Insert Coin To Continue: Part Six – A Wide Open Field, 1994-2005

In many ways, we live in a world of near-infinite choice. We can find any music, any video, and a lot of words free of charge (should we choose to), and we can purchase from anywhere in the world if we’re prepared to wait a while for delivery. But in some respects choice is smaller than we realise, or smaller than we’ve noticed it becoming. On the Wikipedia page for football video games, there are thirty-five listed for the Playstation. There are sixteen listed for the PS2. There are three listed for both the PS3 and only two for the PS4. And you’re probably not sure what the third one is for the PS3 either, are you?

There are reasons why FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer became titans of the genre. Some of them are fair, others less so. But it is always worth remembering that the PS1 era brought with it the most fertile period for football video games since the rush of ZX Spectrum and C64 games of the mid-1980s. Some of the other games might have been competition for the Big Two, given a fairer hearing by the public and a few tweaks, but a whole other lot were varying degrees of middling to poor, as well. Still, though, at least it was a hive of ideas as console gaming moved into the 3D era properly for the first time.

Sony’s involvement in the console market began in 1986, with a joint venture with Nintendo on a system called the SNES-CD, which never quite got off the ground. After Nintendo cancelled the project, Sony decided to press on with the idea of launching a disc-based console of their own. Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in May 1991, the Playstation was released in Japan in December 1994, and then in North America and Europe in September 1995. It was a stunning success, with smooth 3D graphics and an excellent array of launch games. By the end of 1995, it had sold two million units.

The Playstation’s success was partially due to Sony’s approach to third party developers. Both Sega and Nintendo were also software producers for their own consoles, and this seemed to have left them with a slightly off-hand attitude towards third party games developers. Sony, although they did set up their own software division, took a different approach. They made the Playstation available, produced videos, and offered technical assistance to those who wanted to write games for the new system. The policy worked. By the end of 1996, there were twice as many games in development for the PS1 as there were for the Sega Saturn, and almost eight times as many there were for the Nintendo 64.

The kings of the early 32-bit football games were International Superstar Soccer (which we’ll be covering in another instalment in this series) and Actua Soccer, by Gremlin Interactive. Released in 1995, Actua Soccer was produced in close association with Sheffield Wednesday, who provided three players – Chris Woods, Graham Hyde and Andy Sinton – to be used for motion capture purposes, but it’s biggest claim to fame was being the first football game for a home console to be rendered completely in 3D. Prior to Actua Soccer, football games tended to use 2D sprites on a 3D background, but Actua Soccer’s game engine took football games literally into a new dimension.

The game only featured forty-four national teams and no club sides, but this was rectified the following year with the release of Actua Soccer Club Edition, which featured all twenty Premier League clubs for the 1996/97 season. The same year saw the release of Actua Soccer 2 – which featured, amongst other things, the whole of Serie A and a cameo appearance from the Welsh band Super Furry Animals – and a third instalment in the series was released at the end of 1998. Following a takeover by the French company Infogrames in 1999, though, the entire Actua Sports series – which also covered tennis, ice hockey, pool and golf – was cancelled.

Gremlin’s other big football hit of the 1990s was Premier Manager, a management simulator first released on the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and Megadrive in 1992. Two follow-ups were released, but it was the release of Premier Manager 98 which saw the game ported to the PlayStation for the first time, using the Actua Soccer game engine to show match footage whilst managing to retain a reasonable level of depth without becoming as easy to get as bogged down, as can happen in modern iterations of Football Manager if the player isn’t careful. The series ran in some form or other through until 2009 on the PS2 and Windows, with each year’s addition containing minor graphical, interface and statistical upgrades. The 2005 edition treated Hong Kong and Tibet as independent states within its game-play and was subsequently banned by China’s Ministry of Culture as a result.

Back at the arcade end of the football games spectrum, established developers spent much of the 1990s figuring out how to make the most of the considerably more powerful technology now at their disposal. Striker, which made its debut on the previous generation of consoles, was retweaked as Striker ’96 (with commentary from a half-interested Ally McCoist), but received terrible reviews and was discontinued thereafter. Another game from the previous era, Kick Off, was also reborn for the 32-bit era in the form of Kick Off World in 1998, but with Dino Dini, the writer of the original game, having left developers Anco several years earlier, this game also received poor reviews, although this didn’t prevent one further version of the game, Kick Off 2002, from being released four years later. Completing a hat-trick of older games failing to hit the mark was Sensible Soccer, which was also ported to an underwhelming response in 1998. The botched release of Sensible Soccer 2006, which was rushed to coincide with the start of that year’s World Cup finals, turned out to be the last game in that series, too.

If the old masters couldn’t recreate their magic on these new, more powerful systems, then, what innovations could come about during the 1990s? At the more experimental end of the spectrum were games such as Adidas Power Soccer, in which the players left a mildly psychedelic blue trail behind them when they sprinted and which also featured the “PREDATOR KICK”, a special move which would deposit both the ball and the goalkeeper in the goal – should he get behind it in the first place – when successfully pulled off, at which point the game would helpfully remind the player that this was all down to Adidas Predator boots. Ah, the joys of product placement. They probably accounted for the blue vapour trails, as well.

This gimmickry was built upon by 2002’s Super Shot Soccer, which built a whole host of unlikely and bizarre special moves into its gameplay, whilst a precursor to FIFA’s career mode could be found in Libero Grande, in which you played as one player only rather than an entire team. Similarly less-than-serious was Red Card, which came out on the PS2 in 2003, which took a very average-looking football game and introducing the concept of there being fundamentally no rules, meaning that players could kick seven shades of crap out of each other without having to worry too much about what the referee might say. With kicking a computer player up in the air having a somewhat hollow feel to it, this was a game best suited to being played between two human players.

The other popular seam of games that grew in the 1990s was the shameless cash grab. These came in several different forms, of which the most prevalent was the officially endorsed game. David Beckham Soccer made it to both the PS1 and PS2 despite its abundant mediocrity, Michael Owen’s World League Soccer ended up best-remembered for Michael’s scintillating introduction to the game (which can be seen at around 2m15s into the linked video), Ronaldo V-Football featured Barry Davies on commentary and little else to recommend it, and Three Lions, the “official England game” released in time for the 1998 World Cup finals, but the king of this sub-genre was the Club Football series, first released in 2003 by Codemasters, which took the idea of the cash-grab to its logcial conclusion by releasing twenty-two different versions of the same game, each featuring one club from a list that ranged from Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid to… Birmingham City. Two versions of this game were released before the series was quietly put to sleep.

With the release of the PS2 in 2000, which came complete with its killer app of a built-in DVD player and internet connectivity, amongst other things, the number of football games started to tail off. Production costs had already started to rise. Production companies couldn’t afford to take chances any more. It was the beginning of the hastening of the move towards the culture of “AAA” games that we have today. Games required a lit more time and considerably greater resources to produce. Games developers that had been big players during the 1990s started to look substanially smaller. These changes were not good for diversity in gaming.

There was, however, one game which kept going until 2005, quite probably because it was an in-house series produced by Sony. This Is Football was first released for the PS1 in 1999, but it really came to life with the release of This Is Football 2002 on the PS2, a game which contained the ability to dive – risking a yellow card if you got the timing wrong and fooled the referee – and to go in with a two-footed tackle that would ruin your opponent’s day, should you choose to. It also had a mode called “Jumpers For Goalposts”, in which you could play on a school playground, and a Timewarp Cup, in which you could play as classic teams from the past, including their kits. Annual editions of the game were released until 2005, but by this time the landscape of gaming was about to change again and Sony bailed out against a backdrop of diminishing returns.

Microsoft’s release of the Xbox in November 2001 meant that there was fresh competition to replace the battered and bruised Sega after they left the consoles market in the same year following the twin unsuccesses of the Saturn and the Dreamcast. By the time of the next – seventh – generation of consoles, which Microsoft kicked off with the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005 (Sony followed suit with the Playstation 3 the following year), only two established console football games remained. When we factor in Nintendo, who’d been quietly doing their own thing with their own eco-system supported by their own superb games, there as many consoles as there were football games that could be played on them, with Mario Strikers Charged only really to be considered tangentially a football game.

This number increased when Pure Football was released on the PS3 in 2010 with the weird premise of big club and international players getting away from it all by clambering onto a rooftop and playing five-a-side against each other. Arcadey in feel and replete with “bantz”, there was not a follow-up after it sank without trace. By the time of the launch of the Xbox One and the PS4, all competition was dead apart from FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer. It had taken them each almost a quarter of a century, but they got there in the end.