One game at a time: Video games of the rugby codes (Part VI)
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One game at a time: Video games of the rugby codes (Part VI)


Making our way through union and league game history.

One Game at a Time is a long-standing mantra for sportsmen everywhere. It is sage advice on how to handle the stress of a long football season and an indicator of the maximum mental workload most footballers can handle. To me it is a good way to approach the history of rugby union and rugby league video games, making sure each title, no matter how terrible, is not overlooked.

Part I: Unlikely BeginningsPart II: The Pre-Season | Part III: Goose-Step | Part IV: Days of Denton | Part V: Seriously, SNES? | Part VI: Give Yourself a Triple | Part VII: Lomu! | Part VIII: His Bad Knee

Give yourself a triple

When I started writing this series, today was the goal I had in mind. Yes it has been fun to revisit some classics and discover interesting new games, but my childhood was defined by one video game: ARL 96.

You’ll find out all about that soon enough. Today we look at four games that represent a unique period in gaming where the power of the PC and the storage space of the CD-ROM was just starting to be harnessed, creating a divide between PC and console gamers. This wasn’t so much a divide in quality (though that was the case in rugby games) but in presentation, as full motion video was made available to boost production values and nascent play-by-play commentary systems were developed.

These were also the dying days of 2D sports games, though few knew it at the time. The Playstation was around the corner as were 3D accelerator cards, and development budgets were about to skyrocket. We’ll see the last gasps of the 2D rugby game in the next part, but this will also signal a dark age, a long wait until demand for rugby games reached a point where the increased development budget a 3D engine required was justified.

Indeed, ARL 96 will be the last worthwhile rugby league game released for eight long years; the cynical among us may say it is still the last worthwhile rugby league game to this day. Yet before ARL 96 there was the first fully licensed rugby world cup video game. Rugby World Cup ’95.

Rugby World Cup ’95

  • 1994 – Electronic Arts – EA Sports
  • Sega Mega Drive

In 1993 EA Sports was revolutionising sports gaming; FIFA International Soccer arrived that year as did the beloved NHL 94. NBA Live was about to debut and change basketball games forever and of course the venerable Madden NFL series was kicking into gear. This success led them further afield in their search for new, exotic sports to bring to games, and the UK arm of Electronic Arts explored the fertile fields of rugby union.

While not sharing a development team with FIFA, Rugby World Cup ’95 and FIFA for the Mega Drive certainly share a philosophy. This is the first rugby game to use the isometric perspective along with EA Sports trademark TV style presentation and minimal HUD. Despite this visual similarity the smaller scale of development shows. RWC 95 lacks the crisp presentation of the bigger name EA Sports offerings; graphics are muddied with small but well animated sprites, the sound effects are bland and unfortunately, the gameplay is rather crappy.

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It is hard to imagine how even in 1995 gamers could have enjoyed Rugby World Cup ’95 on console. The game is an absolute mess, especially around the ruck where the ball has an equal chance to spill out the back, immediately be turned over, or be flung straight into the hands of another player. All the while six or seven players are crash tackling the latest recipient creating an orgy of grunting sound effects as you try and figure out who has the ball, usually by watching the AI finally get a pass away or put in a clearing kick.

You barely feel in control of the game thanks to both the mess of this ‘ruck’ system and the fact the breakdown is completely AI controlled. Mercifully there is no button bashing but only occasionally does the action on the field in any way indicate who will actually win the ball at the breakdown, keeping your pack behind you means little. Mauls can also be formed and in these you at least have a chance to retain the ball though the mess that happens as soon as you clear it is just as bad.

Should you somehow find open space RWC 95 still finds ways to fail. Players grunt like Maria Sharapova with every pass and the speed burst/fend button is brutally effective if you find enough space to use it. Getting that space is the challenge, passing can be rather spotty, often you will throw the ball to nobody or 20 metres backwards, and the AI is far more adept at kicking than I ever managed to be, finding open space and distance with ease while I struggled to make more than ten metres on a kick to touch.

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Despite the official license Rugby World Cup ’95 has no real players though all the World Cup teams appear and the actual draw is replicated. There are plenty of pitch/weather options though their gameplay impact is hard to gauge, the only difference I noticed was the colour of the turf. You can set the temperature too but any effect that has is too small for me to notice in my time playing.

While Rugby World Cup ’95 is more playable than many of its predecessors purely due to a lack of button bashing, playing this game is still a punish; a fight against loose, random controls, poor game design and an ordinary engine. There are few redeeming qualities.

Developed internally at Electronic Arts UK, there are some through lines both from FIFA International Soccer, and to Australian Rugby League. Producer Kevin Buckner was an Associate Producer on FIFA while the art staff are shared with Mega Drive Australian Rugby League. Interestingly, lead programmer Dave Colclough went on to become a successful professional poker player, earning over $2.6m USD in tournament winnings.

Rugby World Cup 1995

  • 1994 – The Creative Assembly – EA Sports
  • PC CD-ROM

EA Sports relied upon an English studio for the PC ports of their sports games, a studio you may now know for their super successful Total War series of strategy games: The Creative Assembly. In 1994 they were best known for their ports of Amiga games to PC (such as Stunt Car Racer and Shadow of the Beast), but EA Sports entrusted Creative Assembly with their fledgling football franchise, creating a new engine for the rather excellent PC port of FIFA International Soccer. That engine would become the base for their early work on rugby games on home computer.

The first thing that hits you in Rugby World Cup 1995 (note the use of 1995 instead of ‘95, a curious difference between the console and PC games) is the commentary. For one, that it exists. I stood as a 12 year old in the dodgy Parramatta Westfield computer store, gobsmacked as the AI played itself with full running commentary. I had to have the game right then, despite my only interest in rugby union at the time being when I accidentally mistook it for league. Those kinds of technological leaps are few and far between in games, and this felt like the first time I saw Doom, or coloured lighting in Quake 2, or Gears of War on Xbox 360.

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The Creative Assembly achieved this with what they called the ‘Live’ Commentary System (their scare quotes, not mine) that mixed both announcing the name of the player in possession with a few vague exclamations about the ongoing play. Today it sounds simple and stilted but this was revolutionary at the time and for it to be included in such a niche product as a rugby union game is particularly impressive.

So the commentary is great, what about the rest of the game? Thankfully it is a lot better than its console forefather, though it is still simplistic and gets very samey, very quickly. The controls are a lot tighter than the Mega Drive game, players move as if on ice when they sprint but the PC game feels a lot better than the console. One major fault is the use of only two buttons, one for pass/change player, one for kick/tackle, and you hit both to sprint, or far too often to pass or kick instead of sprint.

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The view of the action is still isometric but in very close and low resolution. A high resolution mode is used for kicks at goal or to touch, regrettably there is no way to force this SVGA mode to be default though both at the time and through DOSbox today it is difficult to get working without horrible flickering. The animation is good, not on the level of quality or variety as FIFA, largely due to the smaller sprites used here but probably also a budgetary concern.

Like on console, rucks are decided without any user input beyond their positioning when tackled. Unlike console, rucks actually function somewhat like the sport though there will be the occasional mess when the ball is loose and possession changes several times quickly. There is no such thing as quick ball, you have to wait for the scrum half to totter over to the ruck before you are allowed to pass. Mauls are also present but operate in a similar way.

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Passing is crisp and mostly accurate but kicking is largely horrible. It is difficult to reliably make a clearing kick of any distance, you will just as likely put in a short chip kick as you will kick to touch well down the ground. The AI doesn’t have any problems in this department, of course. Luckily they have a penchant for being offside meaning you’ll be handed plenty of cheap field position to make up for the deficit in kicking. You can turn off knock ons and penalties which at the same time makes the game both more playable and far messier, if that makes any sense.

There just isn’t enough variety in Rugby World Cup 1995, there are not enough ways to attack and the ruck and kicking systems are not reliable enough to take a more measured, field position approach. Games come down to mistakes and who benefits most from jank and offside penalties that you have no hope of avoiding. Another curiosity of the genre that just doesn’t hold up to extensive play.

Australian Rugby League

  • 1995 – I-Space Interactive, Dreamtime Interactive – EA Sports
  • Sega Mega Drive

In the midst of the most contentious period in its history, the Super League war, rugby league saw its first console video game released. Sure, it is an obvious reskin of Rugby World Cup ’95, rushed out by I-Space Interactive, a studio so obscure searching the darkest reaches of the internet cannot produce more than token information on it, but it is certainly the first console rugby league game. It is not very good.

Adding a play the ball does remove Rugby World Cup ‘95’s greatest flaw, the ruck. While play the balls are laughably slow they do allow you to spread the ball a bit more, which only serves to highlight other deficiencies of the engine. Passing in one particular direction usually results in a loose ball but if you do find a man with the pass he will prove near impossible to tackle, defenders bounce off ball runners like toddlers off a teenager in a horrendously unfair game of park football. This makes tries laughably easy to score, the goal posts pose more of a threat to runners than defenders do.

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Should a defender finally drag the ball carrier down up to seven players will pile onto the tackle, much like it was actually a ruck. You can’t really take advantage of this as only the hooker can handle the complexity of picking up the play the ball and thus both teams must wait until he is positioned before the ball can be played, making fast rucks impossible to achieve.

The AI is a disaster. While both rugby union games feature competent AI that may be an illusion created by those games inability to provide their AI the space to fail. Here with room to run, pass and kick without being dragged into a bottomless pit of rucking their full incompetence is on display. The AI will kick out on the full, throw passes to nobody, throw passes with the line wide open in front of them and my favourite, just running straight into touch. While not specifically an AI flaw I also found it amusing that a try is registered from where you dive, not where the ball ends up, so you can dive a few metres out of the in goal or over the sideline and still score a try.

Australian Rugby League features real teams from the ARL competition but not real players. The full ARL competition is available along with State of Origin, internationals and English sides, making it the most fully featured rugby game ever in terms of teams and competitions, plus it retains all of the possibly cosmetic options from Rugby World Cup ’95 such as pitch condition and temperature.

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Australian Rugby League is unfortunately terrible. More playable than its rugby union counterpart, but still a mess of poor controls, inexplicable bugs and lacklustre design. This game is barely more than a reskin and barebones port of rugby league to cash in on the popularity of the sport, one that was poor in its day and absolutely terrible today.

I wasn’t kidding when saying I-Space Interactive is pretty much a ghost studio at this point. Australian Rugby League is their only known release, though Mobygames does say they worked on a 1994 Amiga isometric platformer: Whizz. In a world where I managed to track down the studios that created obscure Amstrad and Atari ST rugby union games, it baffles me that I-Space Interactive is so hard to find any information about.

Dreamtime Interactive was also said to have assisted in development, though a reference to them in the Hyper magazine review is the only link here. Dreamtime Interactive is another entity there is little information about, though according to a Eurogamer feature on The Creative Assembly they helped fund Shogun: Total War.

ARL 96 (International Rugby League)

  • 1996 – The Creative Assembly – EA Sports
  • PC CD-ROM

Where the Mega Drive version of Rugby World Cup ’95 didn’t make a fantastic base for a rugby league game, Creative Assembly’s solid but unspectacular PC rugby union title made for a brilliant league game. Helped along by the technological leaps made between 1994 and 1996 such as SVGA graphics, gamepad support and Windows 95, ARL 96 was back then and still is today an excellent game.

The first thing you will notice is Rabs. From the sound test during installation through to play-by-play in game, iconic rugby league commentator Ray “Rabbits” Warren lends his voice to ARL 96, a process he enjoyed so little he vowed to never do it again (hence Andrew Voss has been the voice of nearly every rugby league game since). While the “Live” Commentary System was enhanced over the period between RWC 1995 and ARL 96 it still deviates little from announcing player names (in either exclamation or monotone) and making general comments like “he’ll surely score from here”. What makes it brilliant is the delivery of Warren, the familiarity of his voice and the excitement in its exclamations. Few commentators add to a game like Rabbits does, and that is captured in ARL 96 so perfectly.

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The game is more than just its commentary. Tight running and passing controls plus the upgrade to SVGA graphics means for the first time in a rugby game you can throw the ball around confidently and reliably. Kicking is still a bit suspect but not being as important a factor in rugby league, ARL 96 gets away with it somewhat. Tackling is the best of any rugby game so far, with good collision detection and the ability to hold down in the tackle and slow the play the ball, necessary because unlike the rugby union games you can get a quick play the ball away and catch the retreating defense offside.

Despite playing well, ARL 96 is hardly an accurate simulation of rugby league tactics. Hitups are near worthless, the defence moves quickly enough to shut down any play close to the ruck and field position is only found by spreading the ball wide. You can offload out of the tackle but a more successful tactic is a simple draw and pass which the AI will always overcommit against, leaving gaps for hard running back rowers to charge through. Human opponents won’t fall for this tactic so much but the dummy pass can be used to create gaps to run yourself, one of the few times to this day that a game doesn’t need to artificially create a use for the dummy (for example Sidhe’s Rugby League would stop a defender in their tracks should they fail the ‘dummy check’ to allow the attacker to run by, ARL 96 only uses the natural deception of the animation, meaning the AI rarely falls for it but human players will).

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Without attempting to simulate the grind of a rugby league match ARL 96 was free to focus on a running and passing brand of football that creates end to end, sideline to sideline play. To this day some of the best video game tries I have scored come from ARL 96, which achieves a smoothness in passing that 3D engines struggle to match.

There are some exploits: the speed burst (now mercifully with its own button) and palm that accompanies it is brutally effective in the hands of good players and try scoring within close range is a matter of just diving from dummy half over and over. If you push a scrum into the goal posts the game turns into an endless series of pratfalls and cries of agony, but none of these issues has any lasting effect on enjoying the game (and nothing a few house rules in multiplayer can’t account for).

Where its console counterpart couldn’t get player likeness, ARL 96 does manage to use real player names for all ARL-aligned teams. Released in the middle of the Super League war, the Murdoch-aligned teams such as the Bulldogs, Broncos and Raiders are included in the game but with no real players, same with Super League signed players who in 1995 were still on ARL-aligned teams, such as Gorden Tallis. Along with all 20 teams from the 1995 ARL competition, non-branded English rugby league teams are included, as are international sides (with laughably inflated player ratings for teams such as South Africa) and State of Origin.

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State of Origin is where ARL 96 really shines. Two evenly balanced teams, perfect foil for multiplayer games with accurate rosters to the Super League affected “Fatty’s Nevilles” series that Queensland famously won 3-0 despite missing all Super League players (such as the Brisbane Broncos squad). With Ray Warren commentating, it didn’t matter that he was announcing such Origin heroes as Tony Hearn and Gavin Allen, Origin has never felt better than in ARL 96.

Speaking of Paul “Fatty” Vautin, he makes regular appearances during play in the form of short video comments on your performance. For some these are a highlight, for others an unwelcome intrusion, but I loved them. Fatty showing up to wobble his head and tell you “two hands on that joystick” or “keep this up and one day you’ll play for Queensland” is a hilarious quirk of the era that has no equivalent in the modern day. His running commentary on the state of the goal posts when one of your players runs into them is a favourite, as is Rabbits calling a missed goal “he’s sliced it like Fatty Vautin’s three iron” or Vautin exclaiming “he’s copped one in the nurries!” after a particularly strong tackle.

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Personally I have spent hundreds of hours with ARL 96. This is the first game that we have looked at, union or league, that played well enough to make a lasting impression on me. E.T’s Rugby League was good, but ARL 96 truly captured the sport both from a presentation and gameplay standpoint. I had battles in school computing classes (where the somewhat incompetent teacher was told that we “found” the Gravis Gamepad we were using), endless debates over who got the advantage of using the keyboard versus said gamepad (the quick direction changes you are capable of with keys is a big advantage, as is faster player changing and tackling) and epic battles with my recently married brother when he came round for dinner, Mum cooking a roast while we darted off for a quick Origin series. There were unofficial patches to the game years later to bring 1999 teams into the mix. I was still playing ARL 96 right up until the release of Sidhe’s Rugby League in 2003, and may have kept playing after had the game not struggled running under all forms of Windows XP.

Does it still hold up today? ARL 96 is a little simple, though that could be coloured by years of playing and mastery. It still makes for an entertaining multiplayer experience, one not dulled by bugs, exploits and substandard controls like many of the recent, 3D rugby games. I don’t know if you could play for long, but ARL 96 is still fun. Would players new to the game get anything out of it? It is hard to say.

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ARL 96 was dedicated to the late Angelo Cusumano, tragically killed in an armed robbery at the Sydney games retailer he founded (that is still open to this day), The Gamesmen. Kotaku’s Mark Serrels did a great feature on The Gamesmen you can read here.

The Creative Assembly became a household name many years after ARL 96 thanks to its Total War strategy games. Before that breakout hit in 2000 The Creative Assembly was best known for Australian/English centric sports games; the 3D EA Cricket games Cricket World Cup 99 and Cricket 2000, the well received AFL 98 and their final entry into rugby gaming: Rugby 2001.

The Total War series became one of the biggest strategy franchises in all of gaming. From Shogun: Total War through Rome, Medieval, Empire and their various sequels, the first fantasy Total War title, based on Warhammer, releases in May 2016.

THE CRITICS

We are reaching the point where Australian games mags such as Hyper and PC Powerplay were covering rugby games, though some of their reviews leave a bit to be desired. The niche nature of the games makes reviews outside of the local press difficult to track down, though all four games we looked at today received favourable reviews at the time. Looking back now this is an interesting take on the state of games writing in the mid 90’s. Firstly the magazine layouts were shocking, absolutely horrible abominations designed to damage eyes and offend sensibilities. Secondly the sheer number of games coming through these magazines each month necessitated short reviews, often focused more on describing a game rather than delivering any critical analysis. The rugby game reviews fit firmly into that category, much like many of the UK magazines did in our previous features. I don’t imagine that the reviewers put much time into any of these games, though I don’t doubt the authenticity of their reviews or that they legitimately enjoyed the games. They probably just didn’t spend enough time with them to realise how deep some of the flaws were.

Rugby World Cup 95 – Mega Drive

Hyper – 86% – Full scan (page 46)

Tricky and occasionally mysterious but excellent given the challenge.
All names in the Australian team were taken from local EA staffers.
Occasionally a bit messy and the positional play can be a mystery.
I love this game and if you like rugby you will too.

Sega Megazone – 83% – No scan

The controls aren’t very user friendly
The ball tends to get lost in a seething mass of bodies, leaving you with no choice but to repeatedly bash the control pad.
A mostly faithful recreation of rugby.
Best enjoyed when up against at least one friend.

Rugby World Cup 1995 – PC

Hyper – 80% – Full scan (page 68)

Probably one of the least critical reviews I’ve ever read.
A well detailed, action packed sports sim.

Australian Rugby League – Mega Drive

Hyper – 87% – Full scan (page 46)

A lot of work has gone into emulating the various strengths and weaknesses of each team.
The dummy half can take an age to arrive…I’ve had some trouble getting clearing kicks away.
The sound of the player hitting the goal post is a highlight.
Faster and tougher than Rugby World Cup.
You’ll be playing this for a long time.
I love this, as will fans of sports games generally.

ARL 96 – PC

Hyper – 86% – Full scan (page 60)

Ray Warren’s commentary is utterly brilliant.
This game will last you till ARL 97 hits the shelves.
EA’s Rugby League debut is an impressive effort.
Overall the play is well executed. Passing is easy.
ARL 96 is an excellent game.

PC Powerplay – 88% – No scan.

Next Time: We dig like demented moles in a game that hit so hard it could put us in Ward 4.

Stuart Gollan

Stuart Gollan

From Amiga to Xbox One, Doom to Destiny, Megazone to Stevivor, I've been gaming through it all and have the (mental) scars to prove it. I love local multiplayer and collecting ridiculous Dreamcast peripherals. Find me on Twitter @gollennium