Welcome back to Rings of Saturn, the feature that first saw me step onto the scene here at Gaming Respawn. It’s gratifying to see that the old featured picture was still saved on the Dashboard, seeing as it was created by the now dearly departed Adam Turek. I’ll be eternally grateful to him for whipping that up for me when I needed a logo made up quickly because the feature had to go up ASAP. We bring the feature back this time out by looking at a game that also saw ports to fourth gen, fifth gen and Windows in the form of FIFA: Road to World Cup 98. I have actually played this on both the PlayStation and N64, and I’m happy to say that the Saturn version doesn’t compare too terribly to those two releases.

Road to World Cup 98 actually first hit Windows PCs in the summer of 1997, before then hitting the fifth gen consoles in the Autumn/Winter of 1997. The PlayStation got a 2-4 week head start on its competitors when it came to getting the game on shelves, and this was the version of the game I played the most as my friend, Jim, lent me his copy in the autumn months of 1998 when FIFA 99 was already looming on the horizon. Road to World Cup 98 was the last EA soccer/football game to be released on a SEGA console as EA was one of the third-party developers so infuriated by the way SEGA handled the fifth gen that they decided to not support the Dreamcast, meaning that Road to World Cup 98 was, in effect, EA’s swansong when it came to SEGA hardware.

Playing Road to World Cup 98, you do get the impression that if EA had gotten another crack or two at bringing their soccer games to the system, then they might have been able to put something that was close to being on par with the PSX games as Road to World Cup 98 on the Saturn is a solid attempt and still reasonably playable to this day. The 98 version of EA’s football-em-up wasn’t perfect on any system, but it was a notable jump in quality, gameplay-wise, in comparison to the previous two fifth gen attempts, with FIFA 99 really being where EA managed to get the formula polished when it came to the gameplay aspect of things.

For instance, passing is accurate and quick enough now that you can kind of play a passing game and make it work, although there are still some issues with it. By facing in the direction you want to pass and pressing the correct button (B on the Saturn version of the game), the player you are controlling will pass relatively smoothly in the general direction, and the pass has a decent chance of actually making it. There’ll still be occasionally frustrating moments where the pass will go to a totally different player who happens to be sharing the same general hemisphere of the player you actually WANT to pass to, but Road to World Cup 98 is still a marked improvement on the previous two fifth gen FIFA releases.

The gameplay isn’t without issues, such as input lag causing you to hoof the ball sometimes if you try to tackle and then happen to find the ball at your feet after a tussle with an opposing player. I also have to say that I’m not an especially big fan of the button layout on the Saturn pad. A is long pass, B is ground pass and C is shoot, which is fine and works well enough, but for some reason, they’ve assigned sprint to the X button, when Y would have been a more comfortable and natural placement for me. It didn’t help that the X button on my Saturn controller sticks sometimes, which made sprinting an overall frustrating experience, and you’ll need it in order to try and keep up with the opposition as Road to World Cup 98 is predominantly based around a more fast-paced, arcade-styled game style as opposed to a more patient simulation style.

Road to World Cup 98 not only includes a host of, mostly, licensed national teams from every confederation, but there is also a decent selection of club sides to choose from as well. Personally, I often find myself playing with the international sides, mainly because there isn’t really anything that is comparable to the Career Mode that you’d find in modern FIFAs, so really, all a club season comes down to is competing in the league and then either playing the league again or just playing a different mode. There’s no European competition, no integration of cup competitions, etc. By comparison, the core mode to play with the international teams is actually quite fun and has some variety to it, depending on how you would like to play.

The titular Road to World Cup Mode sees you picking one of the 172 countries in FIFA and then attempting to qualify for the tournament, with accurate qualification processes depending on which confederation you play in. For instance, should you pick England, then you’ll play in the real qualification group that the Three Lions had to contend with at the time, playing the likes of Italy, Georgia, Poland and Moldova in an effort to secure a World Cup berth. Pick someone like Uruguay though and you’ll have to play all your fellow South American sides twice and finish high enough in the league table in order to reach the World Cup. On my most recent playthrough, I decided to play as Liberia (owing to them having human cheat code George Weah in their ranks), and that saw me having to win a playoff with a team before then moving into a group of four where I had to finish first in order to qualify.

Having the variety of which confederation you pick adds some replay value to the mode, although once you’ve qualified once, you can skip straight through to the tournament proper, should you wish to. The fact you’re forced to go through the qualifying round at least once could potentially annoy some players who just want to get stuck right into the tournament, but it personally didn’t bother me, and I like the fact that you kind of have to “earn” the right to play in the World Cup first. Ultimately, it’s a prize and honour that should be earned when all is said and done. Picking certain sides can increase the scope of the challenge as well. For instance, pick a team from Oceania and you’ll be forced to not only win Oceanic qualifying but then defeat an Asian side in a two legged playoff. They don’t half make it difficult for the Solomon Islands, let me tell you!

Graphically, Road to World Cup 98 doesn’t look too bad, although the rain and snow weather effects that you’ll find in the PlayStation version won’t be found in the Saturn version of the game. Well, they weren’t present in the vanilla version of the game I played, although I believe Road to World Cup 98 is compatible with the additional RAM carts you can plug into your Saturn, so that might improve the visuals a bit, should you have one at hand. One issue I noticed with the game is that when it comes to the smaller nations in international mode, the players tend to all have the same design. This led to the strange visual of the usually short-haired or straight up bald George Weah rocking a pompadour-styled hairdo for some reason. This is disappointing, but the general visuals are okay, so it’s not a dealbreaker. For a Saturn game from 1997, it’s acceptable visually, especially when you consider that the Saturn was known more for 2D excellence.

One thing the Saturn version of Road to World Cup 98 has over the N64 version of the game (which I own as well) is that it includes the CD quality audio and the FMV sequences that the PSX version also enjoys. Being a CD-based game does lead to some ridiculously long load times in the World Cup Mode though, especially when you have to wait for all of the other sides in the group stages to play their games. Having the full audio is a nice addition though, and the commentary from Des Lynam, Jon Motson and Andy Gray is reasonable for the time. It’s not quite as good as Tony Gubba on ISS Pro 98’, but it never annoyed me at least, which puts it above Olympic Soccer and the like.

Despite me personally finding Road to World Cup 98 on the Saturn to be a reasonable experience overall, SEGA Saturn Magazine savaged the game, giving it a wearying 58% score and instead suggesting Saturn fans spend their money on SEGA Worldwide Soccer 98. Though I find Worldwide Soccer 98 to be a decent enough footballing experience, I have to say that I think Road to World Cup 98 hangs with it reasonably well, and I certainly don’t see the gap in quality between the two as the folks at Saturn Mag did.

Could it be that they were naturally a bit biased in favour of the home team game as opposed to the third-party release? I guess only the writers will know for sure. All I can say is that if I’d been a beleaguered Saturn owner in the Winter of 1997, I would have been quite happy to play Road to World Cup 98. It’s not as good as the PlayStation version of the game, but it holds up reasonably well against it, and it’s playable despite being imperfect. If you can find it cheap somewhere, then it’s worth taking it out for a kickabout or two.

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