Written by: Rik

Date posted: June 5, 2016

In this world, Cantona hasn't been sold to Man United for a knockdown price.

In this world, Cantona hasn’t been sold to Man United for a knockdown price.

Here’s a tip for budding reviewers: if you want to write about a game, it’s usually best to play that game immediately before doing so. Writing a review of Sensible Soccer, it transpires, is not exactly the same as writing one of Sensible World of Soccer (more on which here), no matter how much one might like to lump the two together. So, here we are, covering things – as ever – in the wrong order.

The story goes that the chaps at Sensible Software were big fans of Anco’s Kick Off 2, but apparently they became so frustrated by its various idiosyncrasies during their mammoth gaming sessions, they ripped the disk out of its drive, threw it out of the window and resolved to make their own football game. (It’s not entirely clear where their own previous effort at a top down football title, Microprose Soccer, fits into the story, but its moderate following among 8-bit football fans at one time is often overlooked).

For me, it was off the field where Sensible made huge strides: it felt as if it was the first football game to focus on things that players actually cared about: real teams, real players and real tournaments. A host of international and top club teams are included here, with well-researched and accurate squads, players in their correct positions, in the right formations, and wearing the correct kits. Also, despite the tiny player graphics, a level of effort has gone into player appearances: unlike many games of the era, players have the correct hair (and skin) colour. Spot anything that’s wrong, and you can edit the details yourself, or make use of a set of custom teams if you want to create teams of your own. (There are, however, no visible player stats, only three “star” players per team are identified).

The team that won the league...and then finished 17th the following season.

The team that won the league…and then finished 17th the following season.

The presentation in general is a departure from the cheap and cheerful approach adopted by most of its predecessors, including Kick Off 2. This was, of course, before Sensible’s days of recording full-length theme songs for their football games, but the midi music that is in place is pretty catchy. The menus have a certain slickness to them, and I have to admit I always did like that iconic digitised pre-match screen of the two players battling for the ball, showing which kits each team would be wearing.

On the pitch, Sensible Soccer is a one button effort, with a tap of that button passing to a nearby player (if one is nearby) and a more hefty stab blasting the ball upfield or at goal. Curl can be applied to longer kicks with appropriate use of the direction control, and, as with Kick Off 2 and other top-down efforts, significant amount of each game involves getting the ball to your strikers for them to curl in a 20 yard shot from the edge of the box.

Although the action is fairly fast and furious (noticeably more so than Sensible World of Soccer, although if I recall correctly the PC port was criticised at the time for its speed relative to other 16-bit versions), it’s a more organised affair than the likes of Kick Off 2 and Goal!. Your team generally keeps its shape, and defending tends to be a bit more serene. Accurate ground passing tends to be as important as the hoofed long ball over the top, and it’s possible to find a good rhythm, making use of the semi assisted system that maintains a good balance between freeform punting and lazy autopilot.

About to curl the ball into the bottom corner.

About to curl the ball into the bottom corner.

My main criticism, as detailed elsewhere but worth repeating now we’re actually talking about the game in question, is regarding ball control. Dribbling seems rather haphazard, and it never feels as if your man has the ball under control, rather like someone who can’t play football attempting to run with the ball.

I also never felt that shooting – and, by extension, scoring a goal, ever felt that satisfying – instead of a man smashing a ball towards goal with all his might, it rather feels like a shot in Subbuteo, a dainty effort achieved with but a flick of a finger. As the single-player game was a little easier than I remembered (with goalkeepers occasionally watching shots into the net rather than diving), I had plenty of success, with plenty of goals to my name, but I did feel that the crucial *fistpump* YES!! element was lacking.

Other minor gripes include the fact that the player numbers in the tactics screen don’t match the numbers that appear above those players during the game itself. I also couldn’t get the substitutes’ bench to appear, despite following the manual’s suggestions. Finally, when playing a tournament you have to manually click through all the AI vs AI results, one by one, yourself until you get to your next match – which is a bit tedious.

But overall, I enjoyed it more than I remembered, with those memories perhaps coloured by the experience of the significantly harder follow-up, Sensible World of Soccer. Having revisited a lot of 90s football games in the years since I covered SWOS, I admit that this original holds up fairly well in comparison, and certain doesn’t belong in the relegation zone with the likes of Striker ’95 or Actua Soccer. It’s significantly more playable than its console rival of the early 90s, the original FIFA International Soccer, which may have wowed gamers with its visuals, but offers a stilted and severely compromised version of the beautiful game.

Running into trouble while trying to take a screenshot.

Running into trouble while trying to take a screenshot.

My own personal preference when it comes to old-school, top-down football games would be for something like Goal! or Total Soccer. As for my go-to, favourite 90s football game that I love unconditionally regardless of whether the love is based on blind nostalgia, I’d have to go for the little-remembered Puma World Football ’98. On that note, I’m aware that playing a couple of single-player Sensible Soccer tournaments against the computer is probably not capturing the whole experience, and multiplayer is an aspect that, as ever, I have to neglect, while acknowledging it as a factor in the fond memories of others.

If you like Sensible Soccer – and, in particular, if you happen to be very good at it, you’ll likely find Sensible World of Soccer, with more teams, tournaments, and its career mode, to your liking. But conversely, if you tried SWOS, assuming that it was largely the same as Sensible Soccer (as I did) and couldn’t get on with it, perhaps you might find favour with this lighter version.