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

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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

Days of Denton

This week One Game at a Time gets a little personal for me. A lot of the games played in the first three parts I experienced for the first time in researching this feature, I was a toddler when the Amstrad, Spectrum and MSX dominated the home computer landscape. My introduction to computer gaming was through the Amiga 500 in the early 90s, and my single most played game for that system is one that we feature today and the very first rugby league game ever made: E.T’s Rugby League.

Denton Designs and Audiogenic got a lot of mileage out of a single rugby game engine, debuting in 1991 with World Class Rugby for Amiga, PC, C64, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST and Spectrum. That engine was slightly refined and modified over the next four years to create two more rugby union games and two rugby league titles, both the first of their kind and the best of their era. Their era being a key term as all five games rely on joystick waggling to win rucks and scrums, rendering the union games an exercise in frustration but having less impact on the league editions.

Despite the waggle Denton Designs brought many innovations to rugby gaming. They were quite happy to use real player names and somewhat accurate individual player stats, even without an official license behind them. It is hard to believe that critical response favoured Domark’s Rugby: The World Cup over World Class Rugby when both were released in 1991, looking back now the Denton Designs games are on another level altogether. Considering the similarities between the three union and two league games, we’ll take a look at them in groups.

World Class Rugby

  • 1991 – Denton Designs, Audiogenic
  • Amiga, PC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum

World Class Rugby: Five Nations Edition

  • 1992 – Denton Designs, Audiogenic
  • Amiga, PC, Atari ST

World Class Rugby ’95

  • 1995 – Denton Designs, Audiogenic
  • Amiga, PC

The World Class Rugby series is the pinnacle of this era in rugby union games, leagues ahead of its competition and to this day still playable and at times fun. World Class Rugby introduced a staggering number of gameplay features to rugby union games, though many were exclusive to the more powerful Amiga, PC and Atari ST versions of the game.

Control was key to the fun of the World Class Rugby games. Player movement is responsive and fluid, passing can be a little floaty but is largely decent and kicking is easy if you get enough space. Most importantly defending is well done, tackles have generous collision detection and for the first time something resembling a real ruck is simulated, unfortunately joystick waggling is still the preferred method of resolution (an option that can mercifully be toggled between automatic and manual in some versions, though auto-rucks seem to go the way of the AI far more than they would otherwise).

World Class Rugby_004

Auto-rucks are a joystick saving feature but a bigger deal at the time was the “3D” view, a faux-3D effect that simulates a slightly isometric viewpoint at the expense of grass texture. 3D mode looks ridiculous now and I find the game more playable in standard 2D, but most reviews at the time rave about the feature. More impressive to me were weather conditions, including snow, mud, wet and dry pitches, even affecting the bounce of the ball. Wind can also be changed, with strong winds in unfavourable directions making some kicks at goal impossible to convert.

A full replay mode is included and replays can be edited and saved to a separate disk, along with  progress in competitions and cups. Player names and attributes can be edited, in game rules adjusted and difficulty settings changed, almost all new features to rugby games at the time.

More importantly you had more gameplay options than ever. You can dummy both passes and kicks, run set plays from lineouts, scrums and penalties, even pull your flankers out of the scrum to add to your defensive line. Players join rucks progressively and this (and their attributes) actually influence the waggle battle, and you can finally win quick ball in a rugby union game. Offloads are even possible if you can time your pass as the tackle animation plays out.

World Class Rugby_001

The AI isn’t the greatest, it will pass the ball with the line wide open and happily runs alongside the ball carrier rather than making a tackle, something that plagues both your team and the AI opponents. On higher difficulty levels it can prove very difficult to stop your opponent offloading at will though the biggest difficulty spike is in the superhuman waggle speed you need to win a ruck.

World Class Rugby definitely improved with each release but the differences between the games are hard to spot. Five Nations tightened up controls and does play a lot better than the original, but exactly what has improved I find difficult to pin down, as did reviewers at the time. World Class Rugby ‘95 is a cash-in on that year’s Rugby World Cup, an unlicensed update that pales in comparison to the official EA Sports release of that year, at least technically. What was groundbreaking in 1991 looked tired and outdated by 1995, but it still plays nicely and features the 1995 World Cup teams and players, including a rampaging Jonah Lomu on the wing for New Zealand. At least it was released for a budget price.

World Class Rugby '95 (1995)(Audiogenic)[cr HLM]_003

The PC versions turned out to be the definitive editions, running at a better pace than the Amiga and Atari ST. The Amiga and PC versions featured basic voice samples, rare in 1991 but by 1995 EA Sports Rugby World Cup featured full audio commentary that made a muffled call of ‘penalty’ or ‘kick off’ feel archaic. The Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum versions of the game arrived late in those machines lives and while the ZX Spectrum version was received well it looks like a game from another era while the C64 as expected struggles to keep up with the more powerful home computers.

World Class Rugby is still entertaining today but the reliance on waggle (and ineffective balance of auto-ruck) and poor AI hold it back from being much more than a pleasant blast from the past. While the Denton Designs engine was created for rugby union, it turned out to be far more suited to the professional code, rugby league.

E.T’s Rugby League

  • 1992 – Denton Designs, Sega Ozisoft
  • Amiga, PC, Commodore 64

Wembley Rugby League

  • 1994 – Denton Designs, Audiogenic
  • Amiga, PC

In 1992 Australian software publisher and distributor Sega OziSoft commissioned Denton Designs to create a rugby league game for the Australian market, based on the World Class Rugby engine. Kangaroos fullback and rugby league pinup boy Andrew Ettingshausen was tapped to be cover star. While his good looks and successful career probably had something to do with the selection, I prefer to think he was chosen purely because his last name wouldn’t fit into the text field for player names; in this game he is simply known at E T (and has full stats in every category, including weight).

While at its heart E.T’s Rugby League is just World Class Rugby with the six tackle rule, adding a play the ball and removing two players per side takes the experience from good to great. You get more room to throw the ball around, offloading becomes even more deadly, half breaks are more frequent and your joystick lives a longer, happier life for not being violently waggled every ten seconds.

E_004

Played under the five metre rule, the speed of the defensive line means hitups aren’t a viable option, to make any ground you’ll need to spread the ball, offload, zig zag and look to throw inside passes. When you do find yourself in the clear your player slows dramatically after about 30 metres (that ball must be heavy), likely a countermeasure to the ordinary AI that still enjoys running alongside the ball carrier more than it does tackling him.

With good timing you can theoretically offload forever, only running into a player already in a tackling animation can prevent them. This makes defending against the top levels of AI an absurd comedy of diving in front of the AI runners and hoping they run into your prone body, the only sure way to stop them from passing. A more balanced, realistic game of rugby league emerges from the middle difficulty tiers, though you may struggle to win scrums (which are still subject to a waggle fest, though like World Class Rugby they can be set to automatic).

The full Winfield Cup competition is presented here, along with relatively accurate player rosters and stats plus international teams. One glaring omission is State of Origin but there is still more than enough on offer to make up for it. All of the World Class Rugby options make their way over, including the crazy weather (playing Australian rugby league matches in the snow is a bit of a laugh), the replay system and the 3D camera angle.

wembley

I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the iconic menu music that appears in all five Denton Designs games. Composed by David Whitaker, this song has been stuck in my head for around about 24 years now and the main melody is undoubtedly burned into the brains of any rugby league and video game fan of the early 90s much like the Wide World of Sports theme or the Friday Night Football song. While the rest of the sound design is rather forgettable; tackles make a squishy, bouncy sound and the crowd boos with a strange rhythm whenever a foul is committed, this music is sensational.

E.T’s Rugby League is fondly remembered by gamers of the era and for many would still represent the pinnacle of rugby league video games. Personally I fell even harder for ARL 96 a few years later but many fond memories of my childhood involve sitting in front of E.T’s Rugby League attempting to take a pathetic Parramatta side to Winfield Cup glory.

Sega OziSoft even went all out with the instruction manual, a 100 page beast that details the complete rules of the sport, the history of rugby league in Australia and features detailed histories of all 16 clubs of the then-NSWRL. For a product only sold in Australia that was an exceptional effort.

Wembley Rugby League was released two years later for the UK market, running at what feels like twice the pace of E.T’s Rugby League and featuring three divisions worth of English league teams but no real players. Only a Challenge Cup style competition is included and no international sides made the cut. The pace of the game makes it somewhat trickier to control, but the rest of the game feels largely unchanged for its UK debut.

Wembley Rugby League (1994)(Audiogenic)[cr TRSi]_002

Audiogenic didn’t quite go to the same lengths of presentation that Sega OziSoft did for E.T, the “manual” for Wembley was a photocopied A4 page straight from the E.T’s manual (complete with references to ‘Cronulla-Sutherland’) and telling the player: “This manual does not attempt to explain the rules of the game of rugby in detail – if you are new to rugby you are advised to read a book on the game”.

Denton Designs was acquired by Rage Software in 1995, the eventual publisher of Jonah Lomu Rugby (hot favourite for the award of greatest rugby game of all time) which we will be getting to in a few weeks. While I’m not sure if any of the DNA from World Class Rugby made it this far, the ghost of Denton Designs carries all the way through to the PS2/Xbox era of rugby games through Swordfish Studios. Other Denton Designs work includes the ZX Spectrum classics Frankie Goes to Hollywood, an adventure game based on the band of the same name, and The Great Escape.

Audiogenic were one of the great sports game developers and publishers of the early 90s, alongside their union and league games Audiogenic developed the great Graham Gooch/Shane Warne/Brian Lara cricket games for Amiga, PC and Sega Mega Drive. In 1996 the development arm of Audiogenic was acquired by Codemasters and the company now exists as a shell, having not developed a new game in 20 years. You can still check out their 90s era website.

E_003

Sega OziSoft was a big deal in the 90s, responsible for all Sega product distribution in Australia and the largest Australian games publisher and distributor of that era. As publishers moved their internal operations to Australia a local distributor like OziSoft became less necessary, Sega removed itself from OziSoft operations in the Dreamcast era and Ozisoft was soon acquired by Infogrames then Atari. E.T’s Rugby League and Campo’s International Rugby were its only forays into Amiga publishing.

The Critics

With budget re-releases and little distinction made between the original World Class Rugby and the Five Nations edition, it is hard to know which title a publication was reviewing. Amiga Power gave the original a 63%, calling tackling “hit and miss” and making several complaints about the automatic player selection (a problem that plagues union and leagues games to this day). The same reviewer was much more friendly to Five Nations the next year, awarding it 86% and describing it as “a joy to play”, praising the increased levels of control.

Amiga Format were less impressed with Five Nations, awarding it and the original similar scores of 68% and 69%. CU Amiga gave the original 85% and called it “extremely playable” while Amiga Action scored it 82% and called it “technically better and much more playable” than Domark’s Rugby: The World Cup. Most reviews sat in that 70-80% range and few had bad things to say about the way the game played.

World Class Rugby 95 arrived late in the Amiga’s life cycle and as a result few magazines were left to review it. Amiga Format continued to be unimpressed but called it “good, if somewhat flawed” while Amiga Action continued to enjoy the game, giving it 84% but noted it “may seem like a shameless scam” such was the lack of updates from Five Nations three years prior.

With a limited local gaming press it is hard to find reviews of E.T’s Rugby League but funnily enough Sega OziSoft published magazine Megazone gave it a glowing preview. A perhaps more objective opinion comes from Australian Commodore and Amiga Review, who rated the game a 78% and described it as “a pretty classy product” though their review reads as if they played only two matches (and the same reviewer the next year gives the abominable Campo’s International Rugby the same score). Thanks to The Internet Archive for the full text.

etsrugbyacar

Wembley Rugby League was given a tougher run of things, facing up to the higher standards of 1994 and a more grizzled UK games press. Still, Amiga Action said “the game itself is excellent” and that it was “well programmed” in giving it 80%. Amiga Format dished out a 74% and described it as “a bit shabby in parts” though “the actual gameplay is fine”.

Amiga Power were less friendly, in giving the game 62% Stuart Campbell noted the similarities to World Class Rugby but may have shown his colours in saying (tongue-in-cheek) “I deduce that rugby league is simply a crap sport”. Amiga Computing gave it a mediocre 58% but also called it a sequel to International Rugby and described the theme tune as “vaguely annoying”. Fools.

You can find full scans of all the Amiga magazine reviews referenced here at the Amiga Magazine Rack.

Next time: We move back to consoles and back to Japan, looking at the surprising rugby games of the SNES