Featured Video Play Icon

FIFA International Soccer at 30: It Was In the Game

Last Updated on January 2, 2024

Incredibly, 2023 saw the 30th anniversary of FIFA International Soccer on 16-bit consoles.

Most of us seem to have a long lived relationship with Electronic Arts, it appears to me. Before they became the uber-brand of today they were an uber-brand of yesteryear, outfitting their cartridges with extra size and that piece of yellow, Lego-looking plastic that made you think you were about to play something bigger than the machine itself.

This was a time when cartridge mega-bits were a big deal. This was Christmas 1993 and Electronic Arts were about to go all-in with the defining sports game for generations. Yes, they had already developed the immediately loved NHL and Madden sports brands, but this was football, so people outside of The New World could understand it.

Championship Manager did what any good Personal Computer game did at the time; reduce the material down to some numbers on a screen.

This was FIFA International Soccer (so not quite football yet), and that was thirty years ago. A lot of seasons and a great deal of other football games have come and passed since and they all have this game to thank. This was the game that first felt like watching football on the television.

It’s in the game. Let’s do some light history.

More like ITV

California Games, Track and Field, Duncan Goodhew’s Water Bandits (you’re joking, right? – Ed); sports games had been popular since there were buttons to mash and all kinds of developers were trying out all kinds of ways of approaching them. For football titles, two were dominant and different. One was Championship Manager on the Amiga and Atari ST, which did what any good Personal Computer game did at the time; reduce the material down to some numbers on screen and collect the development winnings.

Clever them, but I didn’t play it.

Next would have been Sensible Soccer (which has updates even now). A titan of gameplay and design at the time, but it still looked to my eyes like a confused rival to Micro Machines. My brother loved this game and would try to draw me into playing it, which I did but never could.

Just felt too pingy.

You could say there was a gap in the market for something that might actually present like football. Championship Manager and Sensible Soccer were instant classics, but they were avant-garde. Electronic Arts was thinking more like ITV. A very dangerous idea. Lowest common denominator and all that, but they made it work. How so? By deploying the lowest common denominator and just making people feel good, making them feel that they were watching kind of real football, and in the process perhaps making the player feel like they were a player themselves.

And like a well-tended pitch, it worked. In fact, it went one better and worked four-way. A four-player game on the Sega Mega Drive!? With that level of presentation!?

It’s in the game. And on Christmas day that year so were one of my brothers and me.

“Going for Gold”

Pretty well everything about FIFA International Soccer made sense. The isometric viewpoint was useable, the players well defined against the pitch and a crowd which had never looked so good. Individually drawn spectators. On a Mega Drive. As they had done before with their ice hockey and American football franchises, they nailed the appearance. It looked like the real thing and made you feel like a pro with his big boy pants on.

And it had sound effects going off all over the place. Whooping, kicking, the ref’s whistle going off again to give me another yellow card (we’ll get to that), FIFA had flat digi-samples for all of it and threw in celebratory text and info boxes to fill in the memory gaps.

The rest of it? 49 teams with enough form options to keep you busy, but not so busy as to actually keep you from playing the game. See modern world for that. FIFA kept it light. Like I said, it was like watching football on ITV. What wasn’t light though was the language and treatment of controllers when playing this game with family members. Right from the off when I opened the game on Christmas Day the controllers and language were quickly flying. Not because the game was bad, but rather because of the lack of parity between our approaches.

My brother’s tactic was to go for gold and find that sweet spot just outside the 18-yard line that quickly becomes obvious, then fire one in. Also a passing game. He believed deeply in that style, especially if I had the ball.

Electronic Arts was thinking more like ITV, which is still a very dangerous idea. Lowest common denominator and all that.

I believed in sliding tackles and other fouls. I just loved the animation and the thunking sound effect of card-level contact. My brother quickly began to notice this and there were a few ongoing apologies as this pattern continued through the group stage of our first World Cup. We were Brazil. No messing around, and I mean that seriously, because once we left that group stage my brother began engaging with pointed language and gesticulations of the controller. To be fair we both were. Not all of my attempted fouls landed as actual fowls, I felt, but the whistle would go and hands were thrown. Controllers would follow and accusations as to who had bought that particular controller, following the breaking of the last.

But it was a great game and we soon settled into something like teamwork, breaking the game with sweet-spot shooting and breaking controllers into the screen when that didn’t work. It was an infuriating game. The controls were muddled and the cartridge looked like it had gigantism. It’s a wonder that it never got smashed in half, sticking out the way it did with the pads pirouetting around.

But you couldn’t take FIFA down. It came out of the starting gate as practically the official football game for the machine, and so like anything under the FIFA branding, the mechanisms were going to be a little… squiffy. But after a year of thrashing the life out of this game and anything around it, my brother and me were certain that any shortcomings would be sorted for the next instalment next Christmas.

And some of it was. Well, there were additions. National teams, more info boxes and the like. Plus I had a couple of six-button pads at this point and we were really trying to preserve them, even though the referees were still off about the difference between a red card offence and a moment’s exuberance. But they’d sort all that for the next one, right?

A toast!

Well, here we are, thirty years into that liturgical train of progress. Thirty years since opening that game that Christmas. Who’d have known it would have gone that way?

Well, I could have had a good guess to be honest. It looked as close as you could expect to the real thing with all the bells and commercial whistles intact. It was always going to be massive and has followed the financial rise of the actual sport in tandem.

The latest effort from EA Sports is as anodyne as the modern game has become. They are welcome to each other. A toast to thirty years, then…

It’s in the game.

Weekly newsletterGet the latest retro gaming news in your inbox

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply