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iOS Games for People Who Hate iOS: Pocket League Story, the Secret Best Sports Sim

Even Madden and FIFA could learn a thing or two from one of Kairosoft's best simulators.

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Now that we're a decent way into this series, it's time to talk about one of the best iOS developers of them all: Kairosoft, the studio that has turned mobile sims into an artform.

Simplistic on their face, Kairosoft games nevertheless exhibit many of the very best qualities of mobile gaming, routinely fashioning an almost perfect gameplay loop capable of holding one's attention for hours. Tiny Tower and its ilk wish they were 1/10th as addictive as Kairosoft sims like Mega Mall Story.

Kairosoft burst onto the American mobile scene in 2010 with Game Dev Story, a port of an older PC game that garnered acclaim for its wry depiction of game development and its accompanying hype cycle. It remains their most popular game, and arguably their best, though Dungeon Village, Mega Mall Story, and Pocket Academy have all garnered acclaim as well. Over the years they have retained a devoted fanbase in both the U.S. and Japan, where they got their start on PC before moving on to mobile phones.

With so much virtual ink having already been devoted to Game Dev Story, I thought I would take the time to highlight my other favorite Kairosoft game: Pocket League Story, which is their stab at a Football Manager soccer sim. Like the rest of Kairosoft's catalog, it's both deceptively simple and shocking addictive, as well as very funny. I would even go so far as to say that much more advanced sports sims could learn a thing or two from this little gem of an iOS sim.

Pocket League Story

The premise: You are the owner of a newly-formed soccer club starting at the bottom of a fictional league. With the funds earned from sponsorships and other sources, your goal is to recruit the best players in the world and eventually rise to play the world's top teams.

The pitch: I just spent the last few paragraphs praising Kairosoft for their smart sense of humor and their fantastic design sense, but I'm convinced the real secret to their success is the way they toss numbers around. Half the fun of watching any Kairosoft game is getting a character with the best possible stats and watching the numbers stream out from his or her head and into the heavens. It's a hugely satisfying way to depict progress, particularly in a sports sim like Pocket League Story.

Pocket League Story begins with an amateur squad playing on an austere practice field, which doubles as the game's hub area. After a game or two, it's possible to begin signing sponsors to begin earning money while also constructing gyms, restaurants, and other facilities. Games are almost entirely automated, though it's possible to activate an Aura gauge that will supercharge a player for a short time, which can be the difference between a win and a loss.

But while the matches are entertaining to watch, and occasionally quite tense, they are secondary to the process of actually building up the team. This is where I think FIFA, Madden and other sports sims can learn a thing or two from Pocket League Story. The training facility provides a rather amazing visual illustration of a team's growth, with new buildings and other amenities also serving to open a host of training options. The sprite-based graphics are as basic as can be, but they are miles beyond the often spare-looking hubs utilized by better-known sports sims.

And compared to the unqualified mess that is Madden's owner mode, in which money is made seemingly at random and has no basis in the actual reality of the NFL, Pocket League Story is downright brilliant. It often seems as if they've thought of every aspect of managing a sports team—fan support and attendance is developed by hosting autograph sessions and other events, players build up their skills via special training sessions discovered by hosting coach lectures, players might be bodybuilders or showboats, and hiring new managers unlocks various special team formations. As usual, Kairosoft's feel for accessibility and satisfying progression is impeccable, and should be studied by every sports sim developer wanting to build a robust career mode without going "the full Football Manager" and creating what amounts to a spreadsheet simulator.

I want to stress that even though I'm emphasizing the sports sim element of the design, Pocket League Story ought to be a pleasure to play even for non-sports sim fans. After all, this is a game where a monkey can play alongside a robot. The on-field action is largely self-explanatory, with even the formations boiling down to whether they emphasize offense or defense. And yet, like all good sports sims, there's a lot going on under the surface. Reaching the top league in the time allotted—the game ends after Year 8—requires a high degree of care in choosing which players and managers to sign. In return, Pocket League Story proves highly entertaining, and yes, addictive.

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that there is a Pocket League Story 2, though the mobile version is only available on Android. It's largely the same, with the main improvements being the introduction of penalties, weather effects, and (ugh) in-app purchases that can be used to remove ads and speed up training time, among other things. It also introduces online multiplayer, which is enjoyable enough if you can find someone to play with you. In all honesty, if you don't own an Android device, you're not missing much.

Ultimately, Pocket League Story is just a great all-around mobile experience. I half-jokingly alluded to the secret of Kairosoft's success being the stream of numbers that appear over every character's head as they advance, but I think the real core of their appeal is in how finely-tuned their games are for mobile. The best Kairosoft games are the ones you can pick up with the intention of building a new facility or playing a quick game, only to find yourself chasing one of the many carrots dangling down the road. Pocket League Story is one of those games. And at $3.99, it's secretly one of the best sports sims around.

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