July 15th 1993 – the day the world changed. Well, the day FIFA International Soccer was released and the life of this humble reviewer changed. Prior to this date, soccer/football games were a non-event (Jon Hare’s Sensible Soccer aside), we longed for a realistic football experience. FIFA plugged a gap that Sensible Soccer could not, taking you to the arena.
I was still a Master System follower at the time so a school friend treated me to my first FIFA experience. Sat crossed legged on his parents’ living room floor I distinctly recall the yell of “EA SPORTS, IT’S IN THE GAME”. It sure the hell was! EA had already succeeded in introducing me to two sports I had no prior interest in (Ice Hockey, Gridiron) so what would they do with one of my beloved sports? Nail it, that’s what. EA’s thumping presentation is just one of the many great things about this game. Yes it’s borrowed a lot from EA Hockey and John Madden 92, but if you’ve found the formula, why not keep using it?
As well as your standard exhibition match you have a world cup-esque round robin tournament or head straight to the “play-offs”. It’s very American, which is one of the contributing factors to its worldwide appeal. Throw in a touch of British dourness and Des Lynam, you’d probably have lost half of your demographic. All the in-game menus follow suit, the pause menu looking especially polished for the 16-bit.
So, to the core of the game. FIFA ditches the side to side arcade norm and also the Sensi up/down in favour of an isometric pitch. This allows for chunky, 3D looking sprites and also opens up more angles than the side to side simulations allow. It looks fantastic. The pitch, the crowd, the way everything moved, took FIFA to a new level. Every animation brings you closer to the action. Throw in some high quality sound effects, including the roar of the crowd, and you might as well chew on some oranges at half-time.
Sensi is arguably the most playable football game ever made. The isometric style of FIFA meant it faced an uphill battle in this respect. Crossing, for example, is difficult to pull off as the A button acts as a “lob”. It feels tighter because the sprites are so big, meaning that you’re unlikely to knock it about like Brazil, more like punt-it like 1990s Wimbledon. Scoring a goal is a joy when you find that angle. You know the one I’m talking about. Countless two player games “ruined” by my pal shooting from the same spot and scoring every time. With Qatar. Was he trying to make a point? Who knows. Keepers from average teams routinely keep out shot after shot in the penalty box. But don’t worry, you can find the angle and start celebrating with Brian Plank. This was footballing joy and it didn’t need the real players’ names.
Was it completely realistic? Well, no. There were no penalty shootouts, rightfully ditched in favour of the golden goal, it just wouldn’t have worked if the keeper saved it all the time. Were you able to put ridiculous curve on every shot, not akin to a banana but to a right angle? Of course! It didn’t matter. The 16-bit sequels retained the same engine and changed nothing bar official league teams and players (sound familiar?). I can still pick the game up now and have hours of fun. For something intended to be realistic it’s extremely accessible. You don’t need to worry about eight different buttons, stamina or special moves. It’s pure unadulterated American soccer action. What are you waiting for?