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 Beginnings | Part 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
For as long as I have been playing video games, I’ve been playing rugby union and rugby league games. From E.T’s Rugby League on the Amiga through ARL 96 on the PC, many of my precious childhood gaming hours were spent on subpar rugby simulations rather than other, better games. That sacrifice I feel puts me in a great place to look back on the history of the oval ball sports in digital formats.
Nascent rugby video games were mostly dull management sim affairs, likely due to the ease of modifying more popular football (soccer) management games to the fifteen-a-side code. Occasionally they would be spiced up with some basic graphical overlays for ‘match highlights’, as demonstrated above by the abysmal World Rugby from Zeppelin Games (who you may know as Eutechnyx, responsible for Ride to Hell: Retribution). As much as I love the rugby codes, I don’t love them enough to play through hours of Atari ST, Amstrad, Spectrum and Commodore 64 rugby management spreadsheet simulators.
So in this feature I’ll be sticking to games that actually let you kick and pass a ball. On that front rugby gaming began in an unlikely place: Japan.
- 1985 – Panasoft, Matsushita Electric (Panasonic)
- MSX Home Computer
It is a strange footnote in gaming history that Japan produced the first ever rugby game, especially considering the popularity of home computers back in the sports more traditional homeland of England. Most of us would only know Japanese rugby from the threats of mediocre NRL veterans looking to increase their pay-day or as the retirement home for players a decade past their prime, but in our trip through rugby gaming history we’ll see a few exclusive Japanese rugby titles for both computer and console.
MSX Rugby takes the honours of being the first playable rugby union simulator, a basic top down 9 a side rugby game for a system that couldn’t handle scrolling backgrounds. MSX Rugby didn’t do much more than let you play a game of something that resembles rugby, there are no options, no tournaments and no statistics, just you against the computer or a friend. The game does use two buttons, an innovation we will rarely see repeated until the 16-bit era, but MSX Rugby doesn’t let you choose who you want to pass to, the pass button just throws to the next player in sequence.
The lack of scrolling backgrounds forces the action to take place on a static 20 metre section of the field, with a new screen loaded when the action runs off either end. This means your defenders will occasionally be invisible as the attackers approach the bottom of the screen, particularly infuriating when the last ten metres before the computer goal line always seems to be where the field is cut.
Gameplay is as barebones as the graphics, rucks proved to be too difficult to implement on a system that could only handle six players on the screen at once so the tackled player just drops the ball behind them, often able to turn around and pick it up before a defender can get there. There are some tackle animations but most of the time attacker and defender will just overlap with the ball slipping out of the merger like a bar of soap.
Scrums were implemented but because of technical limitations any players in excess of the three per team MSX Rugby can handle will run straight off the screen back to their position, ignoring ball and runner to do so. The ball can only be passed to where a man is, not where he will be, so running while the ball floats through the air will result in the pass bouncing behind you. Teams do not defend in a line but rather like a soccer team, in groups of three per screen, a limitation that doesn’t play as badly as it sounds.
There is some novel charm to MSX Rugby, it handles passing better than many games that follow it over the next decade and their choice to replace rucks with a makeshift tunnel-ball is much preferred to the years of RSI inducing joystick waggling we would soon be subjected to. The three on three nature of each screen makes for an almost touch football like game that bears little resemblance to rugby itself, but for Japanese developers in 1985 MSX Rugby isn’t half bad.
Like most obscure Japanese developers of the time it is hard to track down much information about Panasoft. They appear to have been an internal development team for Matsushita Electric, later known as Panasonic. Finding names to put to the game has proven unfortunately impossible, but Panasoft were best known for their series of MSX sports games of which Rugby is a part of alongside Soccer and Baseball.
- 1989 – TSS, Zap
Super Rugby may be the most unsearchable sports game ever made. Sharing a name with the southern hemisphere’s premier rugby competition and developed by a studio with a Google proof name in Zap, my research produced little about the origins of Super Rugby. A game of the same name existing for the Super Famicom just iced the cake.
What I did find out was Demon’s Souls producer Takeshi Kajii worked at Zap, but it would be a Dhalsim-like stretch to say he worked on this abominable game. The surest information I could find was they created the similarly ordinary Summer Games for the Sega Master System, among plenty of Japan only releases for the MSX.
Despite a sense of humour, Super Rugby plays like a dog. Players get tired and need to rest briefly after about six steps, a mechanic that looks to be included purely to stop runaway tries that would otherwise occur frequently thanks to the terrible AI. Both computer and player are affected by this whenever in possession of the ball, which must weigh 100 lbs to produce such stress on the carrier. Passing and kicking are similarly horrid to the point of being unusable, kicks go about ten metres while passing does not take into account if the receiver is in front of you or not, resulting in more scrums for forward passes than successful hand offs. Scrums are a laugh, the players involved materialise out of thin air to pack the scrum then just as quickly disappear once the ball pops out after a brief period of button bashing.
So you can barely run, can’t pass and can’t kick. To balance the scales it is only fair defenders have a hard time tackling too. The tackle button is only sometimes responsive but when presses do register they launch your player into a superman dive, usually not in the direction of the ball carrier. Should by chance the defender actually makes contact with the runner there is no ruck, the ball simply sits on top of the tackled player waiting to be picked up by another man on the spot, usually the same who made the “tackle”.
The default half length is laughably short, barely enough time for you to limp down the field with the tungsten weighted ball. Game length is the only option that can be changed, though you do get to set your team’s name and stats before each game. Even if you max out a stat category it doesn’t really help, players still limp along rather than run, while passing and kicking is still useless at full skill.
The only redeeming feature of Super Rugby is the personality on display. At half time you get a short cutscene with coach Confucius inspiring the team to ‘FIGHT’, right after an embarrassingly bad cheerleader performance. Players will dive over and punch the air (also in cutscene) when they score a try and they celebrate kicking a conversion like they’ve won the football world cup. I’ve included a few shots below so you can get all the joy from this game without actually having to play it.
Of course, I have saved the best for last. The only game mode is a league championship, and with such short halves and slow players a lot of games end in a draw. How does a draw get resolved? Well…
That’s right: Paper. Scissors. Rock.
Yes, Super Rugby was pretty bad, and it is clear that Japanese developers have an interesting take on the sport of rugby. Not that Europe had much more luck once they got on board the rugby gaming craze. In fact, the first English effort will probably take the cake as the worst rugby game ever made.
Next week: We look at the first European rugby union simulations from 80s powerhouse home computers the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum.