The Beautiful Games - Part Two
The early to mid 1990s had been a boom period for football games, particularly on consoles. In Part One of this retrospective, we saw how Sensible Software had turned the classic top-downer into a sheer artform, while EA had introduced glitz and glamour into the consolers' world, and Konami had established a reputation for firm and solid playability. But it had all begun to take a turn for the worse in 1996, with EA guilty of a shocking crime against gaming in the shape of the ill-advised FIFA '97. As the focus began to shift towards the visual power that PC games could offer, but with football gamers in dire need of a saviour, who could they turn to as 1997 drew in?
Quite remarkably, the publisher that managed to resurrect the reputation of PC-based football games turned out to be none other than... EA themselves. Almost as quickly as they'd conspired to destroy themselves, they somehow managed to resurrect their franchise in truly laudable fashion, thanks to the mastery of FIFA : Road To World Cup '98. RTWC, as it became affectionately and somewhat inevitably known, was an absolute triumph. Indeed, looking at it side by side with FIFA '97, it's hard to believe that the two games are direct successors. The ugly, lanky, polygonal players were thrown out, replaced with shorter, chunker and more fluidly animated ones, and they now played on a pitch that didn't try quite so hard to look realistically grass-like, being that curious shade of "computer game football pitch" green, but was far more pleasing to the eye, particularly at the speed the game moved at. And what speed. Where '97 had been an abomination of slow turns, hopeful punts and players lunging recklessly at the now-lost ball thirty seconds after you told them to shoot, RTWC was much slicker. It wasn't without its flaws, of course - the goalkeepers continued to be customarily awful (something the FIFA games have never got right, in fact, but they were particularly lousy in the late '90s), and the brilliant indoor mode - perhaps the only saving grace of the previous game - was rendered far too easy by the fact that 'keepers would constantly handle outside the area, granting close-range free-kicks that were a doddle to hammer home. But even so, it was phenomenal stuff, especially compared to what had come before, and it was wrapped up in EA's first truly great presentation package (great menus, FMV, and Blur on the soundtrack) to boot. While it would be bettered many times over in the years that would follow, FIFA : RTWC '98 stands at the vanguard of the new era of 3D football games, and was the first such game of genuine quality to hit the stands.
Sega, meanwhile, had taken a strong step into the arcade footballing world with the original Virtua Striker in 1994, and three years later, powered by the superb Model 3 system board, Virtua Striker 2 made its appearance. Packing a huge amount of detail into its richly-realised on-pitch and stadium action, VS2 was fast and furious, and as with a number arcade games, felt like it had a lot more tangible solidity than many console football games. An excellent update would follow the next year to tie into the World Cup (although the VS games were never officially licensed), followed by FOUR evolutions in 1999 and 2000 before the series finally moved on to Virtua Striker 3 (the first to move away from fabled in-house developer AM2). VS2, however, remains perhaps the purest pinnacle of Sega's football arcade games.
1998 probably still remains the peak year in terms of sheer number of football games released. Some of them were great, some of them were mediocre, and some of them were downright abysmal.
In fact, let's get the worst out of the way first, shall we, with the lamentable Three Lions. Just over eight years after it was first unleashed on an unsuspecting world, this may still hold the title of worst football game ever released. In a unique piece of licensing which, to my knowledge, has never been repeated since (at least not in this country), it was the official England game of World Cup '98 - although alarm bells should have been set ringing from day one by virtue of the fact that it was named after a song that the publishers couldn't afford the rights to. Unfortunately, a group of untested developers were competing with the now-mighty EA Sports, who for the first time had an official tournament license (and who, as we shall see, were doing bloody good things with it). And in every conceivable department, Three Lions was an abject failure. For starters, there were the graphics. The players appeared to have been assembled out of toilet-roll holders, with laughable representations of the England squad's faces smeared across the "head". With crayon. It was like Glenn Hoddle had taken the team on a morale-boosting trip to a theme park Hall of Mirrors prior to the tournament, but in some hideous twist of fate the real players had been switched with the mirror versions. And these weren't handsome players to begin with - we're talking Paul Scholes and David Seaman here. The assault on the eyes was compounded further by the laughable claim made on the packaging that the games was "the first truly high resolution 3D football game".
Anyway, graphics aside, this earns its place in the Hall of Shame predominantly thanks to its shoddy playability. Seriously, I don't think there's been a football game more impossible to play than this one. Assuming you managed to get your players anywhere near the goal with the ball, you could forget about all hopes of scoring - a ludicrous targeting system, requiring you to aim an ugly red and yellow target with the same directional input (pad, keys, whatever) that you were currently dribbling with meant that the best you could hope for was to hammer the ball off the post or keeper and scramble in the rebound.
Three Lions was a downright aberration, but there were plenty of other games released in '98 that were just on the mediocre side of poor. Sensible Soccer '98 was an ill-advised attempt to recapture old glories, sticking with the old perspective but in new, souped-up, high-resolution fashion and with some dire 3D animations between the action. Sadly, it had none of the charm of its illustrious predecessors, nor the truly fluid playability. Eidos, meanwhile - who had by this point become the kings of the management game thanks to their purchase of Domark and, consequently, Championship Manager - threw their hats into the ring with World League Soccer '98 (it's always somewhat disheartening when the first game of a series sticks the year in its name, suggesting that we're going to be bombarded with yearly updates whether we like it or not). A distinctly average FIFA-esque effort, with poorly animated players and a fudgy control system, it would be improved marginally the following year (when it became Michael Owen's World League Soccer '99), but never stood a chance of taking off as a long-term franchise.
LiberoGrande, though, was a curious one. Not only did it bring back the occasionally-attempted theme of a game where you just play an individual member of a team (including the ability to shout for the ball from your team-mates), here a further twist was added with a third-person perspective akin to games such as Tomb Raider. I can't recall such a thing ever being attempted before or since, and LiberoGrande was a reasonable stab; but the actual game mechanics weren't great, the overall problem being that you can only really introduce such radical changes to the football game genre if you're tying it to a game that plays as well as FIFA or Pro Evo. A developer dipping their toes into the football waters for the first time - even if they are a developer as notable as Namco - just aren't likely to hit gold with it straight away. Worth playing for the curiosity of it, but by no means a keeper.
For all the dross, though, there were some cracking games released in '98. EA Sports actually got two games out this year, beginning with a marvellous officially-licensed game for World Cup '98. There wasn't a whole world of difference in playability between it and its predecessor RTWC, but there were lots of tweaks and polishes, and graphically it was beautiful. The front-end was probably the best a football game had seen, with Chumbawumba's "Tubthumping" memorably employed in an array of uber-swish menus and FMVs (and lots of little nice touches, such as World Cup trivia questions at half time). With the full license, you had decent kits and lineups for all the WC teams in addition to a handful of extras, although the timing of the release meant that it suffered when Hoddle later announced an England squad without Gazza (in it in the game) and with Owen (out of it in the game), although such instances were easily editable. Best of all, it earns all the bonus points in the world for the fact that at one point in the commentary, John Motson uses the phrase "That's liquid football!" I recently found a copy of this game, fully boxed, in a charity shop for just 50p - and after a short bit of acclimatising to the control system once more, I wondered why the hell I'd ever got rid of my old copy. Sheer class from start to finish.
But EA weren't done yet - later in the year they followed up in spectacular fashion with FIFA '99, still perhaps the high-point of the "second generation" of FIFA games. Taking everything they'd learned from the previous two games, but adding a (then) quite ridiculous amount of club teams and players - including the ability to edit just about every aspect of them - it was terrific, perhaps the only niggle being the removal of the standalone Penalty Shoot-Out game from WC '98 in favour of a lacklustre "Golden Goal" game. It's arguably more worthwhile playing this than any FIFA game released since, with the possible exception of 2005 (of which more later).
Konami, meanwhile, had a year earlier released the first of the European ISS spinoffs, known as Winning Eleven in Japan, in the confusingly-named ISS Pro. These games - which would go on to become Pro Evolution Soccer - were distinct from the older ISS series, which continued until 2000 on the Nintendo 64, and were instead released on the PS1. 1998 saw the release of ISS Pro '98, and it improved on both its immediate predecessor and the still-ongoing regular ISS series. At this stage, the ISS/Pro Evo games hadn't yet reached perfection, with a few niggles - particularly graphically, one area in which they could never compete with FIFA - but they were certainly getting there, producing a fluid game of football with ever-improving ball-physics. Certainly, by the time the series morphed into ISS Pro Evolution, Konami had again become a force to be reckoned with.
By comparison to the previous year, 1999 was a quiet one. EA, of course, were proudly at the top of the tree - Konami were beginning to garner a loyal fanbase, but still nowhere near challenging them in terms of sales or prestige - and the inevitable FIFA 2000 promised improvements upon the excellent '99. Strangely, though, the game ended up being seen as a bit of a flop. Graphically, it was a massive step up - certainly a bigger leap from '99 than that game had been from the '98 ones - most notably with its better-animated players, who were leaner and taller than their predecessors. But gameplay had been made significantly faster, and matches frequently turned into something of an arcade-style ping pong fest. Now, I was a faithful player of this game for some years from when it came out (creating a Premiership kit pack for it as recently as 2004), so perhaps I have a better view of it than many other longtime FIFA fans; but even so, it certainly wasn't without merit, and at least stands up better than nearly all of its successors. It also had a terrific soundtrack, due in no small part to the inclusion of Reel Big Fish's brilliant ska anthem "Sell Out".
Perhaps one reason for FIFA 2000 being less of a success than its predecessors was the fact that it wasn't the first game that EA had released that year - that honour went instead to the curiously named The FA Premier League STARS. Unlike FIFA, this game actually had an official Premiership license, and so in addition to the real team and player names that FIFA was allowed to get away with using (stark contrast to the present day, where tighter image and licensing laws mean that even Pro Evo still relies on "Merseyside Red" et al), it had fully-realised kits, logos and so on, but suffered from the obvious disadvantage of only focusing on one league. The game was developed by EA's European division, as opposed to the Canadian division that had created FIFA 99, and the game engine bore some resemblance to that game, but lacked much of the fluidity the main series had achieved by this point, in addition to adding elements - such as power bars for shooting - that the main series wouldn't pick up until a year later. The STARS concept of earning points to improve players didn't appeal to many, however, and despite being seen as a successful enough experiment to warrant a second instalment the following year, it quickly died a death as most of its features - including the all-important official license - were assimilated into the main FIFA games.
In an otherwise fairly quiet year, 2000 saw the arrival of the first FIFA game to begin to incorporate proper league licenses, in the unsurprisingly-named FIFA 2001. This was also arguably the first instalment where the advances in PC technology couldn't be matched by the PS1, and so the series made its debut appearance on the PS2, while a fairly drastically different PS1 version would also be released. The PC version introduced a new graphics engine, which allowed clubs to have their own specific kit designs for the first time, but coupled with this was a new camera angle that was quite disconcerting to long-time players of the post-RTWC games. Oddly, as well, despite the great improvement in available screen resolution, EA were still persisting in not putting player names on the back of shirts - despite the fact that they had been in use in English football since 1993. Even more strangely, the PS1 version - which felt more like an evolution of the earlier games, albeit one that played a smoother, quicker game of football - did include them. All in all, though, while not exactly a bad game, FIFA 2001 felt like the beginning of a trend in which the FIFA games were simply being bashed out on a year by year basis, with far less thought and care going into such touches as the front end, the soundtrack and the general feel of things than had been seen in such classics as RTWC '98 and FIFA '99.
By 2001, EA and Konami had begun to monopolise the football games market, and the number of new franchises - or indeed new entries from other franchises - began to peter out. Sony had made an attempt to succeed where Gremlin, Eidos et al had failed in challenging the Big Two with a series developed in-house called This Is Football that began in 1999; but these games, while by no means dreadful, were the sort of thing the trade-in sections of Game and Gamestation were made for, selling enough copies to justify a staggering seven instalments until being put out of their misery in 2005, but never looking anything like a long-term replayability prospect.
Unfortunately, having apparently seen off most of the competition, EA appeared to have decided to rest on their laurels somewhat, with the result that FIFA Football 2002 (note the name change) was a particularly lacklustre addition to the series. To begin with, gamers expecting a new Road To World Cup game were bitterly disappointed by yet another standard entry with EA's increasingly customary focus on club - rather than international - football. Much was made of how the gameplay had been "opened up" somewhat, with a much wider default camera angle that was intended to aid playing a more passing game, but in reality the game wasn't much more than a tweaked, updated version of 2001.
Konami, meanwhile, were just kicking up a gear, and in late 2001 launched the first game in what would become a behemoth of a series. The ISS Pro Evolution series of games had by this point seen off their N64 ISS counterparts, but it wasn't until the series became Pro Evolution Soccer on the PlayStation 2 that they really became a series to be truly reckoned with. Here, at last, was a game where scoring goals wasn't just a matter of following pre-programmed routines; where you couldn't tell where the ball was going to end up the moment you pressed a button; where you actually had to think about building up decent moves in order to score. It was all about the ball physics - shots would rebound off crossbars and bounce off players randomly, the ball would feel weighty and move where it seemed it should, not where the developers had decided would look good. And this was developed by the Japanese - leaving many to wonder just how the primarily European developers at EA Sports couldn't turn in a realistic representation of football when a company based in a nation not known for its prowess at the sport had nailed it dead on. In the years to come, the Pro Evo games would suffer in comparison to FIFA in terms of the wider public perception, largely due to the lack of licenses and real player names, and certain touches such as the commentary being of a slightly lower standard. But right from the beginning they cemented themselves as the games of choice for any discerning football gaming nut - and with each subsequent instalment, these aesthetic problems would be ironed out, leading to vastly increased sales and public awareness, and a major headache for EA...
2002 - Present
We'll skip through the last five years to cap off, now, for the simple reason that there really haven't been any major games of note save for the Big Two's now-annual face-off (with a new FIFA usually making it out in September and a Pro Evo following in October). 2002 saw Konami come out with Pro Evolution Soccer 2, little more than an enhancement of the first game, but it did provide arguably the last great PS1 football game (it remains endlessly playable to this day). Meanwhile, EA had apparently learned some lessons from standing still with FIFA 2001 and 2002, and undertook a drastic overhaul of the way the game played for FIFA Football 2003. Sadly, not only were these improvements - welcome as they were - still far short of the standard set by Pro Evo 2 - they also came at the worst possible expense - the front end system. For the first time, in a blatant - and insulting - accession to the PS2 market, the PC didn't get its own mouse-driven menu, making it more obviously than ever a rushed-out conversion. That wasn't the worst crime committed by EA, however - this came with the removal of any kind of editing function whatsoever. All of a sudden, it became impossible to keep the game up to date by performing transfers, editing squad numbers, tweaking kits and players' appearances, unless you were running the PC version and had complicated external software to patch it with. This undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that, for the first time, EA had put actual player likenesses in the game (although, it must be stressed, there weren't a high percentage of them) - but it seemed an unfair price to pay.
2003 saw Konami make a rare stumble, in the shape of Pro Evolution Soccer 3. The first entry in the series to make it onto another format - the PC - there was a lot riding on it, but it didn't go down as a huge success. There was, interestingly, an increased focus on referees - with new rules including handball (which sadly didn't work particularly successfully and was subsequently dropped) and advantages (which similarly suffered from teething troubles, but was refined and improved greatly in subsequent games), and even the presence of Pierluigi Collina as the game's box star. Still, despite being considered something of a misstep, it was still a far better game than EA were managing to turn out - with FIFA Football 2004 being a particularly regrettable entry in the series. Frustratingly, 2004 once again played a half-decent game of football, but was coupled with arguably the worst front-end system that EA had ever put out - among the more baffling aspects of which was a return to the "player trade" system of transfers that had been seen in the appalling FIFA '97, where players could only switch clubs by swapping directly with a player from their new team - rendering it nigh-on impossible to create a successful seasonal update from within the game and all but destroying replay value.
Thankfully, both FIFA Football 2005 and Pro Evolution Soccer 4 were improvements. In FIFA, you could at least transfer players properly, although you still couldn't edit them (or even their squad numbers) from within the game - to make any changes other than creating a new player, you had to be using the PC version and download their crash-friendly "Creation Centre". It still made for a much more fluid game of football than the FIFA games had seen in years, though, despite a continued over-reliance on pre-set tricks and skill moves - and the modding community that sprung up around it was one of the most thriving that any football game has yet seen. But Konami were really on the case by this point, and established themselves as the game for football connoisseurs of distinction with the double whammy of PES 4 followed by PES 5 a year later. 4 was a terrific game, a world away from FIFA in presenting a game littered with nuances in ball flight and player movement; and as the licenses began to trickle in as 5 came along, things just got better - to say nothing of such excellent features as the long-running Master League (which was brilliant as far back as PES 2). Indeed, even in the face of the games that have come since, it arguably still holds "top dog" crown. EA made another big misstep with FIFA 06, undoing the good work of 2005 by rewriting the game engine and coming out with a sloppy, sluggish came that still - on consoles, at least - was badly lacking in the looks department. FIFA 07 was an improvement, and reviewers raved about how, for the first time, there appeared to be proper ball physics - a damning indictment of EA throughout the 2000s, that, when you consider how early Konami had had it nailed. But even Konami faltered this year, as PES 6 became arguably the first of their games to attract significant criticism - it wasn't seen as a huge step up from PES 5, despite plenty of newly-acquired licenses and some new features - and the XBox 360 version in particular was a disappointment, offering improved graphics and animations but at the expense of a vast array of options and even teams due to the inherent problems of rewriting the graphics engine.
We now seem to be at a stage where the Big Two are bashing out games on an annual basis, and it's a simple case of seeing, each year, which new aspect of the game EA have decided to focus on in FIFA, while patiently waiting for Konami to attain a full set of licenses and blow them out of the water once and for all. While there can be no complaints about the quality of gameplay that the Pro Evo series offers, however, it is a shame that the spirit of invention and excitement that ran through - not just football gaming, but gaming in general - in the early-mid-1990s now feels like a thing of the past. There are a few flashes of fresh creativity leaking out if you know where to look for them, though. New Star Soccer 3 is, as the name suggests, the third in a series of games from small indie developer New Star Software, but it's the first one that's begun to make people sit up and take notice. Part standard football game, part RPG, it's reminiscent of LiberoGrande et al in that you take control of one player, but it takes the idea further, by having you create your own player's identity at the start of the game, and inbetween matches you're required to work on various aspects of your character's career and life - from keeping fit, to staying in touch with your family and mates, to dating models, to working the media, to negotiating lucrative moves to bigger clubs. All these variables can affect your performance on the pitch, and your performance on the pitch directly affects all these variables - not to mention whether or not you actually get picked to play each week. Given how long football games have been around, it's remarkable that it's taken so long for a half-decent game built on this model to show up (not least because me and my mates at school were coming up with ideas for a game like it a good ten years or so ago), and best of all, despite being a shareware game by a tiny developer, it's really good. Earlier versions of the game saw the matchday itself taken out of your hands, but with NSS3 you actually get to take to the field, in a Sensi-style match engine that, while hardly the most groundbreaking, does itself no disgrace whatsoever. Shareware as a concept has died a death in recent years, but NSS3 stands up there with classics like Capture The Flag as an example of a "little game that could", and one that you really feel is worthy of parting with the paltry amount of cash to get the registered version. It's far from the perfect game, but keep an eye on this series - I wouldn't be surprised if a proper publisher came along to throw some weight behind the idea (or simply rip it off).
And that's the state we leave football games in - arguably better than in 1996, but possibly worse-off than in some of those peak years. There's no doubt that the hyper-realistic matches offered by Pro Evo, and the Sky-style atmosphere offered by FIFA, can only be seen as a good thing - and certainly a world away from the ubiquitous top-down standard of the early '90s. But along the way, in grasping at realism in the presentation and gameplay, have we lost a bit of the charm? Games like New Star Soccer suggest that the spirit of Sensi, Empire Soccer and the like still lives on, at least in some form - and it's vital that we keep supporting those developers who know that presenting a glossily authentic match-day experience isn't always the be-all and end-all.
So that's my trip through football gaming history - the games as I've experienced them. I'm sure there are plenty I've missed out or just dismissively skimmed over (especially in the early days), and I'm sure many of you will disagree with my reactions to some of the games. But I hope it'll make you think, next time you fire up Pro Evo, that it might just be worth digging out some of those older gems, the games without which Konami's all-powerful franchise might not even exist today. Go on - I bet you know you've got the SNES power cable lurking away somewhere...