In Part 1, we’re going to take a look back at how we’ve come to be able to express our love for the great game by simulating it’s excellence without leaving the comfort of our own home.
The year was 1981 and the Atari 2600 was the system of choice.

There were few different things to do in your spare time back then except listen to Michael Jackson and watch TV commercials for Benson & Hedges. How lucky were the ones who had the facility available to them to play Pele’s Soccer?

As you can imagine, Pele’s Soccer was an extremely basic game, coming equipped with graphics that wouldn’t bless a Nokia 3200. But it had something that looked like a ball, goal posts, a goalkeeper and controls.

During my research into this 3 part series of articles, I managed to track down several of the games mentioned by way of workstation emulation and when I played Pele’s Soccer I was drawn in, drawn into not only what it must be like to know Pele first hand as the fabulous footballer that he was as opposed to being an erectile dysfunction mouthpiece, but what it must have felt like to have control over the outcome of this football game that I am playing in my very own home in 1981!

I remember as a 7 year old boy, we had the video man. The video man came round every Friday night in a little white van absolutely jam packed with video tapes. He didn’t have the presentation or the overrated legality to match that of the then mighty Global Video Stores, but what he did have one Friday evening in 1990 was a Nintendo.

The video man was clearly renting this thing out and I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do with my night than get this thing in our house and play it. I’d heard about it, saw it on the TV and wanted to try it. This could be something to take me away from the adventures of Dizzy on the Amstrad CPC-464 and as I looked down at Super Mario Brothers, Tetris and WWF. . . there it was. NES Soccer.

Right Dad, put down the worn looking Creepshow 2 VHS and get us this Nintendo for the week. He did, and he did!

Soccer on the NES was quite a lot of fun. For something that was so basic it was surprising just how much satisfaction I got from lobbing long balls up from my centre defenders to the acrobatic genius I had up front who could do no wrong when it came to scoring bullet-like overhead kicks. I sat there bashing these buttons, winning games 56-0 until my mum told me to get to bed or until my eyes started seizing up and I fell asleep on the carpet clutching this “control pad”.

The mildly annoying halftime cheerleaders were the only unrealistic aspect of this game as far as I was concerned, loved every minute of it.

Before I knew it, it was Friday night and the video man was here to collect the Nintendo. I was distraught.

As the years passed, simulation was getting better and technology was making waves. I remember a few of us were heading up to one of our friend’s houses to watch the WWF’s Summerslam via his Sky premium channels – yeah he was that guy. So off we go up to Derek’s house where we get treated to snacks and watched the show. After witnessing the British Bulldog win the Intercontinental Title at Wembley Stadium, Derek put his Amiga on and loaded up Kick Off!

This was the very first mainstream home football game to offer the bird’s eye top-down view, and it was absolutely fantastic. The players were extremely small and would run around what felt like a full size football park at such an incredible pace. Passing the ball around like a pinball, every pass caught by the receiving player’s magnetic boot, magic.

Lucky Derek, he was our new best friend.

Little at the time did we all know that Sensible Soccer was going to come along and completely blow the Kick Off series out of the water. Sensible Soccer launched in 1993 boasting an incredible 168 teams to choose from.

Sensible Soccer took the great aspects of Kick Off and combined them with accelerated and fluent gameplay. The play-ability of this game was astonishing, I’ll never forget just how much fun it was to run from one end of the park to another dribbling around opposing players in such a fashion that can only be described as Pacman with feet!

Sensible Soccer ultimately enjoyed more than a year at throne before it got any sort of competition, but when it came – it came big.

Electronic Arts ventured into the Soccer Simulation arena in 1994 when it released the game that deviated from what we all thought a soccer game was destined to be when it burst onto the scene proudly displaying both its pioneering isometric view and an official license from the world governing body of football.

FIFA International Soccer was born.

We all enjoyed it but we weren’t really sure if it was as good as Sensi. I mean, sure – it had what would later be branded as FIFA’s only major positive a decade later, it had excellent presentation and it was certainly unique but did it play as well as Sensible Soccer? Was it as fun? I’ll leave that out there as food for thought but soon it didn’t matter as one of the biggest developers in the world were about to make their presence felt.

Konami’s International Superstar Soccer in 1994 took everything up a notch. Soccer gaming was changed forever with the tremendous graphics, comfortable controls and tricky AI of the original ISS, some might say this was probably the best 2d soccer game of all time. I would agree.

In reality what was unfolding before our very eyes was round one of an infamous battle that spanned over a decade. EA and Konami were fighting for market share of what had grown into a multi-million dollar home entertainment industry, and there was no room for passengers.

The passengers came anyway. The first ever 3d Soccer Game popped up on the shelves with some stylish animations and crisp graphics but in reality, there just wasn’t enough fluency between what we were used to and what came next. As much as it looked good, the gameplay just couldn’t match that of even Kick Off. It felt like 5 steps forward with 10 steps back.

I have a feeling that Virtua Striker was the brainchild of someone who thought that there existed gamers who didn’t actually want to have full control over the players on the screen. Flawed logic if you will, I suppose at the time there wasn’t a winning formula therefor some strange tactics where implemented in order to find the Holy Grail. Regardless, when there is a feeling that you weren’t in control of your players – that’s a bad thing for a soccer game. The Virtua Striker series is summed up by what it became, that game that hung around for a few years, normally coming packaged with Sega’s fledging consoles.

If Virtua Striker tried and failed with 3D, Actua Soccer actually got it right. The short lived series launched amidst some excellent marketing strategy and even managed to grab the official license for Euro 1996!

It got it’s piece of the pie and to be honest and was actually pretty good – but it just couldn’t stand up to the mammoth developers waiting in the wings to unleash their next efforts.

It is however important to remember that the series however, definitely played it’s part in paving the way for the games we know and love today becoming what they are. That should never be forgotten.

Konami then developed an incredible reboot of the ISS series and with the force of the Nintendo 64 behind it. They then released what were the foundations of the following 5 years of soccer simulation with ISS 64.

ISS 64 didn’t just play good, it didn’t just look good – it was super addictive too. This was the most playable, best looking and most responsive soccer game to date – and it didn’t stop there. ISS 64 was absolutely jam packed full of incredible game modes for up to 4 players to choose from, it really did take the genre to a whole other level with such a bang. Such sublime realism was brought to life in this game. Yeah, it wasn’t licensed but as we all grew to love, it didn’t need to be. It was so versatile in itself that an official license just wasn’t really a requirement. Not only was this game the best soccer simulation available, it was widely regarded as the 3rd best N64 game available at the time. How can I even begin to quantify just how important this game was? Put it this way, this was the very first soccer game that brought us the through ball. Ahh, you feel it now – don’t you?

The fact of the matter is that when this game launched, it delivered everything the soccer fans wanted. It delivered everything FIFA 64 did NOT.

EA didn’t like that one little bit. During my investigation for this series, I spoke to several EA developers who were with the company in 1998 and remain there now. I was told about how for 6 months they did nothing else but play ISS 64. That was their job for 6 whole months. To Play ISS64 and learn from it, and learn they did as they worked tirelessly towards what they saw as the launch that would catapult them back to the top. FIFA: Road to the world Cup – 1998.

What more would you want? Blur’s Song 2 heading up an inspiring soundtrack, a heavily Konami influenced and fully redefined graphics engine, 167 stadiums, fully FIFA registered national teams and the fantastic “Road to the world cup” mode. This game had serious depth.

The years that followed these two tremendous games laid the groundwork for a titanic battle between EA and Konami to become the dominant king, both brought their own values to the fore with Konami concentrating on what they felt would define them, gameplay.

EA were unique to their users and had been differentiated from their competitors on the basis of their content depth, presentation and licenses. Everyone had their favourite but always had one eye on the other to see what was coming next. It was an exciting time for everyone involved – especially the gaming public.

There was a feeling that one of them just needed to be 2 steps in front of the other to lock it down. No one could possibly take the crown away from either of these two behemoths – it wasn’t a case of what if one of them became the undisputed king, it was when.

This Is Football was a late entrant into the genre and to be honest, it showed. It was reasonably popular but was left with dust on its face as it trailed massively to EA’s FIFA and Konami’s International Superstar Soccer offerings.

It may be suggested that this was due to the much larger marketing budget of EA and Konami but the grim reality being, this was a Sony funded production, and it actually performed ok.

The problem being that “ok” just wasn’t good enough as the big two were really piling the pressure on each other as we moved into the historic new millennium.

This Is Football was dressed up in a nice package with some amazing features that would have been great if we got a dance mat with our soccer games, but we didn’t. Even if we did, we didn’t want it.

They tried to do too much too soon and in the rush of cramming as many features as they possibly could, they fell with the basics. For example: the series was fundamentally flawed with just enough of a hideous button delay that made you want to kick a Mitre Mouldmaster through the TV screen.

The reality for the might of Sony was that FIFA and ISS were nutmegging this game at every turn and to be perfectly honest, I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.

The Playstation 2 was now with us, the crowning jewel of Sony’s dominance in the console market. EA and Konami both had an amazing new platform to take their development skills to a whole new level and take us all to the pinnacle of football realism in our living room.

Who was going to own the bragging rights and dominate the new generation of soccer gaming?