In this retrospective we’re taking a look at Konami’s uphill battle against the unstoppable mainstream “EA-sports” machine. As Konami sees less and less interest in the traditional video games market, pitting a soccer game up against a industry giant like EA seems like a daunting task, which they pulled off surprisingly well over the recent years. Time to give the Pro Evo / International Superstar soccer franchise some well earned criticism and props.
My love for Konami football (soccer?!) games started on the N64 in the late 90’s with the (still amazingly fun to play) classic International superstar soccer 64 (ISS64). After making the jump from 16 bit to 64, the soccer genre would never be the same again. The Super NES soccer games certainly have their charms, but ISS64 and the power of the Nintendo 64 took the possibilities to a whole new level. Gone were the 2d sprites, and i vividly recall how awestruck we gazed at the clunky 3d likes of ALLEJO and SIEKE (Konami’s fictional names for 90’s superstars Ronaldo and Jurgen Klinsmann) . Even to this day, me and my brother still recite lines from the game’s commentary, and the menu theme is still one of my favorite video game songs. While Konami also released two more ISS games on the N64, both sequels lacked the fun factor of the original to me, which could quite possibly be due to something as trivial as the amazing soundtrack and hysterical commentator. Both the music and the commentary proved to be a bit duller in ISS98 and ISS2000, so we kept gravitating towards 64. It was just FUN.
Enemy FIFA used LICENSING. It’s super effective!
Around the same time the previous paragraph took place, another dynamic established itself that still endures to this day: The “licenses vs gameplay debate”. Whether it is PES 21 versus FIFA 21, or ISS98 vs FIFA 98, the unique selling points for both franchises will probably not have shifted all that much in 20 years. I remember playing Fifa 98 and Fifa 99 for the first time, and being quite mindblown. Dennis Bergkamp, Ajax Amsterdam, licensed clubs, leagues, and a plethora of actual songs i knew from the radio; the game was dowsed in a cocktail of pop culture and strutted it’s licenses in your face like a peacock. I borrowed the game from a friend, and me and my brother tried falling in love with FIFA, only to be left with a somewhat hollow feeling. While the game had all the bells and whistles, we quickly found the gameplay to be a lot less fun than good old ISS64. We must’ve spent a month with FIFA before we switched back. The novelty of the licenses quickly wore off and could only disguise the game from the mediocre experience it was for so long, so we continued playing ISS64 for years to come.
I got my head checked (Woohoo!)
Things weren’t all peaches and cream for Konami though. In the early 2000’s, Konami would show their inconsistency, after releasing a few really dodgy International superstar soccer games on the Gamecube, while, contradictory as hell, simulteanously releasing the amazing Pro Evolution soccer 1 and 2 on PSX and PS2. As Gamecube owners, me and my brother were thus forced to buy ISS2 to get our dose of Konami soccer, and left extremely disappointed. Being the International superstar suckers we were, our expectations were high but not met by a long shot. ISS2 was not even close to being as fun as its N64 brothers and felt like a B attempt from Konami. I switched back to FIFA on the ‘Cube, and did have my share of fun with the early 2000 iterations. It might not even be due to the quality of the FIFA games, but moreso due to the lack of quality the Konami alternative had to offer. (I still don’t understand why Konami released PES on gamecube in Japan but not in the EU!)
The Go(a)lden years
Enter Shingo “Seabass” Takatsuka, responsible for creating Konami’s cult classics; Pes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. These iterations are commonly referred to as the golden era of Konami footies, and it’s easy to understand why: gameplay. Whereas FIFA always felt (And still feels, if you ask my biased ass) a bit vague and assisted, PES had very rigid and reliable controls. Things felt logical and the gameplay provided a brilliant canvas to orchestrate attacks on. The gameplay also evolved with every new iteration and kept building upon the foundation set in the original PES. Little additions proved to be game changing, like “Super cancel” in PES6, which is still one of the best techniques in PES2021. I remember so many amazing 1 vs 1 and 2 vs 2 games on PS2. It was easy to pick up, difficult to master, and the thrill of winning and the addictive gameplay made it fun for beginners and experts, and easy to forget the game barely didn’t have any licenses at all. I did try every new FIFA game as well every year, but found the gameplay to become boring quick, and a lot less consistent and fun. EA would ultimately get their chance at retribution soon though.
The crappy years
Konami had a winning formula and they knew it, while FIFA kept struggling year after year to deliver an equally engaging game. This led to complaceny on Konami’s behalf, and the first signs of community disgruntlement at the lack of innovation in PES proved to be a great opportunity for EA to strike back. Around 2005 EA appointed a new lead designer to FIFA, which proved to be a golden touch. For a long time PES fanboy like me it was painful to see the decline of my beloved franchise coïncide with the rise of one of the most dominant sports games to date. For the first time EA held both the licensing ánd the gameplay advantage. Being a stubborn fanboy, i soldiered on in PES2008 for about a year or three before making the switch to FIFA once again. And this time, it felt good to be on the other side for once. Fifa 11, 12 and 13 really felt fresh to me, and the gameplay was albeit STILL not as fun as PES6, intriguing enough to pour a lot of hours in. I guess the gameplay and the licenses combined made it sustainable enough, and the 010 era FIFA’s were leaps better than their predecessors. Still though, at some fundamental level, FIFA never clicked with me the way PES did, so my interest in soccer games faded a bit, as Konami kept crapping out mediocre PES games, and FIFA kept improving. As much as i tried to love FIFA in the coming years, i always hoped for a Konami comeback, and FIFA would never last me more than a few months before becoming dull.
Beckham vs Goliath
After years of chasing its own tail Konami finally started realizing they’ve been focusing on the wrong aspects of the game, and decided to take a different approach around 2015. The gameplay got revamped from the ground up, and PES decided to take one step back in hopes to take two forward in the long term. This meant games like PES 14 and 15 served as a little snack to keep the fans warm, while a new foundation for something better was being constructed behind the scenes. These few mediocrities did allow FIFA’s fanbase to grow bigger and bigger, keeping gamers satisfied in its sweet honey jar with amazing atmosphere, the inclusion of “ultimate team”, and a boatload of licenses. Complement that with good gameplay, and its easy to see Konami has to brush away a 8-0 defecit in the final 10 minutes of the game. PES 2016 started a new trend for Konami’s footie, and dawned in a new era of PES, bringing a much needed gameplay revision that initially had me confused as a long time fan. It felt like a step in a new direction, but it also meant i had to relearn everything i knew. Ironically, this symbolizes the mentality the developer had for a long time; in order to create a new standard, sometimes it’s essential to let go of your old ones.
Out with the old
It took me around a year or two to fully adapt to “the new pes” from 2016 and onwards , but when PES 2018 came around, i started realizing the new PES gameplay is in a sense the truest “evolution” of the old gameplay. There are a lot of subtle similarities, but the core engine is totally different. The new PES is a more intricate, patient and tactical game, where every move needs to be thought over. Yet the controls and feel of the original PES are buried inside its mechanics, waiting for you to discover. The importance of trapping balls in the right direction, dribbling, not pressing sprint sometimes, taking a slower pace instead of the constant sprint madness in the old PES, it is different and pays off in new ways. Every action needs to be thought out, and if you get into the rythym, a whole world of possibilities opens up. And if you have the patience to detox from your old ways, it’s not only different, but a true re-imagining of how to gamify soccer. And despite all its flashy bells and whistles, i still haven’t managed to enjoy a game of FIFA as much as a game of the new PES games. EA definitely have the more accessible and flashiest game of the two but the FIFA gameplay still feels a bit more catered towards the masses. It’s a game that welcomes newcomers and loves to give you goals. This can’t be said for PES, which i find more to be a game for football nerds and people that don’t feel like watching a game without goals scored is a waste of time. It appreciates the subtleties of the sport in ways that in FIFA sometimes get overshadowed by the games’ horniness for spectacle.
Pro (R)evolutionary – the juxtapose
In all fairness though, PES has a long way to go off the pitch. Even as biased as i am I see a developer going ALL IN on gameplay but neglecting other parts. PES 18,19,20,21 all share the same ugly menu, same master league mode, same everything. The only change is some improvements on the gameplay, and some extra cutscenes. Luckily for me I find the gameplay so intriguing and addictive to keep me satisfied for now, but Konami is in danger of making the same mistake they made after PES 4,5 and 6: becoming complacent. And this time they aren’t in the lead, which is kind of worrisome. It saddens me a bit that FIFA has such a major dominance in the soccer games market, as i truly feel PES is a brilliant game at times that really leaves FIFA far behind when it comes to gameplay and animations. In recent years EA’s footy has amassed such a vast army of fans that it’s almost impossible to lure them back to the other side without offering at least equal licenses and spectacle. And that being said, not everybody wants a complex tactical game of soccer. So realistically speaking, PES will probably always remain that niche purists game that we all wish would get some more mainstream recognition. It feels like Konami WANTS to focus on the vital organs of the gameplay, but the market is forcing them to predominantly focus on the “make up and clothes” of the game, if you catch my drift.
The way forward for PES
With a new PES 2022 in the making in Unreal Engine 4 for the first time, the ball can bounce both ways for Konami. A new engine can prove tricky to master, and i wouldn’t be surprised if the first iterations of the Unreal Engine PES start off with some initial hiccups, although i’m hoping Konami delivers right from the get go. The way Konami caught up gameplay wise the past five years is nothing short of impressive but I just don’t know if its enough to catch up. As long as the gameplay is fundamentally better than FIFA’s I will always favor Konami’s game. ISS64 has taught me the relevance of fun gameplay, and the amount of amazing moments i’ve had in PES 2020 and 2021 so far have been top notch. And if you truly want to appreciate the amazing work Konami has delivered, check out Youtuber KnightMD and his coverage on the game. I’m currently playing PES 2021 on PC with a boatload of patches, from licensed leagues to 600 extra stadiums, extra chants, more balls, boots, faces and fully animated adboards. Its amazing to see what the community created for PES. If you are a PC player and soccer enthusiast, there is little reason to skip on PES. Lets just hope they finally revamp the gameplay modes and bring back some of the weird original Konami soundtrack vibes.
Even in the shadow of the giant known as EA it’s great to see PES can still thrive on it’s own. It might probably never get the stablest of online services, never have glittery ultimate team packs, never have all the licenses and never have the best commentary, but it will be that couch co-op or versus game that gives true soccer heads what they want: the deepest gameplay experience they can ask for. I’m praying Konami doesn’t kill even more of its identity at some point and cancels the PES franchise, but for now we’re safe. Enjoy the view from here.
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