An accidental history of football gaming: the era of evolution
Sony’s PlayStation took what was generally regarded as a solitary pastime for pre-adolescents and, via clever marketing, 3D graphics and a specialist CD platform, transformed gaming into a funky and sociable form of entertainment. All of a sudden it was cool to play games.
Championship Manager 97/98
While Sony’s behemoth gathered pace, my university days were dominated by two games more concerned with world-building and tapping into an imagination being force-fed one too many biographies on obscure 19th century socialites.
Who cared about Patsy Cornwallis-West when I had just engineered a transfer for Ibrahima Bakayoko to Liverpool? Anybody who played Championship Manager 97/98 knew Bakayoko was an absolute goal machine and, although the real life Ibrahima never lived up to the hype, such myth-making is a big part of what made Championship Manager so addictive.
Back then imagination was key, something which has never quite been recaptured with Football Manager‘s 3D match engines and hours spent analysing which youth team coach to hire. There’s no doubt that such advancements have their place in creating new levels of realism. But it’s also no coincidence that the recently introduced ‘classic’ mode has proven extremely popular.
With the tattered remains of Three Lions still ringing in my ears, the late 90s versions were pure text-based wish fulfilment and all the better for it. At 5am on a Thursday morning my sleep-deprived mind didn’t need a graphical representation of Karl-Heinz Riedle’s sublime FA Cup winning volley; I was there. Drugs are bad, okay.
Nostalgia Rating 9/10
Sensible World of Soccer
Alongside such an impressive football management experience, it would take something extra special to keep me away from the student union. Unfortunately for my social life, a friend introduced me to a game he referred to as SWOS, shadily winking like a dealer on a street corner.
Sensible World of Soccer was another world-builder, with the added pull of controlling each match in a Kick Off style top down sprite-fest over a 20-year career which created a real investment in your team; an experience unmatched until the arrival of Championship Manager.
The game-play was manic and unique, combining a sense of fun with an addictive X factor. While friends were searing their eyeballs in the techno glare of Wipeout on the PlayStation, I was managing Young Boys Bern (a name which caused endless amusement) to a Swiss Championship. Managing Young Boys perfectly illustrates the enormity and scope of the game, expertly juxtaposed by developer Sensible Software against the very personal attachment to squads and players.
It’s that emotional investment combined with an overarching simulation experience and boundless, satisfying fun which, even now, draws players to the World of Sensible Soccer.
Nostalgia Rating 8/10
ISS Pro Evolution
And so we enter the modern age of football gaming, ushered in by a PlayStation console in full throttle.
A convoluted series of events found me in a dark car park on the outskirts of Melbourne, purchasing a cut-price PlayStation complete with ISS Pro Evolution from two dodgy characters in a muscle car. Back at my flat, this brush with danger was soon forgotten when I discovered some revelatory new additions to the game.
Not only was there a plethora of club teams but Konami had introduced the mother lode, also known as Master League. This peerless career mode sunk its claws into me within half an hour, the default players (or just ‘defaults’ for those in the know) showcasing a level of individuality for which PES (Pro Evolution Soccer) would become synonymous. Back in those early days the defaults were genuinely awful and all the better for it. There was a real sense of long term investment in your career – none of this pandering to online immediacy. Here players were left under no illusions that they were in it for the long haul.
Meanwhile the game-play was utterly sublime. Konami created the king of football games with what appeared to be consummate ease. Combined with the debut of the inimitable Master League, ISS laid bare the foundations of modern game-play in one big, addictive slab, providing an utterly compelling signpost to the games of today. Well worth a trip to the dark side.
Nostalgia Rating 9/10
Pro Evolution 5
Over the coming years PES’s dominance continued unabated and, as it shed the prefix International Superstar Soccer, Konami’s mean simulation machine kept hitting new peaks. Meanwhile, with the PlayStation 2, Sony had built on its predecessor’s remarkable success and was now joined at the party by a Microsoft corporation with dollar signs in its eyes, eager for a slice of the action.
It was during this second generation of consoles that the high watermark for football gaming was released.
PES 5 was a thing of beauty, providing a single player experience deeper and more satisfying than anything that had come before while also offering endlessly joyful two-player action for those with a gregarious streak (or friends).
Maybe if PES 5 had been released in today’s forum-drenched, ultra-critical market it may have fared rather worse but, in actuality, the game provided a true simulation experience while also maintaining the excitement and thrills for which PES was synonymous.
Player individuality is often a buzzword for developers when hyping their latest game-play advancements. But PES 5 genuinely had individuality in spades with every player performing and feeling different under your control. So many of the game’s features were nuanced and unheralded, leaving the player to discover its delights over many, many hours. What lay under the hood alongside a meaty game engine was a perfectly paced, simulation experience with impressive AI that always seemed on the right side of scripting. Of course, there were also lots of fouls which would have sent today’s online hordes reaching for their twitter account.
However, for me and many others, PES 5 contained all the magic ingredients of a successful football game in just the right doses, and with a small dollop of Japanese whimsy providing a cherry on the cake.
Nostalgia Rating 10/10
This may seem like a controversial pick given there have been many better iterations of FIFA down the years but, for me, this game marked a seismic shift in the battle of the giants and a sea-change in mind-set of the two developers.
As a new PS3 owner I bore witness to the bad mis-step that was PES 2008 (a shell of a game in all honesty) and began to hear whisperings on the wind of a FIFA game that had slow, considered game-play and simulation sensibilities. While Konami was resting on its laurels and serving up a sub-par picnic, EA had finally found the winning recipe with which to grab a big slice of the pie.
In the end EA bought the bakery and it was FIFA 08 which paved the way. And all this despite having goalkeepers so overpowered it made you want to snap the controller in two.
Nostalgia Rating 5/10
Let’s face it, I could go on ad infinitum. But history has to remain just that. Ruminations on the current crop of games, the effect of sliders on FIFA’s longevity and Konami’s flip-flop attempts to regain PES’s identity can wait for a rainy day.
Now, where’s that ZX Spectrum emulator?
By Chris Holmes
To read Chris’s first instalment in the history of football gaming, click here
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