The Custodian #2: Sega Soccer Slam

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In the grand pantheon of Things We Might Consider So Totally Over In This, Anno Domini 2016 — Charlie Sheen’s career, Flobots, Google Glass, supply-side economics (sigh), acai berries, etc. –perhaps the most satisfying item to see thrown to the wayside is America’s irrational hatred for soccer. And that’s a good thing if you’re a fan of great games: Sega Soccer Slam is as accessible as it is off the rails.

If all soccer were like this, I'd be a fan.
If all soccer were like this, I’d be a fan.

Anyways, people in the United States are coming to appreciate–slowly but surely– O Jogo Bonito. Even where I live, in the epicenter of college football country, soccer is everywhere. The reason for this is pretty simple: Millennials effing love soccer, and when Millennials love something, we force it on everyone.

I’m sorry.

Perhaps it’s because we enjoy the novelty of a sport with a clock that never stops. Perhaps it’s because we enjoy the marvel of athletes who can control something as capricious as a ball with just their feet. Perhaps it’s because we need enjoy a venue in which we can display our national pride without feeling all obsequiously guilty. Whatever the reason, soccer now enjoys a totally unironic, passionate purchase among America’s young adults, and even when it’s a little obnoxious, it feels pretty great.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a good soccer joke, but these days you can, justifiably, find an American Outlaws chapter in every town with more than two stoplights. This, plus the revolving nature of soccer seasons, the abundance of high-level international play, and a news cycle peppered with athletes and coaches of outsized talent and panache, means that soccer never really stops. It’s an evergreen event, constantly bearing fruit for its faithful.

Compared to my peers, I’ve moved slowly. I didn’t start paying attention to the sport of soccer until I watched the 2014 World Cup, but soccer itself is the basis for one of those Millennial, everyone-simply-must-know-about-this objects in my life: Black Box Games’ forgotten gem Sega Soccer Slam.

I’m not sorry.

Like the best aspect of the sport on which it’s based, Sega Soccer Slam is a game that celebrates international rivalry and competition with verve and charming weirdness. Though time has embellished its shortcomings, its basic gameplay is timeless, qualifying Sega Soccer Slam for an elder stateman’s position within the arcade sports genre. I’ma speak on it fondly for the next twelve hundred words.

Much like real soccer, I have no idea what's happening.
Much like real soccer, I have no idea what’s happening.

Released in the Spring of 2002 for Xbox, PS2, and GameCube, Sega Soccer Slam was popular with critics but had to settle for cult status given the world in which it was released. A three-on-three arcade soccer game that traded on wacky character designs and obnoxious gimmicks like punching opposing players and doing Matrix-style slow motion kicks certainly set it apart from other sports games, but pre-dating Xbox Live by eight months and lacking any significant single-player component beyond a handful of shallow modes limited its appeal.

Sega Soccer Slam is one of those games in which the bite-sized play is its own reward (see: watch, of the Over variety), and that was a lot to ask for $50, especially without a retinue of friends to fill out your couch.

These days, the asking price for a used copy off of Amazon pays for itself within a few rounds. Sega Soccer Slam re-imagines soccer as a sport with a complete disregard for safety, authenticity, and the laws of physics, chemistry, and good sportsmanship. Six teams of three players each–a remarkably diverse cast hailing from all different corners of the globe and each rocking a different elemental power (the Pacific Islanders are water, the Europeans are electricity, etc.)–gather together to do battle on the pitch by tackling, punching, kicking, and stealing the ball away from their opponents any way they can.

Successful passes and shots on goal fill a super meter that, when activated, transforms the player into a living embodiment of their team’s element. Sometimes a spotlight shines on the field; shooting the ball from its location initiates a sweet slow-motion kick that lets you line up the perfect shot.

The goalies wear body armor. It deteriorates over the course of the match with every shot they block.

It. Is. Awesome.

Sega Soccer Slam is cartoony, absurd, and boasts a great, subtle sense of humor uncommon in videogames of its time. In a biting bit of cultural awareness, Black Box mocks the Americans (whose elemental power is, ahem, nuclear waste) by featuring a player who dresses in football pads and a helmet.

The broad, ham-fisted personality of its characters perfectly complements game design that turns “I have five minutes to spare,” into, “The IRS doesn’t need my taxes exactly on the 15th, do they?” Though it came and went very quickly, those who played it, like myself, haven’t forgotten how much pure, undiluted fun Sega Soccer Slam was and still is. It is my “cork tree game,”: a simple but lively little exercise I can enjoy at the end of long, tiring days, with nothing but a cheap beer and a humble desire to chew the fat in solitude. It’s an object of the past that nevertheless exists outside of nostalgia, in the same practice as, like an uncle of mine used to say, “whittling, knitting, or spitting.”

Admittedly, Sega Soccer Slam’s enduring strength as a game is kind of a surprise. The ironic contrast between a game built around fast-paced, soccer-adjacent mayhem and the relaxing effect it has on me is the result of pretty unsophisticated technology. Sega Soccer Slam doesn’t have most of the bells and whistles we expect with sports games these days. There’s no ball physics, no adaptive animation, and the AI is aggressive but rudimentary. I’ve played enough of it that I can see the seams, anticipate exactly where the ball is going, and exactly what I have to do to intercept it, making for a game that’s easy to predict despite its freneticism.

And yet…

This is exactly why Sega Soccer Slam is a classic and remains so good: because like any arcade sports game worth its salt, there simply isn’t anything else like it.

Back in 2002, Sega Soccer Slam was the game that made soccer fun. It took a sport that once put me to sleep and strapped a jet-engine to its back. And now, as I’ve grown and become someone who appreciates real soccer for its own joys, I still play Sega Soccer Slam because it’s a game that makes sports games fun. That’s high praise.

I don’t want to suggest that sports games are bad these days (they’re not!), but they aren’t really sports games. They’re RPGs. When I play Madden, or MLB: The Show, or NBA 2K, it’s not to enjoy the simulated, finely-tuned professional athletics on display, but to advance the story of a character that I’ve created. It’s about me being drafted into the NBA and fighting for a chance to play shooting guard across from Mike Conley on my beloved Grizzlies. It’s about taking the Seahawks back to the Big Game and avenging Super Bowl 49. It’s about shutting down the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the NLCS in an even year, claiming the Cardinals’ 20th Pennant in the process. It’s about a lot of things, pretty much all of which are great, but the sports, the games themselves at hand, are ancillary to that greatness.

The simplest reason for this is that videogames aren’t really that great at simulating sports in interesting ways. When I throw a curveball for a strike in The Show, it’s because I pressed a button once and then pressed it again at the right time. When I hit a receiver for a 20-yard gain in Madden, it’s because I pressed the button floating over his head at the right moment. Not that these things don’t take skill, but they feel more like David Cage-esque abstractions of the sports they’re supposed to be portraying

(Let’s slow this train down…good heavens, can you imagine David Cage-esque abstractions of sports games?).

Arcade sports games, on the other hand, sacrifice realism and authenticity for a more thrilling sense of skill and competition, and in this fashion feel truer to actual sports than their simulated counterparts. The arcade sports genre, neglected for so long after the hangover of Tony Hawk/EA Sports BIG-induced Attitude and Extremism, have slowly been on the rise again as game developers cleave to weirder ideas and more modest audiences. Games like Rocket League, #idarb, Sports Friends, Videoball, Frozen Cortex, and the like are all terrific examples of games that focus first and foremost on narrow, airtight design and satisfying competitive play.

Sports are fun when they're not traditional.
Sports are fun when they’re not traditional.

I spend most of my time these days with first-person shooters, but arcade sports games are what excites me most. Few things are more satisfying as a videogame fan than that moment of realization when I can tell that a developer really hit home on whatever bizarre, unconventional sports idea they had. Scoring my first goals in Rocket League and #idarb, plotting successful moves in Blood Bowl and Frozen Cortex, punching one of my friends in the gut during a tense round of Johann Sebastian Joust: all of these moments gave me that feeling (okay, maybe not that last one, litigation is still pending).

Sega Soccer Slam
was the first game to make me feel that way, and it still does over half my life later. It’s unique, light-hearted, and infectiously fun. These new experiences–the Rocket Leagues of the world–perhaps wouldn’t exist without Sega Soccer Slam. Perhaps because it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see anything quite like it again, I feel the need to evangelize its thrills to anyone who will listen, and to most who won’t.

I’m not sorry about that. It’s the Millennial in me.

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