IT’S COMING HOME, IT’S COMING HOME, IT’S COMING, FOOTBALL’S COMING HOME
Popular sports games have a reputation for being highly expendable and ending up on the bottom racks of second-hand stores, selling for mere pennies. This is a pretty fair judgment of the genre, since people want the games to reflect new team signings, the current strip/jersey, and perhaps even expect a few additional features to the gameplay (though that’s not so important). Heck, FIFA 17 even added a story mode, so it makes even more sense to fling your copy of FIFA 16 in the bin.
But what about football*, American football, etc. games as retro games? Can they still provide an enjoyable experience? Or is it a poundstore pick-up that you’ll regret, and that’s best left on the shelf to gather dust? A very kind Twitter follower of mine procured me a copy of a sports game that I have very fond memories of – World Cup 98 – and two entire decades later, I decided to give it a whirl.
Putting aside my nostalgia for the game, sitting down with World Cup 98 still felt like sitting down for a cup of tea, a choccy biscuit and a natter with an old friend. Sure, there were hiccups, but it was still a thoroughly entertaining experience that had me giggling and whooping, and probably had my roommate wondering what in tarnation was going on in my room. You might want to have eBay open as you read this, to find a copy of that long-forgotten sports game you used to play as a kid. I promise reopening that door to the past won’t be a disappointment.
*Football being used to refer to the gentleman’s pastime of association football, or “soccer”, and not to that strange bastardisation of rugby where the ball gets passed in the wrong direction.
Why World Cup 98?
The World Cup 98 game for the PlayStation was a memorable part of my childhood, which even precedes owning my own games consoles. As a very small child, I would spend all my time after school at my grandma’s house, hanging out with/annoying my aunt, who’s just a few years older than me. My aunt loved playing computer games at the time, ranging from Tomb Raider III on her Windows 98 PC to Theme Park on her PS1. She owned the early model of the PS1 that came with controllers without analog sticks – oh, how my thumbs ached! One of the games we played together – I say played, but half the time I didn’t know which direction I should be kicking the ball in – was World Cup 98.
I’d played football games at my grandma’s house before: my aunt had a Sega Mega Drive (Genesis across the pond) and a version of World Cup Italia ’90 that I believe was part of a multi-game cartridge. But that game played more like my dad’s Subbuteo set than a real game of footie, because of its top-down perspective. World Cup 98 felt like the real deal.
While I never developed the same undying love for the Beautiful Game as the rest of my close family, who are dyed-in-the-wool Millers, I’ve always appreciated football computer games.
And around a decade later, I stepped into my aunt’s shoes, trying to lose on purpose under strict orders from my dad in a game of FIFA 11. My much younger sister scrabbled around the pitch, taking out my players’ ankles with the intense focus of an elite sniper unit, and stacking up the red and yellow cards. Many a game ended in Wimbledon winning 7-1 against Bayern Munich, and pocket money was sacrificed in the name of glory and bragging rights.
An uncanny rendition of Teddy Sheringham
The first question you probably have when I say “I’m playing a footie game for the PS1” is, “Does it look like the players’ faces have been rearranged by some otherworldly force”. The answer is: sort of, but it’s probably not the funniest of the bunch when it comes to outdated football games’ inability to render faces.
The issue is not that the faces look dodgy, but rather that they look very generic. Teddy Sheringham could be any old bloke nursing a pint and a pie at the local pub next to the stadium, and Alan Shearer is only conspicuous due to his shock of blond hair. It takes you out of the action, because you are placing your trust in the commentators that it is Renaldo booting the ball the length of the pitch, and that the dude dribbling up a storm is Zinedine Zidane, yes, honestly, that’s him. But in the days of reduced disc space and lower technical capabilities, we had to let our imaginations fill in the blanks.
Taking that into account, the game doesn’t do a bad job at all – in fact, if it had done a slightly worse job, the game might have been more of a laugh.
Legends on the pitch
One really nice quality of World Cup 98 is returning to the football players of my youth. And in 1998, the England team had some truly memorable squad members.
Graeme Le Saux has since fought for a reduction of homophobia in the sport after receiving some disgusting abuse on the pitch; Gareth Southgate is currently the country’s bewaistcoated bae du jour, having risen from defender to England manager; David Beckham is renowned for his tenure as an excellent association football player-cum-Armani underwear model. But it’s also tinged with sadness, as Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne has since struggled with alcoholism and has been in the headlines of the tabloid newspapers for his erratic behaviour.
I struggle to keep up with football nowadays, since I have so many other interests and hobbies on the go. But as a child, I couldn’t escape it. Sky Sports would blare out of every TV on a Sunday, and despite my protests, I would be forced to watch it, instead of whichever new episode of The Simpsons was playing on Sky One. Whether I liked it or not, I grew up with these men as household names, so returning to a world I was more familiar with was comforting. It was also a pleasant surprise to be reminded of footballers I’d completely forgotten about, such as Jürgen Klinsmann on the German national team and Fabien Barthez on the French national team.
I love how it looks like the allouette is holding a controller (to my disappointment, he’s holding the ball)
Getting down to the nitty-gritty of how the game controls, it is by no means a terrible experience, but it is hampered by the limitations of its day. World Cup 98 does not support analog stick controls, so you can wave goodbye to your thumbs living a pain-free existence, particularly since steering your players around the pitch is a huge chunk of the game. Navigating menus is not exactly intuitive. And while I love a bit of Tubthumping as much as the next guy, I was getting knocked down and getting back up again so often I feared for my blood pressure: the limited space on the PS1 CD meant that the pause menu featured just four songs, two of which were arrangements of Chumbawamba’s one-hit wonder.
It could be due to my disc being scratched, but a full World Cup tournament ground to an anticlimactic halt when the semi-final match refused to load. As for other glitches, if an opposing team’s player so much as grazed the ball with his foot, the commentators would call out my team member’s name twice – either that or Chris Waddle just likes saying “Ince” a lot.
But aside from that, the game was actually quite fun to play. In many ways, it was a purer and more joyful experience than its younger siblings. The most sophisticated move I could figure out from the controls was jumping in the air while dribbling the ball, and everything else was limited to tapping or booting the ball. And it felt effortless because it kept things simple.
The inability of the game to render much detail meant that the referee acted like he’d left his glasses at home, and while getting sent off on technicalities/split-second trigger happiness is part and parcel of my modern FIFA experience, I never saw a single red card through several games on World Cup 98. This might be a downside for some, since avoiding fouling is a matter of skill, but it removed some unnecessary frustration for me. I could just enjoy the game, without my poor reaction times completely getting in the way. But your mileage may vary – playing the game versus another person, instead of the computer, probably calls for greater policing of dangerous tackles.
Old footie is good footie
So, would I recommend returning to sporting games of yore? If you can get past their primitive technical nature, then absolutely. My time with World Cup 98 was a lovely trip to the past, and about as enjoyable for me as other shoot-at-goal games, such as Disc Jam. Chances are, you will stumble across an old favourite at a yard/car boot sale for less than the price of a sandwich. Revisiting your youth doesn’t have to be expensive, but it may come with the need for physio on your thumbs and has a high chance of Tubthumping.
Here’s an England v Germany friendly I played in World Cup 98, if you want to take a closer look at the game.
Is there an old sports game that you really enjoy playing? Which kinds of sports games do you play? Who did you support/are you supporting in the World Cup? Let me know in the comments down below!