New Star Soccer stole my life

Wayward players and gratuitous riches may be alienating football fans and lowering attendances, but one low-budget mobile phone app reminds us why we used to love the beautiful game – and can again

[Originally published in INDUSTRIA Issue 4]

A guy glances over my shoulder on the Tube and sees five coloured horses with silly names galloping on my screen. I’m not controlling anything but as Slightly Salted crosses the line I let out a little cheer to myself, and I feel the man’s eyes raise from my iPhone to my face. I look up, smug with virtual success. Our eyes meet for just a second, enough time for him to raise a mocking eyebrow.

“New Star Soccer,” I say, full of self-justification. “My horse just won.”

“What’s that got to do with soccer?” he asks, confused.

Why, everything.

I don’t say that, of course. I just crack a conciliatory smile and shrug my shoulders in a “I don’t make the rules” kind of way. It would take too long to explain just how it’s the peripheral distractions of football – the soap-opera salary disputes, the WAGs not playing to the script, Fergie and Michael Owen owning a race horse together – that dictate the modern game and how this teeny, tiny little app is not just a game but a social study in itself.

Not to mention how utterly spell-binding this simple construct is, and how one bloke sat in a room on his own has crafted a game that I’ve played longer than any glossy FIFA instalment. Frankly, if I said all that to someone I didn’t know, I’d sound like a bit of a cock.

“Trust me, if you love football, it will take over your life,” I say, sounding like a bit of a cock.

“Hmm, I’ll check it out,” he mutters and goes on with his day.

I’ve been saying that to people a lot over the past few months, almost certainly because when I’m not working, cooking, cleaning or spending time with my girlfriend, I’m playing New Star Soccer. One by one my friends have fallen to it, from sales guys at work I barely know to my oldest chums from school, first put off by its basic graphics and dodgy-knock-off-sounding name but gradually losing themselves in its nonchalant brilliance.

Simon Read’s PC football simulation turned multi-faceted mobile beast is like a cross between the text-based strategy of Football Manager, the on-the-spot action commands of WarioWare and the lifestyle package of The Sims, and is now my go-to entertainment aid for all occasions. It’s the perfect travel companion in that its always on your phone, it boots up quickly, you can play it with one hand, it’s simple enough for quick blasts between bus stops but yet deep enough to fill a long-haul journey.

When I flew to San Francisco for work a couple of months ago, I packed my 3DS and my PS Vita for a portable gaming extravaganza between bouts of cramped sleep, yet never turned either on. Me not being able to ring the PR when I landed because my phone’s battery had died was a small price to play.

New Star Soccer is a very modern enterprise – a free app on your phone with a set of in-game purchases to make some money back, regular updates providing new content for no extra charge and a set of score leaderboards for inter-friend warfare. Yet it’s the football game how it used to be in the Spectrum age, a role-playing game instead of an action experience, full of quirks, personality and fan’s-eye perspective.

In an age before high-definition graphics, sophisticated control systems and lucrative media partnerships, developers lived on their wits, and their wit, the likes of FA Cup or Tracksuit Manager recreating the magic of football through shared terrace experiences, not by you wanting to be Messi. It was why Football Manager, previously Championship Manager, rose to such prominence; Sports Interactive got what it was like to be fan. New Star Soccer does, too.

There’s been a culture shift in football, brought on by the astronomical wages taking footballers away from the average fan’s grasp of reality and the ridiculously serious way the game is analysed in the media. Children who have no concept of money and are still packing a fair amount of petulance themselves may treat the players as heroes as they always did, wanting to recreate Ronaldo’s silly free-kick run-up in the park or on their PlayStation, but an older, more jaded audience has had enough.

Attendances are down, the Olympics has shone a rather unflattering light on many a player’s antics and people are disillusioned. My dad hasn’t been to White Hart Lane for years, yet the love of the game remains, underneath, waiting to breathe again.

New Star Soccer fills the void by pricking the pomposity while celebrating what we love about football. You have to start in the bottom division, so the sense of achievement and earning your stripes is strong, and while the players are nameless and faceless, the affection you develop for clubs is palpable. The other members of your team are suspicious initially and won’t pass to you very often, but play enough rounds of golf with them and they will soon come round. Lending them your car helps, too.

Elsewhere, bungs are offered for you to take or decline. Newspaper headlines focus on your style smarts as much as your on-pitch performances. Post-match interviews are turned into memory games based around the most base of platitudes – match the “Gave it 100%” with the “every game as it comes” and you boost your rating.

Spending your salary at the gee-gees soon turns into owning a horse – how could I not buy Matty Boy? – and before you know it you’re running an entire stable to supplement your salary and load up on energy drinks and better boots to raise your game.

If your girlfriend (yes, you can have a girlfriend) borrows your scooter and crashes it on holiday, you may earn brownie points with her if you pay to get it fixed – in turn raising your happiness and increasing your on-field potency – but there will be hell to pay with your manager back at the training ground. If he’s really angry, he may not even pick you.

My real-life girlfriend has become almost obsessed with this virtual relationship, looking over my shoulder to see if her in-game avatar’s approval bar is suitably high and that I’m treating her in the manner to which she’s become accustomed. I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that you can’t get married in New Star Soccer, although no doubt Read has it planned for a future update.

A week later on from my awkward eye-meeting moment on London Underground, I see the same guy again across the aisle from me. Unsettling how that always happens – you could have both travelled that route a thousand times, but once you’re aware of someone you start to see them all the time. He’s not looking up, though, his eyes locked on his iPhone. After a while he smiles to himself, and his head centres. Our eyes meet once more.

“Just won the FA Cup on penalties with MK Dons,” he says.

Another one bites the dust.

New Star Soccer is out now on iOS and Android smartphones.

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