Me and my pal Duncan are a bit sports mad, so whenever there's a big soccer match or athletics tournament on the telly, we usually get a few beers in and cheer on our favourites. These are always good natured affairs, perhaps when our beloved nations (England and Scotland) collide.
When a good sports game comes out on the Amiga it's much the same, except these are never, ever good-natured encounters - or at least, they aren't when the sports game in question is actually any good.
Thus far, only Kick Off 2, Jimmy White's Whirlwind Snooker and Rugby: The World Cup have qualified as the sort of games that really get our competitive spirit burning, and, it has to be said, when playing the last in that list - the one reviewed here - things have degenerated from healthy sporting tussle through thinly-veiled hostility to virtual war. Yes, as a two player game, Rugby: The World Cup has been a Godsend.
It's deliciously rare that you come across a game that retains enough challenge to make you desperate to be good enough to beat your opponents, and when one does come along it should be savoured. Rugby will have you practising in private for those (perhaps rare) chances you'll get to out-wit and out-play your mates in the flesh (as it were), and in that respect this is a sports simulation in the truest sense of the phrase - the sort of game that, if you weren't doing it in the comfort of your own home with the minimum of physical effort (actually, that's not quite true - this does demand more sweat that your average sports sim, as we'll see) might almost qualify as sport per se.
Rugby: The World Cup is ridiculously fast, and for a computer game that uses characters the size of under-developed termites, stupendously violent. Here is a game that is as exhilarating as it is knackering - half an hour with this chunk of silicon chicanery, and you'll be sweating like, well, like a fifteen stone player.
So what makes it so astonishingly appealing? Well, as you'll have gathered form the screenshots and pre-release hype, Rugby: The World Cup is an unashamed rip-off of the Kick Off style of sports simulation. If the programming team Walking Circles had been commissioned to copy Anco's style, then they've earned their wages and then some.
But such artistic robbery is by no means the be-all and end-all of the game's success. Let's face it, Kick Off (and even Kick Off 2) has plenty of faults, whereas Rugby has very few indeed. The Kick Off similarities will be debated everywhere, and at tedious length no doubt, but as far as I'm concerned (and I'm the one writing the review, after all) they stop right here - Domark's game is above all that. It's simply too good to be cheapened by comparisons with a three-year-old soccer game that passed it's sell-by date some time last year - and anyway, it provides a different enough experience to more than stand on is own two feet. So let that be an end to such talk, eh?
The most appealing aspect of Rugby's gameplay is the way in which it has captured the spirit of the real game. This is no mean feat - in ten years of electronic experimentation, nobody else has ever come close. Alright, there've been a few management games, but these have been laughable or worse, wile attempts at action games have been so universally dismal they've all plunged into obscurity almost the moment they were released.
On this occasion though, the result is a good deal more satisfying. Almost everything from real rugby is here - line-outs, scrums, rucks and conversions. The only omissions are penalties and foul-play, which would have been exciting - especially given the importance of these in the recent World Cup itself. Some might argue that their absence here was a wise choice because you really do play your team as a team, and not as fifteen individual players, but I reckon that if this spawns a sequel (and I hope it does), then yes, there'll be penalties all right.
The most appealing aspect is the way it has captured the spirit of the real game
SCRUM LIKE IT HOT
So how does the game actually work? Well, scrums and line-outs, the central conflict of the game, are won the hard way - by frantic joystick waggling. If you're faster than your opponent you'll keep on coming out of scrums with the ball, and it follows that you'll probably win the game.
For some, of course, that'll immediately sound like a down point. Fast joystick waggling is hardly ever a favourite among modern game players because it doesn't favour skill and dexterity so much as technique and, ultimately, stamina. Seedy jokes aside, your wrist hurts like hell when it's been waggling almost non-stop for twenty minutes - you get hot and bothered and frustrated but, hey, one look at the state of the guy you're trying to beat makes you want to carry on. It's the fact that you do have to push yourself physically, at least in some limited way, that makes this so satisfying a sports sim.
It's by no means all brute physical strength though> Tactics play a major role as do plain common sense and devilish timing. Tackling is a matter of simplicity. All you have to do is to steer the nearest man toward the opposing player who's carrying the ball. Each man is underlined, but it's possible to move the computer designated bloke out of the way, in order that a more convenient player can be selected. This may sound unnecessarily complicated, but in fact it's really quite simple.
Walking Circles have succeeded in making all parts of the game that should run automatically tick along without a hitch. For example, when you turn around to pass a ball backwards, there'll usually be someone with eager arms waiting to receive. This is always the case when coming out of a maul, although you'll find you only get about half a second from your scrum-back picking up the ball to releasing it.
Here is a game that is as exhilarating as it is knackering
Half an eye on the scanner will reveal the lay-out of players, but you really have to be quick to succeed cleanly without bringing on any more messy rucking and mauling.
When one player has possession in space there are a number of options available. He can run for the line, pass backwards, or kick forwards. Whichever tactic you favour will determine the style of your team's game, and (probably) its success rate. This, of course, helps you draw pleasing parallels with the real World Cup, where some teams were most definitely running teams, while others relied very much on long kicks.
In fact, this isn't (unlike many tie-ins) subtitled 'The World Cup' for nothing. The Cup does, in fact, play a fairly heavy role in this game, which is all to the good. For a start, before the big event, there were plenty of us who thought rugger was a game for big blokes who were too thick and too slow to play beautiful, precious soccer. Afterwards, though, you can feel a new respect for the game elsewhere, and Rugby: The World Cup helps ram the message home. The only reason there haven't been great rugby games before this is that programmers have almost criminally ignored the game's potential.
So, full marks to Domark then. They'll be happily cashing in on newly won converts to the glorious game, and they deserve it. If there's such a thing as justice, people will be playing their own little World Cup tournaments up and down the country this winter - while the game is fun and challenging in one-player mode (the computer opponents are no push-overs, even when they're USA!), it's at its best when you enter up to human competitors (up to 16!) into the proceedings and play the tournament proper.
As I said, this is very much one of those games which you'll play on your own perhaps not so much for pure enjoyment as in order to become proficient for those times you'll be squaring up against your mates - that's being the case, my recommending it if you're unlikely to be playing anyone else has to be much more reserved. If you do have got lots of similarly sports mad mates though, it's a must-buy.
With other people it's heaps of fun, and no mistake - and that holds true even if you're the sort of person who normally hates rugby. Who knows, even the sport itself - despite everything - hasn't managed to change your mind yet, this game just might.