In this age of near-photorealistic players, perfectly rendered stadiums and hours of authentic commentary, it’s easy to forget that 20 years ago the most popular football videogame on the planet was probably as far from a simulation of the game as it was possible to be.
Yes, the objective – score more than the opposing team – was basically football. And there were corners, throw-ins and penalties. Tackles happened, and 90 minutes were depleted. But that, in all honesty, was probably as close as it came to the beautiful game. Yet what it lacked in realism, it made up for in playability, despite the fact its style of play could frequently be described as more ‘pin’ than ‘foot’ ball.
The brainchild of Sensible Software founder Jon Hare, Sensible Soccer was originally released on the Amiga in 1992. The most popular football game prior to Sensi – as it’s affectionately known – was Kick Off, which was in its second iteration by 1992, and Sensi’s arrival provoked immediate division in the gaming community. If the internet had been fully developed back then, forum bickering would have set it alight
But the intervening years have seen passion for Kick Off wane while Sensi’s fans remain as vocal as ever. And the reason for this is simple: the original version remains as blissfully playable a decade and a half on as it did on its release. Kick Off, well, doesn’t.
Sensible Soccer boasted no officially licensed players and no officially licensed teams. Indeed, it had very few bells, and the only whistle was the referee’s. Instead, Sensible Software, which had established itself through releases such as Wizball, Wizkid and Mega Lo Mania as an innovative outfit with an infectious sense of humour, focused on creating a title which nominally replicated the mechanics of football, without being bogged down with the frequent frustrations of the game it was simulating.
Elegantly designed throughout, Sensible Soccer was as simple as they came. Quick-tap to pass, hold down longer to shoot – that was it. Sprites rendered deliberately simple by technological restrictions zipped around a top-down pitch, pinging the ball from one end of the pitch to another with the fluidity of a Manchester United team comprised of 11 Ronaldos.
By holding the joystick in specific directions immediately as the ball was hit, players could apply physics-defying aftertouch to their long-distance efforts, resulting in the most incredible shots, crosses and headers. In other football games, these would undoubtedly be declared foul, but they formed an integral part of Sensible Soccer’s majesty. Even the infamous halfway line exploit – where experienced players could occasionally score from inside the centre circle – would result in high-fives and celebration, rather than smashed input peripherals.
Sensible Soccer epitomises a time when games didn’t take themselves so seriously. In the early ’90s, gameplayers smiled, delighting in the beautiful simplicity offered by the single-button home computer systems. Indeed, despite the fact the original game was ported to almost every console and computer in existence, it never deviated from the purity of the original vision, finding new fans wherever it travelled.
The release of Sensible World Of Soccer – or SWOS – two years later packaged the same unfussy play within a staggering array of worldwide leagues and a 20-season career mode, offering a markedly increased singleplayer challenge. But the solitary Sensi was always just practice before the competitive twoplayer clashes, the opportunity to perfect play far away from the humiliation of others. And for those engaged in constant twoplayer matches, it was more of a sport than anything out there in real life.
Like a developer colouring over the lines, subsequent iterations of Sensible Soccer sadly overcomplicated everything about the original game. As technology demanded a move into three dimensions, the game became submerged beneath layers of needlessly complicated animations and visuals.
The series hit lows in 1998 and 2006 that could have tarnished the memories forever. But the fact that, despite these desecrations, the passion and support for the original game remains as strong as ever says much about Sensible Soccer. For many, it defines an era of videogaming long since forgotten, untouched by licensed soundtracks and a reliance on processor-pushing visuals.
So while FIFA and Pro Evo will no doubt continue to appeal to those who want to know what Wayne Rooney would look like dead thanks to 3D approximations of his likeness, there’s a chance Sensible Soccer, with its timeless playabilty, outrageous physics and quintessentially British sense of humour, could take third spot. Which is enough for a place in the Champions League, where it so rightly belongs.