Demos, man. What a lost phenomenon. Remember the day when you would head to your local store to pick up an edition of a monthly official PlayStation magazine, and get a disc packed with free trials of the hottest games, in the mag's see-through plastic sleeve? I do, and they were some of the best days.
Back before the internet busied itself with death threats and aiming vitriol at developers. Back when developers seemingly had QA testers and rarely released a broken game. Back when you would get all of your information from a bunch of glossy pages bound together. I miss those days.
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I also wish I kept the demo discs, so I could look back on where my foray into the world of PlayStation began. Games like Oddworld: Abe's Oddyssey and Wipeout 2097 being some of the major culprits for the demo-shaped badassery that would occur in my room. But there is one other franchise that infiltrated my life and sent me on a two-decade-long foray into the heart of football (or soccer to a few). A sport I am vehemently vested in.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King
I've been a fan of football since I was... five or something? Namely Arsenal FC. I would gaze at images of my heroes Ian Wright, Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp and Nigel Winterburn tearing up the league during manager Arsène Wenger's first few seasons in charge of an Arsenal left adrift by ex-manager Bruce Rioch.
When I leveled up and became a teenager, my friends and I would kick back round at either of our homes, playing FIFAs 98, 99, heading right up to 2002. And I would live out my dreams of slaloming through the center of the park with Freddie Ljungberg or down the left with Marc Overmars.
But one autumn everything would change. All the things I had come to love about football games would be eroded in one title – FIFA Football 2002. Arsenal legend Thierry Henry was on the cover, so naturally I scooped it up with my first paycheck from my first ever job. Dude, I felt so cool until I loaded the disc into my GameCube.
1st Knockout Round
Though FIFA 2002 was lauded by critics on its release, the game was sloppy, inaccurate, and hadn't seen a great improvement in AI since FIFA 99. And another thing that really bugged me was the game's heinous rubber-banding.
Though rubber-banding occurs when latency rears its head and elements begin teleporting around the game world, I'm using it to highlight how annoying it was when attempting to get past defenders.
Say I had broken Manchester United's defensive offside trap with Henry, who was one of the fastest players in the English Premiership, and was odds on to score, a defender would always pop up at the last breath and nab the ball from Henry's foot.
This happened so f**king often I felt like an in-joke the AI was giggling away to underneath the GC's purple hull. Also, it was usually Man Utd's Argentinian defender Gabriel Heinze that would pull off the nabbing, and he was one of the slowest players in the game. Completely improbable. Bye, FIFA. I'm gong to try out this PES malarkey.
The thing that amazed me first about Pro Evolution Soccer (or PES) was the fact you could score screamers from way outside the box, often. I can't recall that well from the pre-FIFA 09 FIFAs. But I guess I didn't play many after 2002's debacle.
You would have to shimmy yourself into the same position - on the edge of the box - press square long enough for the green bar to turn a tasty shade of orange, whilst still sprinting at top speed, and boom. What a goal! I think I'll save that replay for later. But what I'm trying to get at is the arcade replayability of PES was astounding and manic, up until EA Sports started to get all serious about simulation.
Though "arcadey", PES games felt solidly constructed, its AI fierce and skillful, and it was less likely to kick your ass in ways that felt so scripted it was ridiculous. PES Productions worked their butts off to create compelling and tactical football, with next to no gloss. And it worked.
I mean, EA Sports had the cash to throw millions of dollars at clubs for their official licenses. Konami didn't have that sway, so PES became even more iconic with its addition of fake player names, like Ravoldi (Rivaldo), Mcmananan (Steve McManaman) and Roberto Larcos (Roberto Carlos) to name a few. Genius!
We have no one else to thank for this tongue-in-cheek humor and great gameplay than Shingo "Seabass" Takatsuka, PES producer extraordinaire.
For all of its good sides, PES had some of the worst commentary you'll hear in a sports game. Like, for instance, once I destroyed someone near the halfway line back in the inaugural PES, and after my player got up from his terrible tackle the commentator exclaimed, with great heart, "THAT WAS DEFINITELY A PENALTY!!" Was it though, brother?
But after 6 stunning PS2 outings, PES decided to change its numerical designation to years instead of iterations, a change that was almost prophetic in some regards. PES 2008 was a broken and buggy shambles, a dramatic shift from what it used to be; a slip that EA Sports used to suddenly find their footing. Now FIFA games felt solid like PES, more so even. And had even included the series' iconic controller layout to attract even more gamers.
It worked! Nearly every FIFA game since 09 has been killer, with 13 being the pinnacle. Thanks, in no part, to EA's drafting of David Rutter, one of the greatest minds behind Championship Manager. Being quite the impassioned PES fan, Rutter, and not forgetting Gary Paterson – who brought 360-degree dribbling with him, football games' biggest innovation before 'Adaptive AI' cantered in – transformed FIFA into PES in its heyday. Whereas PES played like International Superstar Soccer in its heyday. One of these is a good thing. Only one.
The Cyclical Nature of Existence
But now as FIFA is gearing up to release with a 17 in its title, just like PES, I'm heading back to the source. And you know why? After playing both iterations at Gamescom I found PES 17 to be pure, unadulterated fun. FIFA 17? Not so much.
FIFA 17 is nowhere near as terrible as 16, which is hands down one of the most frustrating and boring football games I've played since Virtua Striker, it's solid! Its redesigned story mode is a wonderful and groundbreaking addition, the controls are slick, presentation (as ever) is on point. But it feels too over-simulated and complicated. Endless gloss, but one glimpse into its eyes and you can see there's no-one home.
PES 17 however is slick, fast, stylish, easy to pick up, easy to score, insanely intelligent and has a gloss that is powerful, subtle unparalleled when compared to prior PES titles. Dude, you can see floodlights being reflected of the numbers on the backs of players' jerseys.
PES 17 feels just like 16, but matured. Referees won't stop play for an innocuous tackle, goalkeepers actually seem to have intelligence, character models and animations have been refined and passing is so silky, you'll feel like a professional in a few moves.
That's PES all over, isn't it? The sensation of creating magic out of next to nothing. With all the corruption in FIFA, the seamless gloss and cash flow of EA Sport's FIFA franchise and the sheer riches of English football, you would be right for thinking the sport's very soul is being eroded with every brown envelope slipped into hands or $100 million transfer.
But PES is here to remind you that there is some beauty, some grit, graft and heart left in footy. It's not about spit-polishing something that's already perfect. You have to get dirty to get clean, and PES 17 is truly grimy. Long live the King.
But, still, it's not time to forgive Konami just yet. I'm simply admiring a great franchise. So get back on it! PES 17's demo is available right now on PS4 and Xbox One. Yes, demo.