Retrospective: 90 Minutes: Sega Championship Football

The final rendition of the beautiful game to be released on the Dreamcast, 90 Minutes: Sega Championship Football was a title that many Dreamcast owners - me included - had quiet optimism for. We had already seen the likes of UEFA Striker; the Silicon Dreams World League Soccer based revival of the Sega Worldwide Soccer franchise; and the 'it's football Jim, but not as we know it' shenanigans of Virtua Striker 2 all come and go with not much in the way of fanfare. 

90 Minutes represented one final throw of the dice for a platform that didn't have a FIFA or a PES, but one which also had its logo plastered all over the football highlights every weekend as players from Arsenal, Sampdoria, St Etienne and Deportivo were banging in the goals. It was quite an odd juxtaposition that a games console that was trying to elbow its way into football culture (see also the Dreamcast Beach Football Challenge) didn't really have a killer app in the genre.

90 Minutes was going to change all that though. See, the big guns were on the case now with Smilebit, the same studio behind the incredible Jet Set/Grind Radio entering the chat. FIFA? PES? Ha! Sega is back and they're bringing their own ball. Anticipation was high for 90 Minutes, and it was only natural that with such pedigree in the driving seat that many were expecting Smilebit's first foray into football to play a blinder. Sadly, upon release it became painfully clear that rather than being a contender, 90 Minutes was little more than an embarrassing own goal.

On the face of it, 90 Minutes seems to have everything you could possibly want from a football game: decent visuals, a multitude of play modes, a pseudo-official license (player names, but not clubs) and the promise of a new game engine created from the ground up for the Dreamcast by one of Sega's most revered first party studios. Upon firing 90 Minutes up, all of the above seem to start slotting into place. The menus are practically bursting with modes and options; everything you would expect is present and correct. Want to create your own club with its own strip? Head out onto the training pitch to practice your drills? Select national squads? Tinker with gameplay speed and sound effects options? You can do all of this and more, all the while traversing some pretty well laid out menu screens as inoffensive background muzak soothes the lugholes.

So you've selected your teams, messed about with formations and substitutes, chosen one of the five beautifully rendered stadia to play in, and your choice of weather and time of day. So far, so good. And then you head out onto the pitch and the whole house of digital cards comes crashing down.

Where to begin? The frame rate seems like a good place. As soon as the players exit the tunnel and walk out onto the pitch, you can tell that something's gone awry as the game engine flits at will between 'just about running smoothly' to 'oh lord why is everything running in slow motion?' Seriously, the way 90 Minutes moves and how inconsistent the frame rate is constitutes a terminal flaw from the very moment the game starts. This inconsistency continues once a match kicks off, with almost random bouts of slow motion making it virtually impossible to play passes where you want them to go, or even make tackles effectively. If it wasn't for these game breaking fluidity issues, 90 Minutes might have offered a slightly above average kickabout, as there are some promising aspects to it. 

As stated previously, the visuals are actually quite decent, with player models - while looking nothing like who they're supposed to be - being nicely detailed; and player animations are perfectly fine. The stadia, again, look great (although the crowds look like they are populated with Brundle Fly-esque abominations) and there's plenty going on pitchside with officials and TV cameras observing the action. It's such a shame then that the actual gameplay is so uneven in terms of speed of play - sometimes you can literally watch the whole thing grind down to frames in the single digits as a player attempts to initiate an animation...it really is painful to witness a console as capable as the Dreamcast reduced to displaying something so pathetic.

Another area where 90 Minutes fails dismally is the in-game audio. Crowd chants are bizarrely disjointed, beginning and ending abruptly with odd sessions of silence; and are accompanied by - and I promise you this - some of the most hilariously bad play by play commentary you're ever likely to hear. The commentator seems to have only one phrase for each player's name which is bad enough, but the way in which he struggles to string coherent sentences together borders on the comedic. At best it is hilarious, at worst it is incomprehensible gibberish. I don't know if 90 Minutes was playtested by any native English speakers, but holy hell it's bad.

Finally, it is definitely worth mentioning some of the downright bizarre bugs I encountered during recent sessions with 90 Minutes. Perhaps the strangest one was when the opposition team had a shot at goal and the ball hit the post. For some reason the game registered this as a goal - even the replay showed the ball hitting the post and going out for what should have been a goal kick. During another match, a fairly tame shot on goal (this time by me) was comfortably caught by the opposition ‘keeper. He then stepped backwards into his own net and registered an own goal. Then of course there are the usual 'players spinning around on the spot' or 'players all bunching up and running into the goal' style bugs, but thankfully these aren't all that common. It just smacks of a lack of quality playtesting.

You may think it's an open and shut case after reading all that. 90 Minutes is a jank-a-thon not worthy of anyone's time. Go back to UEFA Dream Soccer and be thankful. Well actually, that's not the case at all. You see, 90 Minutes is the PAL release of Smilebit's title and while it is a stinker, there are plenty of glimpses of a decent game peppered throughout. Turns out that decent iteration does actually exist - in the form of J.League Spectacle Soccer. 

Unusually for a Dreamcast game developed by a Japanese studio, the PAL release of 90 Minutes: Sega Championship Football is actually the earlier version to hit the streets, doing so in October 2001 across Europe. It appears that after the torrid reviews and critical backlash against a title barely fit for public consumption, the game was taken back in-house and totally revamped by Smilebit, and upon release in its native Japan four months later in February 2002, J.League Spectacle Soccer emerged as a much more polished prospect.

The frame rate issues are much less intrusive for a start, meaning that the gameplay that was hinted at in the PAL version can actually be fully appreciated. While it's certainly no Pro Evolution Soccer, J.League Spectacle Soccer is definitley a game made in the Konami mold (there are even Konami advertising boards at the sides of the pitches), with subtle hints at the game it is trying to mimic. The way the ball moves and the way the players seem to have a somewhat limited degree of directional movement as seen in the original PlayStation PES titles is very evident in J.League, and without the random bouts of slowdown seen in the PAL title, Spectacle Soccer becomes a fairly enjoyable game of football.

You can now pass to the player you intended to, and you can ping shots off at goal with ease. Tackles are much easier to pull off when the game isn't speeding up and slowing down at random, and you can even start to experiment with lofting crosses into the box when you know you might be able to anticipate if one of your teammates might be there to convert a chance. The bugs I encountered while playing 90 Minutes also appear to be absent from J.League, which is possibly a result of a few more months worth of refinement and testing; but sadly Smilebit still didn't think it worthwhile to include a proper 'action replay' option. Instead, you simply get short replays after certain events that you have no control over, and this is evident in both flavours of the title.

Unsurprisingly, J.League Spectacle Soccer builds on the platform set by 90 Minutes by adding the officially licensed top flight of Japanese soccer, with all of the real teams, kits, and players (although not stadia) you'd expect. The play by play commentary has been upgraded too, and while the announcer is speaking in Japanese (and therefore, I can't understand what he's saying), it doesn't sound anywhere near as stilted as it does in 90 Minutes. 

The video below shows a gameplay sample from both 90 Minutes and J.League Spectacle Soccer, and hopefully gives some idea of the difference in terms of fluidity - the video doesn't really convey just how bad the slowdown is in 90 Minutes, but should give some idea.

I do recall that when I wrote about UEFA Dream Soccer, several people mentioned in the comments that J.League Spectacle Soccer represented the best football game on the Dreamcast, and upon investigating this myself I have come to the conclusion that it's at least on a part with Silicon Dreams' title. 

There are still a few minor issues, such as there being no through ball command and aerial play being a bit inconsistent, but overall, J.League is up there at the top of the table. If you are looking for a decent alternative to the Dreamcast football titles that were released in the West, then J.League Spectacle Soccer is worthy of your attention. Just be sure to leave 90 Minutes rotting in the relegation zone where it belongs.

Want more Dreamcast football related nonsense? Check out the following:

4 comments:

Lewis Cox said...

You finally found another competent football game for the Dreamcast! It was hidden away in plain sight this whole time...

Tom Charnock said...

Cheers Lewis. To be fair, everyone in the comments on the other footy retrospectives mentioned Spectacle Soccer. But yeah, it's a decent footy game on the Dreamcast. Who knew? (all those other folks, clearly!) XD

J├║lioSlayer Oliveira said...

Great Tom!!! You said it all. That's it! PERIOD! Much better than 90 minutes, overall. A HACK with translation + putting back the european teams (or even with full official names from that era) could be great (maybe with new facial textures...). It's the same situation with Surf Rocket Racers vs Power Jet Racing 2001, from CRI. The japanese version is really better. Some other games, like Sega Extreme Sports also had a late release in japan and I would need to compare them deeply to see better the differences. Release dates from SEGA EXTREME SPORTS:
EU: October 27, 2000
NA: November 27, 2000
JP: September 6, 2001

Janino296 said...

Many thanks...will check it out