Ah, bliss. Absolute bliss. Finally, a weekend spent without having to worry about running. After a succession of weekends where the main focus was on having to go out in the stifling heat/pissing rain on a Sunday morning, trudging around in an attempt to condition myself to be able to fail at a sub-40 minute 10k, I had a weekend off. The 10k but a distant memory, and no new events on the horizon other than a succession of 30th birthdays and a stag do, I was a free man. I had many things I could have done to mark this special occasion. Manchester was my oyster. Some art? Some culture? A gig? A nice meal? Anything. I could do whatever I wanted. I took my time, I thought really hard about it and I came to the conclusion that I was going to sit on my arse for around five hours and play through each and every one of my PS2 copies of Pro Evolution Soccer. And I don’t believe I wasted a single fucking minute.
Konami’s PES is literally my favourite gaming series of all time. I honestly dread to think how many hours I have put into it over the past decade, either building a Master League team from a rabble of no hopers into an all-conquering elite squad of fast midgets, or playing with housemates, relentlessly, for hour upon hour when I should have been studying, writing dissertations or applying for jobs. I’ve always dabbled in other games, until I either completed them or threw them out the window in frustration. But ultimately I always came crawling back, apologetically, to Pro Evo, swearing we would always be together. Always.
Well not any more. It’s over. After a long and beautiful relationship, we are now parted forever. Since turning my PS3 on a couple of weeks back to the dreaded Yellow Light of Death, I’ve been trying to raise a few quid by flogging my old games and consoles so I can get a new one. Some of it actually did rather well; my old N64 and Game Boy in particular got a lot of interest, a copy of Pokemon Blue bringing in an unexpected minor windfall. Some of it though, to put it mildly, did not. I couldn’t even sell Brian Lara Cricket or EA Sports Rugby for 29p. I listed pretty much every PS2 game I owned since my new PS3 won’t be able to play them, I never quite thought they’d all sell though. And in fact with half hour left, none of the Pro Evos had a single bet on. It seemed that nothing could tear us from each other, we were inseparable. Apart from, it turned out, a series of bids in the last seconds of the auction, one on each and every single copy. It was all over.
I must admit to being a bit shocked and sad when I first realised what I had done. I hadn’t played any of them for years now since buying my PS3, yet I liked that they were always there for me if I needed them. None of the PS3 versions had ever grabbed me in the same way; in fact, for 2010 and 2011 I had done the unthinkable and switched to FIFA. It was cold, it was clinical, but it was also a miraculous leap from the ropey old yearly EA cash ins of old. Now though, FIFA 2011 is all I have.
I fought back the tears, stoically sat down, hooked an old PS2 up to my TV and loaded Pro Evolution Soccer up, the very first one. This is where it all started on PS2, and by now I had decided a fitting way to say goodbye to my prized collection was to play through each and every one of them for one last time. Ah, the familiar intro, the menus of old. And then within seconds, the crashing reality of realising quite how many games of digitised football I would now have to play with Emile Heskey up front. In fact, the England squad as a whole was a bit ropey back then. People complain about what we have now, yet in 2001 Danny Mills was filling the right back slot and Trevor Sinclair was the answer to England’s left hand side problem. DANNY MILLS. Oh my days. And I’d foolishly selected Spain as my first opponents.
It wasn’t the best game of football I’ve ever played. Pro Evo 1 was actually a bit of a dog, not a patch on ISS Pro Evolution on PS1, and anyway, I spent the first half in a shock-induced coma when I realised Pep Guardiola was still in Spain’s midfield back then. It made me feel really old. I was cheered up a bit when I saw the familiar half time screen with the legendary “shoots” typo, but not enough to summon a decent performance. Gerrard was sent off for a stupid second yellow card and I scraped over the line 1-0, frustrated by woolly controls and inaccurate passing, only partly my fault; Konami had a lot of work to do.
Selecting my England squad to play Portugal on Pro Evo 2 was even harder than Pro Evo 1. James Beattie was in there for a start; I honestly cannot remember that man ever donning an England shirt. Had someone edited my option file as some sort of bizarre joke? I had no idea. Nevertheless, within five minutes of being forced to endure Emile Heskey stumbling around, falling over, miscontrolling the football and generally being a lumbering idiot, I was actually looking at him as an option of the bench. The game itself was a vast improvement on PES1, you could tell at this stage Konami were onto something. Everything felt a bit crisper, things were more in control. An efficient 2-0 victory later and it was onto PES3.
As I played through these games, it was so weird how each one had memories of specific periods in my life. Pro Evo 3 was the game of my second year houseshare, and it felt like I’d never been away, smashing Germany 4-0. Within seconds of kicking off I remembered the best feature of this game, as I passed the ball around my back four, the Germany keeper crept steadily further up the pitch, just sitting on the edge of the box. Whether intentional or not, this always happened, and if you caught it right crossing the halfway line and you could lob the keeper, Xabi Alonso style. I rained in 26 shots over the course of the match attempting to do it for one final time. Sadly I was denied, but what a game PES3 was. And yet, it was just the starter. The main course was still to follow.
And so that main course; that tasty, nutritious dish that was Pro Evolution Soccer 4. Not just one of my favourite sports games but one of my favourite computer games of all time. The sheer number of hours I spent playing this in my final year at University; winner stays on all night, that one-more-go-OK-best-of-three-OK-how-about-five, even just all day Master League sessions on my own. It was the absolute pinnacle of the series as far as I was concerned. End to end stuff with a succession of lightning fast passes and darting, jinking runs. The perfect shooting system where you just knew if you had timed it right and it was flying in, just like real football. Looking back now, after a couple of years of playing FIFA with its patient build up play and distinct lack of goals from further than ten yards out, I suppose you could say it leaned a bit towards the arcade, but my goodness it was fun; probably the best multiplayer game since GoldenEye. As I sent Sweden packing 2-0 with an efficient victory, dominated by another 29 shots at goal mostly from the halfway line, it dawned on me this would probably be the last time I ever played it. Thank you for the good times PES4. I will never forget you.
PES5 was where it probably began to go a bit wrong in my eyes, and not just because John Terry was on the front cover. Many people consider this the best of the series, but last Saturday I found it just as I remembered it. A frustrating, sloppy mess, where even the best players turn like oil tankers and nobody ever seemed able to control the ball properly. And it was graphically a step back too, slow and clunky. I ground out a 1-1 with the Czech Republic AET in one of the worst games of digitised football ever seen, before somehow guiding England to a penalty shootout victory and a relief that it was all over. PES5 wasn’t a bad game as such; they just broke most of what I loved about the series. In an effort for realism, they just made it feel like you were controlling a team of Emile Heskeys.
PES6 picked up where 5 left off: with John Terry on the front cover, and also on the bloody title screen. Is there nowhere safe from this man’s trespassing? Happily the game itself was much better, like a refined PES5. A lot more realistic than the basketball fixtures of 3 & 4, yet without the frustrating absence of any sort of close control associated with 5. It was a solid entry to the series, and I felt right at home, smashing Classic Brazil 3-0 despite Heskey making an unwelcome re-appearance in the England squad.
The final two games I owned in the series, PES2008 and 2009, were in all fairness not a great leap forward. By this stage, the PS3 had been released and Konami had switched their attention to that. 2008 was a nice surprise as Tottenham were one of the licensed teams, so being able to play in proper kits was a bonus as I won the North London Derby in the most one-sided 1-0 you will ever see. 2009 was almost the exact same game again. I have no idea how Konami have managed to churn out a further three PS2 versions since. I drew proceedings to a close by avenging our Euro 2012 penalty defeat to Italy with a battling 2-1 win, and that was that. I had no more Pro Evos left.
They’ve all left me now, posted out on Monday to the lucky eBay winner. I hope they bring him or her as much pleasure as they bought me over the years, even PES5. I will always remember the good times we had. For me, nothing in gaming will ever beat that feeling I got when I hit a shot from 50 yards out and literally the split second it left my player’s boot I knew it was going in. They tightened the halfway line lobs up in the end from PES5 onwards, understandably really, which made catching one right all the sweeter. And yet on PES2009 I did it not once, but twice, with Wilson Palacios of all people. It just goes to show; with Pro Evolution Soccer, anything was possible. They will be sorely missed.