One thought went through my mind on more than one occasion as I played FIFA 97 for this week’s article. As I slogged through it all, a question formed in my brain: “How on Earth did this series survive long enough to get good?”. Because make no mistake, FIFA 97 is not a good game, and I say that as someone who actually has some measure of nostalgia for it too, being that I played it on PC back in the day. I played the PlayStation version this time out, but I also have the game for the SEGA Saturn, and I can’t say I enjoy that version much either, so I’m willing to say FIFA 97 just isn’t a good game, period.
Certainly way back in 1997, I was impressed by FIFA 97 when I played it on our Windows 95 PC (16 megabytes of RAM, baybee!), but even back then I remember not being especially wowed by it as an actual footy sim and more because it had things like commentary and real player names. From a presentation perspective, FIFA 97 has the usual Electronic Arts sheen to it, with some foot stamping tunes in the menus and commentary from real life football broadcasters Des Lynam, John Motson and Andy Gray. Interestingly enough, Lynam and Motson were over on the BBC whilst Gray was working for Sky Sports, so this is probably one of the few places you could see all three work together in such a manner.
Sadly though, the commentary itself isn’t especially good, with all three men entering quite wooden performances and often sounding like they’d rather be anywhere else than in the recording studio. Real commentary was still quite a novelty at the time though, and I remember being wowed by the fact that games like FIFA 97 and Actua Soccer 2 would have the player names read out by an actual commentator. These days though the stilted delivery is really obvious, and it doesn’t help that the audio is buggy as heck either. I remember playing in a tournament as England against the USA and Des Lynam saying it was a Quarter Final when it wasn’t, only for Motson to then up him by saying the two nations had a great footballing rivalry. Last time I checked, England and USA barely played each other to begin with, let alone had any real sort of rivalry.
Graphically, the game looks decent enough for one from 1996, and the general presentation is good, but sadly, that’s where the positives end. FIFA 97 is not fun to play and doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The fact that simple things like passing the ball are next to impossible means it fails as a genuine football simulation, and the gameplay isn’t exciting or high tempo enough for it to work as a fun arcade kick-about either. Passing is genuinely useless in FIFA 97, with the ball seemingly going in random directions, usually straight to an opposing computer-controlled player. It doesn’t matter in what direction your player is facing or how much power you put behind it, passes will just go wherever they want to, which means playing any kind of possession-based passing game is impossible.
It also doesn’t help that there’s such a delay when you input buttons. For instance, square button is not only tackle but also lob pass, so on more than one occasion when contesting for the ball with an opposing player, I would press square to tackle, only for my player to take the ball from the player just by running into them and then boot it off the pitch. The same happened with the cross button, which allows you to change players when out of possession and acts as pass when you have the ball. During one game I pressed cross so that I could change which player I was controlling, but the player I changed to happened to be running up to the ball, so they promptly passed it all the way down the field to my own penalty box, allowing the opposing team to score.
Due to the lousy ground passing, the only way I had any real joy in the game was to lump it forwards with lob pass and then hope one of my players could run onto it and take a shot. However, when you do this, the game will sometimes just decide that you have gone offside, even though you haven’t. I had to go to the instant replay on a couple of occasions just to check that I wasn’t losing my mind. Even if you do manage to get a chance to shoot though, actually placing your shot can be ludicrously difficult, and it often feels like how much power you put behind a shot has no actual effect on how fast the ball moves. I often found that the best way to score was to lob the ball, run into it and then wait until the keeper started creeping off his line before shooting.
Ultimately though, FIFA 97 is a very stodgy and frustrating game to play. It’s not pick up and play, nor is it a technical game that can be fun to master. It’s just annoying, and I had little to no fun with it. It’s amazing to compare it to a game like FIFA 99, which came out a mere two years later, as gameplay-wise they feel like games from completely different series’. FIFA 99 was hardly perfect, but passing was a hundred times better than it is in FIFA 97, thus making it miles more fun to play. It also feels that a lot of considerations were made to appease American players at the expense of everyone else. The USA team in particular is ludicrously overpowered, quite comical when you consider that they crashed out of the Group Stages in France 98 without winning a solitary game. Meanwhile, a team like Wales that has players like Ryan Giggs, Neville Southall, Ian Rush and John Hartson in its squad is rated ridiculously low.
You can also see the American appeasement by some of the wording in menus and the like, with “extra time” changed to “overtime”, and “draws” instead being described as “ties”. I get that EA probably didn’t want to alienate American players too much due to football being less popular in America back then than it is now, meaning a lot of casual American players might not understand all the terms, but this game was being released globally, and it just really stood out as weird to me that all the usual terminology had been Americanised.
Game mode-wise, you have your Friendly games, Leagues, Tournaments and Playoffs. Tournament is more like the World Cup, in that you have Group Stages before moving on to a knockout round. Playoffs start you right in the knockouts and skips the groups entirely. There are a good selection of club teams from all the major leagues of the timeframe, complete with real player names and kit colours. There are plenty of tournaments and leagues to take part in, as well as the option of playing in an indoor stadium for madcap six a side action. Sadly though, the game itself is so frustrating to play that you probably won’t be bothered to win everything on offer.
Overall, I was very disappointed with FIFA 97. I knew it had flaws even as a youngster, but I’d hoped that the overall gaming experience would be better than what I found here. The harsh reality is that FIFA 97 just isn’t a good game, but I do have to give EA credit for overhauling things for when it came to FIFA 98 and then finally pulling off a really good game by the time they got to FIFA 99. I would suggest picking up the 99 version over this one as you might actually enjoy playing that.