By Neil Merrett
Behold the Kickmen, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by Size Five Games
“Football has meant too much to me, and come to represent too many things”Fever Pitch (1992) by Nick Hornby
For at least a good decade or more, huge numbers of UK gamers indulged in fervent debate about how best to capture the true experience of football in videogame form.
The FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer series of games have both cultivated vocal fan bases that can make detailed arguments about which title has created the more definitive experience in making them legitimately feel in full control of 11 elite, or at least semi-elite athletes.
EA and Konami, the respective developers of these games, would therefore every year seek to introduce innovative and not so innovative approaches to create, or at least sell the concept of a genuine or ‘true’ football experience.
This battle for authenticity saw the introduction of new mechanics to let players switch strategies and manipulate and manage a team in real time, alongside offering special move-like skills, ‘advanced’ dribbling mechanics and increasingly photo realistic footballing superstars.
Arguments about the most authentic football game have usually boiled down to a player’s preference for either FIFA’s more fluid, fast-paced arcade action, or the painstakingly programmed gameplay and ball mechanics of Pro Evo.
However, before FIFA and Pro Evo became the ubiquitous brands in videogame football, there was a wealth of football videogames titles – either licensed with real world tournaments or players, or with generic names such as ‘Striker’.
The huge number of these games over the decades have unsurprisingly varied in quality. Yet some of them – even on hardware that seems infinitesimally limited compared to their modern counterparts – have been able to capture something compelling for football fans to escape into. A chance perhaps, to live out their personal dreams of a fave team achieving sporting glory in a kind of parallel digital history.
Enter the Kickmen
Videogame developer Dan Marshall is very much not a fan of real-world football, either as a sport, culture or billion-pound entertainment industry.
However, he is a self-avowed fan of the decade-old football videogame Sensible Soccer, or ‘Sensi’, as it is sometimes affectionately known to the considerable number of fans that still love the long-dormant game series.
So when it came to the challenge of building a football game from the perspective of someone that is uninterested in the real world sport, Marshall sought to evoke the mechanics of a beloved retro football game instead. Being a videogame, he could also throw out the more every day, mundane real-world aspects of the sport that he feared would get in the way of true gaming action.
Marshall said, “I was happy to do without the stuff that slows things down – throw-ins and excessive penalties. Anything that stops the game, I tried to kill off.”
“I was mainly interested in keeping the stuff that I remembered from Sensi on the Amiga, that sense of diddy cool, the satisfying passing, curving the ball into the back of the net. It’s about the feel of football rather than being a 1:1 recreation of it.”
The result is ‘Behold the Kickmen’, which seeks to simulate a not so beautiful game.
The anti-football game
Mr Marshall has effectively made an anti-football game that is as much a statement about the people who follow the sport, then it is about the highly-skilled, painfully human athletes that play the game.
This is a theme reflected not just in Behold the Kickmen’s title and tongue-in-cheek plot, but also through its gameplay, which at times feels utterly subversive in abandoning any aspects of the sport deemed dull or unnecessary.
The game takes place in a kind of parallel world where football is played on a circular pitch with invisible boundary walls that keep the ball constantly in play. Meanwhile, unmarked score zones across the pitch can allow players to get up to three points for a single goal depending how far out a shot is taken.
Integral laws of the sport, such as the offside rule, are seemingly reduced to a terrifying ordeal that requires the player to ensure that their team is not in possession of the match ball at the end of a frantic ten second countdown. Otherwise they risk angering the ‘gods of football’.
This can result in the loss a player for the rest of that match. The whole offside ordeal plays out to sirens and a flashing red pitch. How the actual mechanics of this new version of offside works is never actually explained by the game, with even Behold the Kicmen’s main protagonists not understanding many of the sport’s mechanics.
Gameplay-wise, Behold the Kickmen partially resembles Sensible Soccer, as well as more science-fiction influenced, over the top, fictional sport simulations such as the Speedball series from the 1980s, a game where mayhem and violence were a core part of the experience.
The gameplay of Behold the Kickmen is packaged with an overtly dramatic soap-opera story that touches upon football’s real world corruption and bigotry. It is a plot that carries an earnest message about fandom, while playfully tackling the corrupting influence of money, the thin line between passion and toxic, tribal loyalty, infidelity, questionable parentage as well as the danger of robotic automatons, evil twins and the vagaries of the offside rule.
It is a videogame that functions equally – if not more so – as a satire of real-world football as much as it is a love letter to retro football games. The game’s key function, beyond the standard appeal of letting you build up a championship winning team and pretending to be a strategic mastermind, is to ask how and why anyone would love such a messy, corrupt and compromised sport.
Afterall, how can any true videogame football simulation not account for the sometimes ugly politics and economics that are often the accepted side of the ‘beautiful game’.
You need look no further than Behold the Kickmen’s in-game advertising boards, which at points in the game will urge fans to ‘not be racist’ – something that eerily mirrors initiatives and advertisement barriers that adorn real-world pitches.
If FIFA – football’s systemically corrupt, “comically grotesque” and frequently criminal governing body – has spent the best part of a century fashioning football into the world’s game, can we really be surprised what such a global sport reflects back about its billions of fans?
And so we return to the idea of a genuine football experience and why a non-devotee of the sport such as Dan Marshall would seek to put real world labour, sweat and tears into a footy sim.
Just as how football – for many fans – is a form of escapism from life’s unrelenting grind, Behold the Kickmen, for Marshall, was a form of creative expression he could engage in outside of the dual pressures of commercial game development and being a new parent.
He said, “For two years. It was hard work, and focusing on the next big game I had in development (which was Lair of the Clockwork God), it just wasn’t working for me because there were so many big systems, and everything felt so very far away, I needed to make something more immediate, something smaller.”
“I couldn’t handle something the scope of Clockwork God on that level of extreme fatigue. I’d seen a trailer for Super Arcade Football, and thought it would be funny if I made a little Sensible Soccer-style game, and it took off on Twitter. That was the main impetus behind developing the full thing, the daft concept was popular.”
A “daft concept”
For its creator at least, Behold the Kickmen is not intended as a means to remake or validate a retro-style approach to football games as much as it is a statement about the absurdity of the sport’s global fanbase and many ethical and moral contradictions, particularly for the uninterested.
He said, “I think… it sounds arty-farty,but I really think if you’re reviewing Kickmen as a game, you’ve sort of immediately got the wrong end of the stick. I mean, I get it, it’s a commercial product, and that’s expected… but to me it’s about the permeation of football into the daily lives of people who couldn’t care less about it. It’s about the money behind it. It’s about the fanaticism.”
“And that’s not really something that… you come along and you go ‘oh I don’t like the AI, 3/10’ I mean, you’ve missed the point. The AI isn’t meant to be good or challenging or interesting. I dunno. It’s not a ‘game’ game, it’s a ‘thing’. It’s more passive than that, it’s designed as an experience. That’s the intention, anyway. I’m aware other people won’t see that or treat it like that.”
Three years after the game’s initial release, Behold the Kickmen was released this summer on the hugely popular Nintendo Switch console at a fairly budget cost of £2.99. For perspective, that is basically one tenth of the cost of an average ticket to watch a single Premier league Football match the year the game was first released in 2017.
Behold the Kickmen is nonetheless a videogame, with its own rules and sense of progression. As a football experience, it also focuses on that unifying feature of all football games to let a player live a fantasy, no matter how farcical or misguided, to be a sporting legend.
Although the game has gameplay that at its best invokes the beloved football videogames of yesteryear, whether in terms of Sensible Soccer or Super Kick-off, there are also mechanics that come from entirely different genres, such as the Dark Souls series.
Just as the Souls series offered an absurdist take on adventure and fantasy games, where repetition, learning from failure and precise timing were the key mechanics, Behold the Kickmen, in its own, top-down retro sports-sim stylings, offers a not too dissimilar experience.
At times, it is a football game that requires similar levels of persistence as is required in Dark Souls in order to overcome the game’s elaborately steep difficult curves, with gameplay that requires precision dodging and bullet-time tackling. Some game modes require even the most basic passing, shooting and sporting skills to be unlocked before they can be used.
These unlocks are only possible by winning games and that is where the persistence comes in. The initial mechanics of unlocking skills forces the player to confront and try to vanquish teams they are hopelessly outmatched to beat.
Respite comes from trying to gradually earn enough money through successful passing and goals to slowly improve the basic skills of your goalkeeper and players.
Even once the player has unlocked the tackling skill, there is a unique mechanic to learn where time slows down and a laser-like sight appears to allow the player to try and target the ball from a rival’s feet.
In the earlier stages of the game, where almost every team has maxed out skills compared to the basic abilities of your squad, timing and patience is vital to avoid fouling players every few seconds as they ping lightning fast passes around your cumbersome squad.
As a player can finally begin to earn enough money to at least buy stamina points to run as fast as rival players, precision tackling is still a hard skill to master. Even after a successful tackle, the player is required to learn a visual cue that requires them to hit the tackle button again in a brief window of time in order to claim the ball during a slide tackle for a quick counter attack.
The game’s absurdity also extends to weather conditions, where players at times are required to play in gale force winds that can utterly hinder or strengthen your shooting, depending on what side of the pitch you play,
For large parts of the early game, your penniless team simply has no way of competing with almost every other squad in the Behold the Kickmen’s ridiculous league structure, at least until you can financially compete. Perhaps Behold the Kickmen isn’t so unrealistic.
Afterall, why would anyone spend hours, days and even years of their life devoting themselves to seemingly unending frustration and disappointment in the faint hope of one day conquering an absurd, chaotic pastime?
Therein lies the mystery of football and perhaps the unique appeal of playing through Behold the Kickmen.