EA Sports' FIFA series rules the world of soccer video games. It is the most popular game in the United Kingdom. Everyone is aware of it—from the headset-sporting teen, sitting in his bedroom uploading his latest wonder goal to his YouTube channel, to the petrified parent, making her annual December pilgrimage to the local GameStop. FIFA is a giant, the undisputed champion in its field. It's precision engineered to suck players in for hours on end, and then inform their conversations when they're not glued to the screen. It can overtake lives entirely. It's pretty good, basically.
There was a time though, in the not so distant past, when FIFA wasn't alpha and omega in the world of soccer sims. Before Electronic Arts had won the war, another ruled. Some might call this period the Pro Evo dynasty. And my first contact with Konami's once-triumphant series was so long ago, before it was even known as Pro Evo, that it deserves one of those swirly transition effects.
I was nine years old, sat in my friend's bedroom in North London and, as was the fashion, had a dreadful curtained haircut. It was the middle of summer, soccer was "coming home" and I was watching my mate's older brother school him on International Super Star Soccer Deluxe for the Super Nintendo. I played once or twice, got soundly battered and returned to my spot by the window, looking out at the hot, sticky cloud that seemed to hang over suburban London at that time of year.
Aesthetically, the experience was unfulfilling. Constrained by 16bit processing power the graphics looked cartoonish and archaic to me—someone who had just witnessed the real-life England team trounce Holland on ITV. What's more, it didn't feel like you were playing soccer. It felt more like a beat-'em-up transposed onto a soccer pitch.
Two years later, and it's summer again. Instead of looking up at the brooding steam that sits over London in June, I'm staring at the clear, pristine sky of the Irish midlands. The 1998 World Cup is on, and I am drinking in every second.
While Euro '96 was the first tournament I watched with any interest, France '98 obsessed me. Everything that had gone beforehand seemed analogue to me, whereas this was digital, and global and now—and I was hooked. This was as good as I had anticipated, and much of that expectation had been built because of ISS Pro '98.
Hundreds of miles of motorway, one Stena ferry, seasickness and here I was—new country, new currency, new school, new friends, and a new life. My parents wanted to give my sister and I a better life, one filled with daylong bike rides and night-time doors left unlocked. So I can understand my father's annoyance at the sight of me sitting on my bed, alongside newly-made friends, playing FIFA '97. He'd rather I was outside, hanging off trees or throwing rocks into cow shit. But I had to ingratiate myself somehow, and the PlayStation was the totem around which I'd build my new life.
FIFA '97 promised much—hundreds of players, accurate rosters, and modern polygon-based graphics—yet within months it had bored me. The game looked nothing like the soccer I had witnessed the previous summer in London, nor did it play like it. The game could be beaten easily and, most irritatingly of all, the details let it down. Despite having all the players, they didn't resemble them—the very bald, very pale Gianluca Vialli was portrayed by a figure tanned to the point of Ronseal.
But it wouldn't be long before I was free from my FIFA-induced disappointment. One Saturday afternoon, while waiting for my mother to finish whatever it was she was doing, I walked around a now-defunct independent video rental store and there it was, third row down, between Abe's Oddysee and Destruction Derby: International Superstar Soccer Pro '98. The cover featured Fabrizio "the silver fox" Ravanelli and Paul Ince fronting at each and little else, certainly nothing to suggest the magic within.
Unlike EA Sports' game of the same time, FIFA: Road to World Cup 98, ISS didn't feature a flashy intro—just a simple logo and "press start to continue." The menu was spartan—Exhibition, League, and Cup options, and All-Star Mode. Compared to the comprehensive FIFA, it seemed like a basic coin-op affair.
But you can fall in love in a second. And for me, it happened the moment my first, tentative exhibition game began. Again, the gloss was minimal: the match was played in a stadium that, by modern standards, looked like someone's first attempt at Minecraft; the crowd was a smeared mess of faces punctuated by unfeasibly large flags.
Any fleeting doubts evaporated when the teams emerged. I still remember my first game—Brazil against France—a game I would be watching for real soon enough, slack jawed as the home side became world champions. Konami didn't have the license to the real names of the players, so instead a wink-and-nudge approach was taken—Cafu became "Kafou," Desailly changed to "Desarie," and Ronaldo, the world's most famous player, was "Ronarid." But it didn't matter; as in an instant the players were distinguished and recognizable.
France's Zidane ("Zedene") had his Friar Tuck bald patch, Ronaldo sported his own iconic electric-blue boots and, most astounding of all, Roberto Carlos had his own true-to-life way of striking the ball. FIFA may have had every team in international soccer, but ISS Pro's 54 were exact replicas of the real-life thing—Taribo West sported lime green dreadlocks, Michael Owen's pace was instantly recognizable, and Croatia's iconic kit was perfectly replicated.
Of course, all this would have meant nothing had the game been utter shit. In the same vein, amazing gameplay can cover a multitude of sins—yes, the crowd looked terrible, the presentation didn't come close to anything resembling polished, and match commentator Tony Gubba sounded like a hostage reading a list of demands at gunpoint. But none of that mattered because the gameplay consumed you in ways never before seen in a soccer sim—the opposition seemed to adjust to and counter your tactics, wingbacks bombed ahead, and goalkeepers advanced to snuff out danger. Compared to the frenzy of FIFA, ISS Pro '98 played like a game of chess.
The pinnacle of ISS Pro's gameplay, and subsequently Pro Evolution Soccer's, was the through pass. This simple, elegant edition to soccer gaming changed everything. The kick-and-rush style of playing, encouraged by FIFA, was dead. Instead, the emphasis was placed on thoughtful possession, to tiki-taka your team into position and then, with a single tap of the triangle button, split the opposition defense in two.
The game didn't just make you feel you were playing "real" soccer, it felt like you were improving it.
Long after the actual World Cup had ended, my bedroom remained illuminated by a boxy, 20-inch Beko, a dream machine through which I lived out soccer fantasies that real life would never live up to. Contenders to the crown arrived—new editions of FIFA, each with a new bell and whistle attached, Michael "Have Fun" Owen's World League Soccer and the very fucking awful David Beckham Soccer. But none came close to the enthrallment that ISS Pro offered.
From the halcyon summer of 1998 grew an obsession that came to define my life. Post-school entertainment swerved Hollyoaks or Neighbours in favor of the near-impossible task of taking Japan to the World Cup final. The notion of exam revision only crossed my mind in the brief moments I spent wolfing down my dinner before returning to my room to engage in virtual sporting glories.
By the time I scraped my way into third-level education I found that the bug had gripped many young "men" my age. Instead of Tuesday nights spent in vain wandering the sticky floors of heaving college fleshpots in an attempt to merely talk to a girl, there we were, half a dozen of us, grouped in a living room thick with smoke, surrounded by remains of oven pizzas, hunched forward, controllers in our sweaty palms as the drama of a Pro Evo 5 "winner stays on" contest played out.
A game (or several) of Pro Evo became our focal point around which tales were told, cans were sunk and lectures missed. The only thing I remember about my second year at university is my record-breaking 24-game unbeaten streak against all-comers, using a dastardly negative six-man-midfield Mexico side.
Pro Evo debuted for the PlayStation 3 in late 2007, almost a full decade after I'd first fallen in love with ISS Pro '98. This was surely set to be Konami's opus. A heritage of addictive, intuitive gameplay coupled with the graphical power of a next-generation console. This was the one I'd been waiting for. And I couldn't have been more disappointed.
In a rush to get the game ready for the lucrative Christmas market, Konami had released a broken game. The game's engine couldn't cope with the new hardware, matches constantly ground to a halt in a mess of lag and faulty AI. It wasn't as bad as FIFA's worst efforts of the past, but it wasn't the perfection I'd become accustomed to. I played on, hoping that the kinks would somehow work themselves out, but in my heart I knew it was over. And suddenly I was 21.
I never played a Pro Evo title again. I respected the game and my own reverence for it too much to pretend. There is a hardcore group of fans who still passionately support the annual title in the face of FIFA's dominance. Konami has rebuilt the game's engine and appealed to the more fashionable end of the soccer market by acquiring the licenses to the Europa League and Copa Libertadores, but FIFA's highly refined gameplay and pristine presentation ensures that Pro Evo will never rule bedrooms and student living rooms like it once did.
Sometimes I idly browse websites pricing second-hand PlayStation (PSone) consoles or downloadable laptop-based emulators and consider, for a second, reviving my youth with a quick game or ten. But I've always resisted, and I always will—whatever short-term pleasure I might get from a nostalgia kick, the truth is that nothing will compare to the original feeling.
So I'll stick to the memories I've stored from various stages of my youth—magnolia recollections of waiting for the killer through-pass, lobbing a stranded goalkeeper or securing living room bragging rights by winning a five-goal thriller. And I'm fine with that.