Today I went into the York branch of Game and bought a pre-owned Xbox 360 copy of Pro Evolution Soccer for 99p. 99p! I was just browsing, but I couldn't resist the temptation. I did have the 2011 version until a few months ago (I traded it in) but had been unimpressed with how the developer, Konami, had messed around with the controls. It's obviously trying to keep up with EA Sports' FIFA series, which has taken top dog status in the football gaming world in many's eyes.
I was also tempted because Pro Evo 2008 was the last version of Pro Evo I'd bought on the PS2, and my son and I had spent many a boyishly amused hour making teams of max-skilled giants with silly names (Phil Dinn and Tom Artoe, for instance) who would thrash Newcastle 37-0. Much more fun than playing out a full season as the Middlesbrough team featuring the likes of Jeremie Aliadiare...
All this got me thinking about how football games for consoles and computers have evolved throughout my life. I struggle to remember the name of the first footy game I played, but I think it was International Soccer on the Commodore 64 back in about 1987 or so. The graphics were shockingly basic, with zig-zaggy diagonal lines on the pitch and square-headed players who were able to head the almost ball from one end of the pitch to the other before smashing it past a 'keeper who dived - or fell over - about 3 seconds too late. I was horribly addicted, of course, and spent many an evening abusing the joystick and ranting like a man possessed at the crapness of my team. My mother told me I could be heard shouting at the other end of the street.
Things were to improve fairly quickly, however. Commodore upped their game with the Amiga, and the increased processing power brought about more detailed and faster games like the Kick Off series and Sensible Soccer. Kick Off 2 was ridiculously fast, but so, so smooth. The bend you could apply to the ball would shame Roberto Carlos. In the mid-'90s Sensible Soccer set the benchmark for football computer games, with easy-to-grasp gameplay and the ability to play against and humiliate friends, as we huddled together around portable TVs, mashing the joystick buttons and applying after-touch to our shots.
The Sony Playstation raised the stakes even more towards the late 1990s, and I remember thinking how superb it was to play a football game by Japanese developer Konami called International Superstar Soccer Pro that finally looked right in terms of dimensions and perspectives, and featured 32 International football teams. The stadiums looked pretty decent as well. The control pad for the Playstation, with its multitude of buttons, increased the options for players, giving them the choice of long or short passes, through balls and shots and also the ability to sprint and display skills. There was even commentary, even if it was some voice actor you'd never heard of before or since. The names of the players were a bit strange as well, although some were slightly familiar. The weird sound effects as you dribbled or passed the ball with a metallic clunk didn't detract from the smooth playability of the game.
FIFA 99 was the other football game I tried on my PS. It featured real teams from the English Premier League and real players wearing slightly dodgy representations of the club kits, and it featured commentary by John Motson and Mark Lawrenson. The graphics were pretty smooth, but the game felt a bit like you were playing on ice at times, and the player movements in cut-scenes made them look like angry gangsta rappers, for some bizarre reason.
Into the new millennium and I was soon investing in the new generation Microsoft Xbox, which took graphics up another level and offered the facility to engage in online play against your friends...who could be miles away at the time. So, so cool. The games didn't disappoint, either. The first footy game I got was Pro Evolution Soccer 4, and it remains one of my favourites, probably because it was such a quantum leap forward from the likes of FIFA 99. The graphics were great, with players looking like their real-life counterparts in many cases. The level of tactical choice was astounding and best of all, there was that ability to play against your mate who was 30 or more miles away and not risk getting a dead arm when you rubbed it in following a 4-0 drubbing. Even the odd bit of "lag", when the game slowed down, didn't spoil the experience. Of course, some people learned to exploit such things and strangers you'd been matched against by Xbox Live often just quit the games when they were losing. Leagues were even formed on on-line communities, but getting them finished was a real challenge.
PES went for realism with number 5, but that spoiled it for me. The game became less arcadey, yes, but it also became too hard. Some would say it got more realistic, but the harsh refereeing made it even more annoying. I was glad when they eased back on the "realism" in the next version.
I was an unashamed PES fanboy by now, obviously, and I gave the FIFA series short shrift for a while. I relented to the wave of popular opinion when I upgraded to the 360 and bought myself FIFA 11. It was slower and more measured, but the depth of the game was really something to behold. Being able to play as a League 2 team with the right kit and properly-named players is quite something, if that's what turns you on. Playing against them on the easiest level is more fun. The Ultimate Team add-on had me seriously hooked for a while as well. I got quite good, beating the likes of Barcelona on the hardest Legendary setting, and I spent a few quid on points for the Gold Packs. I never got a Messi or Ronaldo, though, and was soon bored of losing 7 and 8-0 to kids with the reactions of mosquitoes on speed. I'm getting old, you know.
So now I've got PES 2008 again and have convinced my son that he should recreate the team we called "The Jammers" (I don't really know where that came from, it was his idea). In the twenty-odd years I've been playing them, football games have changed a lot, but I'm still a sucker for a quick blast on a moderately easy setting to see who can score the best, acutest-angled, longest-range goal possible.