Few games are quite as maligned critically as current sports titles, especially when compared to how many units they usually shift. The list of problems these titles have is considerable, even compared to a decade ago when the main issue was that constant annual updates made any version of a game that wasn’t the latest one feel thoroughly disposable. Now, these bloated monsters are often filled with bugs. The single-player has been neglected for years in favour of online multiplayer, and the promotion of loot crates and ultimate teams make the games feel, at best, like a blatant cash grab, and at worst, a way to make children addicted to gambling. It’s little wonder that everyone who streams the latest FIFA seems to be perpetually angry – always on the verge of smashing their controller in a frothing rage.
It’s also no surprise that there are often loud voices who pine for a return to something simpler, a game that harks back to the likes of Sensible Soccer or the 16-bit NHL titles, something that’s more about gameplay than ensuring that Gareth Bale’s man bun is accurate, and certainly not something that’s only packed in with a new game à la EA’s recent NHL 94 Rewind. A game that transcends the season it was released in and is mercifully bereft of squad building and spending piles of cash in the hope of packing highly rated players. Is that too much for people to ask? Why can’t someone just recreate the ideas that worked so well before? A lot of people seem to shout for a game like this whenever the latest sports game-based controversy rears its ugly head, and yet even the original creators of such games have found making them – and getting people to play them – tough going.
The truth is that there are a lot of simpler sports games out there, but even the best of them don’t seem to find an audience beyond a small niche. This is true even of the genre’s most decorated developers – Sociable Soccer, the spiritual follow-up to Sensi from original creator Jon Hare, hasn’t had the smoothest of rides over the years, and that’s nothing compared to the brutal treatment that Dino Dini’s Kick Off Revival received on PS4. It seems sports games have an image problem that runs even deeper than the problems that plague the current big titles, and it’s tough to separate the genre’s core audience from the annual roster updates put out by EA Sports with something that eschews graphics and realism in favour of simple, addictive gameplay.
It’s a shame, as the best of these new games deserve a lot more than to be sullied with the age-old generic dismissals that usually greet sports games.
The likes of Basketball Classics and Mutant Football League are exceptional, and they make for experiences just as fun as anything from back in the day, and it’d be even better if there were people around to play with.