International Superstar Soccer, the precursor to PES, is remembered for many things. Being excellent (for the time) is one, but its appeal didn't just lie in the fact it played a superb game of football: it also played an incredibly idiosyncratic one, of the type you just don't get anymore. After all, for a game praised for its authenticity, it's also just as well remembered for having a commentator with more personalities than Steve Coogan and a ball that’s practically duck-taped to the player’s feet. The referee could also be a dog. Yes.
The series offered some truly great moments, borne out of the most bizarre circumstances possible - given both technical limitations and the Konami of the time, anything could go. Players could slide 15 feet on a dry day to snatch possession from a player who rolls over three times following the collision without moving a yard. All of this narrated by a man who could give any South American commentator a run for their money for best “GOOOOAAALLL!”.
As a child, Paraguay was my team of choice whenever England wasn’t available. Of course, many of the player names were altered to avoid any legal ramifications, so I couldn’t possibly recall the starting lineup from memory. What I can remember was the ability to choose the emotional state of my squad (indicated by 'faces' of different hues), the goalkeeper’s quality and even the number of players in the starting lineup (maximum of 11, minimum seven). I never felt the urge to start a match with seven players, lacking the confidence in my footballing skills to compensate for fewer players, but the fact you could even do it stands out.
This is just a small sample of ISS’ wonderful mix of intense football and bonkers ideas. The 90s was a time when sports games didn’t have to take themselves too seriously. They didn’t have to offer photo-realistic visuals or thousands of teams to deploy in a comprehensive online mode. Football games offered a different kind of fun, not so much a replica of the real thing, but a bastardised amalgamation with all the wrong ingredients producing just the right experience. Think about it: the tech wasn’t there yet, the controllers were garbage (get the nostalgia out of your heads and see it, the N64 pad had three handles for crying out loud) and even the real sport was putting athletes in kits you wouldn’t even see blokes wear on a sh*t shirt-themed stag do.
Even more wonderful was the fact that in some instances player names were only ever voice recorded once, meaning no matter the on-pitch event, no matter the sentence, a player’s name is said in a wonderful monotone that undermines the entire situation. I heartily recommend giving @ISS64 a follow to give you an insight into just how random commentary can be.
But, as much as the series could be silly, it also made some great innovations for football games that proved it had a serious edge. Despite the abundance of football games available, ISS offered something no competitor could: a dedicated through ball that actually worked.
A simple press of a button and the ball would be played into space, ahead of its intended receiver; a revelation for the genre. Of course today, the through ball is not only commonplace but a constant gripe for many fans for being over/underpowered, cheap, rubbish, spammed, take your pick. These are all fair criticisms. But imagine a world where the option didn’t even exist?
While a quick YouTube search will portray a game that’s a blocky, stunted and awkward experience, at the time, this was the most fluid and innovative football game around. Reminiscing about how much fun I had playing it, and the fact that such a game could never be replicated in a world where people demand the absolute pinnacle of 'realism', serves as yet another reminder that ISS' mix of beauty and nonsense is long-gone. It saddens me that games such as FIFA Street, Red Card Soccer and other more outlandish takes on the beautiful game seem to be becoming less and less prevalent, as I feel they offer a nice break from the yearly dose of near-simulation. And if the ref can't be a dog, then what hope is there for the future?