cash when playing Trivial Pursuit with my family over Christmas, so what am I going to do? Make fun of everyone until they won’t stop at anything to beat me, obviously. Just the prospect of defeat and humiliation is enough for me to put every effort into play, and winning is just a small consequence in the grand scheme of things. The whole rush of the moment, the turn of the card, the roll of the dice, is what matters most.

I used to be much better than my friends at playing competitive videogames, as I told earlier, so finding the right game where I could play on equal ground against my peers was an on-going battle for many years. Not long ago, maybe 10 years or so, I spent many hours playing Pro Evolution Soccer against my mate Doug Sailor, and I will never forget the day that I beat him playing as China, while he played as France. Since we were more or less on equal grounds when it comes to skill, and also because we spent most time taunting each other, the feeling of triumph against insurmountable odds was cherished to this day.

This wasn’t the first game I found that was able to bring me the same rush from playing against my friends. Rewind another ten years, maybe a bit more, and many hours were spent in my bedroom with my mates playing Lothar Matthäus against each other. I think the game was just a hit at my house, since I barely heard anyone else speaking about it. Even this day is not easy to find information on the game.

What made it so adequate for the challenge?

Two words: Ping passing. The game allowed for some extremely accurate long passing just with a single fast click on the joystick. This meant that even the lousiest players had a chance against seasoned ones just by chaining fast passes. There’s also an X factor that made the game very unpredictable, mostly due to the goalkeepers being unbelievable shit. For me, the king of football games, Sensible Soccer, had this flaw: It was just too predictable, as most goals and plays looked the same, and the best players would almost always beat the lesser ones. You might think this is a good thing, but winning all the time isn’t much fun, trust me.

We used to play this game during the last days of my Amiga, probably around 94/95, and since during that time I played real football, on a real league, I used to change the names of the players with those of my team. Yes, those were the glory days, and it’s too bad no one today believes how great a striker I was, since I never let anyone of my family watch the games to not make me nervous, so there’s no recordings of those moments. I made sure to rectify that error during my glory days of Magic: The Gathering in the late nineties. Unfortunately it’s much easier for people to believe that I was a good MTG player, than a good football player.

My first step in replaying the game was an investigation into where the hell can I get it. It seems that Lothar Matthäus was the German version of the game, while the original, British one was called European Champions. By having a quick look at both it seems that only the title screen is different, but that’s kind of a big deal since that’s the picture that’s going first on the blog entry. Besides that I could verify that both had the adorable faux-names of Barcelona star players of the time like Landru (Laudrup), Estocof (Stoichkov) and Zarreta (Zubizarreta). I always faced these copyright issues more as a feature, than a limitation. The very first FIFA soccer, the one from 94 with isometric view, also had some unforgettable names like Luis Figarros (Luis Figo). It’s strange to know that even FIFA used to have licencing issues.

The intro screen in both versions kickstart an awesome tune, like those that only the good old Miggy could be capable of. But the German one is clearly the superior version just by having the titular player lifting the world cup. This isn’t just nostalgia speaking. I was always kind of an outsider, even in terms of football tastes. This was a time that every kid admired most the trifecta of dutch players that played for AC Milan: Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. Me, just enjoying going against the grain, preferred the German trio from Internazionale: Matthaus, Klinsmann and Brehme. So, when Italia 90 came, I was rooting for West Germany against everyone else’s favourites, The Netherlands. Obviously, by the time I played this game, we were way past that, just as every year in our younger selves is comparable to 10 in adult years measurement.

While the interface is for the most part functional, the process of selecting the team we want to play as is very confusing. First time I started a cup, there was no menu where I was able to select my own team, so basically I was just watching scores going by. Apparently the developers though it was a good idea that to be able to select our team we have to dive into the team menu and click over “computer managed”, which doesn’t even have an icon next to it. So after clicking it changes to “player managed” which is quite misleading.

I had to select Barcelona for my first cup, for old times sake, even though I hate that team nowadays, specially Messi and his punch-magnet face.  The game default to the aerial view, which is kind of another mistake on the developers part because it’s very strange. The players look like some monstrosities straight out of either Alien Breed or It Came from the Desert. Without further delay, I exercised my memory and clicked on “v” to switch to side view. Yes, now it’s better. This is the game I remembered.

While most games featured on this blog are much worse than what my memories told me, this is as fun as it was in 94. Well, almost because I’m playing alone and my life is a bit less exciting, but even so there are details that make it worthwhile to play it even nowadays. For instance, it’s much faster than what I was expecting, which is kind of surprising because I get the exact opposite reaction when revisiting most games. The graphics, while not having the elegance and slickness of Sensible Soccer or the pleasant minimalism of Kick Off, have a charming rawness to it, as it’s easier to picture mud and grass coming from sliding tackles in this game than in its most direct competition. The ping-passing allows for some very fluid plays and it’s not unusual to make a long high pass to the opposite goal, and having one of our strikers score one beautiful header.

One curiosity about this game is that most teams by default use very offensive tactics, with lots of players at the front and few on the back. If the programmers had added a sepia or black and white filter to the game they could argue that it was a 50’s football videogame. Maybe they didn’t because there weren’t many hipsters back in the early nineties. There are other small flaws that probably didn’t do the game any favours when it was released, and probably helped it to remain obscure. One example is that the match finishes the moment the clock reaches its duration, even if the ball is about to cross the goal line. But I argue that if the real sport adapted these rules it would become much exciting. I also argued that football should start by the penalties shoot-out and skip everything else, but nobody ever listens to me.

The strange behaviour of the goalkeepers that I mentioned above is shared by every other player. You might think that I’m some sort of masochist but I kind of like it. I take this experience every day of the week over the slickness and sterility of recent FIFA and PES. It’s not unusual to see players passing the ball against the back of its team mates, as if they’re using them for some kind of rebound feints, like I used to do in elementary school playgrounds, which kind of makes me believe that these players have the mental age of a seven year old kid. Another proof of this claim is how flashy and flamboyant are the goalkeepers saves, even for the easiest of shots. Not to mention of how many times they fail to defend even the easiest free kick.

There was some rivalry back in the day (and I suppose it still endures nowadays because fanboys never die) between Kick Off 2 and Sensible Soccer fans. Sensi fans often claimed that Kick Off was more akin to human pinball while Kick Off fans argued that Sensible Software classic was closer to Sokoban than the real sport. I have to argue that Lothar Matthäus is closer to the real thing than any other game on the Amiga, even if the players seem to suffer from severe mental and physical disabilities, except for their tremendous speed.  So basically it’s a game of eleven Forrest Gumps against eleven others. If this description can’t sell the game, I don’t know what can.


  1. Stumbled upon your blog. Expected a quick 2-min skim through. Been reading the whole thing for the last 2 hours or so. Congrats :)

    1. Thanks!

      I will update it soon. Probably this week.