Sports games aren’t popular with collectors because everyone thinks they suck. But there are some hidden gems out there to enjoy — and their lack of popularity means you can pick ’em up pretty cheap, too! Let’s explore this unloved genre!
RealSports Soccer for the Atari 2600 is one of those games that really took me by surprise; a game I really didn’t expect to like as much as I did. But it’s essentially the impetus for this entire column.
Over the years, as someone who is emphatically Not Into Sports, I have generally lived a life without sports games. Sure, there have been odd exceptions over the years — my friendship group at school really got into the World Cup in 1998, which prompted me to get the N64 game from EA so we could play together, and I’ve always enjoyed Olympics-themed games — but as a general rule, I’ve mostly ignored the sports game scene.
A couple of birthdays ago, I inaugurated what has become a tradition among my “in-person” friendship group: the annual Davison Cup, in which I play host to a tournament of video games from both yesterday and today (emphasis on the “yesterday”) and during which we all eat lots of crisps and cake like we’re still 12 year olds. Sometimes there are even prizes; this year the winner, Tom, walked away with an Evercade and three game cartridges. Aren’t I generous?
The games in Code Mystics and AtGames’ excellent Atari Flashback Classics collection for Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Xbox One are prime fodder for this event, because many of them are eminently multiplayer-friendly — indeed, some can only be played with two people — and are, as a general rule, pretty easy to pick up. So it was that I included RealSports Soccer in the lineup one year, figuring that although two of our quartet (including myself) weren’t big sports fans, the other two had enjoyed a lifelong interest in “the beautiful game” and as such would probably appreciate some virtual competition.
What I wasn’t prepared for was quite how well RealSports Soccer would go down with everyone in the group — not just the two football fans. No; our RealSports Soccer mini-tournament was one of the most raucous, hilarious and enjoyable parts of the whole event — and indeed, the most vociferous of football haters among us ended up being one of the best at the game.
The reason why it went down so well is something that is true for a surprising number of sports-themed video games, particularly in the earlier days of the medium. And that is the fact that RealSports Soccer is designed as a fun video game first, an attempt to simulate a real thing second.
For the unfamiliar, in RealSports Soccer for Atari 2600, you and a friend (or you and the computer opponent) take control of a team of three coloured stickmen, each of whom are confined to a distinct “lane” on the screen. While not in possession of the ball, you can switch the dude you’re controlling with a tap of the fire button, while in possession of the ball you, quite rightly, control whoever has the ball at the time. Whoever has the ball can kick it with a tap of the fire button — either at the opponent’s goal, or to another player.
The “three players on each team” limitation is likely down to the 2600’s own hardware limitations — or rather, the fact that Atari’s own 2600 programmers in 1983 still didn’t know how to get the best out of the machine — but it’s also the source of RealSports Soccer’s most fun mechanic: its wrap-around system.
In RealSports Soccer, at any point other than dribbling the ball, you can run the player under your control off one side of the screen and reappear on the other. This is presumably intended to simulate the fact that a real football team has more than three players on the pitch at any one time; thematically, the mechanic suggests that one player has run “out of shot” and a new one has “run in” from the other side of the camera.
The best thing about this mechanic is that it looks absolutely hilarious, and can be used to spring absolutely delightful ambushes on players who think they’re safely getting up the field unopposed. The second best thing is that you can perform some wonderfully unconventional strategies by taking full advantage of it — the most powerful of which by far is the ability to pass the ball forward, run the player who just kicked the ball “backwards” off one side of the screen and then magically receive their own pass on the other.
Once everyone playing figures out this tactic, games of RealSports Soccer become exciting, frantic and full of energy as everyone tries to outwit one another by being as unpredictable as possible. Defending players unable to catch up with an attacking striker can run away in the opposite direction, only to reappear as the “goalkeeper”. Elaborate setpieces can be formed with creative use of your three players. And every goal feels like a genuine victory.
For some inexplicable reason, you can actually turn this mechanic off using the Atari 2600’s difficulty switches. But when it’s the source of this much joy — even from those who went into the game thinking they wouldn’t enjoy it at all — why would you ever want to?
RealSports Soccer for Atari 2600 might not look like much, but it succeeds precisely because it aims to be an enjoyable video game first, a convincing simulation of soccer a very distant second. And that’s a way of doing things that modern sports game developers could do with remembering every now and then!