And over to Barry Davies in the commentary box... 'There's nothing on here... oh, it's one-nil!' Yes, it's footie time again, and as regular readers will know, there's nothing that gets the old Berkmann pulse racing like a footie sim on the Spectrum. Football Director? Love it to pieces. The Double? Right result on the day Jimmy. Match Day 2? Work of flippin' genius Pedro.
The mater and pater of all, though, is Football Manager; the game that absolutely everybody must have bought at some point or other. Well, either that or some clot's got a quarter of a million of 'em which, come to think of it, is a distinct possibility knowing the way footie sim fans think.
Originally released by Kevin Toms on his own Addictive label (since swallowed up by the mighty Prism corporation), way back in 1982, FM has sold consistently ever since a unique achievement in the brief history of everybody's fave computerised tablemat. Mr Toms has tried many times since to repeat the feat, but entirely without success. New game after new game from Addictive came a cropper, but every time it re-released Football Manager it leapt straight back up the charts again. That grinning bearded mush is probably the best known face in computer gaming - and if it's ever cropped up in your nightmares, I can tell you you're not alone.
Now six years later, things have moved on just a wee bit (machine code has superceded Basic, for one thing), and Mr Toms' new bosses clearly decided it was time for a sequel. The game was in fact announced at last year's PCW Show, accompanied by cries of "And the three bears" from myself and Phil. But a mere nine months later here it is on my desk - and it's a ripsnorter.
As he put this one together, Mr Toms clearly took notice of the new breed of footie management sims - the Football Directors and Doubles of this world. Both of these games radically overhauled the original blueprint of FM 1, though each chose a quite different approach. Footie Director, to the horror of programming snobs, did away with graphics completely, and instead supplied huge amounts of information (within a very tricky gameplay structure), which data junkies like me lapped up. The Double tried for more accurate representation of a footie season (and a manager's career) than FD: instead of presenting you with numerical info, it made you establish through observation, which players were any good and in which positions - meaning you worked by trial and error as well as by logic. FM 2, like the mass-market product it is, tries in part to combine both approaches, while staying essentially true to the basic (if not Basic) structure of FM 1. It's a fair old balancing act, but I think it works.
The graphics, as you'd imagine, are much improved. The pitch is split into three screens - broadly defined by Attack, Midfield and Defence - and as the ball is punted about the field, so the game follows it about from screen to screen. You're given a squad of (on level one), fairly nifty players - Peter Beardsley and Clive Alien aren't bad for Division 4 - and you have to place them in the right positions on the field. The positions as you choose them represent the part of the field that player will attempt to dominate. Each player, on both teams, has a skill rating of between three and nine, and generally the more skilled player will win more balls.
The other factor is fitness, measured between zero and 100. Players drop a little in fitness every time they play; if they drop below 50 they are considered "unfit" and are sidelined. Players who don't take part, though, increase in fitness, so you have to spend a lot of time juggling your players around and keeping a balanced squad, just in case a real nasty happens and someone snaps a pin. Youch!
As with FM1 there is the option, only at the start, to choose a skill level from one (easy) to nine (very %$@^&'$ hard). Level one really is dead easy, but you'll only discover this when you've been playing for 40 minutes and won every game 5-0. I think I would have preferred the same system as in Football Director; which puts your skill level up automatically if you do too well. But sooner or later you do find your natural skill level, whereupon things get really interesting.
Half time now becomes a particular boon. Here you can swop around your team, or bring on a substitute, if you feel that your tactics aren't working. If there's a weakness in your midfield, for instance, you can put a better player in the vulnerable position, or even bring in an extra player and drop, say, a striker. This means that watching the match is not the chore it always was, but both fascinating and absolutely necessary if you're going to learn from your mistakes.
There are loads of other new features - a full transfer market, success points, sponsorship and the League Cup to name but four - but what makes Football Manager 2 work is that its structure is basically sound. Internal logic is the be all and end all of this sort of game - lose it and you lose all attempt at credibility. For connoisseurs, I'd say this is probably nearer The Double in feel, but with that game's massively complex structure much simplified. It also has the ruthless logic that Football Director imposes (if not its loving detail), which'll make it a vital purchase for anyone hooked on that game. I'm delighted with it, as I imagine Kevin Toms is. As John Motson would say, 'You have to shay, Jimmy, he wash absholutely nowhere.' (Eh? Ed)
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