What's your favourite PES memory? You've probably got a few. If you're anything like me, you've got loads, and they sit in that lovely, nostalgic area of your mind usually reserved for stuff like important family moments or career successes. Warm and fuzzy. That goal against Inter in the European Cup final. The last-second strike that took you out of D2. Signing Roberto Carlos in PES 2. At uni, a friend of mine's neighbour once asked him in the pub about his incredible success with women, what with all the ecstatic noises coming out of the next room. What women? I was playing PES. Those were goal celebrations. The other friend nodded.
So what happened?
"We do admit there have been times where it hasn't been stable for us." As understatements go, Konami producer Manorito Hosoda's (via his translator) opinion of a generation that football bores would call 'transitional' is one of the best.
This is, after all, the series that started 2007 as the top-rated football franchise, packed in with the new Xbox console and ready to pick up where it had left off. Well, on the outside, it was. Inside Konami mounting technological challenges were becoming more and more apparent, and the firm wasn't in a position to face them all. Development of the series had been the same forever, and the difficult architecture of Sony's new console meant that there would be no PS3 version until PES 2007. The Xbox 360 version that did make it was markedly different to the PS2 one: inferior, even, to some. It was a sign of things to come.
As is Microsoft's remarkable deal with EA to get FIFA bundled with every Xbox One Day One pre-order. With no next-gen PES 2014 on the horizon, FIFA isn't competing with PES (and, really, it hasn't been for years). Neither is PES just competing against FIFA. It's competing against its own past, against player nostalgia, against an incredible legacy. But it's not just the players that seem stuck in the last generation - the developers do too.
That statement may seem counter-intuitive - or just plain wrong - given that Konami has introduced a new engine for PES 2014. Still, technological advances aside, its mindset is just as important. Konami keep reaching back into the past for that special something, but does it even exist anymore? Speaking with Hosoda and senior producer Naoya Hatsumi at this year's Gamescom, I put it to them that nostalgia is holding fans back from enjoying what is, in my opinion, the best football game on the market and that PES 2013 was - as you would expect - a huge, huge improvement on, say, PES 4. With that said, though, it's the latter that's more likely to garner praise if the two were brought up together.
"What we're trying to do now is remember and realise the days when we were stronger in gameplay, and try to learn from there instead of simply comparing [ourselves] to a rival title."
It's an odd statement, because, simply, PES is better now than it has been for some time (as an aside, PES 2008-2011 were poor). So why is Konami obsessed with getting back to a level of quality it is already at?
It's something more than nostalgia, and, in a bitterly ironic twist, at least some of it is down to the way that Konami intentionally designs the game itself. I asked the two producers if they could explain to me why scoring in PES feels better than scoring in FIFA. That much-fabled PES magic.
"Our senior producer's opinion was that it's probably those moments in the gameplay that the user can imagine, in between the animation, because it's kind of not [polished] - the whole goal scene can be understood and digested in the user's mind how they want the goal to be. That's kind of one of the secrets there."
Is that, too, the secret to why players - and possibly PES management - can't get past their illustrious history? Because whenever anyone talks about PES 5, probably recognised as the series zenith, or PES 6, my personal favourite, they remember 'moments'. Goals. And if those goals have been, in part, varnished, created, in the mind of the player, then Konami is - in a lot of ways - trying to recapture something that in part simply doesn't exist.
It's a curious problem. No-one gets pangs of nostalgia for old FIFA, because old FIFA wasn't very good. But PES was, and crucially it was the only serious choice when playing football games. So you've got a whole generation of players in that one time frame, their memories codified by Konami's genius: half-scoring, half-dreaming their goals.
When the game moves forwards, when presentation - especially with ever-increasing technological power - becomes all-important, when FIFA ups its game to become a genuine contender, and Konami drops the ball savagely, PES naturally fades from relevance. People see the terrible presentation or the lack of kits and laugh, mourning the loss of 'old PES'. They guffaw at how 'archaic' it feels, even when it changes, despite that exact feel being key to those memories they hold dear and wish would return.
But the 'magic' that gives PES its power does still exist. It has done for years, and continues to do so. It's built in. With the FOX engine, Konami has its first genuine shot in a while to convince people it can move with the times; to grab people's attention via presentation and other improvements. It's finally moved, and with FIFA careering dangerously close to the sporting uncanny valley with its constant 'realistic' 'upgrades', it may finally find its way back to the people it's lost.