Anyone who's played footy games as long as EG has will know two basic facts: firstly that a stock of spare controllers is necessary during particularly competitive occasions, and secondly that handheld attempts at recreating the beautiful game are almost always complete rubbish. Admittedly the arrival of the GBA 18 months ago helped matters a touch, but even the best that have arrived in that period are half arsed approximations of the 32 bit era.
The abject failure of Codemasters to recognise the value of its Sensible Soccer franchise on the GBA has presented an enormous gap in the market for an enterprising publisher to fill - but even the mighty EA found out recently with its super low selling FIFA 2003 that the apathy among the 1.5 million GBA owners in the UK is rife. The fact is we want value for our £34.99, and unless the game's an absolute bona fide triple A classic, we're not going to be remotely interested.
This is the one?
Given that this is Konami's second attempt at a footy game on the GBA, there was a fair amount of optimism that this could at last be "the one". After all, this is the same publisher that regularly churns out the Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution series to blanket acclaim. Surely a port of one of one of its N64/PSX mid '90s efforts can't be beyond them?
But last time around it most certainly was beyond them. A quick refresher of that one reveals itself to be an unplayable wobbly sprite travesty - and we're more than happy to report the latest, identically titled effort has improved matters no end. It has all the usual bells and whistles you expect in a portable footy title: respectable visuals, a two player link mode, commentary (from John Champion, once again), a plethora of formation/weather/difficulty/match length options, as well as Friendly, Penalty Shoot Out, Superstar and 58 team International Cup modes.
But the less said about the team situation, the better. The lack of a FIFPro license has made it a mockery of a sham once more, with no recognisable player names allowed, so we've ended up with such laughable replacements as Syelma (Seaman?), Bohaen (Owen?), Dekkaan (Beckham?) and Eescei (Heskey?!). No clubs are included either, which is also a bit annoying for anyone hoping more for their £35.
But at least the game resembles a football match these days. The viewpoint has been zoomed out this time to allow you to actually have a chance of seeing where your players are, and the animation has come on leaps and bounds compared to the bizarre, stilted stickmen of 2001's effort. Gone, also, is the slightly unhelpful isometric viewpoint, with a more traditional touchline view making it far easier to get an idea of what's going on. Weather also plays a part, with regular downpours helping to add to the atmosphere, although in all honesty we didn't really notice a significant difference to the play.
Despite the obvious lack of buttons, the control system has a surprising amount of options. The usual defensive and attacking system is employed, with A providing a weak pass/marking, B for a strong pass/sliding tackle, L for sprint, R for selecting players, with combinations of the buttons providing opportunities to show off with overhead kicks, headers, aftertouch and the obligatory through pass. Although using the shoulder buttons for any length of time is still the most uncomfortable experience in gaming, it's a system that any footy veteran will slip straight into. The main limitations are down to the relative lack of animation compared to more recent incarnations on the PS2 - sometimes going back to old style 3D football games makes you realise how far things have come.
Attempting the kind of flash tricks that Pro Evo veterans will be used to just isn't an option here. You'll be turning the clock back to the days when the ball was glued to your foot with stilted comedy shots abound. The problem in ISS seems to be keeping the ball from going over the bar - often we'd end up with 20 odd shots on goal per game, but still only have a couple of goals to show for it, while the overly forgiving refs almost always turned a blind eye to our rabid Vinnie Jones antics. It's hardly fair to compare this mid 90s fare with the next gen versions, but somehow you can't help it. We've been spoiled. Things have moved on so much, and it's not just a visual difference unlike so many genres.
The best football game on the GBA
In the context of the platform and the competition, it's easy to see that ISS Advance easily tops anyone else's handheld attempts and as such offers the best football experience on the GBA. Just don't expect it to mirror the kind of high gloss football entertainment possible on the current crop of consoles - and thanks to the limitations of the GBA expect your hands and eyes to hurt like hell after a few hours wrestling and peering into the gloom. How it performs on the SP will be another matter entirely, and it could well be worth hanging on until the March 28th release of the redesigned GBA to find out.