Having a kickabout with your mates or featuring for your local 11 aside teams should in theory trump playing out a game sitting on your sofa like a couch potato but in truth – many lack the ability to truly express their ideas and football intelligence out on the pitch - hindered by their lack of athleticism or technique. In contrast, the virtual arena removes such barriers and seeks to turn pre-existing footballing hierarchies on their head. So that explains why the masses take a personal interest in the virtual world of football – but what makes a great football video game? 

The greatest games are addictive, innovative, and reflect the tactical depth of the game without getting bogged down in the detail and taking away the fun factor. Graphically they are timeless - games you could replay decades later and still enjoy them. Such games should also offer an outstanding online or offline single and multiplayer offering. The leading games also offer challenging gameplay that manages to still flow as naturally as the beautiful game itself – successfully circumnavigating feelings of ‘frustration’ or accusations of  ‘scripting’. They have iconic genre-defining soundtracks but more importantly, they afford you the virtual opportunity to express yourself as liberally and as faithfully as possible,  whether it’s an off-the-cuff skill move or a shrewd tactical manoeuvre. 


We start off with the Granddaddy of Football games aka Sensible World of Soccer. On 12  March 2007, The New York Times reported that Sensible World of Soccer, the sequel to  Sensible Soccer (1992) was shortlisted as one of the ten most important video games of all time by Stanford University; becoming the first video game to encompass the world’s most popular sport into one game, with a total amount of approximately 1,500 teams and 27,000  players. The ground-breaking career game mode enabled players to manage a club through  20 seasons. Every player had individual skills (speed, tackling, heading, finishing, shooting,  passing, ball control) and player prices were calculated relative to their skills. Stronger players could be acquired by earning money through winning various competitions and job offers from other interested clubs/national teams would also roll in. Graphically, the game was simplistic by the standards of the modern era with its top-down view but it was very bright and colourful. What really made it stand the test of time was its mastery of ball physics with the aftertouch feature being the stuff of legend. Unleashing a shot and applying some deadly late swerve to catch the keeper out was incredible fun and modern mobile free-kick games still utilise this feature. 


In truth, EA Sports is the first one to foray into the world of Football in the mid-nineties by introducing – FIFA International Soccer. Even though the game was deeply flawed but it captured that ‘key’ ingredient which was successfully translating the real-world excitement of the beautiful game onto the virtual pitch and providing a difficulty level which presented more of a challenge than the simplistic gameplay of Sensible World of Soccer. Graphically,  the game would not prove as exceptional as Actua Soccer or Virtua Soccer, with every player built like a 16-bit Arnold Schwarzenegger, bar varying shades of skin tone, and each one having a fictional name but it did have an iconic isometric broadcasting angle which was positioned as if looking down on the pitch from one of the stadium’s corners. This new perspective captured the players’ entire bodies and the team’s entire tactical systems, closing the distance between video game and televisual representations of the sport. Tactically the game was more advanced than Sensible World of Soccer – with pre-match strategy having a  demonstrable impact. You could choose to go all out defend or all-out attack and anything in between, not to mention adjust the zonal pitch coverage of your defenders, midfielders and attackers. In terms of realism, unlike previous football games, where the ball appeared glued to the player’s foot, FIFA was innovative and enabled players to knock the ball forward and chase after it. The players due to their robust physiques had more presence and the tackles had a lot more bite and oomph than any 16-bit rivals. 

Criticisms include the fact that even back then the game was struggling with ‘scripting’. it was easier to score from distance than closer to the goal. If you dribbled the ball at a certain angle and took a shot, you were guaranteed a goal every time and yet superhuman goalkeepers would save what otherwise seemed like certainties. Furthermore, passing was exasperatingly difficult and lacking in logic – it felt like playing with your hands tied behind your back. In the end, even though the young children became football fans through Panini  Cards, the original FIFA changed all that… It made football video games mainstream and provided a gateway for youngsters to get into the beautiful game. In the first four weeks alone, over 500,000 sales were made, and despite its December release, FIFA International  Soccer was the best selling game of 1993. A behemoth was born.


Spurred by FIFA’s dizzying success, new competitors entered the market. The original Virtua  Striker, released in 1994, was the first association football game to use 3D computer graphics and was also notable for its early use of texture mapping. It became an arcade sensation and in terms of gameplay was the best football game in the world until the late nineties. Despite being made in 1994, its 3D graphics hold up even now and the players move so realistically, with collision mechanics and ball physics/manipulation way ahead of its time. Shooting, passing, dribbling, tackling – it all felt fantastic and there was a genuine sense of freedom… you did not feel restricted when playing this game. Furthermore, it gave the sense that you were right in the action of an elite encounter and that everyone around you was a sentient physical being. 

Criticisms include the fact that the game did not have any real tactical depth or offer a  sustained career mode… The game consisted of a single-elimination knock-out tournament with 16 teams (like in the knock-out stage of the FIFA World Cup), with each match lasting two minutes by default, plus injury time and, if the match ended in a draw, one extra minute of sudden death. Ultimately this game would become the ‘what if’ game of the 90’s as whilst thousands dreamed of being able to play it in their bedrooms – when it did arrive on a home console, in the form of the Dreamcast, it was underwhelming and had been left behind by the rapid progress of the FIFA franchise. Nevertheless the original would remain the purest footballing experience until the rise of Pro Evolution Soccer. 


Championship Manager 2 is usually considered the management simulation of the ’90s,  laying down the foundations for what would eventually become Football Manager. But take a look at it now and it has aged terribly in terms of its User Interface – no modern gamer would have the patience to play it. For me, FIFA Soccer Manager had the more timeless interface, its striking Royal Blue background so eye-catching, with a plethora of easy to access squad management options at your fingertips - all of which had a demonstrable impact on the well-being of your team. Tailoring training regimes for all your players was actually fun and it was refreshingly rewarding. 

Graphically, the game was a powerhouse with its Virtual Stadium match engine being incredibly ahead of its time and allowing games to be played out before your very eyes.  However, it took this innovation one step further by allowing you to save full matches or highlights for further review. Whilst no one in their right mind would actually go and re-watch their virtual games, just having the option to do so in of itself was mind-blowing. Era-wise, it was set a year before the 1998 World Cup - for my money one of the most exciting periods of football the game has ever seen in terms of the variety of strong teams across  Europe and the player pool in general. The game featured Ronaldo Fenomeno at his peak,  the likes of Batistuta, Maldini in their prime, and budding versions of Beckham, Zidane and  Figo. Despite overflowing with Galacticos, the game was incredibly realistic and did not allow you to build super teams easily. 

Peculiar quirks included the fact that you could not save the game when you wanted - it automatically saved it for you so it was not possible to restart the game if you suffered an injury to key personnel. Managing concessions such as the Burger Shop was part of your job and you could also upgrade your stadium and watch the building works progress. A slight criticism is that players very rarely progressed beyond a player rating of over 82 which meant the game had a short shelf life once the real players all retired. 


5. FIFA 1999 

Many rightfully fawn over FIFA: Road to World Cup 1998, with its historical intro music in the form of Blur’s Song 2 but for me, Fatboy Slim’s The Rockafella Skank was THE iconic FIFA  tune. Blur’s song would arguably have been just as iconic even without its link to FIFA but for me, The Rockafella Skank needed FIFA just as much as FIFA needed it. The 1999  soundtrack set in stone the enshrined principle that a great football experience necessitated the need for a brilliant soundtrack underpinning it. Compared to the other 3D marvels of its time, ISS Pro, Actua Soccer and Virtua Soccer - FIFA 99 graphically holds up the best and is still replayable even now. Whereas players all still looked rather an identikit prior to this edition and ISS Pro player models were all very similar - FIFA 99 began to bring the cult of personality into the game through the inclusion of basic facial animations and different players' heights as well as certain other cosmetic features such as improved kits and emblems. 

The gameplay was leagues ahead of what we had seen in FIFA 95 but it was not as groundbreaking as Virtua Striker, whose mastery of ball physics and player movements would not be surpassed until PES 5. Nevertheless, FIFA 99’s passing was crisp, as was the turning with the ball - had roulettes ever felt so good? Slide tackles were very satisfying as was the variety of goals… and the tempo of the game felt more attuned to the real game than any of its rivals. One of the peculiar quirks of the game was that Ronaldo Fenomeno was nowhere to be seen on the game due to EA Sports failing to secure a licence for him and was replaced in the Brazil and Inter Milan teams by some bloke called 'A. Calcio'. Fortunately, player editing mode made it possible to change his name but it proves how great this game was,  that this ‘glitch’ only served to enhance the game's legacy rather than be used as a stick to beat it with.


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