|Developed by:||Intelek / Sports Interactive|
If there is a single game series that has come to define my videogame history then it is undoubtedly Championship Manager.
Under the banner of Football Manager, the franchise has come to dominate the genre, becoming the undisputed king of PC sports management games. But it started from far humbler origins; two bedroom coding brothers, Paul and Oliver Collyer, publishing their first version of Championship Manager in 1992. It was slow, it lacked real player names but it set in place the building blocks of what would follow.
Championship Manager ’93 took the original concept and refined it. Real player names were added, loading times were reduced (although you could still expect 2-4 hours of processing time at the end of a season) and other cosmetic improvements were made. It quickly became the management sim of choice until an upgrade arrived in the form of the 1993/94 data update disk.
As would become a pattern for Sports Interactive, this ‘patch’ disk updated the player database but also made improvements to the game. The Premier League brand was used, new commentary and background screens were added and processing times were again reduced, the end of season slog reduced to a more manageable 15 minutes or so.
Notwithstanding the wealth of games available for the Amiga at the time, CM ’93/94 was the one title I kept returning too, racking up a mighty 26 seasons before my save disk eventually packed up. Such was its appeal that it followed me to University in 1996 and received sporadic airings in the years that followed as I tried to recapture the magic of my youth.
A further data disk would follow in 1994, updating players as at the end of that season, but it is the ’93/94 version that remains closest to my heart.
Champ was never much of a looker and so revisiting it is less jarring than may be the case for other games.
I have dabbled with CM ’93/94 a few times since those heady days on the Amiga, which perhaps also helps to dilute the sense of ageing, but the old girl still looks pretty good. Despite some of the magazines of the time decrying their absence, the lack of any animated match highlights also helps in this regard. There are no crude, jerky stick men here. Champ was a stats based monster, almost like an interactive spreadsheet, and so timeless in its own way.
Clearly the presentation has come on leaps and bounds with later instalments but everything still looks crisp and clear. The landing screen gives you a quick overview of the season and week whilst the various panels take you to sub menus, such as your team, scouting or league tables. Clicking into your club details gives a nice, clear overview of the squad with the various options laid out logically. There are no obscure icons here, each option is clearly labelled, which helps make the playing experience intuitive.
Clicking into an individual player screen gives an overview of their key stats, an integral component of the CM / FM franchise, and it is perhaps here that we see the true signs of age. Playing the most recent incarnations, the manager is almost overwhelmed by the level of detail; physical stats, mental stats, preferred positions, favoured team mates. The list is almost endless. Things are rather more limited here. Players are summed up in a single word (confident, thoughtful or arrogant for instance) whilst stats are limited to just 8 key fields.
As noted above, there are no pretty match highlights to look at. Match progress is denoted with a set of bars to indicate where possession has been won or lost, the only animation coming by way of text flashing up on the screen to inform you of key incidents.
But this is a management sim, we are not concerned with how the thing looks, only how it plays.
Perhaps the best way to approach this is to walk through a new game.
After the lottery of the copy protection, you can choose your team from any one of the 4 divisions. You also get a choice of whether to start with real or generated names, the latter a great option for those looking for a slightly different take, but we’ll stick with the traditional route.
I’ve plumped for Liverpool and after declaring myself as ‘confident’ (oh, if only they knew), and following a mercifully brief data load, we are in to the main game.
The 11 box panel will be your landing screen between all games and gives you access to all other menus. We’ll dive right in to club details which brings up a list of your playing staff. Now, any students of the game will know that the Liverpool side of ’93/94 is packed with duffers so the majority of them will have to go on the transfer list. For some reason you get the opportunity to insure each player and hilariously can prevent any other clubs from making a transfer approach to any individual player, WHICH APPLIES FOREVER.
After listing bums, renewing contracts and the like, I decide I need some new staff, a quick click giving me an overview of my coach, physio and scouts. After sacking the lot of them and bringing in a new crowd, it’s time to get tactical.
This is an area in which CM / FM has always excelled and whilst it is understandably limited here, there is still room for significant manipulation. Players can be assigned to virtually any position on the pitch allowing you to create, within reason, any formation you desire. I’ve plumped for an outrageous 3-4-3 utilising ‘continental’ passing and we are ready for our first game.
Dispensing with the need for pre-season (players get fit anyway and there is no tactical adjustment period), I am into the season proper in just a few clicks. The match screen is fairly basic but if you squint, you can see the essence of the modern FM. As the game clock ticks away, on screen messages flash up key incidents and goals whilst a set of stats measure your performance. At any time you can click the screen to pause and see an overview of your individual player performance with a singular rating between 1-10
It is limited, it is ugly but, dammit, it just works. Within minutes, I am sucked back in, the absence of graphics allowing me to form my own picture of what is going on. In a way it is comparable to watching Soccer Saturday. Sit a non-football fan down and explain to them how enjoyable it is to watch a bunch of blokes sit around talking about a match they are watching and they’ll probably think you’re nuts. But the devil is in the detail, the combination of sliders, stats and narrative somehow combining into one gloriously exciting whole.
Away from the matchday experience, there are all the usual features you would expect. Players can be transfer listed, loaned, bought and sold, with negotiations with club and player all happening within the same interaction, no waiting a week for fees to be agreed. The game is centered around the English leagues, there are no external leagues to look at, but there is a quaint ‘Foreign Players’ list, which throws up the hilarious incident of not being able to sign David Platt or Paul Gascoigne because you can’t secure a work permit.
In fact one of the great things about revisiting this is looking at some of the players knocking around at the time. Gordon Strachan, Peter Beardsley, Steve Gritt and John Aldridge for instance. Or young whipper snappers, like a 17 year old Nicky Butt, a 19 year old Sol Campbell or a 23 year old Alan Shearer.
Then there are the Champ legends who never quite made it, including my personal favourite Nii Lamptey, whose real life exploits at Aston Villa and Coventry could never quite live up to his in-game billing.
Plus you get the added joy of playing in proper European competitions; the European Cup (league winners only), the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup. And for the Division One teams (none of that ‘Championship’ nonsense here) there is the Anglo-Italian cup to look forward to.
Part of the charm is undoubtedly the little idiosyncrasies that only hardened veterans will recognise. Like how some player’s stats would change when you started a new game, depending on what copy protection scoreline you were asked to enter from the manual. Like how any player aged over 30 that is transfer listed will retire at the end of the season. Like how if a player becomes really highly rated and his contract expires, he will ‘move abroad at the end of the season,’ unless you fine him continuously until his morale drops and he magically agrees to negotiate with you. Like when the players name is too long for the in match commentary, so that when Chris Bart-Williams is through on goal, it leaves a line of pixels behind on the screen. Like how sometimes when you load the game, Gareth Southgate is given the position of D but no ‘side’ so you don’t know whether he can play left back, right back, centre back or None Of The Above. Like how Jacob Kjeldjberg has passing and creativity stats of 0 (as in nil, nothing, nada, zilch), generating a worrying image of him lumbering around the pitch unable to shift the ball to a team mate unless he stoops to head it slowly along the turf. Like the way players won’t be interested in signing for you if you don’t play a player in their position (say for instance on the wing) but will change their mind if you change your tactics screen. Like when your star player suffers a debilitating injury and his value plummets from £8m to £250k. Like how if a player is injured but is then suspended or ineligible for the next game, he will miraculously recover from his injury as soon as he is no longer ineligible, regardless of how long he was supposed to be out for. Like how bringing a sub on with ten minutes left when you are thrashing someone guarantees your sub a rating of 8 or more, which lets you artificially improve a young player’s value. Like how it makes NO DIFFERENCE if one of your players gets sent off. Like how the board call you a bandit if you resign.
But the core appeal of Champ ’93/94 is arguably what is missing compared to modern FM. There are no preferred moves, no roles, no duties or philosophies. A midfielder is a midfielder, you don’t have to worry whether he is a box-to-box player, a playmaker or a ball winner. Truth be told, not even the guy’s stats matter that much. There are no protracted transfer negotiations, no press conferences, no squad gelling, tactical cohesion, matchday experience or international jobs. This is straight up, simple football management; choose a formation, pick your team and click your way to glory, each season taking about 4 hours to play through. In some ways it is Football Manager ‘lite’ with all the extraneous features stripped out, leaving almost an arcade like management game, if that is not a contradiction in terms.
It is ridiculously easy, once you realise that true tactical shapes are irrelevant and the key to success is simply to get as many people up front as possible. But it doesn’t matter. The joy of these early Champ’s was not found in the trenches of a hard fought battle but in admiring your own performance. How many goals could you score? How many points could you get? Could you go a whole season unbeaten? Could you win every game (I managed it once)? Could you fill consecutive slots in the average player ratings table with your entire team? What was the highest individual rating you could get?
The 1993 version came complete with a fun little piece of intro music, which is sadly absent from this version.
At the time of release, this was the deepest, most comprehensive and most realistic simulation of football management that gamers had ever seen.
All these years later, having been spoiled by the sheer magnitude of options and interactions of Football Manager, it is tempting to think that these early Champ’s now have little to offer.
But despite its limitations, this remains ridiculously addictive, absorbing and just plain fun.
Football Manager is the greatest series in the history of the genre. This is where the magic started.