When people talk about games so good they monopolised their genre, Zelda and Mario remain the most popular touchpoints. As formidable as Nintendo's franchises are, none can hold a candle to Sports Interactive's Football Manager series in terms of market domination. Having started life in 1992 as Championship Manager, few competitors have lasted more than a handful of years before conceding defeat. Even following an enforced name change due to SI's departure from publisher Eidos, the rebranded series (now published by SEGA) comfortably continued its run of form, even sweeping aside a rival bearing its former name.
More remarkable is how, for all the refinements and features added over the years, the core experience remains much as it was in the earliest instalments. It's slicker, quicker and packed with nuance, but SI's game is one of the few not starring an Italian plumber (although perhaps if you look to the nation's lower leagues...) to have a legitimate claim to having perfected its genre at the first time of asking.
SI's success story has, in some respects, been as much of a problem as an achievement. As Nintendo discovered with Zelda in the aftermath of Ocarina Of Time, it isn't easy reinventing something many considered flawless to begin with. SI have had to do it every year for twenty years now, and to their credit, the game now features an impressive match engine where there was once only text commentary, a ridiculously detailed database including even the lowest leagues of the most faraway nations, and representations of recent real-life developments like impatient sugar daddy chairmen and money-hungry agents. The level of intricacy has become so deep that next year's edition will include a 'Football Manager Classic' mode, stripping away the more complex features for those yearning for a return to the series' core values of tactics and transfers.
The game's legacy is long established in British gaming culture, where its addictive qualities are discussed in almost mythic terms. Books have been written about it, while the official forums are rife with stories of people dressing up for cup finals, or getting divorced after choosing the game over their spouse. Urban legend? Quite possibly, although the fact such tales are widely believed suggests how widely appreciated the game's qualities are. It doesn't matter whether or not it really was the cause of anyone's divorce (although this has actually been proven), what matters is that so many can accept the idea based on their own experiences. If you had spent countless seasons building your lower league minnow into a Champions League-conquering behemoth, what chance would any marriage have?
Football Manager represents in many ways what Nintendo has been striving for since the Wii: something as accessible to non-gamers as long-time players, as easy to pick-up-and-play as delve into its overwhelming depths, and from a certain perspective, barely considered a game at all. To many, it's the sports equivalent of Solitaire, always on in the background and waiting to devour any spare moments. Anyone familiar with football can immediately grasp the basics: select your tactics, select your players, then send them out and hope for the best. The only obstacle in recent years has been the increasingly labyrinthine interface, clogged up with a bewildering array of options and a little too easy to get lost in.
Attempts to get around this issue, such as an in-game tutorial, have only added to the problem. Next year's 'Football Manager Classic', depending on how intelligently it is designed, could prove a masterstroke in overcoming the series' last major problem. Unlike Nintendo, which has reacted to its games' increased depth by giving players the option to become invincible or skip levels altogether, 'Classic' has the potential to once again make the game as user-friendly as its earliest incarnations, while teaching newcomers all they'll need to know before graduating to the full experience.
Playing Football Manager 2012, it is easy to see where the inspiration for 'Classic' came from: the game's layout, though, has undergone a large-scale overhaul which seems to add extra clicks to actions which could previously have been completed with one. The match engine looks fantastic, but the variety of dynamic camera angles makes it difficult to find one which is ideal. The limitations of previous versions forced acceptance of what was there, yet the ability to choose somehow makes everything seem slightly less precise than before.
SI cannot be blamed for this human foible, of course, but the problem does extend into the main game: there's so much going on, so many balls to keep in the air at any one time, that completing a season can take weeks if you take advantage of every feature. Play using only the absolute basics - and the game gives you the ability to do this, should you place an inordinate amount of trust in your assistant manager (or 'Ass Man', as the game's forums have informatively nicknamed the position) - and you feel as though you're missing out, as the basic game is essentially the same as it has been for decades. The game is as compelling as ever, and the addition of player agents makes negotiations quicker and more exciting, rejuvenating the long-stagnant transfer and contract systems. (For the record, the last version I played was Football Manager 2010, where I had a game going which lasted nearly half a century in FM years). Ridiculous as it sounds, the problem is that the game has become almost too good, too in-depth to handle with its former grace.
Football Manager games are rarely mentioned in those 'Best Of All Time' lists which pop up across the internet at the end of each calendar year, yet the series as a whole is perhaps the most perfect representation of its genre to be found across the medium. As any fan will tell you, it's slightly more addictive than crack, with highs and lows infinitely more intense and only ending once the next version comes out. Unlike EA and Activision, whose games have achieved domination through bigger budgets than their competitors and access to more widespread marketing, the text-heavy, graphically limited Football Manager continues to stand alone in its genre for no other reason than being the best. The Collyer Brothers, who founded SI and created the game, were awarded MBEs in 2010 for service to the computer games industry. It's the classic story of young hopefuls who got to the top of the game through sheer force of talent and ambition. If you can think of anything more appropriately Football Manager than that, I'd love to hear it, but for now I have an FA Cup to win. Where did I leave that tie...
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