Written by: Rik

Date posted: June 24, 2012

What a save! (Etc)

Some time in 1993, I remember reading in a multi-format games magazine that it was a ‘golden age’ for football titles. Unable to choose between the console version of Sensible Soccer (released following initial success on home computer formats) and this, the very first FIFA game (released on Megadrive in 1993, followed by virtually every other available format thereafter), it refused to endorse either as the premier choice for football fans, acknowledging the graphical superiority of FIFA while indicating that Sensi might have edged it in the gameplay department. Buy both, it said, and you won’t be disappointed.

Although hindsight lends a slightly comical edge to such observations, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t go along with this even at the time. Regular readers are likely to have already noted my thoughts on Sensible Soccer, which I never liked, despite maintaining an ongoing and significant investment of my time in the hope of one day ‘getting it’. FIFA, meanwhile, had a certain visual appeal at the time of release, and its efforts to acknowledge the importance of presentation certainly made it a standout title, but however much I might have clamoured for a go of it on my friend’s Megadrive, deep down there always remained a suspicion that the actual game wasn’t up to much.

Revisiting FIFA and placing it under the harsh modern microscope certainly bears that out, to a greater degree than expected. While I definitely wasn’t expecting much, there was no premeditated intention to give it a good bashing (which is something, with one or two exceptions, we try to avoid anyway). Rather, it always seemed strange to have a sport section on our site without a single FIFA game featuring, and with the latest versions of the game dominating all comers at the time of writing, it felt like it might be fun to go back and revisit the roots of this mighty annual behemoth.

Bad Mahied.

Fun, though, isn’t exactly the right word to describe the experience. Moving past initial frustrations surfacing from the moderate tinkering necessary to get the game running in DOSBox (see Requirements, below) and my failure to secure the CD version, with commentary, for review, my initial reaction was one of shock. To be frank, the game seemed totally unplayable: players were lurching about all over the place, while retaining possession seemed impossible, with the only options appearing to be an underpowered pass or to hoof it forward at random. The animation, once a thing of wonder, was now causing me to develop a headache.

With time, though, you realise that there is a certain art to it all, with the best strategy relying on injudicious use of the slide tackle button to secure possession, hammering the ball forward at every opportunity, and using the pass button only when there is minimal chance of it going wrong. There’s always a grim level of enjoyment to be extracted from achieving a level of success at this kind of thing, and that remains the case here – if, and when, you manage to score some goals and win a game or two.

That said, FIFA retains few of the subtleties and pleasures that might interest fans of the real-life game. Passing the ball about and retaining possession, before crafting an opening and finishing a chance…well, you’re not going to find any of that here. Instead, it’s a case of getting to the edge of your opponent’s area however you can, punting a shot goalwards, and hoping it goes in. Not every sports game has to be totally realistic to be enjoyable, but it should at least retain the roots of some element of the sport it claims to represent. At a push, you could say the unexpected thrill of a long range shot finding the net is recreated here, albeit with very little input from the player. There’s also a modicum of enjoyment to be gleaned from successfully knocking the ball past an opponent and sprinting around him, although whether this is a deliberate feature or a generous interpretation of a haphazard sequence of in-game events, I’m not entirely sure.

Spoiler alert: there is no Tom Stone, and those stats are meaningless.

A litany of other quirks will annoy even the casual football fan. Distance has little meaning when it comes to shots – which means that a goalkeeper will save an effort on goal with the same exaggerated flourish regardless of whether it was struck from far away, with power, or the ball is merely dribbling along the ground towards him. On a similar theme, getting close to the goal decreases your chances of scoring, and finding the net from inside the area is a rarity. Only two buttons are used in the PC version, with the button for sprint also being the button for slide tackle, so you frequently reach the ball first, only to slide it into touch, unchallenged. When receiving or controlling a ball in the air, it seems to hang in suspended animation while a random outcome is assigned.

On top of that, there are some oddities when it comes to the rules: playing an international tournament (designed to replicate the World Cup) I finished third in a group of four teams but still progressed to the knockout stages, at which point I discovered there are no penalty shoot-outs in the game, with a period of ‘golden-goal’ extra time following the regular extension to the match (ie you play and play until someone scores). Tactical options are available, but seem to make little difference, ditto the option to switch between ‘Arcade’ and ‘Simulation’ versions of the game (my best guess is, you’re less likely to be tackled in the former, although again, this could just be my imagination). Finally, all of the player names are fictional, and only international teams are available – the multi-licensed, every-league-you-can-think-of aspect of the series didn’t come until later.

Presentation, the hallmark of the FIFA games, retains some standout elements. Time has obviously dimmed some of them considerably, though – as mentioned previously, the running animation seems a little ‘off’ [insert your own joke about haemorrhoids/diarrhoea here], particularly when a player runs towards the camera without the ball. This is most conspicuous when a goal is being celebrated, and I’m embarrassed to note that, although I did recall noticing this first time around, the part of my brain that was impressed with the graphics immediately constructed a defence that had it as a deliberate feature, with the player deliberately strutting, Lee Sharpe-style, towards the crowd after scoring.

To be fair, it does look like strutting.

It seems obvious now that this wasn’t the case, although to consider something so ludicrous gives an indication of the kind of impact FIFA‘s graphics had at the time. It was almost impossible to believe a football game could look so good. These days, it all looks fairly decent, and some of the other animation – players writhing around on the ground after being fouled, for example – remains impressive. The sampled crowd sounds are also a step up from the amateurish nonsense you’d get in the likes of Kick Off or Sensible Soccer, and though I haven’t had a chance to revisit the commentary (provided by one-time BBC commentator Tony Gubba) it’s worth acknowledging that it was the first game to bother attempting something so ambitious.

For football nostalgics, there’s a couple of hours’ entertainment here, but overall the impression is of a game fading badly when it wasn’t even all that good to begin with. For what it’s worth, we’ll put it level on points with Sensi – just like in ’93 – only this time around it’s more of a relegation clash than one between title challengers.