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
Part VII: Lomu!
The 32-bit era was a dark age for rugby games. Producing a 3D engine was expensive and as developers grappled with how to make basketball, soccer and gridiron work in three dimensions they were left little time for niche sports such as the rugby codes. EA Sports let its rugby league license lapse and the 1999 Rugby World Cup came and went without an official game, leaving a void to be filled by smaller developers with more questionable licensing deals.
This void produced one of the best and one of the most average rugby games ever made. Super League Pro Rugby is an English focused rugby league game best known for its big heads and dull gameplay. It represents the “average” side of that equation. The best is represented by rugby union legend, the late Jonah Lomu.
Jonah Lomu Rugby is certainly the most fondly remembered rugby game ever made. Rage Software was responsible for the first (sort-of) 3D rugby game and while it has its quirks and issues its reputation is well deserved as a fast, free flowing, accessible yet complex rugby game. As the only rugby game of the 32-bit console era it had a lot of weight on its shoulders, yet even today Jonah Lomu Rugby stands tall. Many developers have attempted to capture the magic of Jonah Lomu Rugby and more than a few have taken his name, but for me and many others the original is still the best.
Super League Pro Rugby
- 1996 – Charybdis Limited, Alternative Software
Super League Pro Rugby is nothing if not unique. From the big heads and caricatures used to differentiate player positions to the corny CG scoreboard cutscenes for tries, goals and foul play, Super League Pro Rugby is unlike any other rugby game we will look at. It embraced arcade play but unfortunately didn’t come close to nailing two rather important elements: gameplay and controls.
Super League Pro Rugby avoided the cost of a 3D engine by sticking with 2D sprites and MS-DOS support, an anomaly in 1996. It looks a world ahead of its contemporary ARL 96, big, better animated sprites and those cheesy cutscenes with cauliflower eared, short armed monstrosities. Even the crowd is animated though the stadium disappears into a blue void after about ten rows.
Also like ARL 96, Super League Pro Rugby was a victim of the Super League war. ARL aligned teams are represented by colours and cities but not by logos or real players. English and Australian Super League teams are fully represented, as are international sides. Player ratings are a bit of a laugh as they scale based on the perceived ability of a side, meaning wingers on bad teams can be rated slower than props on good ones. Two divisions of English rugby league are included as well as a knock-off world cup.
The game itself moves at a plodding pace, player strides are so short you would swear their shoelaces are tied and once they get going they skate rather than run. The ball transcends physics, slowly floating through the air when passed but bouncing like a bowling ball when it finds turf. In contrast players dive and fall in tackles like they are shot, though momentum is nicely represented. Tackling a player while running at full steam will see you drill them backwards like butter flicked across a hot pan.
The ruck struggle is neatly simulated by players occasionally staying on their feet and driving forward much like a maul, and at this point the ball can be offloaded. That forward momentum is powered by mashing the B button, which doubles as the kick button. Like a five man overlap ten metres from the line, you can see where this is going.
The controls are just horrible. Players slip around the field but running is a joy compared to passing which sees stray taps of the pass button with no associated direction simply throw the ball in front of the player for a knock on. When you do manage a long pass it would probably be faster to just run the ball over to the receiver. This is a two button game and you press both to sprint, leading to yet more accidental kicks. Passing is simply atrocious, kicking not a lot better and good luck tackling, the level of broken tackles here rivals Campo’s International Rugby.
The AI doesn’t exactly challenge you with a stiff defence. AI defenders will actively run away from the ball meaning close to the line attack requires little more than managing to string a few passes together, a challenge with these controls but not an insurmountable one. Further reducing the challenge is the need for defenders on both sides to slot into a specific place in the defensive line, get caught out and a player will run all the way across the field rather than retreat back in a straight line. Luckily offsides are set to off by default and even when on are implemented questionably.
Then you have the bugs. There is an angle to kickoffs that sees the ball wobble dead every time, forcing an AI dropout. The AI will kick the ball early in the tackle count but are also happy to throw passes around their own in goal until they are intercepted or forced dead. There are far too many injuries and random high tackles that result in sin bins and send offs.
There is some fun to be had, but not much. Running the ball and tackle breaking is easy; dragging tacklers along with props or slowly streaking down the field brushing off every defender who approaches is briefly amusing, as are the cutscenes the first few times.
Super League Pro Rugby isn’t outright terrible but it is clearly undercooked and the developers didn’t have the time or desire to polish this up into a respectable rugby league simulation. The presentation around the game is solid and distinguishing various positions by caricatures is a step up from the generic player sprites seen in most games prior. The commentary from long time Super League voices Eddie and Stevo is repetitive (“He just couldn’t hooold him”) and doesn’t do play by play name calls but it is reasonably advanced in picking up moments in play. Sound effects are a bit of a laugh, the tackles sound rough and the same effect is used when the ball is kicked. The issues this game had made sure I soon retreated back to ARL ‘96 for my rugby league fix, a position as justified today as it was back in 1996.
Charybdis Limited isn’t a ghost studio but it is close. From 1996 through 2001 it released a variety of little known PC games of which Super League was its first. These included adventure games The Quivering and Spud!, an RTS called Machines and an RPG Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic. All received middling reviews and it may just be my memory of late 90s games is failing me but the first time I heard of any of these titles was in researching this article. Charybdis was eventually taken over by Climax Nottingham. Alternative Software is still the European publisher of modern rugby games from Big Ant and HB Studios.
Jonah Lomu Rugby
- 1997 – Rage Software, Codemasters
What to say about a legend? Jonah Lomu was a titan of sport back in 1997 and his name gave plenty of weight to the first 32-bit console rugby video game. Developers Rage Software paid proper homage to the barnstorming winger, delivering in the first next generation rugby game what many people would still class as the benchmark for the codes.
Jonah Lomu Rugby is one of those rare sports games that emphasises the most entertaining aspects of the sporting contest but still bears enough similarity to the real thing to be called a simulation. To call it an arcade sports game is to undersell it but Jonah Lomu Rugby captures the most ‘arcade’ elements of rugby union and makes them shine without needing to drastically change the fabric of the sport by reducing the number of players on the field.
Where NBA Jam has the slam dunk, Jonah Lomu Rugby has the fend. For the first time in rugby games you can sidestep and fend as a ball carrier and Jonah Lomu is to fends what Bo Jackson was to Tecmo Bowl touchdowns, an unstoppable machine who is to be feared whenever you find him carrying the ball. Other players have a more human rate of tackle breaking but Lomu can regularly leave an entire team in his wake.
Indeed Jonah Lomu Rugby handles ball running better than any game before it, and general play kicking is hard to top too. The ‘expanding arrow’ format is used here, with a couple of varieties of kicks including bombs and grubbers, but all kicks are relatively fast and once the timing is mastered it is easy to avoid being tackled before getting the kick away. Passing is similarly strong; overrunning the ball is still a concern as passes often go straight to the man rather than where he will run, but the delivery is quick and cutout passes easily executed. You can even jump to bring a pass down that was intended for another runner.
This is all tied to a fast and fluid ruck system, you hold one button to add players and another to remove them. Player positioning is key and conceding the ruck to get your defensive line set is a valid strategy. There can be some cheese in the ruck, taking players out and adding them in again quickly to get a bonus push and turn the ball over, but it is something easily regulated with house rules and requires fast fingers to take full advantage of. The lack of button bashing and power bars means play moves quickly in Jonah Lomu, the action is fast and furious.
Jonah Lomu Rugby is an end to end game, the first to balance running rugby and field position play, the first to get all four major aspects of the sport right; kicking, passing, running and rucking. The sheer speed of the game adds to that arcade feel but Lomu doesn’t sacrifice being a true representation of the best aspects of rugby union to achieve it. Rucks are fast but fair, you win and lose them based on the positioning of your players and your tactical decisions, not button bashing. You can’t just throw the ball around and expect to find gaps, you have to create them from fast ball and using your numbers. Two types of tackle give you the ability to hold the runner up and wait for your support to come or to drill the ball carrier and push for that turnover, though neither tackle will help you bring big Jonah to ground.
Only international competition is represented in Jonah Lomu Rugby but if a country has ever seen an oval ball they are in this game including Chinese Taipei, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. The World Cup is the centrepiece though various regional cups are also included such as the Tri Nations. Two unlockable teams have gained legendary status: Team Lomu, an unstoppable collection of 15 Jonah Lomu’s, and the Rage All Stars, the developer team full of novelty players such as Mather, a super fast, super short winger, McCabe, a scrum half who can kick the length of the field, and the gigantic fullback Williams. The Lions, Barbarians, a World XV and Team Codemasters were also included, but they didn’t provide the same beautiful, game breaking fun that Lomu and Rage did.
Those who mastered the game (or at least the exploiting of it) could take on eight Classic Matches, challenges of increasing difficulty based on real World Cup scenarios. It culminates in trying to reverse the record breaking defeat Japan suffered against New Zealand in 1995, gaining 22 points on New Zealand in 20 agonising minutes.
Graphically Jonah Lomu Rugby wasn’t groundbreaking at the time but it retains a certain charm today. The four grounds are rendered in 3D, though player models are sprites that loosely match their real life counterparts in skin and hair colour, and body size. The game is best played from the side on camera view, it takes some getting used to after years of isometric viewpoints but works well. Weather effects are included, even the occasional downpour that Bill McLaren declares “typical English weather”.
The commentary of “the voice of rugby” Bill McLaren, and Bill Beaumont is iconic among all sports games. Aside from the exclamations of player names the one liners and banter between the two are fondly remembered to this day. “Digging like demented moles”, “they don’t build them like that anymore” and of course the classic exchange:
McLaren: “Mercy me, that hit could have put him in Ward 4”
Beaumont: “I hope not Bill, that’s a maternity ward!”
Jonah Lomu Rugby is a heck of a game and its impact on rugby gaming is felt to this day. Sidhe was open about the influence it had on their rugby games of both codes and Swordfish Studios was formed from the ashes of Rage, releasing two rugby union games in the mid 2000s heavily inspired by Jonah Lomu Rugby. Jonah Lomu’s shadow looms large over all rugby games to this day and with good reason. Rage Software made what remains to this day an incredible rugby game.
Rage Software was known for sports and racing games in the 90s, expanding to shooters such as Expendable and Incoming in the Dreamcast era. Rage was also responsible for one of my other favourite games, Rocky (2002), a brilliant but inexplicable arcade boxing game based on the film franchise. Rage moved into publishing in the early 2000s which eventually led to its demise, the development side of the business formed Swordfish Studios in 2002. We’ll hear more from Swordfish soon.
Codemasters is the long standing publisher of sports and racing games, these days focusing mainly on racing with the GRID, DIRT and F1 franchises. In the 90s it was a big publisher of cricket games among other sports.
Super League Pro Rugby doesn’t appear to have been reviewed by a single outlet. The game barely has a presence on the internet, it is one of the few games of its age I haven’t seen as abandonware.
Jonah Lomu Rugby struck in the heyday of magazines but reviews were few and far between. Nascent gaming websites picked up some of that slack but most reviews are (perhaps not so sadly) lost to the sands of time. Gamerankings holds only a single review, 87.5% from Absolute PlayStation, and Mobygames (who I must also credit for all of the images in this instalment of One Game at a Time) lists about ten reviews but the majority of them are from non-English speaking publications.
Jonah Lomu Rugby reviews sit in the mid-high 80s from most outlets that did score it, though I like to think they were more discerning in 1997 than back when giving similar scores to the 16-bit games.
Hyper Magazine review: Page 46
Next time: Oh no, I think it’s his bad knee.