This last button is touch sensitive, so the longer you hold it, the harder and higher you shoot. Just like real life
Pushing buttons is what life comes down to. In fact, it's the fact of life. Buttons get pushed, whether we like it or not. Evolution, progress, civilisation, buttons. Tell me there's not a pattern there, I defy you.

The buttons I like to push are on Sega's Virtua Striker arcade game. There are three of them. The first one dictates a short pass, the second a long pass, the third a shot at goal. This last button is touch sensitive, so the longer you hold it, the harder and higher you shoot. Just like real life.

The first button also facilitates a sliding tackle when your team is not in possession of the ball. With the second you can also make your player leap to head the ball. Players run with the ball and dribble by means of a joystick that moves through 360 degrees.

There is no offside rule, though fouls can be committed through injudicious use of the sliding tackle, at which time the screen emits a squelching noise, followed by a nasty crunch. As the opposing player crumples in agony he makes a sound like oooh, oooh, oooh, and the crowd boos. You can cross the ball, have players chest and shield it, and perform bicycle kicks and flying headers. You can even put swerve on a shot.

I love pushing those buttons. Many an hour is passed in the stifling Family Leisure arcade on Old Compton Street in Soho, sliding pound coins into the slot. At 50p a game it is unnervingly easy to spend pounds 10 and still not reach the final, even though it's only three matches away.

The problem is that matches get tougher as you progress and some teams are better than others. All 18 international sides have a range of differing formations and characteristics. England, predictably, are totally predictable. The Italians use a 4-4-2 formation and play a counterattacking game, and ponytailed Roberto Baggio is instantly recognisable. The degree of verisimilitude is such that you can rely on him to miss if the game comes down to a penalty shoot-out.

As befits their status as world champions, the Brazilians are undoubtedly the best team, faster and more fluent on the ball than any other. And when they score, the centre forward gets on all fours and cocks his leg, in imitation of a dog peeing. But their pace and movement introduce a complexity that only the more skilful players can properly utilise. In other words, they're too good for me. I end up running rings around myself.

It's the same with all the glamour teams. I failed miserably and repeatedly to master the Italians, Germans, and that fussy French 5-4-1 combination. Worst of all were the Dutch, whose 3-4-3 pattern left me laughably exposed on both wings: the Colombians were scoring for fun. When I tried the Colombians, of course, they gave away free kicks and got caught ball-watching.

Dabbling with more prosaic sides has proved successful. A spell with the Bulgarians (shaky at the back, slick going forward), led to the discovery of Denmark's 5-3-2, which offers solid defence with good long-range shooting power. I reached the final yesterday, only to lose to the Swedes. Scored a blinding 35-yarder, though, top left-hand corner.

The arcade games market is a fickle one, and few machines are popular for more than a few months, after which their profitability falls rapidly and they become obsolete. "After three months or so they stop taking money," says a machine salesman,"and operators try to move them around to sites where they haven't yet been seen. But from a sales point of view it's like selling flared trousers: nobody wants to know when it's out of fashion." On average, a successful game might sell 300 machines across Europe.

By contrast, since the launch in May last year, 1,500 Virtua Striker machines have been built and installed in bars, pubs and arcades around Europe, at about pounds 6,000 each. (Amazingly, there is still no home console version available, though Virtua Striker is infinitely superior to Sony's Fifa '96 game, available in PlayStation format.) The demand is such that there is now a waiting list for the next batch of 500. "It's unusual for a game to have legs like Virtua Striker," says a spokesman for Sega, without conscious irony. "Especially in today's climate. Back in the Eighties, people spent much more on arcade video games of all kinds. These days, suburban pubs are empty until 10pm. People are far more careful with their money."

Apparently, Virtua Striker's combination of unpredictability and accurate modelling of physical actions is due to the "texture mapping" technology programmed into the printed circuit boards. These are imported from Japan, along with the 26-inch monitor screens, and fitted into English-made cabinets.

Not that any of this matters to me and the other anoraks down at Family Leisure. We'd probably still play Virtua Striker if it were powered by unstable nuclear fission and constructed in internment camps using child labour. For us, it's everything that mankind has strived for since crawling from the swamp. Football and buttons, together at last

Comments