Genre: Sports Developer: Probe Ent. Publisher: Extended Play Productions/EA Sports Players: 1-4 Released: 1995
1995 was a very pivotal year, not just for the FIFA series but for gaming as a whole. The 16-bit era was nearing its end, with the CD-based Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn (among others) ringing in a new generation. And with the new era of gaming, a new buzz was ringing in as well: 3D graphics! EA was welcoming this new era and was fully embracing it. While the predecessor to the next soccer installment, FIFA Soccer ’95, had been an exclusive release for the Mega Drive (though only slightly updating the graphics and engine of the first game), with FIFA ’96 the company went all out. Utilizing what PR labeled “Virtual Stadium” technology, the Saturn, Playstation and PC versions of the game were the first in the series to come with what is now taken for granted with sports games: a 3D engine, several camera angles, and a commentator by then-famous BBC sportscaster John Motson (though with this game being the first to utilize this technology, it was not very accurate and very repetitive). If you look up the game on Wikipedia, the site claims that it was the first truly successful game in the series (then again, given that it was released on virtually every single platform there was at the time, it is hardly a surprise that this one was more successful than the two predecessors). By the way, in Europe FIFA ’96 was one of the first games to be released on the Sega Saturn.
With all that bang the new technology brought, EA didn’t forget the roots of the series though, and released different version of the game for the Sega Mega Drive, as well as the SNES, so those entries were just a visually updated version of the original FIFA game, with some more technical engine tweaks (though some may argue that it was a step back from the predecessor, but I digress). There was even a Game Gear port… and also a fourth version of the game for a SEGA console. As one of only two 32X games to be released solely in Europe (the other being DarXide), EA even brought an edition of FIFA ’96 to the much maligned add-on of the Mega Drive. And very much like the console itself, the game was neither a true port from its 16-bit base console, nor was too close to the Saturn version. Rather, it was sandwiched – or stuck – somewhere in between. In a way, it was its very own game, since it was neither created by the team that made the Mega Drive title, nor by the one responsible for the Saturn version, since the game was outsourced to a third party, Probe.
Let’s start with the graphics. True, other than the 16-bit Mega Drive version, FIFA ’96 boasts a 3D engine. In true early 3D fashion, the graphics are very dim, if not to say murky, a fact not helped by the 32X’s limited color palette (not to speak of processing prowess), which the Saturn was able to offer its iteration of the game. The players look very odd, to say the least. Say what you want about the Mega Drive version, at least the characters (though only bit-mapped) looked nice, and the Saturn iteration had quite a few more polygons to go around! There’s hardly any detail at all to the blocky 32X kickers, who come off like Lego figures and move jerkily, with only very few frames of actual animation to them. The pitch also looks worse than any of the three versions, as it is surrounded by an ugly patch of brown without any contours at all, and the audience is a non-moving bunch of washed-out, dirty specks. The 3D itself isn’t pulled off very well either; it fails to convey a true feeling of depth. By the way, there’s also a certain camera angle that gives the game a point of view that somewhat resembles the 16-bit version, which further cements the impression that this game is somehow stuck in between generations. More on that later.
Aurally, it’s pretty much the same as the Mega Drive version, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since the 32X wasn’t exactly well known for its acoustic capabilities. The programmers did a good enough job though. There’s always a nice stadium atmosphere to be heard (with a range of nice, different chants from the audience), and the ball sounds have a satisfying variety of bounces to them. So it definitely scores in the aural department when compared to other Mega Drive games. Too bad, though, that there aren’t any voice samples at all in that game (aside from the times when a goal is scored, which is the same as present in the 16-bit games). It may not be all that fair to compare this version to its better endowed Saturn relative, but given that the latter had a live audio commentary, it feels like a bit of a letdown not to have anything of that sort here.
Finally there’s the gameplay. You thought it was hard to score goals in the Mega Drive? Well, good luck of shooting one in this version, since it’s hardly possible to line up your player properly. The problem lies in the point of view, more specifically the cameras. You can choose between six different options, including a view from the sidelines or the end zone. This may sound nice at first, but there’s a problem: none of these cameras stays at the same angle! No matter what setting you choose, the point of view constantly swerves around, trying to catch the action. This is especially disconcerting in the sideline view, which skips back and forth at such a rate that it’s almost nauseating. The point of view I found most comfortably to play in was the “stadium” camera, which is the aforementioned setting that somewhat resembles the camera angle in the Mega Drive version, thus reinforcing the notion that this game feels like a hybrid stuck in between the Mega Drive larvae and the fully developed Saturn-imago version (call it pupa if you will). However, this one doesn’t play all that well in, either. The ball has the nasty habit of outrunning the camera. Combine that with the somewhat jerky movement, and this game becomes a real bitch to keep in control of when passing, shooting or even slide tackling. Annoyingly, whenever a free kick is awarded, the game switches over to Telecam mode and doesn’t switch back again unless you pause!
I also have to note that the AI is somewhat dodgy. For instance, sometimes when you got the ball and stand completely still, the computer does absolutely nothing. Have two computer teams play against one another, and it might just happen that some time into the game, both sides simply stop playing, standing still until the time runs out. Also, I think it’s worth noting that after picking Brazil and losing my first two matches against soccer-dwarf nation Luxembourg and against the weakest club in the Malaysian Super League, the first game I won was against Italy, one of the strongest teams in FIFA ’96! Something’s definitely screwed up there.
Other than that, there is one other thing worth noting: FIFA ’96 isn’t region locked, so you can play the PAL Mega Drive version on your NTSC Genesis without any modification whatsoever. Whether you would like to want to after reading this review, though, is an entirely different affair. Due to a lack of any competition, FIFA ’96 is the best soccer game released on the 32x. That doesn’t mean it’s good, though. Jerky animation, dodgy camera, and AI of a dubious quality severely hamper any fun this game has to offer. Pretty much like the platform itself, it doesn’t compare very well to either to its Mega Drive or Saturn variants. If you have a 32x, that automatically means that you got the 16-bit console it needs to run on. So if you need your soccer fix, grab ISS Deluxe or Sensible Soccer for that one and leave the “upgrade” one alone.