A Sensible Decision

Jon Hare on Sensible Soccer's Plug n' Play reawakening.

As one of the worlds' greatest ever games, Sensible Soccer fully deserves the love and reverence it continues to get 13 years on from its original Amiga release. Its simple, fast, fluid playability remains virtually unmatched even now, and its re-release by Radica in the form of a plug and play TV gaming device is a stroke of genius that's sure to have gamers' nostalgia glands flowing at the thought of resuming old rivalries on this old classic.

Produced by Sensible Software at the peak of its powers back in 1992, the game still feels every bit as fresh and playable now, and we've reviewed this cute retro package here. Sure, the graphics hardly cut the mustard now, but you really won't care when you're pinging passes around and scoring scorchers from 25 yards. It's one of the few timeless classics that's every bit as good as you remember it.

And with that in mind, we grabbed the legendary lead designer Jon Hare for a chat to find out about how the game came about and his plans for the future. And because we're good to you, we even got hold of Radica's Rob Goodchild to find out why the company decided to revive this enduring classic...

Eurogamer: What was it that people loved about Sensible Soccer that has people talking about it over a decade on?

Jon Hare: Sensible Soccer was a real step forward in playability at the time of its release and it had more depth of real football world detail than any other game before or since, unless there are any action football games out there today with 1,500 international teams and 20,000 players from over 80 different countries. In the UK people remember the playability, but in many countries across the world people also remember it for including their own favourite teams when every other game was ignoring them. I should point out the version in Arcade Legends is the original Mega Drive version with fewer teams and a slightly safer naming policy.

It plays really well as an arcade game based on football as opposed to a simulation, in fact I think it is probably still the best arcade style football game on the market today.

Rob Goodchild: Sensible Soccer had great elements such as playability, great learning curve, many hidden depths and a great sense of humour. Its style has never been surpassed and it certainly doesn't have any peers in modern gaming. Arcade Legends Sensible Soccer Plus contains the Mega Drive versions of Sensible Soccer, Mega-Lo-Mania and Cannon Fodder. All of these are Sensible Software's flagship games titles of the 90's, all re-packaged in the Arcade Legends Sensible Soccer Plus plug and play TV kit.

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Games Pro Evolution Soccer can co-exist with Sensible Soccer, even now, Jon reckons.

Eurogamer: How do you think it compares to modern day footy games like PES and FIFA?

Jon Hare: Faster, better shooting, better passing, less moves, less tactical variation, worse graphics. Overall without a graphical overhaul it struggles to compete with PES and FIFA for that instant TV style appeal. But I believe a lot of people would still love to have a modern version of Sensible Soccer as a second football game with a slightly more light hearted, more instant feel, to sit side by side on their shelf along FIFA or PES.

Put it this way there is more chance that someone would prefer to own and play SS and FIFA, or SS and PES, than there is of someone playing and owning both PES and FIFA. Sensible Soccer does not occupy quite the same space as these two games do.

Rob Goodchild: Modern day football games go for realism. The trend now is to go for photorealistic games, and each incarnation becomes more intricate and more of a simulation, with complex controls and tactics. Sensi emulates the fluid beauty of the game and, although it is a simple game for anyone to pick up and play, it is still tricky to truly master, which is why we love it so.

Eurogamer: Do you think top down footy games can ever make a 'comeback' or are we stuck with fully 3D ones forever?

Jon Hare: Top-down can make a come back "it is only a preferred camera angle". 2D however is dead as dead can be on everything but mobile... and even there it is dying fast.

Eurogamer: For the benefit of those who might not know, just what were the hardware limitations back when Sensible was conceived?

Jon Hare: Well, we had the memory restrictions of the standard Amiga/ST to build the game around, 16-bit standard graphics, limited sound, and limited memory. But the amazing thing is because of this Sensible Soccer was an incredibly efficient program that always ran on the frame, that's 60 frames a second. It was this speed of updating both graphics and gameplay that made Sensi feel so smooth and fast.

I am not sure younger people who were not lucky enough to have experienced games in this era realise just how much games slowed down in the mid-1990s during the first 5 years or so of 3D gaming shortly after and even partly during Sensi's golden era and personally I have always felt that this fact has always been largely ignored by the industry in general.

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The first-generation Sensible Soccer, or thereabouts.

Eurogamer: Why did you go for a more zoomed out perspective? At the time it was very different to what most people were doing.

Jon Hare: That is simple to answer, the scale and perspective of Sensible Soccer was taken from Mega-Lo-Mania... anyone who buys Arcade Legends can check this out for themselves. Mega-Lo-Mania was the first game of the three to be developed and during this time myself and Chris Chapman (original Sensible Soccer programmer) were playing an awful lot of Kick Off. We were annoyed by some features in Kick Off and vowed to do our own football game when MLM was completed. I distinctly remember doing the first Sensible Soccer graphics by dressing up MLM sprites in football kits, in fact the very first Sensi Soccer footballers were actually seen running around in the Mega-Lo-Mania landscapes.

Once we got going with the game properly, we realised that the zoomed out perspective was great for passing and shooting from range, so we stuck with it.

Eurogamer: Do you ever think about reviving Sensible with next gen technology? What's holding you back?

Jon Hare: I would love to do this providing it is done properly, the only thing holding it back is convincing everyone - including me - that it is the right time and place to do it and that the game can continue to enhance the Sensible Soccer name. I have no interest in producing a sub-standard product like Sensible Soccer 1998 again, even if the second version did play really well.

Most essential is retaining the same fast gameplay on minimal buttons, with instant headers, tackles and volleys and accurate controllable shooting and passing, but also with beautiful animation. That in a nutshell is the Sensi Challenge.

Eurogamer: If you could remake Sensible Soccer, how would you go about it?

Jon Hare: Obviously on any of the bigger machines you need to be talking full 3D even with the zoomed out camera for the majority of play. I think the use of close-up camera angles for some dead ball situations and carefully constructed, gameplay controlled animation is also essential. The question of which teams/players to include is very much a licensing question these days, but Sensible Soccer had a strong 'create your own team' element to it that could always be built on to further enhance whatever licenses were acquired.

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Sensi Mobile. The closest we've yet seen to a proper handheld version.

Eurogamer: Why not do a GBA version at least? Surely there's a demand?

Jon Hare: I couldn't agree more, similarly PSP and DS would be pretty popular too, recently Codemasters have commissioned a Mobile version, which I worked on with my mobile development studio Tower Studios and it has been selling well throughout this year also there is the version of the game on Arcade legends, so with a bit of luck they may continue to move in that direction and make Sensible Soccer available on even more formats.

Eurogamer: Which do you think was the best ever version of Sensible, and how do you rate the one included on the Arcade Legends?

Jon Hare: Amiga version of SWOS 96/97 - this was about the sixth version out and each year the game got better and better with more and more subtle refinements of the controls. The version of the game on Arcade Legends sits somewhere in the middle in my estimation.

It is a 68000 version, which is good because it uses the Amiga code base, but to me the joystick always had the edge over the joypad, or maybe I am just old-fashioned [no way! - old-fashioned Ed]

Eurogamer: What hardware is Arcade Legends running on, and what control device is it modelled on?

Rob Goodchild: Arcade Legends runs on an original Mega Drive chip that has been specifically redesigned for Plug and Play. It features the Sensible Software trio of games in their completely original Mega Drive formats (as opposed to emulations). The control device is modelled on the Mega Drive control pads. We have been asked why we didn't emulate a Zip-Stick, Speed King, or any of the vast array of Joysticks that were around in the early nineties. The control methods for all three games vary significantly (with the Mega-Lo-Mania and Cannon Fodder being mouse-driven on most non-console formats) and the Mega Drive pad is all-encompassing in this respect, as well as being a damn fine controller!

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And now the boys are talking about joysticks. Caption-writer is lost.

Eurogamer: How would you feel about an Amiga version of this with a Competition Pro joystick? And what would be your controller of choice?

Jon Hare: I would love to see an Amiga version, personally I would go for the red and black striped Speed King, with the under-hand fire button. Others prefer the Zip-Stick and the Bug and the Competition Pro in about equal measure.

Eurogamer: Since you sold Sensible to Codemasters back in 1997, do you have any control over where Sensible appears in terms of retro packs like these? Do you even get paid?

Jon Hare: I have no control directly although I can do my best to ensure the quality of the games if I find myself involved in the development, which sometimes happens. I am also usually consulted by Codemasters regarding the press, promotion and packaging so that it is accurate.

Yes, in theory both myself and Chris Yates as ex-owners of Sensible receive a small royalty on these sales and as a consultant game designer these days, I also get some money for involving myself in the development of any title I actually work on, including ex-Sensible titles.

Eurogamer: Did Radica work with you at all to oversee the quality of the product?

Jon Hare: As all the games were re-packaged into the joypad, all we had to do was approve the box.

Eurogamer: Has Radica had to put generic teams in there to get around any licensing issues as you did with the recent mobile phone version?

Jon Hare: Radica has used the original Mega Drive code which had already gone through the process of bastardising player names and team names, even 12 years ago.

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SFII - coming to a Connect TV thingy near you. Unless you live in the suburbs, in which case you'll have to get a bus.

Eurogamer: What games are you working on currently?

Jon Hare: Just finished Cannon Fodder (on mobile) and a rugby game called Lions Rugby 7s for mobile, both games to be released this June. At Tower we are also busy lining up/finishing off our next handful of mobile games with a number of companies. Plus I am doing some interesting work with Codemasters again, looking at some potential new products. It's pretty busy at the moment.

Rob Goodchild: We've got a range of Connect TV games coming out this year and are also releasing a further range of Arcade Legends products including Street Fighter 2 and Sonic 2, as well as a complete range of innovative PSP accessories...

Arcade Legends Sensible Soccer Plus can be bought online at Firebox.com, Argos or other good retail stores.

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