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The Technology Behind Nintendo’s Consoles: 2001-2007

The early 2000s marked the end of one era and the beginning of another for Nintendo. How did the company’s consoles measure up?

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In recent years, Nintendo has been known more for the eccentricity of its hardware more than anything else. From the Wii’s motion controls, to the Wii U’s dual-screen gameplay, and the Switch’s portability, many analyses have focused on the physical design of Nintendo’s hardware while ignoring the systems’ most critical underpinnings: its architectural design and technology. While Sony and Microsoft have been locked in a fierce war over console specifications for the past three generations–pitting each others’ machines in an ever-evolving battle for supremacy–Nintendo has focused on the software.

That’s a shame, though. As the progenitor of the modern games industry and a talented hardware manufacturer, Nintendo deserves a closer look at the technology behind their consoles and what makes them unique. In part two of a three-part series, we dive deep into Nintendo’s design choices for the esoteric GameCube and revolutionary Wii.

Find part one of this series here.

Nintendo GameCube (GCN): Lost at Sea

Licking its wounds after a fifth-generation drubbing at the hands of Sony, Nintendo went back to the drawing board and analyzed their mistakes. Their next move was to address what had went wrong with the N64 and to avoid making the same crippling mistakes. Whereas both the SNES and N64 had been challenging for even the most seasoned of programmers, Nintendo wanted to change that with their upcoming “Dolphin” game system. Announced by Nintendo of America President Howard Lincoln in 1999, Dolphin was marketed as “33% above the projected performance data of [Sony’s] PlayStation 2” and “easily twice as fast as [Sega’s] Dreamcast” for “pretty cheap[,]bringing the power to, as Shigeru Miyamoto put it, “handle any kind of software developers are interested in creating.”

Gekko Nintendo technology

IBM’s “Gekko” was Nintendo’s first foray into the PowerPC architecture. Credit: Wikipedia.

At the core of this greater graphical capability were IBM’s “Gekko” CPU  and ATI’s “Flipper” GPU. Similar to IBM’s 64 bit PowerPC 750CXe, used in some Apple G3s, Gekko was an incredibly power-efficient CPU that was hardware limited by its shorter CPU pipelines to a maximum operating frequency of 485 MHz. Chosen for its cool operating temperature and small-form-factor, (which matched with Nintendo’s overall design motif with the GameCube), Gekko was a cheap, easy-to-produce, and power-efficient: three key factors that allowed it to play nice with the GameCube’s real powerhouse, ATI’s Flipper GPU.

After a nasty break-up with Silicon Graphics, Nintendo contracted graphics developer ArtX to develop Flipper in 1998. In 2000, however, ArtX was bought by GPU developer ATI who proceeded to officially ship Flipper. Originally clocked at 200 MHz before being bumped down to 162 MHz when Nintendo adjusted Gekko’s clock rate shortly before launch, Flipper was a potent, efficient GPU that leveraged several technologies (e.g. anti-aliasing) that were substantial advancements on what had been offered in previous console generations.

Part of this advancement came from how Flipper utilized its 3MB of on-die memory. With over half of the GPU’s 51 million transistors dedicated to this 3MB arrangement (composed of a 2MB Z-buffer and a 1MB texture cache), Nintendo leaned heavily on Flipper’s embedded 1T-SRAM to obtain results that were admirable, even when compared to contemporary PCs. While there were some flaws in the general design of the chip, including a reliance on the same 1T-SRAM for the system’s main memory, that showed ATI’s lack of involvement, Flipper ultimately proved a cost-effective, fast GPU that had the powerful tools developers wanted.

Flipper GPU

“Flipper” was the powerful GPU at the heart of the GameCube. Credit: Wikipedia.

The GameCube was Nintendo’s first console with full support for 480p progressive scan component video. While it lacked the Xbox’s support for HD output, the GameCube was capable of a much cleaner image than any Nintendo console before it. Unfortunately, the system’s component cables were built with a proprietary DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that made it nearly impossible for third parties to replicate at the time. It also had several expansion ports–two serial and one high-speed parallel port–that allowed the possibility of expansion in the future. Nintendo would eventually utilize the serial ports for modem and ethernet add-ons that added basic online functionality and the parallel port for the Game Boy Player, which allowed for Game Boy games of any generation to be played on the GameCube. Nintendo would remove the second serial port and component video support when they released a second model of the GameCube, the DOL-101, later on in the console’s lifespan. 

Like with the N64, Nintendo’s main problem with the GameCube was in how it approached physical media. While the N64 had opted for cartridges over CDs and had caused a myriad of problems for developers in the process, Nintendo opted to finally adopt an optical format for GameCube. However, still plagued by the piracy worries that had driven the decision to stay with cartridges when designing the N64, Nintendo decided to utilize a variant of the 8cm mini-DVD as their standard. Compared to the PlayStation 2, whose discs held between 4.7 and 8.5 GB, the GameCube’s mini discs could only hold 1.5 GB. While this was rarely a problem for neither first party titles, who based their games around the limitations present in the system, nor for multi-platform games, who generally performed better on Nintendo’s machine anyway, it was an issue because it prevented DVD playback.

Like with the n64, Nintendo’s main problem with the GameCube was in how it approached physical media.

For all their competency in designing every other aspect of the GameCube, Nintendo’s decision to leave out full DVD compatibility sank the GameCube’s chances of success. The PlayStation 2 was released a year earlier and for $100 more, but carried with it several key advantages, including the ability to play full size, retail DVDs, a feature that three years earlier had cost $599 by itself. For a second straight console generation, Nintendo found itself faltering despite having more advanced technology than its closest competitor.

Though the GameCube launched with a plethora of third party support, it soon evaporated and the company was left with a paltry 21 million in hardware sales, less than a third of what they achieved with the NES. By 2004, Nintendo was forced to come up with something different, to engineer a successor to the GameCube that didn’t compete on power but on something else entirely: innovation. 

Nintendo Wii: The Casual Connection

With the GameCube clearly a failure by the middle of 2004, Nintendo decided to move on from its flailing console and chart its path for the next generation. Nintendo President Satoru Iwata started giving the first idea of what was to come at GDC in 2005, offering tantalizing hints about Nintendo’s next console. Powered by IBM’s Broadway CPU and ATI’s Hollywood GPU, the “Revolution” would offer backwards compatibility, Wi-Fi support, and would be developer friendly. Instead of focusing on raw power, as the GameCube had, the Revolution would target $250, have a parent-friendly, price tag and go for a completely different path than other next-gens, like Microsoft’s then-upcoming Xbox 360.

Nintendo opted for a blue ocean strategy, going after a market that hadn’t been targeted before: casual gamers who had never bought a console. Their choice of technology emphasized that. IBM’s new Broadway CPU brought an increased clock rate of 729 MHz and ATI’s Hollywood GPU increased clock rates to 243 MHz. That, coupled with 512MB of NAND storage, native support for widescreen, and a library of classic games gave the Revolution a technical advantage over the aging GameCube. However, the technology inside was not its greatest advantage. 

ATI chip

ATI’s “Hollywood” chip was interesting, but not the focus with the Wii.

Instead, it relied upon innovation. Unveiled in late 2005, the Revolution’s controller turned heads. A singular, TV-remote style, pointer-enabled motion controller with few face buttons, it went headfirst against the leading industry trend, bucking convention and showing the first signs of a new identity under Iwata that focused on a more family-friendly image. Instead of an analog stick on the main controller, it relied instead on the add-on Nunchuck peripheral to provide proper analog input. Later came the name: Wii. The subject of a multitude of jokes, puns, and memes following its reveal, the Wii had all the markings of a non-starter. If Nintendo had competed on power before and lost, what happened now that one of their few advantages were gone?

While it was leagues behind the PS3 and Xbox 360 technologically and lacked little-to-any appeal for hardcore gamers, the Wii succeeded in one critical area: selling its appeal of pure, simple fun. From professional reviewers to soccer moms, it launched to rave reviews, selling out multiple times in its first few years and lighting the retail world on fire by selling over 600,000 units in the US in just over a week and an incomprehensible 101 million units in lifetime sales. The Wii marked the beginning of an incredible turnaround for Nintendo. After over twenty-five years of declining hardware sales, they had finally succeeded at expanding their console market, connecting with casual gamers on a scale never seen before, nor since.  

Nintendo opted for a blue ocean strategy, going after…casual gamers who had never bought a console.

Much like the NES, the Wii’s technology wasn’t new or technically impressive, but incredibly innovative. However, unlike the NES, the Wii didn’t just pair aged technology with good games, it innovated on how to play those games, incorporating motion-controls into Nintendo classics, such as Mario Kart, and creating new classics, like Wii Sports, that showed just how flexible Nintendo could be.

However, like all successes, Nintendo’s venture with the Wii was short-lived. By 2011, there were rumblings of Project Cafe, a “Wii 2” that, for better or for worse, would decide the future of Nintendo…

Be sure to check out the final part of this series, as we discuss the technical history behind both the Wii U and Switch.

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Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’

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PAX South

PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.

PAX South

Windjammers 2

Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.

You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Animated GIF

Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.

PAX South

Young Souls

Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.

Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.

Animated GIF

However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.

I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.

KUNAI

KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.

KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.

PAX South

It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.

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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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An In-Depth Analysis of FIFA’s Career Mode

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Fifa’s Career Mode

It’s a well-known fact that career mode on FIFA has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, FIFA is currently the main option.

The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about FIFA career mode works properly. 

Two of the most game-breaking bugs in FIFA career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion. 

The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need. 

For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback. 

This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number. 

There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it. 

Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net. 

Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk. 

After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of FIFA 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet. 

For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted FIFA for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.

Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.

As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”

The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team. 

But neither of these claims is accurate. 

Fifa’s Career Mode

You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team. 

This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game. 

I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in FIFA, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that it’s more immersive to just turn it off entirely. 

What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.

The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (FIFA 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team. 

Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of FIFA.

FIFA

But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in FIFA 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from FIFA 17 to FIFA 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.

FIFA have made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect. 

The major changes over this period have included: 

A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all. 

None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.

It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media. 

Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode. 

The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details. 

In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after FIFA19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.

  • Evan Lindeman
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