For a certain generation of fans, Pro Evolution Soccer was the pinnacle of football gaming.
FIFA had the trendy soundtrack, photorealistic graphics and official licences, but Pro Evo had the gameplay, an innovative Master League feature and some unintentionally hilarious team names.
Even now, years on, a casual mention of London FC or West Midlands Village draws a smile from knowing disciples. But what Pro Evolution Soccer lacked in official players, teams and leagues, it more than made up for in showcasing what makes football great.
It was fun, frustrating, addictive, rewarding and chaotic all at once. Handily, it also came with a welcome edit function for those of us with obscene amounts of free time.
Future editions proved more polished, but the franchise undoubtedly peaked with Pro Evolution Soccer 4 – starting with that cover which featured Thierry Henry, Francesco Totti and the world’s most famous referee, Pierluigi Collina, sandwiched in between. It was cool, classy and quintessentially 2000s. More importantly, unlike Pro Evolution 5 and 6, it didn’t feature John Terry.
But PES 4 was about so much more than looks. Developers Konami had gone all out to create their most realistic football sim yet and, in the process, produced something streets-ahead of anything FIFA was doing at the time – including, oddly enough, FIFA Street.
From small steps like the presence of a referee on the pitch and mud on players’ shirts, to giant leaps like the authentic movement of the ball and improved team AI, Pro Evo 4 retained the fun of previous entries while adding depth and intelligence.
Crucially, the game’s dribbling and passing were revamped, encouraging players to try more intelligent one-touch passing moves rather than attempting to slalom through defences holding down run. It was a literal game-changer. Scoring against a mate via a solo dribble or spectacular strike was still fun, but there was something more satisfying about the intricate movement of a killer team goal.
To schoolchildren and students playing the game, PES 4 also offered the first glimpse of European football via an official licensing agreement with Serie A, La Liga and the Eredivisie.
Coming after Football Italia moved from terrestrial television, and before the YouTube highlights era, PES 4 put Spain and Italy in the spotlight. Everyone had a favourite team, usually Serie A giants – whether Pavel Nedved’s pre-Calciopoli Juventus, the Milan of Andriy Shevchenko, or their city rivals Inter and a certain Adriano.
Though they underperformed in Serie A, Inter’s talented squad translated to one of the best on PES 4. Rumour had it that Konami developer Shingo ‘Seabass’ Takatsuka was an Nerezzurri fan and ‘blessed’ the team – and Adriano – with God-like abilities.
Whatever the truth, PES 4 undoubtedly cemented the Brazilian's cult status: he boasted power, precision and, to quote Alan Partridge, a foot like a traction engine. It was little wonder some friends chose to ban his use in games.
If Adriano was Inter’s Art Garfunkel-style showman, then Alvaro Recoba was their Paul Simon; a pacy dribbler and dead-ball magician to rival the best. Add in Fabio Cannavaro, Juan Sebastian Veron, Edgar Davids, Javier Zanetti and Obafemi Martins and… well, that Inter side's lack of silverware still baffles.
Away from the endless games against friends, there was Master League – Pro Evo’s answer to Championship Manager – in which you took on a lowly team of Mighty Ducks-style misfits with names like Hamsun and Castillo, then set about turning them into champions.
Bolstered to include 72 teams for PES 4, as well as the ability to train and improve players, Master League was everything you loved about FIFA and Football Manager rolled into one... but better. It was Friday Night Lights writ large on 128-bit graphics.
Last but not least came the voice of Peter Brackley. While Pro Evo 4’s synth-laden soundtrack inspired few fond memories, Brackley’s commentary alongside Trevor Brooking was always classy – even if there was a suspicion that Trev copied some of Brackley’s best lines.
Just to hear him introducing another Milan vs Inter encounter would take you back – but alas, you cannot stay.
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