Just in time for the World Cup this week, Intelligent Systems' Soccer arrives on Wii U Virtual Console – but all is not well. One of the early titles in Nintendo's "Sports Series" on NES, Soccer seems to garner boatloads of hate from players compared to companions like Golf and Ice Hockey. These detractors are not without merit; Soccer is a rudimentary depiction of the Beautiful Game that has aged poorly and probably isn't worth the eShop's relatively high asking price for NES titles on Virtual Console. If you can take it for what it is, though, Soccer is a pioneer – the first football title on a Nintendo console by a wide margin, and surprisingly realistic for a game originally released in 1985.
Soccer lets you choose between one and two-player matches; there are no tournaments, no seasons, and no career mode. Sadly, you can't even team up with a friend in a co-op match against the computer – human players must be on opposing teams. There are seven squads to choose from: the United States, France, Great Britain (not England but somehow a unified Team GB!), Brazil, Japan, Spain, and West Germany (since Mr. Gorbachev hadn't Torn Down This Wall yet in 1985). The folks at Intelligent Systems were probably not huge real-life football fans, as there are a few strange colour choices for the squads; France wears orange for some reason, Japan wears pink, and Spain wears pale green. Brazil's players are much darker-skinned than the other teams, making them some of the earliest black characters in a Nintendo console game.
The squads are all exactly the same aside from the kit colours, and unlike Ice Hockey which lets you customise your team with different sizes of players, in Soccer every player on every team is alike. In single-player mode, you can only select your own team; the computer team is randomly chosen, and on the scoreboard they're listed only as "CP" rather than their country name.
After you pick a team, you select one of five difficulty levels and how long you want each half to be. A 15-minute in-game half is roughly three minutes of real time, so the matches end up taking between six and 20 minutes to play, about the same as in modern football video games. Sports will always be more offence-focused in video games than real life, so these short matches allow for scores that are about the same as you'd see in a full 90-minute real-life football match. Teams don't switch sides at half time, and the clock in Soccer acts more like it does in hockey than in football: the timer runs down rather than up, and the stops whenever there's a break in play, which means there's no stoppage time. If the teams are tied at the end of regulation, it heads straight to best-of-five penalty kicks; if it's still tied after penalties, the match ends in a draw. Despite the timing system, many other aspects of Soccer are more realistic than you'd expect; there are throw-ins, goal kicks, corner kicks, and even offsides. Penalties are about as realistic as you'd see in FIFA 14... which is to say the goalie is still basically making random guesses.
The controls in Soccer are as comprehensive as the NES controller allows, with D-pad movement, A to shoot, and B to pass or switch which player you're controlling. You aim your shots with the D-pad, so whichever direction you're running will be where your shot goes. Using the B button for two totally different functions can get confusing, as sometimes you'll think you have the ball and you want to pass, but instead you accidentally change players; we often found it easier to pass by using the A button to shoot the ball in the direction of the intended player and then pressing B to switch to the receiving player. There's no convenient auto-switching system like in modern FIFA titles, so any time you want to switch to a player closer to the ball, you have to press B repeatedly until it gets to the player you want. It's virtually impossible to shoot or pass the ball backward, which is probably a wise decision because it means the rough controls will never lead to embarrassing own-goals, but it also means back-passing is out of the question.
Part of what makes Soccer so difficult to control is that you're only counted as being in possession of the ball if you're right on top of it. In FIFA 14, to give a modern day example once again, you only need to be in the general vicinity of the ball and your player will automatically possess it; in Soccer you'll often miss your kicks entirely if you don't time them correctly, and it's nearly impossible to nail one-touch passes.
Full eleven-on-eleven football would likely be too much to ask from an early NES title, so Soccer takes a cue from hockey and features six-on-six gameplay – five outfield players plus one goalkeeper. This is for the best as it keeps the screen from getting too cluttered, because even with smaller squads you'll have trouble keeping track of what's going on. The computer AI (both for the opposing team and for your teammates) is rather brain-dead; none of your teammates run where you want them to, and the goalie will often wander in the opposite direction of where the ball is. Because of this, multiplayer with another human being is infinitely more fun than single-player against the computer, and is really the primary reason to consider this download.
Soccer's soundtrack consists of a few a decent upbeat chiptunes, and the graphics are what you'd expect from an early NES title: bland backgrounds with sprite work that's just detailed enough to be able to tell what's going on. The wide green pitch isn't very easy on the eyes; other grass-based sports like baseball and American football feature playing fields that are more broken up by lines, but football's empty emerald expanse makes Soccer look reminiscent of an Atari 2600 game. Unlike the compact, cartoony players of Ice Hockey with giant heads and tiny limbs, Soccer aims for more realistically-proportioned characters to accommodate football's focus on legwork. Players have charming celebratory animations when a goal is scored or they win the game, and there's even a little half-time show during each match in which cheerleaders come out and do a goofy little dance. Each match ends unceremoniously as players cheer for a few seconds, and then you're booted right back to the title screen; it would've been nice to get some basic stats or an arbitrary "man of the match" award.
Japan and the United States, the two powerhouses of game development in the 1980s, are two of the only nations in the world where football is not the dominant sport, so the early days of console gaming didn't see quite as many high-profile football titles as other sports got – for the most part it was left up to European developers to kickstart football gaming, so it's interesting to look at a first-party Japanese football title from that era. Soccer is full of idiosyncrasies that will keep it from being enjoyable for most casual fans, with awkward gameplay and bland graphics. But for the small cross-section of people who consider themselves both hardcore retro gaming enthusiasts and big football fanatics, Soccer is a misunderstood, fascinating look into the early days of the NES that would pave the way for future sports video games. With the World Cup on screens this month, Soccer is a fun way to spend your afternoon — between matches — battling friends.