Friday 4 July 2014

Snes Review : Fifa International Soccer (Game 049)

I grew up a geek in an all boys school. I spent my evenings and weekends avoiding going outside, preferring the company of plumbers rescuing princesses and green suited heroes collecting rupees. While other boys played sports in parks, I would hide in front of a TV clutching a controller. That is at least until my Mum would turn it off and force me to go outside. As far as I was aware growing up, boys my age either liked sports or liked videos games. However, there was one type of game that these non-geeky boys would play - a digital representation of what they spent all day doing. It never really crossed my mind at the time, but how ironic it now seems that the very people who mocked me for playing "childish video games" would themselves be using the same machines and controllers of an evening. They turned to my hobby when the sun had gone down and playing a real life version of their hobby was impossible. Of course though, because their video game looked like the thing that Daddy watched every week on TV it was grown up and cool, not childish and immature. 
There's enough evidence now on eBay and at boot fairs to prove that some children had a Snes and only played soccer games. As grownups sell their childhood things, bundles of games get sold that consists of nothing but football titles. The exact titles in these bundles depends on the format; if Amiga games are up for sale it'll be 'Sensible Soccer' and 'Kick Off' but if it's a bundle of console titles it could be nothing but 'FIFA' games. 

While I know there are geeks who liked sports, to reach the volume of sales that the 'FIFA' games achieved those that didn't usually play video games had to be buying them too. For the first game, EA expected to sell at most 300,000 copies across all format in Europe. It launched in December 1994 and managed to shift nearly double this in four weeks, becoming the best selling game of the year. From that day until now, every year has meant a new ‘Fifa’ game and according to the trade publication MVC the series has become “the biggest in the world”. Despite its significance though I must confess I have had very little experience with any of these games over the last 20 years. Consequently, I approach ‘Fifa International Soccer’ somewhat ill-informed and very reluctantly.

For someone who has spent a lifetime only knowing sports games viewed from a bird’s eye, when looking at the main game screen the first thing that seems striking is the angle of view. The now iconic isometric perspective though was never intended for soccer; originally it was conceived by Jon Law and Jules Burt for a beach volleyball game they were hoping to sell to EA Sports. “I remember [Matt Webster] from EA travelling all the way up north to visit us,” recalls Jules Burt.  “He told us our [volleyball] project wasn't going ahead. However, he also had news of another game they wanted us to help develop – soccer.” At the request of EA Law and Burt devised two other possible ways in which a game of football could be presented. Their only directive was that the game must not look like ‘Sensible Soccer’, which at the time was the most popular football game on the market. One was a side scrolling pitch, with parallax scrolling to give depth. Another was a “forward into the screen pitch” not dissimilar to ‘Super Soccer’. But it was the original beach volleyball isometric that Webster still favoured. “I remember going up there and saw the isometric pitch and thought: ‘Wow this is interesting’, it looked like a match on TV.”

For me though it was a poor choice, driven by a desire for an appealing aesthetic rather than pleasurable game play.  The most obvious problem with an isometric view is that it is at odds with controller’s D Pad. To move up the pitch do you push right, up, or at a diagonal? Even if the d-pad was angled differently the controller wouldn’t stop the footballers feeling as if they were sliding around with soap on their shoes. With no sprint button the teams sluggishly trudge towards a ball, making the game feel laborious and hard work.

The player sprites during a match are nice and clear, even if every player on a team looks the same. However, as with the chosen viewing angle a hunger for detailed characters has had a detrimental effect on the game. “Everything about that first game was like: “How the f*ck did they do this?’” Neil Thewarapperuma the (then) European marketing boss for EA Sports once famously said. “The player animation was so impressive I put it on the box.” The problem is though, to get box-worthy detailed player animation requires a close up view and a close up view limits the amount of pitch you can see. Consequently far too often, the player is in control of a footballer that is actually off screen with only an arrow suggesting their vague position. This is made worse by the fact that the player nearest the ball is not always the one you get to control, which means all too often you are left somewhat helpless as the ball sails past the defence and around an equally uncontrollable goal keeper. At least then you are seeing the goal itself, which is actually a rarity for the majority of play. Long shots on goal are pointless since you do not know exactly where it is. Instead, the best tactic seems to be getting control of the ball and attempting to run towards the goal, until you are close enough that missing is impossible (even with the imprecise not diagonal control buttons). While ‘Sensible Soccer’ is tactical and intelligent, this game feels more of an arcade-style experience with every player crowding around the ball trying to get possession.

It is true that a game like this only really comes alive when played with a human opponent. A human mind can vary play in ways the artificial intelligence can’t (though they will of course have all of these tactics scuppered by the terrible controls and inability to see the character you’re controlling). While I have generally had no interest in the series, even I have dabbled in multiplayer ‘Fifa’ with my former brother-in-law on several occasions. In some ways, he fits my earlier description of the non-geek football loving gamer, although he was certainly not a bully in his youth (and I’m sure would have chatted to a sunlight dodging geek should one have been hit by his football in the school playground). As he grew up he had owned predominantly sports games; football, golf, formula one and even ice hockey. It amused me when we recently looked at his Mega Drive games that he had a dozen cartridges, but not one ‘Sonic’ game. For him his Sega machine replicated the sports he played and watched in real life, this was enough to keep him amused for hours on end. Indeed now he still plays games, but the titles he had on his PS3 were almost exclusively sports orientated. It’s fair to say, he has much more experience than me when it comes to football video games, so when we play the latest version of ‘Fifa’ he not only wins, he wins by a wide margin. However, even with 20 years of pixelated kick offs and digital goal scoring when we play against one on this Super Nintendo ‘Fifa Soccer’ the score-line doesn’t really reflect his superior skill. Someone new to a game should be embarrassingly thrashed by a seasoned pro, but when we play ‘Fifa International Soccer’ I would only be a goal or two down when the final whistle blows. Playing the game in two player mode only serves to emphasise how little influence you actually have over a match. In fact, for an experiment I started a two player game but put both controllers down. To my amazement, despite having no one at the helm the teams consistently tackled one and other, intercepted passes and even took shots on goal. The computer’s aid to a player clearly goes beyond moving non-controller players into position.

Even with a joypad in hand, watching what the others on your team do when you’re not in control of them is often hilarious. They run in random directions, leaping when no ball was in the air and always run towards the ball. Then of course there is the infamous game breaking bug that even I knew of. To win any game, all you need to do is place your striker in front of the opposition keeper. Then when as he goes to clear the ball it bounces off your player and usually ends up in the goal. If I’m honest, I was left with the inescapable feeling that I was actually there solely to help the computer control the team, rather than the other way around. I was simply correcting the AI when it was being idiotic, playing the role of an assistant rather than a manager. A player doing a spectacular diving leap or a feeble kick seemed entirely random, or at least it did to a player new to the game.

This game spawned, many many sequels. In true EA Style if a franchise is popular this popularity will be exploited as much as possible. Over the 20 years since, there’s been at least a yearly update to the game, more if there is a tournament to tie a release to. In each iteration though, I am lead to believe that improvements were made. The awful isometric perspective for example vanished within 3 years to be replaced with a far more functional zoomed out view. Infact even after 2 years, ‘Fifa 96’ the last release seen on the Snes; had smaller player sprites and more pitch visible. There are many people online better equipped to talk about the series’ evolution over the years, people who have actually played the games.  Some to this day will still argue that from this very first game in the series things were brilliant. It is an opinion shared by magazines at the time. Total!! for example said ‘Fifa International Soccer’ was “excellent to play when it's too wet to kick a ball around outside [and] worth considering , whether you're a footy fan or not.” Naturally I fall into the ‘not’ part, and can say with certainty that they are wrong. It is not worth even a passing consideration if you dislike football.

In a previous post I said that ‘Sensible Soccer’ was fantastic fun, even if you disguised the fact it was a football simulation, ‘Fifa International Soccer’ is the opposite. Anyone who played this game and claimed it is fun, like it just because it’s replicating the football they watched on TV. Even though the player’s names are not accurate, the teams look recognisable and that seems to be enough for some. If you could strip this all away though, and mask the fact it was football would people sit down and enjoy the actual game they were playing? Is it actually fun trying to move a ball into a goal you can’t see, using a player that’s off screen?  Even if you do have a controllable sprite on screen, the computer can still ruin everything, either randomly switching which player you’re in control of or taking over the game completely. I fail to see how anyone if they are honest can consider that fun especially when there’s ‘Sensible Soccer’ out there, a game that still to this day offers an enjoyable interpretation of the “beautiful game”.  In a way, I can understand why these sporty non geeks never played other game on their console, its easier to stick to what interests you rather than try new things. However, if this was their only experience of digital gaming then their opinion of the hobby that I adore could not have been a positive one. 

Where did I get this game?

There’s obviously no way I would have sought this game out purposefully to add to my collection of Super Nintendo masterpieces. I got this simply because it came in a bundle with some other games I wanted. It’s highly likely that it would have stayed on the shelf un-played were It not for this ‘”World Cup Special”. In the past, unlikely prompts to try new games have lead to me being pleasantly surprised; this was not the case with ‘Fifa International Soccer’. I had low expectations for this game, but at least thought it would be playable. This it seems was even too much to hope for. Looking back at retrospective reviews I really can’t understand how magazines saw fit to lavish 90% scores on this game. Clearly if you like the subject matter, then you will forgive a game of all it’s sins. Something which I will explore more in Game 050. 


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