FIFA: the highs and lows over the years

FIFA 2001? Rubbish. FIFA 99? It might just be the best version of the game ever.

Football doesn’t get mentioned on Den of Geek all that often, possibly because Simon is a Birmingham City fan and despite petitions Christophe Dugarry is yet to appear in Doctor Who as the head of louche UNIT. When we do mention it is often in connection with thinly veiled despair and/or computer games. Championship Manager/Football Manager holds sway over many a geek’s life just as much as Game Of Thrones, a story rife with political intrigue, corruption and greed. This seems as good a time as any to mention FIFA, an organisation many of us have chosen to support by purchasing the game carrying their name.

The reason this habit continues for many of us is, of course, that they’re really fun to play. While Pro Evo(lution Soccer) has been rivalling them since 2001 (and there’s always going to be a debate about which franchise is superior), the FIFA games have been in our lives since 1993’s FIFA International Soccer, with yearly releases ever since, initially rivalled by Konami’s International Superstar Soccer.

The first edition I ever played was FIFA 95, where I was swiftly introduced to the spot on the wing where your shot always went across the keeper and into the top corner (thus demonstrating only a slight progression from the gritty realism of Nintendo World Cup with its near-unstoppable supershots and ability to render the opposing players unconscious).

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The first edition I ever bought was World Cup 98. This was purely because FIFA: Road To The World Cup 98 wasn’t in stock, and it was much the same game with a few modifications, fewer teams, and a World Cup Classics mode where you could lash a leather football into the top corner via Bobby Charlton’s instep in 60’s monochrome. With fewer teams, it allowed for more accurate kits (including the none-more-satisfying font of the 1998 Nike kits – this is something I gain satisfaction from, yes). Road To The World Cup may have been visually less rigorous, but the sheer breadth of the leagues, competitions and teams you could play with was a major selling point.

If you’ve ever wanted to win the World Cup with Swaziland, this is literally the only game for you.

In terms of gameplay it was a step towards realism – no magic spot where you would automatically score from in this game – but not so much that you couldn’t pull off ludicrous skill moves with players such as Gordon Durie.

Now, Gordon Durie is a solid professional (averaging roughly a goal every three games), but I do not recall him ever flicking a ball up and over his head and that of the onrushing goalkeeper, presenting him with a simple tap-in. Special moves required simply holding down two keys on the keyboard or gamepad, with the N64 controller in particular making it easy by actually using the four-directional C-buttons.

FIFA 99 improved further on the graphics and gameplay, while retaining a level of unrealistic skill that made it a joy to play. When you’ve scored an overhead kick with Paul Kane twice and Paddy Connolly is a lethal penalty box striker you become aware that this isn’t going to be big on verisimilitude.

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Other features sadly lost after the frankly piss-poor FIFA 2001 (all it had going for it was incredibly realistic graphics for Darren Dods) include the ability to take a dive and do a knee high tackle. While it’s understandable that these have gone (especially in the case of the latter), it was always intriguing to me how I seemed to con the referee a lot more when I was controlling Alan Shearer. As FIFA gaming moved online players managed to find new ways of being incredibly annoying to each other without needing these options, it turned out we didn’t need special buttons for it anyway.

FIFA 99 remains my favourite version of the game due to its longevity in my life. I bought the PC version and played that to death until an unfortunate incident involving a virus and a copy of Championship Manager 2 made my PC notably less efficient than usual.

Fortunately I was just about to complete the greatest business transaction of my life. I borrowed Alex Borland’s N64 for the summer for a grand total of £5, including six games. He didn’t ask for it back for six months. My Dad and I played that game so much, but he never twigged that I was scoring most of my one-on-ones by pressing pass instead of shoot. That was a glorious quirk of that game which no edition since has been ever to replicate to my satisfaction.

This is not an attempt at anything approaching objective journalism, just so we’re clear.

Then FIFA 2001 introduced a power bar into the game, and it became a tedious matter of stretching your fingers like an F Major chord across the keyboard every time you wanted to move the ball forward. Thus, I became a Pro Evo devotee for a while, until I found a copy of FIFA 07 in a charity shop for £1.50. It had more scratches on it than someone who died just before feeding their cat. Loading it was like trying to start an old car in sub-zero temperatures, until I read online that a tiny dab of toothpaste rubbed into the disc helped with scratches. It seemed to do the trick, plus my Xbox smelt minty fresh.

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More importantly, FIFA 07 was great fun. It maintained a level of realism that didn’t impinge on fast-paced, gleeful attacking gameplay. Anderson, ex of Man United, was a colossally unfit demigod in this edition, and defensive AI appeared to have been modelled on Jean Alain Boumsong. Listless toddlers in Doc Martens could outjump Ron Vlaar in FIFA 07, and this made it tremendous fun to play against the computer.

Three years later, FIFA 10 went for a different approach by making scoring a header something akin to Luke managing to hit a two metre wide exhaust port, only instead of using the Force you have Kenny Deuchar. FIFA 11 improved on this, and was available in the staff room at work for a while (and there was much rejoicing).

The game was entering an era where verisimilitude was a big deal, and the graphics had improved to the extent of almost passing for the real thing. The gameplay too had started to ape a very specific kind of realism: emphasis on through balls and one-on-ones made pace and acceleration key attributes, aided and abetted by the ability to drag players out of position (helped by some curious choices from full backs who seem determined to end up in defensive midfield positions) or to create space through passing or skill moves.

However, as FIFA 12 remodelled the defensive side of the game to make it more about denying space, the series has felt increasingly like it’s trying to become even more realistic. The short term effect has been to reward players with lightning pace and sufficient finishing skills (eg. Victor Ibarbo, or – for six glorious years of Premiership dominance in FIFA 12 – Jamie Murphy) but also made defending a key part of the game. This can be frustrating to play against and isn’t widely recognised as a positive attribute. No one ever loses 2-0 online and sends a congratulatory message saying ‘Your deep lying midfielders and counter-attacking game successfully nullified all my attacking strategies, well played’.

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On the other hand, goalmouth scrambles are now much more frantic and if someone is noticeably better at attacking than you it is much easier to play against. Now we can all be like Greece in Euro 2004. The dream has become a reality.

Looking back over the development of the FIFA games, the overall trend is a move towards realism. It’s not that the earlier games didn’t want to be realistic, but simply that they could only achieve so much at the time. It was always the aim. Some may debate the balance between realism and fun (reviews seem to indicate that FIFA 12 got the balance right), but there’s one thing I can definitely take from looking back at my decades of playing these games: the most fun I’ve ever had hasn’t been reliant on the edition on the game nearly as much as it has playing against someone else in the same room.

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