When writing about a football game it’s extremely easy to fall in to the trap of simply regurgitating nauseating clichés from days gone by about how “he’s got good feet for a big man” or how “it’s a funny old game” sometimes without even realising it. It’s extremely easy to do and normally it infuriates me. But as I begin my FIFA Road To World Cup 98 review I’m afraid there’s only one phrase I can use to properly describe this iconic moment in FIFA gaming history.
“It’s a game of two halves”
After playing the game for a good couple of weeks I did feel quite a lot of pressure going in to the review. FIFA 98 isn’t just any old FIFA title after all. It’s the Holy Grail and in many peoples eyes still the pinnacle of the franchise if not through realism then through simple enjoyment.
Not only that but this game spawned the FIFA community we know and love today with the likes of SweetpatchTV only coming in to existence because of FIFA 98. For the first time a football gaming community was building and the FIFA series was at the heart of it. Whilst its beginnings were perhaps modest FIFA 98 soon became an institution.
So I’m sure you’ll all forgive me for feeling a little bit wary and uneasy as I prepare to swing the axe in to this hall of fame FIFA title. Guilt or no guilt some things just have to be said.
The problem that you just cannot get away from with FIFA 98 is the gameplay. Not the passing, or the controls or even the physics themselves. It’s just the sheer exploitability of it. If you aren’t scoring from an exact diagonal or from a rebound then you aren’t scoring and it’s as simple as that. The variety of goals scored and conceded is frighteningly similar to the point where it almost doesn’t matter who you’re playing or who’s shooting.
Another guaranteed way to hit the back of the net is to use skill moves. Whilst it’s extremely impressive that you can do feints, flicks and swerve passes in such an early FIFA title they sadly only add to the exploitation. If you perform a skill move and then shoot, you score and that’s about all the explanation required.
There’s also the rather hilarious glitch where if you stand near the opposition goalkeeper as they take a goal kick you automatically win the ball every time. You then just tap the ball in to an empty net as the keeper remains motionless. Not standing in front of the keeper obviously prevents it but this is just one glitch in a sea of exploits. If you aren’t using this cheap tactic, you’re using another.
It’s so sad because there’s nothing actually wrong with the passing, crossing, tackling or the ball physics. They’re exactly what I remember from my childhood. It’s the things I’d obviously forgotten in the nostalgic haze of 13 years which are bitterly disappointing.
HALF TIME: Cynical Reviewer 3 – 0 FIFA98
But at the end of every tunnel there is always a light and FIFA 98’s light shines brighter than most.
Some might not be aware of this but FIFA 98 was actually the first FIFA title to have fully licensed teams. Scrolling down through my England team reeling off names like Adams, Gascoigne, Ferdinand, McManaman released such joy it was almost worth the entrance fee alone. The same goes for the teams you play against. The only thing which really takes the edge off the third rebound goal in a row is the fact it’s scored by Zola or Bergkamp.
It’s made me totally convinced for the first time that having Legend teams in FIFA12 would be a superb move on EA’s part. It would pull all of the magic from these retro FIFA titles and drag it hurtling in to the current FIFA generation. They’ve done it in the past so why not for FIFA12?
Surprisingly FIFA 98 has a myriad of game modes and features which we’ve all been lapping up as “brand new” from EA in the last few years. There’s a fully functional training arena where you can practice anything from penalties to throw-ins, formation editing and as well as the legendary Road to World Cup mode a fully functioning League competition too.
But as another cliché happily reminds us “the best things come in small packages” and FIFA 98 is jammed full of small, quirky additions which slowly enchant as you spend more and more time with it.
My personal favourite has to be the goal celebrations. Your forward might do a few somersaults, a leaping fist pump or maybe even a well executed double back flip which is nothing out of the ordinary perhaps. But in FIFA 98 you also control the crowd noises with the face buttons on the controller.
I swear to god, I’ve never held down a button for so long with such force. You can bang drums, sound air horns or plump for the legendary “Goal” wail. From the outside looking in it seems like a silly feature which adds little value. But in that ecstasy filled goal scoring moment it feels like the greatest implementation in gaming history.
FIFA 98 also has an interesting way of dealing with game difficulty. There aren’t any amateur, professional or world class options at all, no sir. The game bases its difficulty around the level of the team you play. If you play Moldova you’ll batter them and if you play Italy you’ll be firmly under the cosh. It’s not intelligent in the slightest but what it provides is natural hierarchy and a variable learning curve. Barnsley shouldn’t play like Barcelona because the difficulty it set to World Class and that’s a lesson EA could certainly learn from FIFA 98.
There are other hilarious and perhaps slightly controversial errors in FIFA 98 which only add to its naive appeal. As Sol Campbell prepares to take a penalty the natural thing to worry about would be “Why the hell is Sol Campbell taking a penalty?” In FIFA 98 however you’re more concerned with why he is quite clearly white and has a full head of blonde hair. I wonder how such a catastrophic social faux pas would be received in FIFA12?
The other thing which makes FIFA98 so special is its appearance. The slightly blurry, rough and ready graphics with anonymous player models all combine to make something strangely beautiful. It makes you wonder why we complain about the tiniest graphical discrepancies today when something 13 years old can still look so good. You’ll find joyful memories flooding back just by looking at FIFA 98 and that is something money will never be able to buy.
If anyone is thinking about giving FIFA 98 a run out for old times sake then my advice would be, don’t. There are just too many impurities and exploitations for it to stand up and be enjoyable despite its best assets. So put the Mega Drive back in the loft and store FIFA98 comfortably beside it.
I don’t want FIFA 98 to be remembered for what it is today, I want it to be remembered for how it was in 1998. The start of the FIFA gaming community and arguably the most iconic and enjoyable FIFA title of its age. That’s how it should be remember and that’s how it deserves to be remembered.
The memories I have of FIFA 98 are now perhaps a little tarnished because of this review and that’s a shame because the game deserves much better than that. So my advice to you is, keep your memories of FIFA 98 as exactly that and leave this retro classic to happily rest in peace.
Never meet your heroes….
FULL TIME: Pensive Reviewer 3 – 3 FIFA 98