World Soccer Winning Eleven 5 was it’s name, Konami was it’s father.

It prompted the soccer sim world to erupt in anticipation as it was announced in the Summer of 2001 that the critically claimed title would be arriving in Europe on the back of it’s incredible success in Japan, complete with a brand new name. Soon we would welcome the first installment of Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, offering smarter goalkeepers, flawless realism, intelligent passing and a breathtaking shooting system. This game changed it all.

Although the series exists in four named forms (ISS, ISS Pro, Winning Eleven and PES), the actual gameplay of the series takes on a slightly different form. ISS Pro on the Playstation began a gameplay series that broke from the original ISS formula, morphing into Winning Eleven and ultimately didn’t end until PES6. This was the era of PES.

Konami had secured the FIFPro license for the release, which meant that it featured actual player names and likenesses, with authentic animated facial characteristics. There were over 200 players in the game and their range of movements had tripled since ISS Pro Evolution 2. The AI had been dramatically improved to take advantage of the processing power of Sony’s Playstation 2. Graphical effects included rain, day/night games, fireworks, confetti, and even smoke markers strewn throughout the wonderful stadiums.

Gameplay modes included exhibition, leagues, cups, training mode, and a little thing called the master league. The amount of stadiums had increased to seven, with one training pitch. The game’s controls were completely analog, the strength of passes varyied according to pressure put on the action-buttons. For complete multiplayer action, the game could also be played with two multitaps and up to eight players! How many clubbers are reading this wishing they took advantage of that feature? Yup!

In reality, Konami looked at EA’s first appearence on a next gen console with FIFA 2001, laughed and then absolutely blew it out of the water.

For the first time Electronic Arts found its golden goose outsold, outsmarted, outplayed – and all this despite mammoth marketing, sexy presentation, high intensity sponsorship, massive endorsements, all the official stadiums and the player likeliness. Wanna know how one of gaming’s most prestigaed brands got surpassed so dramatically? As simple as this: even the most casual gamer could see that Konami’s PES was simply in a different world in terms of gameplay realism. FIFA was all style over substance and didn’t really have much in common with real footie, while PES quite simply oozed gameplay subtlety, class and depth – the very Jesus of FIFA’s air headed, bubblegum chewing bimbo antichrist.

Clearly EA, the world’s number one publisher, had to go back to the drawing board – but for now it didn’t matter. After the hugely successful PES launch, the might returned in even more depth and glory with Pro Evolution Soccer 2.

There was certainly a big improvement over PES, and it was clearly noticeable how much additional effort has been made from an animation perspective – which was already amazing. The stadia were even more impressive, although entirely fictious, and they even gave more depth to the already breathtakling replay system.

With the release of Pro Evo 3, it was beyond doubt that Konami was now officially in a league of it’s own – nothing could come close. The original PES took significant effort to get to grips with, but with persistence the game’s many rewards became ever so apparent, you really did feel that every goal was down to the gamer’s skill, with slick build up play, passion orientated intelligence and timing the key factors in cementing the success of the franchise. I can remember back in the day having a discussion with several friends about how to me the most incredible thing about PES was that if you took someone who had never played the game, sat him down and gave him a PS2 controller and put PES on, it would take him hours of non stop practice to even get close to scoring. It was a significantly steep learning curve, but once familiarity had been acheived with the timing, the physicality and movement of the ball and indeed the utilisation of the full playing pitch, we really could carve out some truly impressive, passionate and hugely satisfying play. To me, this is where the series showed it’s true strength, and addiction beckoned because once you got “it”, you were hooked! Commited to ploughing millions into Konami’s coffers year on year because you just knew what to expect.

Wayne Rooney was a perfect example of the difference between Pro Evo 4 and FIFA 05. To cut a long story short: in FIFA, he played for his new team; Manchester United, he wore the correct squad number, his face was modelled on the real one, and he was pretty nippy and packed a wallop in the final third; in PES4, he was still at Everton, he was uber strong in the air, oozed speed with a great first touch and an epicly venomous shot, and while you wouldn’t have recognised him by his face, you could tell who it was when you seen him move.

To begin with, PES 4 just got the ball right. Far more so than it had done in the past. The ball moved even more convincingly, had a physical, untethered presence, and took meaningful deflections that tickled or terrified you in just the way you secretly desired. Players connected convincingly with the ball, with better transitions between the running and passing or shooting animations; they run and change direction more realistically, and even fell believably (or at least authentically). The illusion of real football was upheld visually. The likenesses didn’t really matter, the mashed potato faces in the crowd didn’t really either, and we even forgave the bizarre pelvic thrusting of the encroaching defenders on corners. The only other thing of any particular importance was the bulge of the net and the action replay modes, and those were tremendously satisfying and adequate respectively.

Everything, with the continuing exception of penalties, was a skill, and the relative difficulties of things like defensive headers and goalbound bicycle kicks were arguably comparable to what you’d find in the park. And, just like real football, that made it all the more entertaining when something unusual happened, like breaking upfield and scoring a goal in a visceral flurry of one-twos, fleet-footed front men and diving headers. Because – far more than any other sports game at the time – PES4 convinced you that the potential was there for it to happen; it’s just up to you to find a way to make it happen.

PES 4 really took enjoyement to a whole other level and not just because of the sublime lever one-twos, offside traps, flat and looping chips, step-overs and delicate ball control, and a free kick system that, while still occasionally enigmatic, now allows you to lay the ball off and strike it as well as belting it first time, but also because Konami also gave birth – in conjunction with Microsoft’s original Xbox – to online play!

This was met with both extreme excitement and relative dread. Excitement first and foremost because it was by nature, evolution. We were finally getting the chance to play online against fellow PES fanboys from all over the world – and relative dread because the game was primarily a Playstation classic, the brand itself was attached with the PS2 – they came hand in hand. There were concerns arising from the loyal fanbase that there was going to be a significant transition period as they familiarised themselves with the dreaded Xbox control pad. Celtic fans were the least worried, as in 2004 all they really needed were both the “long ball” and “shoot” buttons.

It didn’t take long to see a spike in Xbox sales towards the latter part of the year and within a matter of weeks there were Xbox to PS2 converter cables produced by third party manufacturers all over the world which enabled the PS2 control pad to be used with the 360. Heaven? Well nearly – the protocols used in the network capabilities dictated that the home player would “host” the first half, with the away player “hosting” the second. At times, it was frustrating and if you took a commanding HT lead, it could be downright infuriating as it wasn’t too long before idiots caught on that they could sabotage the game via traffic blocking.

All in all, it was the online introduction we had all been waiting for and hours of fun were had.

Every new Pro Evolution Soccer game felt very, very familiar to us all – it’s something we noticed every year without fail. It was pretty obvious that Pro Evo 5 was a great game, and there was nothing surprising about that. What as surprising is that each year Konami would deliver a game that appears to be so similar, yet feels so different to the game that preceded it.

PES 5 brought significiantly improved shooting, with a more noticeable gap between skill levels and more control to the human player. Skilled players now had a ‘Middle shoot’ stat that allowed them to rifle in bullets from just outside the penalty box, and a new ‘placed’ shot that allowed you to direct your efforts with more precise accuracy.

With me, it happened every year – I hated the new game for the first hour. Absolutely hated it and then something clicked – and I felt not only instantly familiar but also that I had been introduced to a crazy new drug. Super cancel in PES5 was absolute perfection, it could be used so fluently that when it came off, you felt like Ronaldinho.

Satisfaction and true online gaming were the two terms I would use to sum up PES5. One of my favourite games of all time.

By the time PES6 came around, nobody in their right mind would even look at another football game, PES was the undisputed King of the world with it’s unique selling points being spoken about in living rooms throughout the world; it’s an easy game to pick-up but very difficult to master; the huge range of tactical, strategic and technical modes of attack and defence that were at our fingertips; the concentration and creativity required to actually score a goal – especially against human opposition; and the game’s un-equalled dominance of the 18-30 marketplace in not only every home – but also in various tournament locations and late night pub lock down sessions.

Playing Pro Evolution Soccer 6 was like slipping on a new pair of trainers that happen to be exactly the same as your last pair. They feel instantly familiar and blissfully comfortable, but at the same time slightly different. It was the same with PES: at first it feels like you’re playing exactly the same game as before, but after a few minutes you pick up on features and gameplay nuances that weren’t there in previous instalments and your jaw instantly drops.

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement in PES6 was the AI of defenders. Your back four now worked together much more closely, playing a more intelligent defensive game and covering for players out of position. Other improvements include a slight speed boost and a revamped online mode. Now up to eight players – four-on-four – can compete simultaneously, and the game no longer slows down due to lag, which greatly improves the whole online experience with flawless Netplay on the PS2, epic Live experience on the Xbox and PC online play – sharing servers with the PS2 fanbase – and Konami didn’t even overhaul and provide a new glowing experience, they didn’t need to – they just took our favourite football game and just made it better.

What could possibly go wrong?

It was always been about gameplay with PES, and that’s one of the reasons that millions of gamers worldwide were willing to spend hours re-creating leagues to play with. PES 2008 has much of the core gameplay that has driven its predecessors, but it’s lost much of its freshness, especially in light of the strides that its main competitor, FIFA 08, has made. Xbox Live Vision camera or your PlayStation Eye to take pictures of team kits to use in-game . . who cares, feature ignored – time to play. It felt ok, but something was different.

While the game was still true to it’s core playability – and remained the focal point for millions of hours of offline fun every weekend as friends got together and just played, everything else felt off.

It became pretty apparently that the game had made few evolutionary steps this time but I guess as long as we still had flawless offline and online play we would accept the strange focus on visual presentation over the micro improvements we’d been used to every year with regards to the gameplay. Online had no voice voice support, Konami were still relying on frustrating text comments (“That was a great goal!” “Let’s Play Again!”) as the focal point for in-game communication. The only disagreements from players here was whether this should be considered frustrating or downright worrying.

What became even more worrying was that regardless of the version, the initial lag online was so bad that at some points we feinted past an opponent in their own half proceeded to run up the pitch and scored a goal before they could even react, and vice versa. For both versions, there was a ping gauge at the top of the screen, but the numbers only serve to aggravate. During one game, the ball went from the one team’s defensive side to another’s in a matter of seconds with no clues as to how it got there.

This was frustrating to the point of unplayability. Players were actually teleporting, what the hell had they done?

After years of living up to the name of evolving the beautiful game, Konami’s latest Pro Evolution Soccer effort was an embarrassment for a series that has served as the dominant title in the genre for a significant amount of years. The graphics needed to be upgraded, we needed a more detailed Master League mode and we sure as hell needed a lag free online experience.

All the modes from the PS2 version will definitely make the jump to the next generation of consoles more triumphant we thought, we begged for a patch. In our hundreds of thousands, we flocked to the once mighty to vent our frustrations and tell Konami exactly where they went wrong.

The loyal PES users bombarded Konami with feature requests, improvement suggestions but no one seemed to be listening. Within a matter of weeks and some insigificant and downright fruadulent patches, nothing was any better. Users reverted to PES6 for online play as we all hoped and dreamed they would listen to user feedback as they promised to right their wrongs in time for PES2009.

The only saving grace Konami had was that the new FIFA was better than previous efforts but still not great so PES had a year to put it right….. well there was a EA’s Euro 2008 game coming in a few months but that wouldn’t have any significant imrovements – surely they’d keep their big gun improvements for their flasgship FIFA 09 next year.

Or would they?