Last night, Japan beat Spain in the 2022 World Cup finals and secured their passage through to the knockout stages of the tournament at the expense of Germany.
Watching the scenes of jubilation on television made me recall a time when Japan wasn't just making waves in real-life sport but was also creating the finest digital representation of football (or soccer, if you prefer) on the face of the planet.
Japan's obsession with football video games can be traced back to the formation of the J.League in 1992, the nation's first professional football league. This understandably created an incredible amount of interest in the sport, so much so that a flood of video games appeared on systems like the Super Famicom, PC Engine and Mega Drive – a great many of which carried official J.League licencing, allowing them to use not only the real teams but also the actual player names and likenesses.
The catch was that many of these titles were painfully average when compared to western football video games, which had benefitted from more experience and history in the genre. The game that arguably changed this was Konami's Super Famicom title Jikkyō World Soccer: Perfect Eleven, launched in the west as International Superstar Soccer.
Released in 1994, it was, on the surface, a fairly traditional take on the sport; what made it stand out was a frantic, arcade-style pace, the sensible incorporation of a 'sprint' button and the inclusion of some acrobatic kicks, headers and tackles. Jikkyō World Soccer possessed a dynamism that was often lacking in western football games, and when it arrived in the west a year later, quickly established itself as the primary rival to EA's FIFA, which was only just making its dominance known.
Jikkyō World Soccer 2: Fighting Eleven followed in 1995, and was localised in the west as International Superstar Soccer Deluxe (which also made its way to the Mega Drive and PlayStation). Both games were developed by Major A, also known as Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka, an internal development studio at the former Konami subsidiary. Major A quickly became the 'go-to' team for soccer titles within the company, and when it was announced that it was working on a new game for the upcoming Nintendo 64, the anticipation among fans was palpable.
I was one of those fans back in 1996; myself and my closest friend had poured countless hours into ISS on the SNES and simply knew that Major A's N64 title would be a must-have purchase. When we first played it in 1997 (following the launch of the N64 in the UK), Jikkyō J.League Perfect Striker became a focal point in both of our lives. I didn't own an N64 at this point, but my aforementioned pal did; however, it was a European model, so he had to not only shell out almost £100 for an imported version of the game itself, but he also had to purchase the converter cartridge that would allow it to run on his EU machine (again, this wasn't cheap). To cap it all off, we then discovered that the television in his bedroom wouldn't display the NTSC game in colour, so he had to 'steal' a more capable TV from his father's office, which was capable of handling the signal as intended. After all of that effort, the game had to be pretty special to make it worthwhile – and thankfully, it was.
In fact, Jikkyō J.League Perfect Striker was little short of a revelation; it took the core gameplay of the SNES titles and transplanted them into a full-3D environment without losing any of the pace and athleticism. The first football game I can remember playing where analogue control was a key component, Perfect Striker rewarded skilful, measured play; you could use the stick to dribble slowly around opposition players before jamming it into the required direction and using the sprint button to make a frantic dash goalwards. The popularisation of the 'through-ball' was also of major importance here; this allowed you to open up defences with a carefully-timed pass. I dread to think of how many hours we must have spent playing this game, but it utterly dominated our gaming lives; few other titles ever got a look-in.
Jikkyō J.League Perfect Striker would come to the west as International Superstar Soccer 64 and would get sequels on both the N64 and PlayStation. I seem to vaguely recall owning several of them, but Perfect Striker remains the one which is etched in my memory banks; because of this game, I can name all of the founding teams of the J.League, and it's also one of the reasons why I consider myself to be something of a lapsed JEF United fan (the fact that the team was sponsored by Sega back in 1993 might also have contributed to this). Despite the myriad improvements that came with subsequent entries, I still tend to gravitate towards Perfect Striker whenever I fancy a quick kickaround; playing it today makes me remember what an incredible impact it had on me back in 1997.
ISS would, of course, become Pro Evolution Soccer, and Major A would effectively cease to exist beyond 2005, when it was merged back into Konami Corporation. For the longest time, PES was the undisputed king of football video gaming; EA's FIFA may have been the commercial darling, but hardcore fans often praised Konami's series for offering a superior gameplay experience. Sadly, in recent times that has changed; PES has become eFootball, and the 2022 edition of the game was lambasted for its poor graphics, lack of content and many intentional bugs.
The developers of Japan don't seem to be particularly interested in challenging EA's stranglehold over video game football, but then again, neither does the rest of the world; during the '90s, you couldn't move for potential rivals, but now, developers seem content to allow EA to assert control over the genre. Perhaps Japan's amazing performance at the World Cup this year will trigger a flood of new games, just as the formation of the J.League did 30 years ago? I'm not holding my breath, but I'd personally love to see a title of Jikkyō J.League Perfect Striker's stature rise from the ashes.