96 tears?

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Euro ’96 – like Italia’90 before it – was a tournament more memorable for the ephemeral moments than the standard of the football. The dentist’s chair, the “indigo” kit, Stuart Pearce losing his fucking mind. I’m not English so I can view these with a certain amount of emotional detachment. However, I can’t say the same for the OFFICIAL LICENSED PRODUCT game.

This was my introduction to the next wave of football games – polygon graphics with multiple camera angles, motion captured players, full match commentary, buttons that actually passed and shot rather than just kicked the ball to varying degrees of “have it” – the works.

As such, it holds a special place in my heart despite its flaws.

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Released on the Saturn and PC under the Sega Sports umbrella, this was basically a reskin of Actua Soccer with fewer teams. Considering the largely positive critical reception Gremlin’s title had upon its initial release, this was not necessarily a bad thing especially as it was to be the first time a game tied to the series was to be seen on Sega’s big black beautiful breezeblock. Yes, I did say beautiful. My love for the Saturn is way past “bordering on the unhealthy” and on the road to “I want to marry it and have its babies”. No wonder I’ve turned out the way I have.

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Presentation can be described as minimalist. More honestly, I’d go with “Shit! I’ve got snowblindness!” So… much… white… The rest of it is nicely thought out, however. High resolution menus with clearly labelled options and lots of CGI rendered maps, kits and stadia. Splendid stuff.

One lion on the screen

Another aspect of the visual stylings can also be seen in the form of Goaliath, the OFFICIAL LICENSED MASCOT. He’s absolutely everywhere, far more so than he seemed to be at the actual matches as far as I can recall. As uninspiring a creation as he was, at least it’s not the bloody rabbit again.

Music is by Richard Jacques, infamous for the… hmm… divisive… compositions to be found in Sonic R. I fall into the “my ears are bleeding” camp on that one. For this, he’s “treated” us to an ambient electronic Eurohouse jazz funk fusion. Not exactly the soundtrack of the summer a certain other ditty connected to the tournament would become, that’s for sure.

Unless it’s the summer of 1997, your mum’s found this game in Currys for a fiver and you play it constantly because the only other Saturn game you had was Sega Rally and your sister broke the disc by sitting on it and you’re sick of playing the demo disc with bloody Golden Axe: The Duel on it… anyway, carrying on…

OFFICIAL LICENSED SPINDLY LIMBS

Get into actually playing a match and it just seems to be Actua Soccer but a bit scruffy looking. I know the Saturn was a bastard to program for but there’s no excuse for just how rough this is – compare and contrast the Japanese only release J-League Go Go Goal.

The players in particular just look plain weird. To my eyes, it seems their heads and torsos are constructed from polygons (which was the style at the time) but their limbs are sprites animated in a manner not seen since the likes of Noggin The Nog and Captain Pugwash.

However the audio is peerless and there’s at least one current franchise that could learn a lot from Gremlin’s work here – you listening, Konami? Of course not… just keep pissing off Guillermo del Toro if that’s what makes you happy, I suppose.

This is largely thanks to one man – the doyen of commentary, the one, the only Barry Davies. His unquestionable authority and velvety tones add so much to the enjoyment to be garnered here. Oh yeah, about that…

Shapes that go together

There’s always been one thing about the earlier entries of the Actua series that has really honked my chuff and that’s context sensitivity. I understand that there’s a certain amount of this in all football games but at least in those it’s broken down simply into what happens if you are in possession of the ball or not.

This however tries to be too clever for its own good. It’s all about shapes, see.

Two of these are fairly self-explanatory in all honesty – with the ball, the cursor highlighting your player will be triangular. Without it, it’s circular.

The flashing star signifies that you’re in a position to make a first-time action – whether that be a header, volley or spoon into row Z. The square tells you that you are able to cross the ball in.

These two are completely superfluous, I reckon. Surely the former is simply a matter of timing? It’s better for me to see where I am in relation to the ball in play rather than wait for a stupid flashing star.

As for crossing – there are more than enough buttons on the controller, why can’t one be reserved specifically for the job? I’ve got the ball out wide, I’ve got men in the box – I KNOW TO FUCKING CROSS IT, ALRIGHT?

The big issue is putting it in the old onion bag. Despite the hundreds of hours I sunk into it way back when, I only found one way I could score enough goals to win games. Run through the middle, evade tackles, line myself up and shoot just before the keeper will charge out to take the ball from my feet. I perfected this technique to such a point that playing a 15-minute-per-half game against Scotland, I ended up victorious by a margin of 109 to nil.

No wonder it kind of lost its lustre for me after that.

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