It's almost 25 years old, but 'Sensi' remains the most accessible and user-friendly soccer game around.
It's the end of another soccer season, pretty much. The Premier League has finished in a fashion nobody could ever have foretold. The major domestic cups have been awarded, and now there's simply the small matter of the Champion's League final to get through before it's the Euros in France and widespread feelings of complete indifference as to the fortunes of our national squad. Does Roy play Rooney deep, or as the tip of an attacking spear, straight through the center of the opposition backline? The latter, of course, but also: Who cares, given we'll be home by the start of the last 16.
And at the end of each and every soccer season, my mind instinctively turns to virtual versions of the beautiful game, in order to maintain my connection with the sport during the lean summer months. This time last year, I had one eye on the imminent Pro Evolution Soccer 2016, given its preview billing as a FIFA-beater. It was too, you know, and with a complete Master League campaign behind me, winning the league, "English Cup," and officially licensed Europa League with the I-went-and-changed-their-name-and-the-uniforms-because-I-am-that-guy Southampton, I can confidently say that Pro Evo 2016 is one of the finest soccer simulations ever created.
But it's not the soccer game that can always put me in a happy place, given its dogged determination to be realistically scrappy, tactically deep, and reliant on player compatibility to bring the best out of any team. It can take forever to get a game started, with so many negotiations to see to, contract discussions to conclude, and national team distractions (after my first season, I was offered the Spanish job on top of staying with Saints, and naturally took it). It's not the game that, in the same vein as the sort-of-soccer-but-obviously-not Rocket League, I can just power up for a half hour of pure fantasy soccer. Nope. That game will forever be the top-down, super-zoomed-out, massively-exaggerated-of-slide-tackle Sensible Soccer.
"Of all the games we ever made, this was the one that, within a month or two, you just knew it'd be a hit." So says Sensible Software's Jon Hare, reflecting on the success of Sensible Soccer in this great "making of" article on Read-Only Memory. He explains that the creation of the original Sensi, which came out on the Amiga and Atari ST in 1992 and was ported to just about every system under the sun, was prompted by dissatisfaction with soccer games on the market, at the time.
"Chipper [Sensible Software programmer, Chris Chapman] and I played an awful lot of Kick Off 2 while making Mega Lo Mania. We were both big fans—but we played it so much it made us angry, and we ended up throwing the disk out of the window [and] onto the train track, where it got run over. That was the reason we did Sensible Soccer. We'd been moaning about what didn't work, all the bugs and how we would do it differently... and better. So we talked over the idea of doing another soccer game with Chris [Yates, studio co-founder alongside Hare], and started work on Sensible Soccer straight away."
The me of 2016 remains thankful that Dino Dini's furiously fast but frustrating kickabout sequel of 1990 wound Hare and company up so much, as without that provocation, the most instantaneously accessible, fun-for-all soccer game of all time might never have been made. What Sensi did differently was subtle, but vital: better ball control, enabling quick shifts in direction; a wider view of the pitch, encouraging ranged passing; and smoother physics that had even its over the top actions seeming perfectly possible. The me of 1992 didn't know that what he was playing would still shine so magnificently almost 25 years later, but here we are: Playing Sensi today remains both intuitively enveloping and dramatically different from any other alternative, from both its own era and beyond.
I'm not here to say it's "better" than Pro Evo has become. But it certainly satisfies different urges. Whereas Pro Evo's flood of game modes, countless rosters full of close-to-photo-real avatars, and highly detailed statistics brings out the number-crunching sports-science geek in many a player, Sensi is the very friendliest face of soccer gaming, as approachable as actually going down the park for some Volley, Parry, Dickhead. (Surely that wasn't just a southern thing? Let me know if you had different names for it, elsewhere in the world.)
One button. Plus a d-pad or a joystick, obviously. But just one button, that's all Sensi needs. Even when the game moved from Amiga to Mega Drive, where one button became three, you didn't need the full spectrum of boot-to-ball options. That one would shoot, that other one side-foot a pass the way of another player. But by pressing the center button at different pressures, for different lengths of time, and mixing that up with the very real delight of aftertouch, you could play your way through any league or cup without the slightest oscillation of your right thumb.
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A diving header in the six-yard box, a 35-yard screamer into a near-torn-free net: Both could be scored with the same button and just a little left-thumb/clenched-fist-around-a-Zip-Stick gymnastics. Hold "backward," opposite the direction of the ball's flight, to loft it skyward; either side of its trajectory to influence a little bend. Hard and straight: Keep that kick-all input depressed for just long enough, and there it goes, drilled into the bottom corner where even the average keeper's superhuman athleticism can't keep it out. Never have number ones dived so far, so fast, so frequently, as the ones in Sensi do.
Soccer is, of course, a game of two halves—and that applies both to the format of the matches, in which the duration of the competition is divided in two, with teams swapping their direction of play at half time, and to the ebb and flow of the contest, too. In today's FIFA, or indeed Pro Evo 2016, defending is rarely a heap of fun, though. In my experience, it's a case of pressing the opponent in possession, watching their progress carefully and putting a boot in at just the right time. That, or getting desperate in the final few seconds of a tight match, where a draw is enough, and flying in with a sliding challenge knowing that it's worth a yellow card to quell the growing momentum. When defending is done "right," it's exacting, demanding, and just a little stressful.
This isn't the case in Sensi. Defending is hilarious, with slide tackles covering several yards and poleaxed players commonly heaped atop one another. Sometimes the whistle blows, but often it doesn't, as advantages are played and the game's AI refereeing fails to appreciate what would pass for a straight red by today's standards. When I spoke to Hare about his new project, Sociable Soccer, he recalled how putting the fun in defending was absolutely essential for the Sensi team.
"I think what Sensible Soccer did better than other football games was that it made defending fun. It was always fun to tackle, and you spend half the time defending in a football game, so it's important that you're still having fun when doing that. And I think defending is genuinely fun in Sensible Soccer, with the slide tackles, and the hacking of people down."
He also feels that Sensi's attacking play is capable of eclipsing the neat-and-tidy one-twos of Pro Evo 2016's defense-splitting moves and expertly timed through balls. "Honestly, I think the finishing is better on Sensible Soccer than it is most football games, because you really can curl the ball into the corner of the net."
That you can, although aftertouch's implementation does lead to annoyances, too, as it's easy to run a freshly activated player into the path of a long-range shot, and subsequently walk it through to the keeper. Penalty box pileups can lead to the ball being lost amid the bundle of pixels, when a corner drops on the six-yard line and eight tiny sportsmen simultaneously fall on it. But that lends Sensi, otherwise quite a systematic game of diagonal passes and long-range blasts into the snug-like sweet-spot of crossbar meeting post, a feeling of frenetic drama and clumsy panic, as deflections from upright to helplessly prone center-back spread genuine fear through the defending player's ranks, and spark a flame of opportunity in their attacking counterpart.
And all the time, it's simple. It takes seconds to learn Sensi's controls—and nowhere close to a lifetime to master them. Four, five matches, and you'll have it—you'll know how best to time your tackles, and from what distance you can realistically land low-detail bonce on old-school size five with a marvelously over-the-top diving header animation. Each player might be the same model in a different color scheme, but that doesn't mean these are personality-free drones. How their heads drop on receiving a red card, all other players having stepped away from the guilty party, is a magic moment of 16bit body language, and because each player is named, over the course of a competition, it's natural to develop favorites through their/your in-game contributions.
And that's just as true of Sensi's screwed-up player rosters as it is the titles in the series that carried official squads. One of the versions I still have at home is this plug-in-and-play model, which also has Cannon Fodder and Mega Lo Mania built in, two more classics from the Sensible catalogue. It looks scratchy on an HD TV, like any old system does (have you plugged an N64 into a 1080p TV recently?). Its d-pads are distractingly stiff in comparison to the old Competition Pro controller that ran into my Mega Drive, and it features no battery back-up to save lengthy sessions. But Sensi is Sensi, and it's easy enough to get over these relative annoyances. Equally, only the truly pernickety gamer is going to be bothered by the attitude taken to listing each team's playing staff, and the team names themselves.
In the plug-in, Arsenal are called Highbury (which is fantastically nostalgic, isn't it?), with Devid Siaman in goal and Juhn Jinsen marshaling the midfield, while Elan Smoth pops up with the occasional back-post header. At Rangers, named simply Glasgow (Celtic are billed as "Glaswegians"), Merk Heteley leads the attack, which sounds more like some sort of instruction to really get in an opponent's face than it does an actual human being. Sensible World of Soccer, my Amiga favorite, never had this "problem," given its many authentic leagues, but it doesn't bother me now. After all, it's not like PES hasn't had its share of licensing shortcomings over the years, as you lined up an up-to-date, uniform-accurate Newcastle United against West London White, Lancashire Athletic, or West Midlands Village.
"I think what's kept people playing Sensible Soccer is that immediacy," Hare told me, back in November 2015. And while most quick-fix gaming experiences do dull over time, Sensi, for me, has always been there, always a beacon of the very best time to be had. Last year, a brief VICE Gaming debate concluded that Pro Evo 2016 probably is the greatest soccer game of all time. But when I need that shift of gear, from complex commands and TV-style presentation to cruise control gameplay and the barest interface, there's only one perfect game that I turn to.
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