There’s something to be said for an atmosphere of passion in athletics. Most team sports games out there take place in the context of a particular league where the real-life players are playing for a paycheck. On the contrary, the pride of international competition is heavily displayed in FIFA International Soccer (FIS) to the tune of running, scooting and jumping with a fist pump when a player honors his nation with a goal. But scoring isn’t the only moment of joy. The crowd chants in encouragement even as the ball paces up the field from teammate to teammate. There are no professional leagues, only the “Top 30 International Teams” from the 1994 World Cup. The fictitious player names seems to only add to the aura of excitement, as one can’t say, “Cobi Jones wouldn’t have celebrated like that.” While Electronic Arts might not be the favorite video game company of today’s gamers, in the mid-90s EA Sports put together this very fun soccer game which went against the grain of their heavily popular hockey and football series.
After an opening theme that simultaneously calls for reverence and excitement, the menu screen directs the gamer to four playing modes, in addition to the ability of restoring a previously played game with a password system. Options mode allows for determining type of pitch, choice of penalties, length of half, and ability to make the keeper manual. One can enter an International League, go straight to a single elimination Playoff bracket, or simply play a “friendly” Exhibition game. Tournament mode is my favorite as it mirrors the real World Cup format, in which your team must survive a four-team round-robin group play (with a point system) before advancing to a playoff scenario for a chance at the World Cup. Those lucky enough to win a tournament are given a special code which can be entered and secrets unlocked in the options screen. There is no practice mode, so learning is a process done under fire.
Before a match, the team ranking system is depicted next to a team’s flag by a set of gold bars whose lengths betray strengths and weaknesses. Some teams are very good at running but poor on most everything else, while others have no weaknesses (and the other way around). This makes it very easy to discern the power teams from the middle teams from the weak teams, and one can choose how difficult they wish their path to be. Let’s just say that if you choose a weaker team like Saudi Arabia or Morocco, you better find the gentleman on your team that can score and feed him readily.
Each footballer has rankings of his own. Teams like 1994 championship qualifying Brazil and Italy have multiple stand-out strikers, although every team has a player with scoring ability. Attacking and defending strategies can be adjusted pre-match, as well as how much field defenders, midfielders and forwards are to cover. This option can be especially helpful when it comes to keeping a lead or knotting up the score late. When playing with the United States I’ve often moved a defender named Chang from defender to forward, simply because he had one of the highest overall grading on the team. Although perfectly fine to ignore, such strategy options are sure to satisfy the coaches at heart.
FIS is beset with incredibly intuitive controls. Every button performs a function–in fact even the triggers can be used to affect a mite of ‘english.’ On offense, pressing B firmly will pass, while tapping it will dribble lightly in front of the manned footballer. Y performs a chip-shot and can be an effective clearing maneuver. X cleverly performs a wall-pass. The A button serves several functions, from determining shot strength to chasing down 50-50 balls by quick-tapping. By engaging with an opponent through sprinting, one is able to nudge the dribbler off the ball. This concept however becomes a bit muddled when opponents do engage, as the avatars overly detect collision with each other and not enough with the ball. It’s more beneficial in fact to allow the opponent to take control first, before Y-tackling or poking the ball away with B. Another example of a good idea that didn’t quite work is the bicycle kicking. With your back toward the net you are actually able to press Y and flip the ball up to yourself, then press Y again and attempt the move Pele made famous. Headers are a bit nebulous but it’s a thrill to see it knocked back in (especially for a golden goal) with the simulated performance of a team member drone.
It would have been nice for the game to be a bit more defensive minded. While moving the ball up-field is pleasant enough, an aware dribbler can bypass some defenders who merely rotate as you race closer to the goal. The halftime stats show only shots, corner kicks and penalties, and the man of the match is always the player who has scored the most. So even if your goalie withstands a barrage of 20 saves and lets just one in, he won’t get mentioned. Since some hockey games give credence to defensive stand-outs, why not here? The addition of an all-tournament team would have been a great consolation for those who played well but lost.
Once the trick to scoring is figured out, you can really get rolling. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how much you enjoy patterned success. Although it takes some concentration, it’s not too much of a problem getting past the really good teams with the poor teams. That’s why I wish there was a higher difficulty level. It would be pretty cool to somehow, say, reenact the 1994 World Cup final between Italy and Brazil and not so easily obliterate the scoreboard with the plethora of top scorers. Once you’ve creamed the world’s best, what’s next? Those seeking that extra challenge may wish to insert the code “super defense” or “super offense” and apply it to the other team.
The bright colors are one of my favorite aspects of the game–there’s no games played at night in FIS. While detailed nicely, the avatars are a mere three tones of race, and players for each team are homogenous. They are foosball-identical with exacting hair color, height and jersey, which is a nice two-toned gig. The field has the delightful ability to switch sheen based on wet or dry condition. When a goal is scored a black big-screen is shown with a colorful animation. The happy palette of colors is met with effective sound quality. The opening theme is charged and reminds me of the atmosphere of indoor soccer games, while the in-game chants speak of the power of international competition. In-game sound effects are limited, but the chanting is so effective I don’t really care.
Like many sports games, FIS is best when co-opted. The high-paced game is a thrill and the 50-50 balls become an intense fiasco. It’s even fun to turn penalties off occasionally for a street-style push-fest. It’s a solid overall game that’s easy to jump into. Featuring the same number of teams as a typical sports league but infusing the passion of international play was a great choice. If you haven’t delved into what the SNES has to offer in the realm of footy simulation, FIFA International World Soccer is a darn good place to dive.
–Four out of Five stars–
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