Recently, ITV has been uploading all of Euro 96 to their online ITV Hub, and it got me in the mood for some 90s era fifth gen international footy action. In such a situation, it was inevitable that I find my way to International Superstar Soccer Pro 98. Released in the autumn of 1998, just after the FIFA World Cup in France that year, ISS Pro 98 quickly became both a critical and commercial success that laid the groundwork for the Pro Evolution Soccer series that still exists today.
I have gushed about my love for ISS Pro 98 on many an occasion and would still consider it to be one of my favourite games of all-time. Anyone with experience in playing the modern PES games shouldn’t struggle too much with adapting to the controller layout, although the gameplay is certainly a tad less refined than what the modern PES player would likely expect. Possession of the original PlayStation Dual Shock controller will allow you to use the left thumb stick to control your player (which wasn’t always de riguer during this period as the Dual Shock had only just started being packed in with the console,) allowing you better control of their movements, which improves the gameplay experience.
As for the face buttons, they do what you’d pretty much expect them to do if you’ve played a PES game in the past twenty years. Cross is pass, circle is long pass, triangle is through ball and square is shoot. Shooting also comes with a power bar, which is something the FIFA series hadn’t integrated into its gameplay yet, which means some depth finger skills can allow you to either blister the keeper’s mitts with a fizzing flamethrower of a thunder shot or daintily chip it over them into the goal as they come out to stop you.
One thing that might throw off a modern player is that there is only one type of sprint, which sacrifices any real semblance of accuracy in exchange for speed and acceleration. It really is very difficult to get your player to go where you want them to go sometimes whilst sprinting as pressing R1 to engage it often leads to your player marauding forward like a high-powered Jeep powering through a swampy marsh. So long as you’re happy to just plough forward in a straight line without a desire to make any sharp turns, then you’ll happily storm ahead, but the minute you start trying to bring turning into the mix, then you’ll quickly find it heavy and less than accurate.
What this does is add a tactical element to the gameplay as you are forced to think before trying to sprint, making it easy for the opposing team to dispossess you. It does work the other way as well though as knowing that the computer can’t always quickly dodge you whilst they are in full flow encourages you to time your tackles in order to stop them. There is nothing more satisfying in ISS Pro 98 than timing a side slide tackle to perfection and disarming an opposing player cleanly as they are just about to hit full pelt.
When runs go just right though, they can be spectacular, and because opposing teams will actually open up a bit when chasing a goal, it means that energised runs can often seal a game for you, provided you time them right. The big pitch length slaloming runs that some of the FIFA games from this era were known for will rarely be found here, with the passing game playing a much bigger role than it would in other games of the period. Passing actually “works” in ISS Pro 98, by which I mean that a patient passing game is possible.
Passes can still go astray if you don’t aim them properly, but in general a pass will go where you want it, provided you time it right and pass it in the right direction, with auto-aim kicking in a bit as well. Considering so many footy games from this period had less than smooth passing mechanics, the fact that ISS Pro 98 actually allowed you to enact a reasonably sound possession-based passing game was a big positive in its favour.
In addition to the standard passing being pleasantly tight and responsive, the still relatively new through ball mechanics can be absolutely lethal if you time the pass correctly. These days we expect football games to have a through ball pass, but back in the fifth gen, this was absolutely not common practice, so the fact that ISS Pro 98 not only had it but that it could be such a powerful weapon at your disposal gave the gameplay an extra spice that rival games (including FIFA even) couldn’t match. Arguments have been made that the through ball can verge on being a tad too powerful in the right hands, but I’ve never experienced that personally. When it works, it’s a nightmare to defend against, but its success rate isn’t as overwhelmingly high as some like to state.
Sadly, Konami didn’t deign it worthwhile to pay for the official player licenses, and the game features international sides only, but there is an edit player name option in the menus that allows you to rename everyone, and most of the kits do resemble what the teams were actually wearing in real life. The England kit has the red and black parts on the front and side, for instance, and quite a few of the players are designed in such a way that you can tell who they are as well (Brazilian Ronaldo has his trademark bald head, whilst Italy’s Ravanelli is a luscious silver fox), which makes the overall experience all the richer.
The only critique I’d give for the edit mode is that the space on each name bar is limited, which means you’ll have to get creative with players who have longer names. Holland’s goalkeeper, Van Der Sar, had to become “V.D. Sar” when it changed his name, for instance. There is also the option to play as a legends team that features the likes of Johan Cruyff and Gary Lineker if you input a code on the main menu, which is a nice touch. The main single-player experience comes down to continental cup competitions along with the International Cup, which is the game’s equivalent of the World Cup and actually allows you to have the groups set up just as they were in that particular tournament.
I still had a blast going back to play ISS Pro 98 again. It’s certainly showing its age these days, but it’s still an immensely playable game that should tantalise the nostalgia gene of anyone who was a PlayStation-owning football fan from this era. Commentary is supplied by the, now sadly deceased, former BBC commentator Tony Gubba, and the ball makes a satisfying *thud* every time you put your laces behind it. Gubba’s delivery is a bit wooden to a modern ear, but back in the day, his performance was more than adequate, and his profuse apologies about the interference on the screen as the player’s line-up will remain in my memory banks forever.
If retro games and football are your thing, then you probably own this one already, but if you don’t, then it’s an absolute must for any togger fan’s collection. I can easily recommend it, it’s a belter!