The PSP is often criticized for having a software library that is somewhat lacking, but for whatever reason, there certainly are no shortage of soccer games for the handheld. Not only has the PSP received two versions of FIFA soccer in less than six eight months, but the vaunted Winning Eleven series is making its first appearance on the system as well. Konami has done an excellent job of bringing over the series' tight gameplay, but the rest of the game is noticeably stripped down, which keep the game from challenging FIFA 06 for the honor of best handheld soccer game.
Winning Eleven has always had a deep feature list, so it's disappointing to see a few key omissions here. Available options include quick start match, League, training, and ad-hoc play. The game's training mode, which is quite robust on the PS2, taking you from the extreme basics of soccer to more advanced techniques, is now nothing more than a chance to kick the ball around in an unstructured practice mode. The omission of the Master League doesn't bother me a whole lot, since I'm not inclined to spend that much time with a handheld sports game, but there will certainly be some people disappointed with its absence. For most people, the league mode, which takes you through a season with your favorite team, will provide enough replay value.
If you're really into soccer you'll spend quite a bit of time in the game's edit mode. Here you can edit players and teams, which you'll probably want to do since there are some noticeable teams missing (Manchester United) due to EA locking them up with exclusive deals. If you have the time and the patience you can pretty much re-create any player and team. If you don't have the time and patience, using your PC and the internet you can download files from other users that have taken the time to edit teams. You will need separate equipment for this, however, as the game doesn't support it. If you've taken the time to edit players and teams on the PS2, you'll be glad to know that you can transfer that data to the PSP using the USB connection. Sadly there's no way to trade season data back and forth, a cool feature that Madden introduced this year.
On the field is where Winning Eleven 9 really shines. Just like it does on the PlayStation 2, the gameplay is very tight, and the pace of play is just right, players make intelligent runs, and scoring frequency is right-on. If you want to play a wide-open, more arcade-like style of soccer you can drop the difficulty down and do so, but if you're craving realism, bump up the number of stars for a real challenge. While the controls are tight and responsive, they can be quite challenging to master, not only because the PSP has a few less buttons than the dual shock, but also due to the lack of a proper training mode. Because there are so many things you can do, some dribbling moves are tied to double-tapping the shoulder buttons and other difficult to master configurations.
The PlayStation 2 version of Winning Eleven 9 went online for the first time this year (first time for us Yanks, at least), but the PSP unfortunately has no online options. You can play a match against a buddy via ad-hoc, but it's nothing too exciting.
WE:9 is not a bad looking game, but it doesn't do anything particularly well. The stadiums look okay, but the crowds look pretty rough. There aren't any team entrances or player introductions before each match, so the game is somewhat lacking in terms of a broadcast style presentation.
The player models are one of the game's stronger aspects You can typically recognize the more well-known players after scoring goals and in the cut-scenes, but the in-game camera is so far out you won't see much detail. The framerate is always solid and never an issue, which is a necessity for sports games. One area in which the PSP trumps the PS2 version is that the PSP of course displays the game in widescreen, allowing you to see significantly more of the field, which is a big help when you're pushing the ball up field.
Winning Eleven's audio is simply put, terrible. The in-menu music is lousy, but that's pretty much the case every year. What is truly appalling is the total lack of commentary. You might have been able to get away with this when the PSP launched, but the robust commentary heard in FIFA 06 and MLB 06 show that the PSP is more than capable of handling announcers. You'd think that since there aren't any announcers that the load times would be especially snappy, but they don't appear to have been optimized for the PSP in any way. It takes a long time to load a match and the pause is so long when player substations occur that I thought the game had crashed.
The Winning Eleven franchise has always had an extremely high level of quality, so it's disappointing to see Konami release such a stripped down version of the game. If you're one of those people that absolutely hates how the FIFA series plays and you're totally enamored with Winning Eleven, you'll love how WE: 9 plays on the PSP. However, if you're simply looking for the best handheld soccer game, FIFA 06 is the far better choice, due to better visuals more licensed teams, online play, mini-games, and the inclusion of commentary.