With the 2022 World Cup just around the corner, Graeme Mason chats to Sensible Software’s Jon Hare about the greatest football series of all time, Sensible Soccer.
You can virtually guarantee that whenever the latest iteration of FIFA (or whatever it’s going to be from now on) is discussed online, at least one person can’t help but mention Sensible Soccer. 30 years on, this fantastic arcade-style football game is still thrilling fans, its simplicity and sheer joy providing entertainment and excitement in equal measure.
As big football fans, a videogame from Sensible Software based on the sport was inevitable. Having watched the 1971 Cup Final as a five-year-old, Sensible Software co-founder Jon Hare fell in love with Arsenal and their bright yellow strip, unaware that it was their away kit. By the time he was 11 years old, he had realised his error, shifting his allegiance to a genuine yellow club: Norwich.
To trace the origin of Sensible Soccer, you need to go back to 1988 and the release of its forebear, Microprose Soccer. “The initial name for Microprose Soccer was Sensible Soccer,” says Jon. “We shopped it around, and Microprose said they would have it on the condition the name was changed to Microprose Soccer.” A handsome advance from the American publisher persuaded Sensible to change the name of its game, with the original moniker filed away for future use.
The chief influence for Microprose Soccer was an arcade game from Tehkan. “We thought all football games were a bit slow, apart from Tehkan World Cup,” remembers Jon. The action-packed arcade game presented an overhead view, generally within a cocktail-style table cabinet, as players sat opposite each other. With most of the game’s technical aspects omitted, Tehkan World Cup had a beautifully uncomplicated and exhilarating style. “Microprose Soccer was modelled on Tehkan World Cup – the view was similar, and we even had the ball bending.”
Sensible Software found its touch during the development of Microprose Soccer, adding innovations such as the action replay; nevertheless, the team wasn’t totally satisfied with its freshman footie effort. “In retrospect, it’s a little slow and doesn’t give you that feeling of being under pressure,” notes Jon. Having created the brilliant strategy game, Mega-Lo-Mania, in the early Nineties, it was time to give the football simulation another shot. Unfortunately, events outside of Sensible’s control caught them offside. On the 5th of November 1991, Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell fell off his yacht. In the aftermath of his death, irregularities in the Mirror Group’s finances, allied to a lack of confidence from its debtors following the incident, led to a collapse of the group.
Sensible Software had four games signed up to the group’s games division. Says Jon, “We lost 75% of our turnover and needed a solution. So we went to the bank manager and said we’re not worried because we’ve got these two games, and they’re pretty good.” On the floppy disks were Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer – but the manager was unimpressed. Undeterred, Sensible pitched Sensible Soccer to various publishers. Finally, a new company, Renegade, signed the game, and Sensible Soccer was ready to kick off.
Sensible Soccer began life at the end of development on Mega-Lo-Mania. “I just took the cavemen from Mega-Lo-Mania and dressed them up in football kits, Norwich kits, to be exact,” reveals Jon. “That’s how it started, and the perspective from MLM really worked as a zoomed-out pitch – so we kept it.” In addition to Microprose Soccer (and by default, Tehkan World Cup), there was another influence to Sensible’s next footie extravaganza. “We played [Anco’s] Kick Off games a lot and enjoyed them,” recalls Jon. “But we thought we could improve on those in some ways.”
As in Dino Dini’s legendary series, Sensible Soccer gives the player loose control over its footballers, making running with the ball – dribbling – a skill to be learned, just as in real life. “It bothers me that people these days expect to be brilliant at a game within one minute of playing it,” notes Jon. Released in the summer of 1992, Sensible Soccer: European Champions received universal acclaim. “Sensible Soccer looks, sounds, plays, feels and - yes! - IS better than Kick Off 2 - and just about everything else on the market for that matter,” glowed 16-bit magazine The One. Sensible’s decision to include customisable leagues and cup competitions, along with 168 total teams, gave fans unprecedented involvement, and tournaments are still being held today. With remarkable prescience, The One concluded that ‘I've a feeling that it's the two-player single game that will outlive the more long-winded options - this is a game that's destined to be pulled out of the cupboard for a quick bash for a good few years to come’.
Customisation and competitions aside, just how did Sensible Soccer appeal to gamers? “I think it was the immediacy of the controls – they just worked,” says Jon. “It kinda came together like magic, and we didn’t quite know how we’d achieved it – but we didn’t let ourselves touch that piece of code!” Additionally, the game’s zoomed-out view enabled the player to plan, pass and strategise, and the level of research behind each team drew players in. “I loved doing all of that [research],” smiles Jon. “It took me back to playing Subutteo as a kid. We embraced countries and leagues – such as the Polish league – that no one had included up to then. It was the best game on the market relative to its competition. It had that X-factor.”
The success of Sensible Soccer meant a follow-up was inevitable and, among its other commitments, Sensible got to work on the next game in the series. “We thought, how can we make it bigger?” says Jon. “So we added more tactics, a career management game and a world of football.” The result was Sensible World Of Soccer, known colloquially as SWOS, and what many, including Jon, regard as the series' pinnacle. “We had this magic football game,” he says, “and we added this amazingly big football world around it that people still play today, almost thirty years later. It’s the best game I’ve ever made.”
You can play Sensible Soccer, for free, on Antstream Arcade, with both its Commodore Amiga and Sega Mega Drive versions available now. We also host its follow-up, the amazing Sensible World Of Soccer on Amiga, and with save states, you can chart your management career throughout the seasons.
If you fancy testing your footie skills against other Antstream Arcade members, then make sure to enrol in the Sensible Soccer Tournament, kicking off on the 22nd of November. If you’d like to chat with other Sensible Soccer fans, head over to the Antstream Arcade Discord to talk Sensi, SWOS and more!