FIFA 18 is coming to Switch, but can it fix Nintendo's troubled relationship with football games?

In many ways, the presence of FIFA is a good barometer of a platform’s relevance. When EA stopped launching versions of its world-beating football series on the PS Vita and 3DS in 2015, while focusing more and more attention on its Ultimate Team-based free-to-play mobile version, it spoke volumes about the declining importance of dedicated handheld consoles in a world in which mobile is king.

Conversely, the fact that EA continued to launch on the PlayStation 2 until FIFA 14 says a lot about the incredible staying power of Sony’s 155 million-selling console. Put simply, FIFA is a juggernaut with the power to break sales records, giving EA the right to be coldly pragmatic in deciding which platforms it’s worth launching on.

Nintendo Switch owners will be pleased, then, that FIFA 18 is launching on the system. Quite rightly so, as Switch is selling well so far. However, after more details emerged from E3 on the exact nature of the Switch version, it’s all beginning to feel far less like an unqualified victory. There’s only one real omission from FIFA 18 on Nintendo Switch, but it’s a major one: The Journey, the story-based mode introduced in FIFA 17, will not be included. This is due to the fact that – rather than the Frostbite engine that powers FIFA on PS4 and Xbox One – the Switch version is instead being created using a custom-built engine.

Hands-on reports have also indicated that this has a knock-on effect on the game’s visual quality in some areas, although to the untrained eye FIFA 18 will be the same game on Switch. GamesRadar+ Global Editor-in-Chief, Dan Dawkins, who played FIFA 18 at E3, was upbeat about the Switch version: ”Player faces are softer and more cartoonish than the PS4 and Xbox One versions, but it’s easy to recognise players at a glance. Animation looks broadly uncompromised and the overall experience is very intuitive and smooth. For example, in the subtle way players’ adjust their body weight, or shift feet to take a tricky pass. As a die-hard PES 2017 fan, who has recently bought a Switch, I could easily see myself playing FIFA 18 on Nintendo’s console. It’ll be a dream for playing with my kids, and looks great in handheld mode, too.” Aside from The Journey, all other modes will be represented – including Ultimate Team, for the first time on a Nintendo system.

Not so beautiful games

But is that enough? The Journey is probably the most expendable of all FIFA 18’s modes, with Ultimate Team now officially the most popular component, but the reality of yet another inferior football game on a Nintendo system brings uncomfortable echoes of the past.

FIFA was already around back in the SNES era, but it wasn’t the hot property it is now. Back then, it was Pro Evolution Soccer precursor International Superstar Soccer – and specifically, ISS Deluxe – that was the best approximation of the beautiful game available. But this was arguably the last time that a Nintendo console established itself as a go-to platform for football games.

The Nintendo 64 followed, and so too did three new entries in the International Superstar Soccer series. But while these had their fans, and maintain a cult following for their Alan Partridge-esque commentary in particular, the PlayStation had the N64 well beaten for choice. Notably, EA stopped supporting the N64 early, making FIFA 99 its final football game on the platform.

This wasn’t the case with the GameCube, which got a version of every FIFA game from 2002 right up until 2007. The boxy system also had a couple of neat exclusives, with madcap first-party effort Super Mario Strikers and Sega’s arcade-flavoured Virtua Striker 2002 giving PlayStation and Xbox-owning football fans something to be envious of for a change. Nintendo suffered a major loss in this era, however, with only one Pro Evolution Soccer game launching on GameCube in what’s widely considered to have been a golden generation for PES. It was a blow only compounded by the series’ long association with Nintendo down the years in its guise as ISS, and suggested a lack of faith in the console as a home for football games from Konami.

Then the Wii happened, which was simultaneously one of Nintendo’s biggest ever commercial successes and the point at which a fiercely independent company wound up retreating yet further into itself. The Wii demanded wholly new versions of games designed around unfamiliar controls and inferior hardware, on a platform on which – despite the enormous install base – third-party games often sold poorly. But it would have been impossible for developers to totally ignore the millions of Wii owners out there, and so the console got its fair share of FIFA and PES games, as well as Super Mario Strikers Charged and an array of football-based shovelware. You’d be hard-pressed to find any football game fan who enjoyed wrangling with the Wiimote-based control schemes to play them, though.

A game of two halves

What Nintendo has to really learn from, though, is its experience – or lack thereof – with football games on the Wii U. It started strong, with FIFA 13 as a launch game, but as with FIFA 18 on Switch, this was not all it seemed. FIFA 13 on Wii U was inferior to other versions, with gameplay actually based on FIFA 12, and second-screen additions such as on-the-fly tactics failing to present a compelling reason to play it on Nintendo’s system. The Wii U version reportedly shifted fewer than half a million copies worldwide, and EA chose not to launch any more FIFA games on the platform. Perhaps even more hurtfully, Konami didn’t bother launching PES on Wii U in the first place. However, there are hopeful signs that Konami may bring PES to Switch in future, as our Senior Sports Writer Ben Wilson confirms.

But there are reasons to be optimistic about FIFA 18. The Nintendo Switch is selling far better than many expected, while the Wii U was slow out the blocks and never even looked like recovering. And yes, FIFA 18 on Switch will be a perceptibly cut-down version, but it won’t be a whole year behind like FIFA 13 on Wii U was.

More importantly, like the console as a whole, the appeal of playing FIFA on Switch is far greater than on Wii U. The Wii U offered some largely unnecessary uses of the touchscreen and gyroscope, but the Nintendo Switch will offer the best portable version of FIFA ever made. Even the idea of huddling around the Switch for some local multiplayer, each player taking a single Joy-Con and using a simplified control scheme, seems ripe with potential for impromptu gatherings and pub tournaments.

Nintendo has a lot of ground to make up with FIFA 18 on Switch, and it’s already obvious deficiencies aren’t going to help with that. However, if it sets the goal not to topple the PS4 and Xbox One versions, instead playing on the Switch’s strengths to offer ways of playing that other consoles simply can’t, Nintendo can begin to claw back some of its diminished reputation in football gaming.

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