Winning Eleven's a bit like Michael Owen - a demon on home soil, but kind of enigmatic when it goes abroad. On PS2 it's heavenly (in spite of the demonism, obviously); on Xbox and PC it's been a bit oversold (the multiplayer implementation, in particular, hasn't lived up to its billing). On PSP? Well, Konami must be on the phone to the bank manager ordering a larger vault, but from our perspective? Like we said - enigmatic.
Winning Eleven 9: Ubiquitous Evolution is basically the PS2 version of Winning Eleven 9 shorn of its Master League mode and commentary, with a wireless multiplayer mode bolted on. There's no need to sermonise the basic game (without wishing to proliferate the "Church of PES" stuff, claiming it's good is a bit like arguing that Jesus was probably a nice chap at heart) and we'll get to the quirks and version-specific changes later (of the game that is, not the Jesus). For now, let's get stuck into the PSP-specific stuff.
First things first - wireless features. We're sitting here right now with two PSPs and two copies of the game, so we know what it's like. Set-up works like this: you choose the Wireless mode, then name your profile (you can have up to three), and then one of you chooses to host (selecting skill level, half-length and whatnot) and the other scans the airwaves for the game. Once you're linked up you can select teams and get going. On the pitch, there's no slowdown and relatively little lag. We did notice legs kicking before the ball was propelled into the air on a couple of occasions, but it was generally a much smoother experience than most of our games have been with PES4 on Xbox Live, which is a good sign.
The game has restrictions similar to those of that Xbox title. It won't use custom player data (even if you've downloaded the latest transfer updates and English names from PSPUpdates.com), you can only pause the game a few times each, and it will only let you faff around on goal-kicks, the pause menu, the half-time menu and so on for a certain amount of time before playing on with or without you. It also won't let you skip through replay animations or save your replays in Wi-fi mode - presumably to try and avoid the two versions getting out of sync - although you can skip the stadium intro. At the end of the game, you can opt to play again or you can give up and go back to the Wireless screen, which keeps track of your stats - a points-total based on your performance, and various others labelled in Japanese.
Ubiquitous Evolution also boasts some degree of USB link-up with PS2. Apparently this allows you to exchange team data with the PS2 and then swap teams with other users, but since we're writing this from a hotel room in the Ueno district of Tokyo it's rather difficult to get our hands on our PS2s to find out for ourselves.
On the whole though, wireless Winning Eleven is about as good as it should be. The problem is that Konami's taken the rest of the game more or less for granted - and there are some gaping holes and other disappointments.
The lack of commentary is forgivable, as is the inclusion of just two stadiums, but the lack of a Master League option is downright annoying. You can make your own league out of the available teams, but the core single-player mode that's been so central to the PS2 versions' long-term relevance is nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was chopped because Konami was in a rush to get the game ready, or perhaps it's gone because of technical limitations - whatever the reason, it smarts. The European version, Pro Evolution Soccer 5, has been trailed with the promise of Leagues and Cups - WE9 on PSP lacks even Cups, so we're not sure what the situation is there.
Of course we can tell you what it's like to play - and the answer is that it's good (unsurprisingly), but some of the PSP's technical limitations can be frustrating, and WE9's stop-starty nature - where every slide tackle seems to result in a free-kick - might upset you too. The load times, first of all, are dreadful. WE has always been quite a load-intensive game on PS2, but it still seems daft having to wait fully 45 seconds to play a game of football. The only good thing you can say about this is that with its suspend mode and decent-length matches, the chances are that you'll be playing lots of Exhibition matches, turning off the PSP during odd moments and rejoining them at odd points in either half. In this sense it's quick to access. But if you hop on a train, slide in the UMD, power up the PSP, load the game, load Exhibition mode, pick teams and load the match - and that's following a brief pause to load the actual data and, bizarrely, the stadium intro movie - you may well find you've missed your stop by the time the players are actually assembled on the pitch.
It's also guilty of some slowdown now and then - particularly in a crowded final third of the field or just after a free-kick's rebounded off the wall - and there are no truly zoomed out views and none of the angled views (accessed with the triggers on PS2). It's also a bit different to control, given the lack of the PS2's L2 and R2 shoulders and second analogue stick. The options menu lets you select the d-pad for movement and spare the analogue nub for special moves, which is probably the best option, although maddeningly diagonal passes on the d-pad can be a little quirky from time to time.
What is good though (and "What is good?" is probably a question you're contemplating after all this remarkably faint praise) is, variously, the inclusion of special moves in spite of the control restrictions (you can do everything from step-overs to Ronaldinho Nike advert-style feints), the ability to save those ever-so-sexy replays to your Memory Stick, and, of course, the underlying game which, no matter how many "almosts" WE9 on PSP manages in every other regard, is still fundamentally Winning Eleven and therefore fundamentally good.
Winning Eleven 9 - from which Pro Evolution Soccer 5 will inherit many of its characteristics - isn't a massively bold refinement but the animation blending is nicer, the general ball movement and player behaviour on the ball is as close to real life as it's ever been, and the pace of the passing is quick - with good first-time passing routines that don't rob the game of its fluency. We also like the system of shot selection - where position is as important as the degree to which you fill the shot meter in terms of speed and flight.
As ever it's more reminiscent of actual football than anything else on the market. The ball isn't glued to the feet of the players and is better behaved and more believable than in most of Konami's rivals, and goals have to be fought for - and hard. Given the way the ball moves and the range of subtle skills to command, the best ones feel more emphatic and enjoyable than anything World Tour Soccer or FIFA can ever muster. And they look better too. Earlier this week the ball dropped neatly over our centre-forward's left shoulder and somehow we managed to unleash a curling left-foot volley that hit the top-left corner from 25 yards out. Even now, several years after we first picked up on Konami's football series, it was still enough for us to yelp embarrassingly in a train full of Japanese commuters. Oops.
Of course it's not actual football. There are loads of limitations. Long balls tend to be a bit of a lottery, for example, because obviously you can't look up and judge them with any particular precision (particularly on the PSP with its lack of zoomed-out viewpoints), and your team-mates are never going to play out the beautiful move you're visualising with the sort of effectiveness that you see highlighted on Match of the Day once in a while. Indeed, whenever you use the one-two passing move it tends to remind you how dim-witted the others can be in terms of their positional sense.
But it is good? Those in need of goals-goals-goals will prefer World Tour Soccer, but those who covet the arc of the ball and the 89th-minute winner will find Winning Eleven 9: Ubiquitous Evolution a more satisfying companion. We wouldn't recommend buying it right now, because the English-language Pro Evolution Soccer 5 will be out on the PSP very shortly, and you'll have a lot less trouble finding people to play that against wirelessly than you will with the Japanese Winning Eleven. But it's faaaairly positive sign of what's to come. Like we said, Konami always seems to behave awkwardly when it ventures abroad from the PS2 (coughs the gaijin), but, rather like Michael Owen, it's hard not to get excited when it appears on the open market.
Winning Eleven 9: Ubiquitous Edition is out now in Japan. The European version will be called Pro Evolution Soccer 5 and is due out later this year.