Well, we’re finally here. The Final of Euro 2020 is tonight. It’s a little late as a result of the pandemic but it’s finally arrived. England will be seeking their first European Championship while Italy is chasing their second. No doubt it’ll be a riveting match. In other football news, today also saw the conclusion of the Copa America, with Argentina edging out Brazil 1-0. All this football (or soccer, depending on where you hail from) got me thinking about the games I love to play. I’d normally pick up either a FIFA or a Pro Evolution Soccer every year and sink my teeth into them until the next one arrived. This year was an exception as I didn’t think it felt worth it. Football has played an important role in my life, especially my childhood. I grew up during the Jack Charlton era, cheering on the likes of Roy Keane, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend and Paul McGrath. I still remember Houghton lobbing Pagliuca in the Giants Stadium in USA 94, refusing to watch the Norway match in case we didn’t make it through and then the disappointment of the Netherlands sending Ireland home in the Round of 16. Of course, there were barren years with failure to qualify for Euro 96, France 98 and Euro 2000 but the joy returned for Japan/ South Korea 2002, when Robbie Keane scored a late equaliser against Germany. It once again ended in heartbreak, losing to Spain on penalties.
This encouraged me to play football with my local schoolboys’ team. I loved getting out on a Sunday and just trying my best. I wasn’t any good but I had my moments. I played in a variety of positions from centre back to left wing to left wing back. When I moved to London, I attempted to try again but being in my late 20s and not having played for years, it was hard to keep up with the teenagers. Of course, with my love of the sport there would also be video games. The earliest memory of a football game I have is World Cup Italia 90 for the Sega Mega Drive. It was bundled on the Mega Games 1 along with Columns and Super Hang On. It featured 24 playable nations but not Ireland, despite qualifying for the tournament. It had a top-down camera and minimal sound effects. I remember it not being very good. I do own it now but I have no desire to pop it into my Mega Drive. FIFA International Soccer and FIFA 95 on the Mega Drive were where I got my first real taste of console football games. Both were presented with an angled view but looked so much better than World Cup Italia 90. These would be the start of EA’s long running FIFA series. FIFA International Soccer only had 76 international teams (but did include Ireland) but did have a variety of modes to try out, including Tournament and League modes. One of the most memorable features was being able to run away from a referee when he tried to book you. FIFA 95 would expand upon its predecessor by introducing league teams from six European Leagues. Now you could play as Manchester United, Juventus, Barcelona or Bayern. My friend owned this one and would often bring it around so we could play Exhibition matches against each other. I haven’t played either of these two in years but I recall them being very similar.
With the arrival of the PlayStation, I finally got my own football game. In fact, I got five of them in a very short time. The first of these is the one I have the most memories of, FIFA 98: Road to World Cup. I have talked about this one in my PlayStation at 25 post but I really did love this game. I would edit my teams, buy the best players, take part in the Road to World Cup mode with friends, get players sent off in indoor mode, so many great memories. The game was easy to pick up and play but like many FIFA games had the ball pretty much attached to the players feet. It would get a spin off in World Cup 98, which only featured the teams that qualified for the World Cup compared to FIFA 98’s massive 172 international teams. Following FIFA 98: Road to World Cup, my parents would buy me Actua Soccer Club Edition while on holidays. They’d gotten it cheap and I was excited to play as the Premier League teams in, what at the time, looked like very realistic kits. I hated this one. The game look decent but the controls were sluggish. An example would be when you’d go to pass, the animation would take so long, the opposition would steal possession from you and you’d end up fouling them. It was frustrating and I rarely played it. The next football game I would get was Three Lions, and odd choice for an Irish person. This one was featured in a gaming magazine and showed off a unique shooting system. When you got close to the goal, the camera would swing around and you could target anywhere on the goal. Great in theory, terrible in practice and that really sums up this game. Great looking kits, plenty of unlockables but only one stadium, no commentary and awful controls hold it back. International Superstar Soccer Pro would be the fourth football game I’d own on the original PlayStation. It was another one I’d spotted in a magazine (this time in the reviews at the back). I found a Platinum version one day for cheap and picked it up. Compared to FIFA 98, it was a much more difficult game. Now, ball control was important rather than just holding down the sprint button. I felt it looked better than FIFA 98 but it didn’t have as many teams or any licensed players. The commentary is both fantastic and woeful at the same time. It’s bad but a sort of great bad. I really liked this one, especially as I got it as a budget title. I didn’t sink as many hours into it as FIFA 98 though. My last football game on the original PlayStation was UEFA Champions League from Eidos. Based on the 1998/99 season, it featured the real teams, players and kits from that season as well as some classic ones to unlock. It also had realistic stadiums, something missing from some of the other games I’d played. Its difficulty fell between FIFA 98 and ISS Pro but I did get some enjoyment out of it. I remember winning the Champions League with Manchester United but not much else.
With a new console, came a new series of football games. The PlayStation 2 was my go-to console for the sixth generation and with it, I got Pro Evolution Soccer. I simply adored this game and its many sequels. I loved the presentation style, the Master League and the gameplay. I would spend hours editing many of the teams every year, giving them accurate kits with their proper sponsors, changing the player names to their real ones and mastering freekicks. I would often set up mini-tournaments with friends and family and spend hours playing them. One cool feature they did introduce between games was the ability to import a save from an older PES. This brought over the real players names and team names if they were correct. PES across the seven games I had on the PlayStation 2 had a tonne of unlockables, from classic teams to penguins. PES would make subtle changes to the gameplay over the course of the PlayStation 2. They weren’t explicitly noticeable when moving from say, Pro Evolution Soccer to Pro Evolution Soccer 2 but you would notice the big difference between the first game and Pro Evolution Soccer 6. They also made changes to the teams, adding in new ones and licensed teams and leagues. They would also revamp the Master League from one giant league with different divisions to something similar to real life leagues, with promotion, relegation and European Qualification. The transfer system would use a weird PES Points system that would eventually be swapped out for actual currencies in later games. There was even an option to mix and match jersey, shorts and socks at one stage. It may be small but I miss this feature. The PES series was such a big game for me on the PlayStation 2 and up until I got an Xbox 360, I never missed a single entry. I even picked up the very meh Pro Evolution Soccer Management. I did dabble with other football games in the sixth generation. I tried FIFA at the time but felt it was so far behind PES. I had FIFA 2003 and UEFA Euro 2004. I enjoyed FIFA 2003, especially its presentation style but I wasn’t a fan of the gameplay. For some reason, FIFA on PlayStation 2 and Xbox always felt sluggish. I had this same complaint for UEFA Euro 2004. UEFA Euro 2004 did see a return of international qualifying like FIFA 98, which was a cool feature. By this time EA was splitting out the tournaments, so we would get FIFA, UEFA Champions League and UEFA Euro or World Cup in a given year. These would often make very little changes in between the games and kept the same sluggish gameplay. The commentary was nice, so that’s something.
With the seventh generation, I tried Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 but it didn’t capture me in the same way as the PlayStation 2 version. It looked more polished but was weak compared to the FIFA series so I jumped back to EA’s title. Once again, I would buy them every year. Some were average, some were excellent. Probably the best of these was FIFA 10. The gameplay felt smooth, the sound effects were on point and the manager mode was fantastic. Players’ stats would change depending on how they performed during the season over a pre-set path. There was also a team of the season and youth players would be offered to you. These players could become superstars much quicker than in modern games. I miss these features in career mode now as I feel youth players take too long to develop and having development tied to a certain path, with players having a max potential, is a bit of a missed opportunity. FIFA would go on to develop Ultimate Team. This would become a huge revenue generator for EA and they would focus their attention on it. As a result, Pro Clubs and Career Mode would see little to no improvement over the years. Many features, including Pro Clubs, would vanish. Manager mode became a carbon copy with little changes. In fact, FIFA 19’s big change in Career Mode was the rebranding of the Champions Cup to the Champions League as EA had won the license from Konami. This is what led me to skip over FIFA 21 as I felt the changes weren’t worth spending €60 on. I’m waiting to see what FIFA 22 has in store but if there’s not a lot of changes, I may skip it as well. Afterall, I have got Dybala and Tielemans in my FIFA 20 teams so I’m in no rush.
What is your favourite football game? Do you buy them every year? Who will you be cheering for tonight? Whether you’re singing “It’s coming home” or screaming “Forza Italia” I hope you enjoy the match.