We mentioned last time the consequences of reckless spending in the budget section of 90s gaming shops: namely, that you end up buying Zone Raiders. Like all bad habits, this one of mine has occasionally been subject to periods of abstinence and, of course, massive overcorrection: I’ll just buy one really good game, like normal people would.

Even though I’ve bought a lot of poor to middling football games over the years, they’ve never been much of a source of regret. In the 90s, the market leaders on PC – be they Sensi, Actua or FIFA – were never so far ahead of the rest that it was a simple matter of making the right choice. Usually, the critical consensus was split, and the also-rans often had enough original ideas to satisfy my curiosity. I genuinely enjoy – as any regular readers may have noticed – playing old football games regardless of their quality, and there was always the chance that an unheralded gem might be discovered (a small chance, as it turned out, although we wouldn’t have discovered Puma World Football ’98 otherwise).

Back in 1999, EA’s FIFA games were enjoying a good patch. World Cup ’98 and FIFA ’99 were both well received and, on PC at least, recognised as the best computer footy money could buy. With no international tournament to flog and keen to maintain what was at that point a six month release schedule of new football titles, EA announced a new series, based on a new licensing partnership with the English top division: The F.A. Premier League STARS.

The appeal of this game to a non-football fan would appear mysterious at best, and, more likely, reinforce the popular consensus that people who like football and their money are too easily parted. It was another footy game from EA, kind of like FIFA, with Premier League teams (also included in FIFA) but with better graphics and licenses. It doesn’t sound like much now, but in truth it was quite a big deal at the time, to go beyond authentic team and player names and correctly coloured kits to the full on licensed league experience, with accurate grounds and chants, kits with sponsors logos, the full Sky Sports commentary team (but remember, Puma had Martin Tyler first) and sundry other details that all make the difference. If people were willing to pay for a World Cup tie-in, then surely they’d do the same for a Premier League season? Ok, it’d still basically be FIFA, but would look a bit better: I was ok with that.

Unusually, I had been blessed at the time by the happy combination of a new fab-whizzo PC and a bit of spare money (the latter possibly a reward for a set of A-Level results that were frankly below what was expected). So I was for once in the position to break my usual habits and venture out to buy STARS upon release, without waiting for the reviews.

As it turns out, I probably should have waited for them, as the game was a hollow disappointment, a step back if anything from the most recent FIFA titles. Without the consolation of a low, low price, the guilt at having squandered 30 quid on this thing was quite considerable, and I veered between an overriding sense of panicked anger and calmly trying to tinker with various settings, give it some time, and somehow convince myself that it was OK actually. I mean, it was OK, but nothing more than that: the PC Zone verdict, when it arrived, confirmed as much (Steve Hill: “a curiously stunted affair…a mutant hybrid of FIFA and Actua”).

To its credit, STARS did really feel like a Premier League season, and those little touches of presentation like official sponsors on shirts, authentic grounds and chants, and even the distinctive Premier League font for the player numbers, do make a difference to the seasoned footy fan. Even playing it again now (which I did, a quest that began with a desire for a quick reminder and a few screenshots, and led to the realisation that I only had the 2001 update in my current collection and the frankly barmy idea that playing and using screens from this version would somehow be unacceptable, before ending rather predictably with an eBay purchase and the dusting off of my wheezing old XP machine), it does transport you back to watching Premier League football on Sky Sports in 1999, and if you manage to get over the slightly blurry visuals and grit your teeth through the clunkier parts of sub-FIFA action, there’s a modicum of entertainment to be had.

(As an aside: I did wonder if an emulated version of the PlayStation version of STARS would suffice, but I keep forgetting – and I don’t mean to be a PC snob – just how grainy and low res PSX graphics were. That’s perfectly ok of course, but in this case, it means that those extra presentation touches, on the visual side at least – the kits, the numbers etc – are almost completely lost, making the existence of this version of the game largely pointless).

At the time, though, the purchase really felt like an extravagance, and little things started to get to me: for example, the choice of bangin’ chart dance for the licensed menu music (ATB’s 9pm (Till I Come), a track I once considered a crime against decency and taste, now rendered slightly less offensive by a mellowing of attitudes and opinions as well as the warm glow of nostalgia) hammered home a wider frustration that guitar music was out, post-Britpop, and in the hearts and minds of football fans and the mainstream audience for the game, this kind of nonsense was now considered brand appropriate.

The STARS series lasted precisely one more year, with reviews focusing on the lack of progress since the previous iteration and generally questioning the point of it all, and EA’s contention that the lightweight levelling and transfer system (the STARS of the title: earn them by playing well, spend them on upgrading players or the transfer market) somehow also made it distinctive enough for an annual update, was looking more than a little thin. The good bits – basically making grounds and kits more accurate – were quietly folded into FIFAs 2001 and beyond.

As for me, the following year I bought a PlayStation purely to play ISS Pro Evolution, in many ways the polar opposite of STARS: crap graphics, amateurish commentary and presentation, but light years ahead of the likes of FIFA in almost every other respect. For a number of years after that, I abandoned my dabbling habits in favour of making sure I was there on release day for the new Pro Evo. And I was never disappointed.