Go back to Sensible World of Soccer

Written by: Rik

Date posted: June 5, 2016

Out here on the distant edge of games writing, the notion of publishing anything with deliberately controversial intent is vaguely ludicrous, but if anything qualifies, it’s probably my ages-old declaration of extreme antipathy towards Sensible Soccer. It was always in the back of my mind to revisit Sensible World of Soccer at some stage, and encouraged by moderately successful write-ups of Doom and Speedball 2, I decided the time was right. I wouldn’t replace the original review: instead, I’d use the excuse of a seasonal update to add a second one to the site.

I had SWOS 96/7 already, snapped up in a GOG sale at some point, the purchase representing a final attempt to give the game one more chance. It also added further to a rather large collection of Sensible Soccer products acquired over the years – from Sensible Soccer on the Atari ST and PC, through to Sensible World of Soccer, then Sensible Soccer 98 (and the European Club Edition) and even Sensible Soccer 2006 (GOG again). Quite a haul for someone who never really got on with the series, and it’s perhaps evidence of my desire for the series to ‘click’ with me one day so I could share in the enthusiasm, joy and general good feelings the games seem to have brought to do many people.

Sadly, for all these honourable intentions of calm re-evaluation, this latest attempt, like all those before it, ended in failure, and the prospect of a new review was swiftly abandoned, for fear of saying exactly what I’d said 11 years ago. But, having completed the exercise, there are a few thoughts to share.

The chairman gives me some feedback on my performance.

The chairman gives me some feedback on my performance.

Firstly, and it may seem like an obvious thing to say, but it was probably a mistake to try and review Sensible World of Soccer when I never really liked the original Sensible Soccer. I suppose I was trying to cover the best possible version of the game, the one most loved by fans, to give myself the best chance of liking it. That logic proved to be rather flawed. SWOS assumes you love Sensible Soccer and want to have, as inferred by the title, ALL THE SENSIBLE SOCCER IN THE WORLD. If you didn’t enjoy it much as an arcade tournament knockabout, a 20 year career probably isn’t going to change your mind.

So it’s the original Sensible Soccer that I should have given my time to in the first place – and, as it turns out, the best thing to come out of all this was that I did actually manage to revisit the PC version of Sensible Soccer, and found it much more palatable than I was expecting. I also erred in attempting to conflate the two games: yes, they’re very similar, but there are significant differences evident to anyone who compares the two.

Credit where credit’s due: the long player-coach career in SWOS tapped into something that football game fans actually wanted – controlling your team off and on the pitch – that has since become a staple of the modern football title. Pick the team, manage the transfers, set the formation – but then go out and control your team, too: it’s the essence of what most football fans want from a game.

The chairman gives me some feedback on my performance: #2

The chairman gives me some feedback on my performance: #2

The extra dimension provided by the pseudo management options is certainly an element of SWOS that I underestimated in my original review. Sticking it in 4-4-2 and heading onto the pitch is not the best way to achieve success, and you need to pay attention to the system of ticks and crosses that indicate whether each tactical change has benefited individual players, or the team overall. It’s not simply a matter of tinkering the starting formation: you need to specify where your players need to be when the ball is in each area of the pitch, so a custom formation is a significant undertaking.

Unless you love the game though, you’re not going to be bothered, and your efforts on the pitch are going to suffer as a result. The manual makes it clear that coaching is key to success, while moderate internet research also seems to bear that out. I wasn’t quite correct in saying last time that players had no stats, but what is here is still rather vague, and I’d still say it’s not that easy to judge the ability of players and transfer deals.

Before I revisited the original Sensible Soccer, I’d always thought my struggles with SWOS were down to being basically crap at that game. Alternating between the two here, it soon became apparent that either the DOS version of Sensi was really easy, or SWOS 96/97 was really hard – or both. I kept thinking that a confidence-boosting run of victories in the former would translate into tangible improvement at the latter, but it wasn’t to be.

Rare evidence of my team winning.

Rare evidence of my team winning.

Instead, I seemed to get worse. My initial spell at Leeds United was undermined by a failure to recognise that my transfer budget was not all for spending and, having blown it all on two fairly average players, I then found myself in desperate financial straits, and despite achieving mid-table respectability with possibly the least talented Leeds squad of the Premier League era (from the George Graham goal drought season, when available forwards included an overweight Tony Yeboah, a past-it Ian Rush, and a well-he-never-was-that-good-was-he Brian Deane) I was fired midway through the season.

The following season, I landed a job at Everton, where I tinkered with my formation a little more and actually felt I played better, but like recently-sacked real-life Everton boss Roberto Martinez, my endless optimism about our performances wasn’t reflected in our results, and I was sacked again with relegation looking certain. I did feel like I hit the post about 1,000 times across the course of the season, only to be harshly punished as my opponents suddenly came up with a miracle goal at the other end, and it was at this stage that I considered that this could all have been part of SWOS being a ‘master’s edition’ of Sensible Soccer, a version for the best and most battle-hardened players. There’s nothing wrong with that: I remember proudly turning up each new version of Pro Evolution Soccer to the maximum difficulty, fully expecting to dominate games and then concede a long-range goal consigning me to defeat in the last ten minutes: it was exactly what I wanted.

In taking charge of a Premier League club, I had ignored the advice of the manual to start lower down, advice I probably should have taken given my general crapness at the game. Having said that, my sacking from the Everton job afforded me a chance to take charge of Huddersfield Town, and I fared no better in Division One, with a harrowing sequence of defeats leading me to believe I was fighting a losing battle and packing the whole thing in.

The dreaded tactics editor.

The dreaded tactics editor.

Overall, despite my best intentions, and putting in significantly more effort than before, my conclusions are the largely the same as they were. I can understand that Sensible Soccer clearly had something that inspired devoted fandom and a desire to play 20 seasons in a row at a demanding difficulty level. Even as a proponent of games such as Kick Off 2, Goal! and Total Soccer, ahead of Sensi, I wouldn’t suggest that any of those would stand up to the scrutiny of multiple seasons, even if it was an option.

Comparing SWOS with Sensible Soccer, the pace is slower, and you can certainly see that there’s an additional tactical element in the former that needs to be mastered. For me, though, if Sensible Soccer works at all, it’s as a fast-paced knockabout. My fundamental objections to the core gameplay of both, particularly the fact that you never really feel in control of the ball, undermine any sense of SWOS providing a deeper and more realistic game of football.

Despite my best efforts, then, SWOS isn’t for me. During the course of my reasonably thorough playtesting session, my wife observed silly little men running around on my laptop screen and asked what I was doing (it wasn’t quite as bad as when she caught me playing PDC Darts Championship 2008 at 7am dressed only in a towel). I replied that I was seeing if I could finally make peace with Sensible World of Soccer. “It seems like there are probably better ways to spend your time,” she replied. Indeed. So let’s leave it there. If you love SWOS, good for you, and that’s great – but we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Sensible World of Soccer 96/97 is available from GOG for $5.99.