Thursday, 11 May 2017

Chapter XL: Kick Off 2

It’s been a while since I've last written about a football game. OK, maybe not so long, but it’s funny how many games of this genre have been covered by someone who doesn’t care that much about the real sport. It may sound strange to do this already so late in this blog lifetime, since I’ve so many memories attached to this game that I don’t know where to start.

There was always some kind of rivalry between Kick Off and Sensible Soccer fans, and that contention was evident on the magazines of the time. I can only imagine how it would be today with the internet and the rabid fanboys. I’m probably in a rare situation where I love both games equally. And no, not “equally” as the father that loves both sons but obviously prefers the one which is smarter and more talented, which in this case is Sensible Soccer. OK, this analogy didn’t work as intended , so let me put this way; even if Sensi is the preferred son, Kick Off 2 is the firstborn, and there’s always a big place in my heart for him.

I did play some football games on the ZX Spectrum, and I do remember playing Emlyn Hughes on the Amiga before Kick Off 2, but only occasionally, because no game did had the same impact before. It got so big, that even grown ups, and by grown ups I mean my uncle Tony, played it. I used to watch him play, and found some strange admiration in seeing a grown up doing something fun. How is it possible? Obviously, he did some obnoxious grown-up things like expanding the in-game radar to its maximum size while playing. I took that habit from him, even though I didn’t really understood its use. Kick Off 2 was such a fast game that looking at the radar while playing was like playing Game Boy while skateboarding, to keep in line with era-appropriate analogies. But if uncle Tony did it, it was probably the right thing to do.

And so it was that for a while, this was one of my most played games with my elementary school mates Lil’John and Louie CF. We had this thing going on where the last one to arrive at my place had to play with a team called “Shit and Piss” (Merda e Mijo, in my native tongue) which had a black and yellow jersey, only because brown wasn’t available. And I’m still smiling thinking about this, because maturity is way overrated.

What I always liked about Kick Off 2 is how loose and unpredictable everything feels. Trying to control a ball while dashing to the opponents goal is probably the biggest rush a game of this kind can offer. It feels more like driving at high speed, with knackered brakes, than football actually. And while this chaotic feel is probably what Sensi fans most criticise about the game, for me is the biggest compliment I can give to it. Disclaimer: I also love Pinball. There’s likely a huge correlation.

After other football games where released, the aforementioned Sensible Soccer, Lothar Mathäus and Goal!, Kick Off 2 was mostly sidelined but never forgotten. The unofficial sequel Goal! took some hints from Sensi and became a slower and more deliberate affair, as if it was the graduate Kick Off that cut off his hair, took out his earring, and started using a suit and a tie. Even so, there was always space to a match of this classic gem every now and then, because even nowadays I don’t think there’s anything like it. In fact, every time I'm up for some retro football match, I’d rather go for this because its unpredictability is a source of constant amusement.

This game’s title screen is one of the most iconic of all time. Not only it features seemingly one of the most popular strikers of the time, Bebeto, but it also has him posing on a very 80’s goal celebration. I long for these simpler days where goal celebrations were so much simpler and without a hint of irony to them, although this particular player was actually guilty of the changes of the time with his “rocking a cradle” celebration again the Netherlands in ‘94, but I digress (remember when I said I din't care for the real sport? Well, I used to). I did recall this screen as having much better grass though, but I suppose this is just a consequence of both the times and not playing with scanlines turned on.

The game’s presentation is incredibly utilitarian and bare. There’s no music whatsoever, and game modes are quite limited, even though the version I had included the Italia 90 World Cup. For a while I couldn’t find a way to change team’s names, which would be incredibly embarrassing and an admission that I was lying before about Team Shit and Piss. Well, I had to consult the manual, which is something I never did back then, for obvious reasons.

After bringing some order to the universe by creating Team Shit and Piss with its inspiring yellow and back jersey, I wasn’t able to choose a team to play after selecting “Cup” mode. Fortunately muscle memory did the job when my left index finger went for the F1 key. Seriously? We had to endure so much interface related bullshit back then.

Some things still hold true about Kick Off 2. The sliding tackles still look like chicken legs and goalkeepers are way too good. This second statement is a nice thing because it prevented me getting utterly humiliated in every match. Now I remember that I rarely played this game solo. I was never any good at it, and playing with a gamepad instead of a joystick makes things even worse. I barely could trap the ball and most of plays consisted of shooting the ball to either goal keep from the middle of the field. I wish there was some kind of statistics in this game so I could have some sort of moral victory. It’s funny how the wind option, even in its lowest setting, makes the ball swerve while it’s on the ground, as if the game was being played at the top of the Himalayas. This version doesn’t have the bicycle kicks which could serve as a nice excuse for my terrible performance, since those were my speciality. Obviously.

Technically speaking, this was never a looker. The graphics are functional and bare bones and it’s enough to get the job done. Even so, there are some technical inconsistencies, like sprite flickering, that I didn’t remember, but to be honest it’s perfectly fine and it didn’t bother me at all after a while. Speed is what’s all about, and if graphics had to suffer to maintain a good pace of the game, it was a good call from Mr. Dino Dini. Love this name, he was destined for greatness from the day he was born, even if it sounds more like a pornstar moniker. There’s no excuse for not being music anywhere though. That should be a capital offence for an Amiga game, surely.

I though no one gave a crap over trademarks of teams and players until the mid-nineties. At least that’s the only explanation I have for Sensible World of Soccer having teams from the Mexican second division like Cuernevaca. Considering that, it’s strange that the Swedish national team in Kick Off 2 is filled with so many Swedish  sounding names such as Ferguson and Chamberlain. This genericism with names was kind of a turn off even back in the day, not only with Kick Off 2 but also with its spin-off Player Manager.

In the end I still think this a great game to enjoy a nice evening with a friend and have some laughs. Even better than Sensible Soccer for that purpose. Thanks Mr. Dini not only for the fine memories of Shit and Piss but also for creating a game for the ages.

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