Friday, September 22, 2006

Videogame Classics - Worldwide Soccer '97

Here's a screenshot from one of the finest sports games ever made, Sega's Worldwide Soccer '97 for the Saturn. For a console that was legendary for being difficult to program, titles like this were like lightning in a bottle. There are a number of Saturn games like Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop 1 & 2, Sega Rally, NiGHTS, Burning Rangers, and the three Panzer Dragoons, which boasted some of the best polygon graphics of its day.

I don't recall if the American prozines gave much attention to this game. Probably not, for a variety of reasons. They were far more enamoured by Playstation, soccer remains an obscure sport in this country, and so on. Next Generation, thankfully, was the notable exception, giving Worldwide Soccer '97 tremendous praise and considerable exposure.

To their eyes, this was the best soccer game ever made. Today, it still holds up wonderfully, sitting right between Sensible Soccer and Konami's Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution Soccer series. The last time I owned a Saturn was around five years ago, and this game was nearly always being played at the house by other roommates.

WWS' best qualitites include the terrific graphics and animation, and the play-by-play commentary of the action. For me, there's something else this game does that I've never seen in any other sports game since then. That quality is tension, simple, nail-biting tension.

Let me explain how this works. It's very simply, really, and it all comes down to penalties. Under most sports games, when you incur a penalty, the computer flashes it up immediately. Doesn't matter if you're talking American football or soccer or basketball or hockey. If you get fouled by the refs, the game tells you immediately.

Here's what Worldwide Soccer '97 does. Say you're on defense, and you tackle the ball-carrier from behind. The whistle blows, and the referee walks up to the players. He stands for a moment, and then either takes up the ball or reaches for a card.

If he's going for a yellow or red card, he still stands there. He reaches in his pocket, and he waits! He waits for a second, and then he pulls out the card.

Aw, crap, he pulled out a red card! I'm dead! Fuck, fuck!

This is really fantastic tension, because once you've been fouled, you don't know what's going to happen. And the referees hand out yellow and red cards like it's water. If you like to play aggressively (and I often do), you're going to collect a lot of cards. Standing there and waiting for your punishment can be sheer terror.

Sega made another update, Worldwide Soccer '98, which features smoother graphics and better passing and a second color commentator who sounds like he's completly drunk off his ass. But they took away the fouls - the refs hardly ever handed out any more cards. So, needless to say, I didn't enjoy this version as much, and we all went back to WWS '97.

Why other developers like EA haven't discovered the thrill of this is beyond me. Issues like penalties and injuries in Madden would be much more tense if the players had to sit and wait for the situations to resolve. Visual Concepts figured this out, and in NFL2K they included the occasional referee conference on the field.

All the prozines and gaming websites have ever focused on are graphics, graphics, and graphics. Don't they understand that there are other things that make a great game succeed? Aren't they aware that technology renders all graphics obsolete? Perhaps they've bought into the corporate hype that we have to constantly consume, consume, consume.

There's a reason why "videogame journalism" has never been taken seriously. If you're working to bring about change, then you'll have to liberate yourself from those childish notions of hype. You've got to stop playing salesman for the advertisers. You've got to discover just what makes a game work.

Man, oh, man, I really wish I still had a Saturn.

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