Feature: Staying sensible – 24 years on

Whether a long-term fan or newbie, do you fancy a go yourself at some 90’s football game nostalgia? Buy your pint in advance of our upcoming Sensible Striker Pro event being held at Six Yard Box by Elephant and Castle tube on April 5th via Eventbrite


By Neil Merrett

Sensible Soccer on Amigareleased 1992 by Sensible Software

Someone once said that life imitates art.

I’m not sure who exactly coined the term, but i’m informed someone once said it and therefore it must be gospel. The term has since been appropriated by millions of others to promote their own deluded, yet utterly valid perspective on artistic expression.

Football videogames, as a means of recreating the general absurdities and chaos of 22 individuals kicking leather around a field for eternal glory or general ignominy, are probably as good a place as any therefore to test such a theory.

Compared to the latest attempts at graphical realism, ball physics and licensed haircuts that you will find in the most recent Fifa and Pro Evolution Soccer games, 24-year old Sensible Soccer is not so much a detailed simulation but rather an evocation.  

An evocation at the child-like wonder of making the perfect strike or split second pass that creates the wonder goals that have been a staple of friend bating for generations.

With its lack of an offside rule and repetitive droning crowd noises, the game is anything but sensible. Arguably it is more playground football – but mostly for all the right reasons.

Sensible Soccer was largely focused on kicking, heading, sliding and launching oneself face first through mud.

Rather than guiding a player to pass, move and tackle their way across the pitch, the heart of the game always felt focused on what happens to the ball in those precious seconds after leaving a player’s foot.  

Whether hitting the long pass or shoot buttons, the player was required to add height and swerve after hitting the ball that is the difference between sending it careering into the crow,d as opposed to smashing into the goal at a seemingly impossible distance.

It is testament to its quality that in an age of 3D game engines and motion sensitive controllers, Sensible Soccer arguably has one of the most creative, rewarding, and intuitive systems for passing and shooting systems found in a football game.

In a split second, the game creates the sensation of taking decisive, Olympian athlete-like decisions to attempt a twisting, swirling shot past a goalkeeper, or beating three defenders to drop a slow dipping ball on to what appears to resemble the feet of your fellow team mate.

Do you hold on to the ball a second longer, risking being tackled, or attempt something utterly audacious in the hope of overturning the odds against you?

Or should the player hit a much less steady shot immediately upon contact rather than risking an extra second to acclimatise and better control the ball between your feet?

On software that could nowadays be fit within a fraction of a modern SD card or storage device, the Sensible Software team were able to capture and recreate that genuine sense of instinct and risk that is central to all sport.

The game captures those moments of genuine skill or madness,  that agonising sense of what could have been had you trusted your gut and fired just a little lower or more to the left in a way decades of sporting simulations have yet to achieve with infinitely more sophisticated hardware.

Further iterations  up to the end of the 90’s such as Sensible World of Soccer, would take pioneering routes such as adding management functions to the gameplay, while bringing in actual teams and full leagues from over 70 countries.

Yet despite a good looking and faithful XBox Live port, as well as several attempts to try and remake the formula, Sensible Soccer remains timeless, kept alive but aficionados and a healthy online mod community around the world, rather than being a mainstream fan fauvorite.

Back during the prime years of the Playstation 3 and XBox 360 in 2009, I was able to ask the game’s co-creator and main artist Jon Hare about the lasting impact – or at least notoriety – that Sensible Soccer has among older gamers and how it fares compared to modern titles.

Hare argued that it was pointless to directly compare the original Sensible Soccer titles to the latest Fifa.

Sensible Soccer is a piece of history from a bygone era. It is no more appropriate to talk about in a contemporary sense than Cliff Richard and the Shadows and to some people it will never be for them as it is just not nice enough to look at, where as to others they can only see it with rose coloured spectacles and therefore to them it has become a timeless masterpiece (the human brain is a funny old thing,” he said at the time.

“A game using all modern technology would be a different football game, not Sensible Soccer.”

As has become increasingly apparent in recent years with the rising popularity of retro-themed and complex two dimensional platforming built on increasingly powerful hardware, Sensible Soccer’s perceived technical limitations were a key strength in the  precision if its passing and snapshot trickery.

Hare noted that there was a certain lack of controllability that resulted from the myriad innovations in 3D graphics and digital world building that have occurred since Sensible Soccer’s heyday.

“It is harder to perceive distance and angle in the game field, harder to execute so precisely on 360˚ controllers and by defining art so realistically it disables your brain from filling in the spaces of more representative graphics. This means that effectively an entirely different part of your brain is being stimulated during play…. When graphics are representative and control is very fast and intuitive the game content is secondary to the sensation of thinking like you are immersed in the game world in a psychological sense,” he said.

One could argue that this would be convenient when aggrandising a beloved treasure from the past. Yet the resurgence in what we might call classic or long forgotten genres and styles of games, particularly through independent publishers has highlighted the somewhat lost art of seemingly obsolete 2D titles.

“3D worlds are harder locations in which to expect the brain to quickly grasp the position of the player character and to interpret the likely response of the game engine to certain manipulations of the game controller… all of this makes for a very different player experience,” Hare explained.  “It is notable how some current games players prefer games played in a 2D plane such as browser or IPhone games.”

In the intervening years since I spoke to him, Hare has continued to work in programming, most recently involved in the ongoing development of Sociable Soccer, intended as a spiritual successor to Sensible and a title that will grace PC, Xbox One and Playstation 4.

Whether it succeeds in creating a whole new experience for football titles that reinvigorate techniques and styles of play long believed to be redundant remains to be seen.  Yet Sensible Soccer is as readily available and relevant as it ever was to the people who love it – like all great sporting legacies.

Sensible Soccer is one of the three titles that make up Squareblind’s upcoming Sensible Striker Pro event being held at the Six Yard Box bar in Elephant and Castle on Tuesday April 6 as part of the  London Games Festival Fringe.

If you are around London on the day, feel free to pop along for a bout or three of some classic 16-bit football titles including Striker and International Superstar Soccer.  

Tickets are £5, which includes a beer on arrival, with the bar opening up for practice sessions from around 5pm before the tournament and some fierce banter kick off two hours later.

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