My son Charlie will be 18 soon. Like all Scottish males before him, he will be dropped on a Hebridean island with nothing but a rusty knife and his own anger. If he can’t make it back to the mainland, he will live the rest of his life among feral, abandoned Scottish sons, and he will only survive if he likes sport, because that’s how any group of men get through enforced time together.
He tried sport as a kid, but as he is on the autism spectrum, he was obsessed with rules to the point where if he felt another kid broke them, he would pick the ball up and stop the game. He was basically human VAR. It never ended well. So I’ve decided I’m going to use my favourite 90s video games as a Trojan horse. And there is only one place to start.
“Why is it called Sensible World of Soccer?” he asks, over the intro screen for the Xbox reboot. “Because it was the first sensible football game, in terms of controls and … er … stuff,” I fabricate convincingly.
“Doesn’t look very sensible to me,” he says as tiny men run on to the pitch. “Dude, this is soooo retro!”
I beat him. Twice. Not by a lot, because it is hard to score. The Xbox controller can’t match the loose-limbed brilliance of the old Cheetah Bug joystick, or maybe I’m just rubbish now. Charlie declares it “a fun, goofy little game.” Like it was something found in a Christmas cracker, rather than the Sistine Chapel ceiling of 90s sports games.
“Does it make you love real football?,” I ask. “Not in the slightest.”
We move on to NHL 94 Rewind. This plays like the original, but players are from recent times, so I don’t get to use Brendan Lemieux, Jaromír Jágr, Jeremy Roenick, or those others whose names we mispronounced back in the Sega Mega Drive days. I destroy Charlie over two games, because that’s what Scottish dads do to build character.
“What did you think, son?” I ask while dabbing. “Not as exciting as Pint Sized Soccer or whatever it was called,” he says.
“Does it make you want to play ice hockey?” I say. “No Dad,” he sighs, “I don’t want early-onset dementia through repetitive blunt force head trauma. I like being able to read without moving my lips.” I can’t really disagree with that.
“Also, the Scottish genes have cursed me with bad teeth, but they are better than no teeth at all.” Are they though? At times I have felt I would have been better off replacing mine with wood.
We need something lighthearted, so I move on to Baseball Stars 2, a PlayStation 4 port of the 1992 Neo Geo classic. The graphics and tune give me the headiest whiff of nostalgia so far, transporting me back to my Notting Hill basement flat. I can almost smell the unwashed Sunday league socks and Drakkar Noir.
Again, it’s not the same. Again, it’s the controllers at fault. The Neo Geo arcade joystick was huge and solid, like playing with a piece of the Berlin Wall. Today’s PS4 controller seems tiny, soft, and shrivelled in my hands. Charlie gets annoyed because I resort to the classic tactic of slow pitch then fast pitch, curve out, curve in. Steam pours from his ears. We stop midway through the second game when I am 10-2 ahead. Charlie’s verdict? “It just reinforces baseball as the dullest sport in the world, which Americans try to legitimise with pointless statistics.”
We’re running out of games and time, so I play one of my ace cards: NBA Playgrounds, a modern take on NBA Jam. I know he’ll like it because it has somersaults, flames and people with enormous heads, and he loved circuses. It’s a win. We laugh throughout. Charlie actually beats me in the first game, so I make him play again. And again. And again. Until he forgets his solitary triumph and begs to move on.
“Does that make you want to play basketball?”
“Do I get to do somersaults with flames coming out of my butt?”
“Forget it, then.”
One more throw of the dice. As my editor wrote recently, golf is the one sporting video game that everyone loves to play, even if they don’t play golf in real life. The oldest PGA golf game I can find is 2015’s Rory McIlroy PGA Tour. I have played this before, so to give Charlie a chance he plays as 92-rated Rickie Fowler while I use the 80-rated Miguel Ángel Jiménez.
I explain the intricacies of aiming, hooks, fades, wind, and green speeds, but Charlie interrupts by screaming “LeeroyJenkins!” and whacks the thing. Perfectly straight. Right down the fairway. I don’t know whether it’s a fluke or a miracle but this is his tactic. All game. And it works.
It helps that his golfer is a young stud with immeasurable strength, while my guy has to get up three times a night to pee. Fowler can fart the ball further than Jiménez can drive it. Charlie destroys me with his putting and wins by seven strokes, but says the clothes and walking put him off the real thing.
“But son, if you don’t like sport, you won’t survive among other adult men.”
“Don’t worry Dad,” he says with a hand on my shoulder and a patronising grin, “I’ve learned everything I need to survive from Fortnite.”