There was a time long ago when the FIFA Soccer franchise was looked down upon with utter degradation. The laughing hordes of football fans could be heard from the virtual terraces mocking the pitiful little game as it hopelessly tried to stand upon its own two feet, and enter the stadium of legends where it would face off against the World champions from Japan; the Pro Evolution Soccer series.
Year after year it was a laughable exercise in futility from Electronic Arts, as the game was humiliated in every area of the pitch. From defence to attack, there would be no reply to the dominance of Pro Evolution. Pro offered us the pure footballing experience, not quite simulation stuff, and not quite ball stuck to your foot, arcade action. It was the perfect balance and it gave me and my friends some truly memorable nights.
FIFA was never even considered by myself or my fanatical footballing friends. From the early 2000s there was never even a mention, discussion or word spoken about FIFA. Not once did I ever hear anyone say “I might try out that new FIFA this year”. Such words would be tantamount to sacrilege. You may as well say “I wonder what it feels like to pour petrol over myself and strike a match”. You would be met with strange looks and people laughing nervously, hoping you were joking. That’s how bad it got for FIFA at one point.
Now, whilst all this FIFA bashing was going on, there was a whole world of people who were still buying into the premise. Sure if you like real names, kits, stadia and competitions then FIFA is the game for you, but as far as we (and other purists of the virtual sport) were concerned this would never sway our decision. Gameplay is what mattered most, and no amount of misspelt surnames and fake kits could take that fact away.
It is fair to say that in terms of sales, FIFA Soccer was always the most popular of the titles. Pro Evolution always sold well (especially in Japan where it’s called Winning Eleven, and has all correct team data) but the sheer publishing power of EA coupled with the official licensing meant that FIFA always had more mass market appeal. To date FIFA ranks as one of the best selling franchises in video game history, with over 100 million copies sold to Pro Evo’s 75 million.
Of course sales mattered not to us, and by the time PES hit its peak with Pro Evolution 5, we were content in our sea of ignorance, talking down about the easily swayed FIFA sheep who follow the herd which only lead to an inferior game. And back in those days we were 100% entitled to think that, such was the dominance of Pro.
Then suddenly a funny thing happened. The sixth generation of consoles came to an end, and it is at this point that Pro Evo started to slip from its lofty mantle above. The sure footed integrity of the series began to wane, and it is an injury that the series is still struggling to recover from.
Sure this did not happen overnight. Pro Evo 6 was still a competent entry into the series, and it still topped FIFA in terms of playability (especially on the PS2 and PC versions). But when ported to Microsoft’s new 360 platform it somehow fell short, missing the target completely. Suddenly everything about the game looked old and outdated on this new piece of hardware. The games engine was different to that of its PS2 and PC counterparts, and the result was a game that somehow missed the mark in terms of what made it so special for all those years.
I refused to believe this, and went on playing my PS2 version (I did not have a 360), blissfully unaware that the series had already reached and passed its prime. It’s strange really, because I would argue that the dawn of this (seventh) generation coincided with the western developers’ dominance of the video game world (again in terms of sales and now critical acclaim). Eastern developers (excluding Nintendo of course) have somewhat dropped the ball in terms of the quality of games that we see over here in the West. Names like Infinity Ward, Bethesda, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Activision and of course Electronic Arts rule the video gaming landscape when you look at the balance sheets, helped along by very Western genres like shooters and third person sandbox adventures as opposed to your turn-based JRPG with card-battle elements.
This is not to say that Japanese development has suddenly turned to utter garbage, more that some of the spark that separated the wonderfully Japanese games of decades past, has been lost somewhere along the line. Games like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, Journey, Flower, Uncharted, Halo, Call of Duty, and FIFA have respectively shown original ideas and huge selling potential alike. All are made by Western developers.
Personally I don’t really understand the idea of buying a brand new FPS every year, but unfortunately that is where the money is, and with publishers increasingly less likely to take up risky projects, some ideas are either being scaled back for mobile release, or may never actually see light of day. Let’s take Capcom for instance, or “the EA of the east” as I like to call them. They are actively seeking western partners for their games, and are unapologetically catering to the western audience with their upcoming titles (I’m looking at you, Resident Evil 6).
But anyway, I digress; let us return to the topic in hand. The developers at EA must have seen the new generation as an opportunity to pile the pressure on PES. They saw the new generations as a new beginning, a fresh chance to get it right. Let the past mistakes be forgotten, and just concentrate on the game at hand. And (football commentator’s voice) credit to the lads, they certainly delivered.
The first I remember were the emanating rumblings that FIFA 08 was (shock horror) better than PES 2008. This wasn’t from reviewers, but my friends who are infinitely less biased than a paid up reviewer could ever be. Indeed IGN gave PES a hideously overrated 9.2, which of course had nothing to with the fact IGN had in-game sponsors all over the place. That being said, I still plumped for PES when it came to the crunch.
By 2009 I was finished with PES. I went to the store and purchased my first FIFA game in almost 12 years. Finally I saw what everyone had been talking about. FIFA was indeed light years ahead of PES, and the tables had been well and truly turned. PES was content to sit back and rest on the laurels which had supported them so well, for so long. And whilst it was still a good game, there was no denying its glory lay firmly in the past.
It’s sad to say, but some of the imagination, mechanics and subtleties of the game have gone awry over the past five years, and that goes for some eastern developers as a whole, Konami included. Of course our tastes have changed, but there is no excuse for delivering uninspiring products, which fail to build upon the success of past ventures.
FIFA now carries the mantle of being both the most well respected, and best-selling football game of our times. It’s difficult to put into words what separates PES and FIFA. Moving with the times and getting the most out of consoles in terms of AI and physics goes a long way to making a great game. Unfortunately Shingo “Seabass” Takatsuka is yet to propel the series back to the top of the table, and as this generation winds down, it seems as though he is running out of opportunities to do so.
Some nights spent on PES are as good as any memories I have from my video gaming life, and that alone is saying something, considering it spans every generation from the 2600!
I long for the day that PES returns to its former glories. As good as FIFA is now, it still can’t hold a candle to the countless hours lost in custom leagues and berating my friends after a particularly heavy defeat. Just as I hold out hope of England winning the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament, I also have hopes that PES will reclaim its position as the best football game out there. But deep down I know that both are unrealistic, foolhardy dreams, that will only bring more pain when they don’t materialize. But here’s hoping.