Sensible World of Soccer 96/97

First hands-on and a chat with Jon Hare.

The past can be such a sullied, thankless place to go and visit, especially during a blazing hot day in June. If you're not already minging with clammy anticipation, by the end of the experience you're spitting feathers with unquenched nostalgia, wondering how the passage of time could be so remorselessly disrespectful to our memories.

The key to the past is knowing where to look and what to look for. In videogaming circles, reverence for its history is never a straightforward thing to signpost to unwary travellers eager to find out what they missed or to rediscover the things they once loved. It's a Gordian knot of emotions, personal associations and - very often - misguided popular opinion.

But if any opinion deserves to be popular, it's the long-cherished notion that Sensible World of Soccer remains untainted by the passage of time. A true classic that remains as beautifully playable today as it did over a decade ago.

The past can't come soon enough

That's no dewy-eyed recollection, either, because a couple of weeks back I was fortunate enough to be one of the very first people outside of Codemasters to play an "almost finished" build of the game, based on the definitive 96/97 version that was the result of five solid years of tweaks and refinements to the already wonderful 1992 original.

Wisely, the game looks, feels and plays absolutely identically to how you remember it - which is no surprise when you realise that the game is built using the same codebase used for the 96/97 version. Rather than try and cobble together an approximation from the ground up, this is as close to the the real deal as humanly possible, complete with the same fonts, same visuals and even the same menus, sound effects and music. It's such a perfect tribute to the brilliance of the original that you'll want to pull your shirt over your head and run around the room screaming with pure joy.

As with many Xbox Live titles, the game comes in classic and 'enhanced' flavours. But what's surprising is how much the enhanced version looks like the game you have in your mind's eye. Rather than try and mess around with the graphics too much, it's an extremely respectful update that captures the essence of the original's deliberately simplified visuals.

Big heads come in handy

1

Product placement ahoy!

Those coming to the game for the first time might stare at the screen with a look of bemusement that something like this can still cause so much fuss after all this time. The cute but utterly rudimentary little men parading with minimal animation across the pitch are endearingly hilarious in the light of today's uber-realistic players, but no less capable of banging in spectacular goals after a 15-move passing extravaganza. As ever, all you can do to anyone who thinks it looks like a pile of old crap is hand them a pad. And a pizza. And a few cans of beer. Your Friday nights might never be the same again. (Unfortunately the build shown to us wasn't functional in the classic mode, but we were assured that the visuals were left exactly as they were in the Amiga version if users really want to play it as Jon Hare and co. intended.)

Now, just as it was then, any lingering doubts about how such a simple-looking game can be any good generally melt away once the controller's in your hands. The ease of passing, the satisfying ability to cross and lob at will, and the wicked aftertouch quickly contribute toward its being one of the most satisfying interpretations of football you'll ever see. Interpretation is a key word here, because it's a game within a game: true fantasy football come to life and more fun, in my opinion, than any simulation has managed since.

After a few minutes of readjustment to the nuances of the Xbox 360 pad, you'll be jinking around, threading passes with swift fluidity, pulling off frenzied sliding tackles that seem to go on forever, and lofting curling cross-field passes straight to your on rushing forward to do a ludicrous diving header on goal from 15 yards out. No-one would ever suggest it's realistic, but it's pure, uncomplicated fun.

Over too soon

2

Moments before the banana shot arrowed into the top corner.

Having only managed to squeeze in two five-minute games before we were whisked away elsewhere within Codemasters' labyrinthine complex, it's fair to say we can't expand upon the finer details of the game. What we did manage to discern, though, is that the game appears to feature the exact same menus available in 96/97, just as you'd expect. Nothing that was in that game appears to have been arbitrarily taken away, so there's no need to ask us "is that funny team in there?" or "can do the editing and management stuff" because the answer will almost certainly be yes. It's the same game, with the same menus, the same fonts, teams, options and gameplay. In simple terms it comes with an enhanced graphical makeover, plus the ability to play one-on-one online. That's all it needed to do to satisfy most fans, we're sure. Whether there are more options yet to be revealed, we'll find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, the most important piece of information you'll want to glean is "when's it out?" and "how much will it cost?". At present, it's looking like a late July release via Xbox Live Arcade, with a PC release planned for later in the year - possibly September, but more likely later. As revealed previously, PC and 360 gamers will be able to face-off online, which should be fun. Other details like Achievement points and such like remain unconfirmed at present, but a press event scheduled for next week should reveal all.

Join us on the next page as the game's original design guru Jon Hare faces a grilling from the forumites.

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