Despite heavily punctuating pretty much anything I ever say with references to the ZX Spectrum, I’ve never really written very much about retro gaming for some reason. It does tend come up in Looks Unfamiliar quite a lot – you can hear Phil Catterall on Platoon here, Garreth F. Hirons on Saboteur here and Frankie Goes To Hollywood here, Mark Thompson on Crash ZX Spectrum here, Jem Roberts on Dizzy here, Martin Ruddock on The Fairy Tale Adventure here, Samira Ahmed on Thro’ The Wall here, Jonny Morris on the BBC Micro Welcome cassette here, Emma Burnell on The Lords Of Midnight here, Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence on Deus Ex Machina here, Michael Livesley on Clumsy Colin Action Biker here, Paul Putner on the Vectrex Arcade System here, Pete Prodge on Curse Of Sherwood here, David Smith on Torin’s Passage here, Lisa Parker and Andrew Trowbridge on Pitfall! here, Anna Cale on Rogue here and Paul Abbott on the Commodore Plus/4 here – and I always seem to have plenty to say on the subject, suggesting that all of those unrelenting afternoons spent trying to get into the place that was ‘too full for you to enter’ in The Hobbit were not quite so much of a waste of effort after all.
I don’t imagine there are very many people out there with particularly fond memories of the original NES, but one arrived in our household at Christmas in 1991, and – when I wasn’t listening to the albums that led to me writing Higher Than The Sun and watching The Ghosts Of Oxford Street – we played on it pretty much constantly for the entirely of the remaining school holidays. Initially we only had the three games that came with it, and in the absence of much in the way of similar distraction outside of Tandy Stack Challenge (which admittedly came in handy when someone else was in the middle of a Tetris marathon on the NES), it was Nintendo World Cup that particularly captured the collective imagination. Partly for its player-against-player functionality (still something of a novelty in those days) but also partly for its silliness and the merest mention of ‘Dayv’, ‘Super-Shot’ and ‘PASS’ – ‘I can’t’ – ‘PASS’ – ‘OK’ still provokes fits of helpless laughter. This was an attempt to capture that sheer entertainment-driven sense of fun and camaraderie rather than indulge in endless pointless technical detail, and while it’s probably one of my slighter pieces (and one that I’d consciously left out of Not On Your Telly, which is more about television to be fair), it’s still rather likeable.
The arrival of the NES – that’s the Nintendo Entertainment System to you ‘squares’ – was something of a watershed moment. Straight away, battle lines were drawn up separating those who saw its 8-bit plug-and-play arcade-style controller-driven Playstation-anticipating instant thrills as the arrival of The Future, and those that stuck doggedly to the belief that home computing should be about more than just games (which should take eight minutes to load and keel over at the last second pleading R TAPE LOADING ERROR anyway) and that you weren’t getting the full experience unless you understood what the PRINT LEN command did and regularly spent several hours typing in rubbish programs called things like ‘Mathsteroids’. Yet, despite this deep Rad Gravity-fuelled rift, there was one NES staple that absolutely everyone agreed was worthy of the home entertainment revolution – Nintendo World Cup.
Released to tie in with Italia ’90, and gamely angling to persuade teenage boys to put down that photo of Betty Boo for five minutes, Nintendo World Cup allowed up to four players to pit teams of six blocky stylised and stereotyped footballers from across the globe against each other, in the hope of finding themselves placed slightly above the opposing player on the retina-troublingly stark scoreboard. Apparently reworked from an original Japanese game cartridge based on so-called ‘dodgeball’ (one of those concepts that, like Saltwater Taffy and The Smothers Brothers, will always remain perplexing to anyone from anywhere else in the world so stop pretending we all understand what it is), Nintendo World Cup was very much football as seen through the eyes of someone who associated it with William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry rather than Peter Beardsley. Hence the portamento-crazed Magic Fly-esque backing tunes which sounded like an American’s idea of ‘soccer music’ for a match live from London’s fashionable Edinburgh, and the naming of one of the England squad ‘Davy’, in presumable homage to the Monkee that had come to represent the entirety of the British Isles to The U.S.A., although they also somehow contrived to misspell it as ‘Dayv’.
Admittedly on face value – unintentional lost-in-translation surrealist comedy tinges notwithstanding – Nintendo World Cup wouldn’t appear to have much going for it. Yet even aside from the fast pace and solid-for-the-time gameplay – which certainly left the ZX Spectrum’s Match Day and its infamous Ball-Stealing Referee bug light years’ worth of RAM behind – there were a number of utterly unnecessary and indeed entirely unfootball-like customisations that elevated it from an impressively-rendered yet run of the mill kickabout into something that combined multi-player thrills and spills with infuriation-and-in-joke-inviting random pitfalls of the sort that never quite seemed to trouble Gary Lineker.
You could, for some strange reason, change the pitch from grass to ice, which would send any tackled player whizzing off sideways in the direction of the opposition’s goalmouth. You could also change it to ‘dirt’, which was dotted with FIFA-disconcerting small piles of rocks which the players would spontaneously hurtle into, thereby rendering themselves immobile for increasing lengths of time. And then there was the utterly realism-averse ‘Super Shot’, which caused the ball, if kicked at the right moment and from the right angle, to become a sort of toxic pink relative of Rover from The Prisoner, engendering no end of consternation (which had the unfortunate side-effect of turning the Cameroon players into goggle-eyed caricatures that made Sugarball The Jungle Boy look progressive and enlightened) as it seared unstoppably towards the goal, permanently incapacitating any player that it collided with en route. It would later cause no small amusement when a ‘Super Shot’ apparently made a cameo appearance in the video for Michael Jackson’s Heal The World.
So, that was Nintendo World Cup. Never to become as emblematic as Gazza crying, World In Motion or Sophie Aldred dressed as a footballer on Children’s BBC game show Knock Knock, but in its own way redolent both of its time and of things to come. Primarly through bearing next to no resemblance to actual football in any way, shape or form. Of course, the other thing about the NES that absolutely everyone was in agreement on was how truly appalling McDonaldland was. But it’s kinder not to remind people about that.
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If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy Tim’s book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
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