The FIFA computer game series has now grown to an incredibly lucrative and, for some, time-consuming franchise. The days when it was simply a case of â€˜pick two teams and letâ€™s get playingâ€™ are long gone. The current instalment in the annual series enables players to go into incredible detail with customising players and managers, indulge in GTA-esque cutaway sequences for transfer and contract negotiations, partake in online tournaments and throw themselves head-first into the ultra-competitive Ultimate Team mode.
It has certainly come a long way from the first game in the series that I can remember playing, namely FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 (RTWC98, for short) as a nine-year-old. While at the time it was seen as pioneering in terms of the customisation that was afforded to game players, it would seem incredibly basic by todayâ€™s lofty standards.Â
And yet, it was a tweet in recent weeks from the excellent @90sfootball account which took me on a sepia-tinged journey back to my childhood. The admins responsible for the channel posted the iconic introductory video for RTWC98 in all its glory, soundtracked by Blurâ€™s â€˜Song 2â€™, a timeless beast of an anthem (and I say that as someone who was staunchly on the Oasis side of 90s Britpopâ€™s fiercest divide).Â
What a game! pic.twitter.com/9UTbQ5PJCp
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) January 5, 2022
While it had the top-flight clubs from 11 national leagues (including, rather mysteriously, Malaysia), it was its international feature which set RTWC98 apart from any FIFA game for many a year. As its name would suggest, gameplayers had the option of playing as any of the 172 national teams which took part in the qualification for, or finals of, the 1998 World Cup in France.Â
Therefore, if you fancied a crack at getting the likes of Liechtenstein, Papua New Guinea, Mauritius or St Lucia to the finals of a FIFA World Cup, this was your opportunity to make that almost impossible dream come true. If you preferred the more conventional approach of picking one of the Home Nations and guiding them through the qualifying series, you could still enjoy the journey towards the finals in France. Of course, the destination of the tournament itself was also playable – it wasnâ€™t just a case of â€˜well done, you got to the World Cup, go buy our next game if you want to win thatâ€™.
It seemed a world away from the wonderfully retro Sega game for the 1990 tournament, when the graphics were no more complex than an overhead camera with only the playersâ€™ head and shoulders visible and when the only teams available were the 24 who had qualified for the finals in Italy.
If navigating the Oceania qualification series in a sunny expanse of a virtual stadium surrounded by palm trees wasnâ€™t your thing, there was also a thoroughly enjoyable five-a-side indoor football mode, where the pace of the game was every bit as quick as any real-life five-a-side in which you might indulge of a weekday evening.Â
The gameplay, graphics and even commentary may seem crude by todayâ€™s standards but, if all you were seeking was to get stuck into the matches, RTWC98 was one for you. It also had the narcissistic joy of being able to slide-tackle the opposition goalkeeper when the ball was in their hands, if you didnâ€™t mind picking up a straight red card purely for the fun of it.Â
A few months after RTWS98â€™s release, EA Sports brought out its first computer game for a specific tournament, the World Cup finals in the summer of 1998. Once again, even before game players got to the very first menu, there was a legendary introductory video to savour.
â€œWeâ€™ll be singingâ€¦when weâ€™re winningâ€¦weâ€™ll be singingâ€¦I get knocked down, but I get up again, youâ€™re never gonna keep me downâ€ – Chumbawamba may be the epitome of a one-hit wonder, but my goodness what a hit it was for those who spent the second-last summer of the 20th century engrossed in this absolute gem of a video game. The intro sequence, and indeed much of the transition footage in World Cup 98, saw official tournament mascot Footix merrily flying around the screen. (Another thing: Footix was the last truly memorable World Cup mascot. I challenge you, without recourse to Google, to try and even describe what the mascots for the subsequent five tournaments look like, never mind naming them).
The gameplay itself was virtually identical to that of RTWC98, which was very satisfying for those who enjoyed the earlier release. Aside from its catchy soundtrack (another highlight of which was â€˜Absurdâ€™ by Fluke, which football fans still hear to this day in the opening titles for Sky Sportsâ€™ Monday Night Football), the presentation of the game brilliantly captured the flavour of a World Cup – hundreds of players and thousands of fans descending upon one nation for a global tournament, calendars denoting the order of matches, grids for mapping out the pathways of the knockout stages. EA Sports also captured each of the stadia used in that World Cup with as accurate a visual representation as you could realistically wish for at the time.Â
While the pool of playable countries was naturally far smaller than in RTWC98, you werenâ€™t limited to just the 32 nations which participated at the tournament. The likes of Australia, China, Sweden, Republic of Ireland and Portugal (yep, they didnâ€™t make it to the finals that year) could still be selected to go into the competition. Game players could select a 22-man squad (as it was at the time) from a wider pick of players, just like Glenn Hoddle et al did that summer.
Nor were you restricted to playing as just one nation, either. If you wished to do so, you could select to play as all 32 teams and go through the matches one-by-one for the ultimate World Cup experience. I had a lot of time on my hands in the summer when I was nine, so yes I did exactly this and, to this very day, I am adamant that it was worth it.
Remember the gameplay itself, then? The chunky yellow and red arrows for the direction and force of your set pieces were an EA Sports staple at the time. The blocky menus which would appear when a goal was scored, indicating the time of goal, how many times the player had scored, and whether the player had previously been booked or sent off. Even the companies featured on the perimeter advertising made it feel like a simpler time – JVC, Snickers, Fujifilm, Gillette, Opel, Mastercard. No shady gambling websites to be had here.
When playing in World Cup mode, at half-time you were met with the treat of a multiple choice trivia question pertaining to the tournamentâ€™s history, with the answer then being revealed at full-time. Game-changing it might not have been, but it was yet another enjoyable ingredient of the recipe which made World Cup 98 a nailed-on classic.
One of the truly memorable features of World Cup 98, if you were astute enough to unlock it by winning the tournament, was World Cup Classics mode. This featured finals from past tournaments, with retro kits and stadia and, for the oldest finals, even the vintage brown leather ball and the original Jules Rimet trophy. All that was set to the dulcet tones of Kenneth Wolfstenholme (yes, he of â€œthey think itâ€™s all overâ€ fame). Such a simple feature and yet so satisfying.
On the topic of commentary, John Motson and Chris Waddle provided the vocals, with Des Lynam voicing the pre-match intros. It was this game which treated us to a classic Motty utterance of â€œfrankly he couldnâ€™t hit a cowâ€™s backside with a banjoâ€ whenever a player was culpable of a shocking miss.
It was a simpler time in some respects, especially when it came to computer gaming. Maybe Iâ€™m showing my age, but as much as I enjoy FIFA 22 career mode and trying to guide a team from English League Two all the way into Europeâ€™s elite competitions, part of me pines for a 1998 throwback. For one, the soundtracks on RTWC98 and World Cup 98 were a hell of a lot better than a lot of dirge on EA Sportsâ€™ most recent release (Jungle and CHVRCHES are two notable exceptions from FIFA 22).
No messing about with agents or FUT cards or online gameplay – simply pick your team and get on the pitch. Nine-year-old me loved it and 33-year-old me surely would as well.
I donâ€™t even have a basic understanding of programming, so I donâ€™t know it would be possible for the good folks at Electronic Arts to basically re-release RTWC98 and World Cup 98 in all their vintage glory (no modifications to the look or feel of the game) for todayâ€™s consoles. However, if it were, I for one would quite gladly make a beeline to any premises stocking the game and hand over some of my well-earned moolah.
Can you make it happen, EA? Is it a possibility? If so, please do it. Pretty pleaseâ€¦