FIFA 95 introduced me to football games on consoles, and was followed, logically enough, by FIFA 96 and FIFA 97. FIFA 96 had Jason McAteer on the cover (alongside one of the de Boer twins) while FIFA 97 had David Ginola – evidently the franchise had a bit of a thing for wingers in them days. So it was no surprise when the next installment in the series featured a 22-year old David Beckham, in what must rank as the most prescient move EA Sports’ marketing department ever made. It was FIFA Road To World Cup ’98 that brought soccer videogames to my PC. FIFA RTWC 98 remains one of the greatest experiences I’ve had playing videogames which, given the technological leaps in the fifteen years since, is pretty damned impressive.
After the sprites and hitherto unpolished visuals of the console versions, the sheer quality of the presentation simply blew me away. From the very first moments of the intro FMV, with the immediately-recognisable beats of Blur’s Song 2 bangin’ out clear as day, the whole package was wonderful. Being able to steer any country through the entire qualifying campaign was extraordinary at the time – I took great pleasure, for example, in guiding Bermuda to a miraculous World Cup victory – while the innovative editing options meant that I could add myself or anyone else for that matter into the game. In fact, I added an entire team – named Del Villa, after Delville, the house I grew up in – with a squad composed entirely of my pets, past and present. So Phoenix (Golden Retriever) led the line, Mimi (Black and white Cat) marauded down the wing, while Mabel (Donkey) was a stubborn and uncompromising centre-half.
The soundtrack was unbelievably brilliant too. Unlike today, where FIFA attempts to gain ‘cool points’ by seeking out numerous artists of multiple genres in order to best appeal to the broadest cross-section of ‘youf’ it can, this was unique in the series in having – the aforementioned Blur and Electric Skychurch notwithstanding – only a single artist. The Crystal Method provided the electronic anthems, and it meshed incredibly well with the atmosphere of the game. Keep Hope Alive and Busy Child stand out in the memory, but frankly every song seemed to be the perfect accompaniment to virtual footballing escapades. Continuing the theme of aural enjoyment, this was the first football videogame I played which had actual commentary – Des Lynam invariably hoping for a ‘classic encounter’ before handing over to John ‘sensational goal’ Motson and Andy ‘mercifully mostly silent’ Gray for the main attraction.
Being able to punch players was, sadly, no more, but it was replaced by the endlessly hilarious ability to slide tackle the goalkeeper when he had the ball in his hands. In such a way, you could turn a four-or-five goal deficit into a three-nil defeat, by virtue of getting so many players sent off that the match had to be abandoned and the result put down as a 3-0 forfeit! Unsurprisingly, this was a feature subsequently removed from the series – one wonders why on earth it was ever put in.
The gameplay was the best it had ever been, addictive as hell even on the WASD and cursor keys that had to be used whenever I didn’t have a proper controller (this was often, once I broke my trusty Gamepad Pro anyway) and everything about FIFA RTWC 98 was a joy to behold. It was just so much fun.
Have a gander at the intro, and tell me you don’t feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck:
Solidarity, brothers & sisters…㋖