What's the Greatest Soccer Video Game of All Time?
"Pro Evolution Soccer 2016" is out now and is, by all accounts, amazing. But no football game is better than "Sensible Soccer," surely?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Two critics argue, sort of, over what the greatest football video game of all time is. It's a fairly self-explanatory format, really.
Mike Diver: Chris Schilling, you say that the newly released Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 might be the greatest football game of all time. I am all ears: Please do explain why this is the case.
Chris Schilling: If you think about it, every year we should probably be getting the new greatest football game of all time. As tech advances, developers can theoretically make something that gets closer and closer to the real sport. For a variety of reasons that's not always the case.
But PES 2016 is genuinely fantastic. Last year's game was very good, but it's clear after playing this year's that player response time wasn't as quick as it could be, passing wasn't as crisp, and the whole thing still had a slightly rigid feel—a holdover from its PlayStation 2 heyday. This time, it's wonderfully physical without losing any of the responsiveness you associate with PES at its best, and it feels more fluid and dynamic than ever before. And it's a game where you can really learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual players, because they all feel subtly different.
MD: OK, I hear you, but what about accessibility? Don't you feel that the joy that modern football titles—and I certainly include FIFA in this conversation, too—can provide is locked away behind controls that take such a long time to master? I did play a bit of PES 2015, and I'm looking forward to this one, too. But, personally, these games—for all their graphical prowess and impressive engine dynamics and TV-like presentation—are too "sim"-like to provide the immediate thrills that kicking a ball around in the park can. They're an oddly sterile depiction of a sport that has perhaps the very lowest barrier for entry of anything other than running: you need a ball, and someone, or some ones, to kick it around with.
Which is why, I suppose, I can always play the now fairly ancient Sensible Soccer and love it like I did the first time. One button, that's all it needs, and it does everything. You've told me it's your second-favorite football game—presumably you played it to death in the 1990s, too? Do you think if such a game came out today, arcade-style versus the realistic depth of FIFA and PES, it'd stand a chance?
CS: I'd definitely like to see an arcade-style alternative to PES and FIFA, and it's been a while since we saw one—but none of the ones that tried seemed to catch on. I always thought it was a pity SEGA dropped the Virtua Striker series—that had its problems, but it was certainly accessible, and I loved that it awarded each goal a score based on the number of uninterrupted passes in the build-up, with bonus points for volleys and scissor kicks. I think if anyone tried an arcade football game, it'd have to be a relatively cheap downloadable game. Something on a similar scale to Rocket League—in fact, that's probably the closest we've got these days to a modern arcade-style footy game.
And yeah, Sensi will always hold a special place in my heart, not least for being the only video game I've ever managed to get my dad interested in. We'd play for hours—me on a Powerplay Cruiser, him on a Cheetah 125+. There's something really special about hitting a cross from deep with impossible swerve, and launching yourself at it to score with a diving header. Remember that goal van Persie scored against Spain at the World Cup last year? I think the reason I love that so much is that it's basically a Sensi goal.
I take it you weren't a Kick-Off 2 fan, then?
MD: I always found Kick-Off 2 to be a very tough game to enjoy. I appreciated, even then, that it was a fun two-player game, and it moved so fast, but its perspective felt too close to the pitch for me, making the action feel sort of claustrophobic, whereas Sensi's more distant view opened up greater passing opportunities, leading to some sweet plays in the build up to superb flying headers. To be honest, it always felt like a rarity, for me, to score a "normal" goal in Sensi—it's possibly the only football game in which it's easier to score from 30 yards than it is three.
And of course, then came Sensible World of Soccer, with all of its international leagues and player trades. Do you think that set something of a precedent going forward, in terms of how players of football games moved on from simply using the teams made available to them, to shaping their own squads? FIFA Ultimate Team is now a massive deal, possibly the draw for any new FIFA title, and PES has its Master League mode.
I've got to slip a shout out in for the Amiga's Manchester United Europe, or European Club Soccer as it was on the Mega Drive, I think. Do you recall many other side-on football games from before that release? As to look at it now, it's like a precursor to the FIFA and PES we know today.
CS: Looking back, SWOS definitely seemed like it pioneered the shift towards more managerial options—not least because you could simply watch the game in Coach mode. I'm not sure whether it was the first, but with hindsight it probably popularized that approach. I think FUT is a slightly different beast, in that it has the hooks of a collectible card game—it reminds me a bit of collecting World Cup Panini stickers. (I've still got my complete Mexico '86 album somewhere.)
The first side-on footy game I can recall playing is Match Day 2 on the old ZX Spectrum. It looks horrible now but before Kick-Off and Sensi came along, that was maybe the best we had. I remember Actua Soccer looking like the future of video game football, but it never came close to replacing SWOS in my affections.
Do you think we'll ever see anything like Namco's Libero Grande, where you controlled one player rather than the entire team? FIFA's Be A Pro mode owes a massive debt to that game, though I'm not sure it was ever acknowledged. I'd love to see that kind of game with a narrative structure to it, taking in the highs and lows of the career of an up-and-coming player—a bit like New Star Soccer on iOS crossed with Fight Night Champion, perhaps.
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MD: I think that's a natural step for a new game to take if it wants to break into the football market—to adopt a very RPG approach and control that one player through, I guess, 20 years of their career. I'd be keen to play it, but one of the best things about FIFA, and PES, is that on-the-sofa local co-op factor. We ran a piece recently about how playing football games with mates lets men share their feelings—did you see that, and is that something you can relate to?
CS: I can definitely relate to that. A few years ago, I had a friend who lived just around the corner from us—we used to play PES 5 on the PS2 together, share a pizza and a few beers, and talk about all sorts of stuff. He's since moved away and we both have families now so we've kind of drifted apart, but these games do offer a comfortable environment for men to get together and talk, and I think that's incredibly useful.
MD: And, to take things back to the best-football-game-ever discussion, this new PES, then. It's out now. FIFA isn't. Do you think the positive critical reception to it will be enough to sway some gamers away from EA's monolith, or are we going to see PES struggle to match its fiercest rival's commercial form, again? While I trust a lot of what I've read about PES 2016, given the people who are talking about it—Steve Burns at Videogamer, for example, knows his football games—I can't help but feel that in the UK at least it's on a road to nowhere, however brilliant it is to play versus FIFA.
CS: I'm not convinced the qualities of the new PES will be enough to drag most players away from FIFA, though from anecdotal evidence there are definitely some people who feel that FIFA is stagnating a bit, and they've been impressed by the PES demo to consider making the switch this year. But in general, I think FUT—and the new FUT Draft mode—is such a huge draw that it hardly matters whether or not PES plays a better game. A lot of players have acclimatized to FIFA's quirks (if not entirely accepted them) in recent years. FIFA might not be as good, but it's good enough that they don't feel the need to change.
MD: So all the improvements in the world can't reverse PES's fortunes? Seems a shame, but that's where we are, I suppose. Do you remember when PES began to go "wrong"? It was as soon as John Terry made the cover, wasn't it?
And, let's say I come over to yours today. I have the new PES with me, and a copy of Sensible Soccer—let's say on the Mega Drive because I'm not carting an Amiga that far. What are you keenest to play, first? As, really, that's the sign of what's the better of the two, isn't it? What you most want to play, rather than what the critic in you says is the more comprehensive experience?
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CS: As someone who would happily blame John Terry for most of the world's ills, I'd be inclined to agree—were it not for the fact that PES 5 and 6 were the best ones until PES 2013. The downturn really began with PES 2008, which had Michael Owen on the cover. So it's all his fault.
And Sensi, obviously. Much as I love PES, it's been far too long—so for nostalgia value as much as anything else, that'd be what we put on first. And it still has the best diving headers ever.
MD: Poor Michael Owen. Such slight shoulders to carry such a great burden. But yes, the PES games have been on a turnaround for a few years now, and I'm happy that the new one's the best yet, and excited to play more of it.
So, what are we concluding here, then? That the greatest football game of all time is the new PES? Unless your head's buried in nostalgia, in which case Sensible Soccer is the king? That feels right to me. I'm a grown adult, so I can have both games, can't I? Which brings me to a final point: why won't anybody release Sensi, or at least a very good clone of it, nowadays? I would play the shit out of that, at home and on handhelds, which is where I see such a title working best. Or is there such a game, and I've gone and missed it?
CS: I think they're so different that you can make strong cases for both being the best. If I'm slightly reluctant to claim PES 2016 is the outright winner, that's mainly because my thoughts need more time to percolate. In the coming weeks and months when I've played it online against friends and strangers, then I might be able to state its case with more confidence. Either way, it's brilliant. (As a side note, isn't it weird that in a year Konami's had some of the worst press it's ever had for its working practices, it's released two of the games of 2015?)
In theory, I'd be well up for a new Sensi, but I wonder if it's very much a product of a time and place that's gone forever. Sensible Soccer 2006 tried and failed to recapture the old magic, and you're probably best off just sticking the original on every so often for a nostalgic kick-about. That said, if they ever stick a SWOS HD on PSN and Xbox Live? Day one.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 is out now. FIFA 16 is released on September 22. Sensible Soccer is really old but bloody brilliant and I will thrash you at it, just name the time and place.