Some games should be allowed the dignity of being able to gather dust in peace. Leave them shut away in a cupboard, don't think about exhuming them from the loft or under the bed, no matter how strong our pangs of nostalgia get. Reminiscing is a dangerous game. Most of us have utterly hopeless recollections of how good things really were. Our selective memories play some mean tricks on us, especially regarding the way old games look, and when confronted with the reality we're likely to be at the very least disappointed, and possibly mildly depressed that all our illusions have been shattered. So how does the 13 year-old Sensible Soccer manage to sidestep all of this? Probably because it's such a superbly designed game that no-one ever managed to better before we all got obsessed with putting things into 3D.
Evidently Radica has realised the timeless appeal of Sensible Soccer, and has decided to cram the innards of a Mega Drive into a tiny battery-powered replica of the 16-bit Sega console, attached two faithfully recreated joypads and preloaded the whole plug and play package with not just Sensible Soccer, but two other classics from the Sensible archives: Cannon Fodder and Mega-Lo-Mania. Ignore the 'Arcade Classics' moniker attached to it. They were nothing of the sort; this was pure home computing at its best.
16 bits of 'power'
As with the many other plug-and-play TV games on the market, set-up is an absolute breeze, involving nothing more than removing the battery panel underneath the 'console', inserting four AA batteries (not supplied), plugging into a spare composite video input and standard audio input (or attaching the provided SCART adaptor if you prefer) and firing it up. From there, it's simply a case of selecting which game you want to go for, sitting back and wallowing in glorious 16-bit tourism.
Now, as an Amiga(r)ite I wasn't expecting great things from these ports. Back in those days, the differences between the various platforms could be very distinct; not just in terms of how the games actually looked, but also in the way they 'felt'. With the differences between a standard Amiga joystick and the alien world of a joypad massive, some games just felt wrong when they made their jump onto consoles.
But somehow this Mega Drive port allows you to play Sensible Soccer almost exactly as nature intended. Admittedly there are still super-quick manoeuvres that are almost impossible to pull off on a pad to this day (like the 'hoof' - the reverse and fire move that allowed you to pull off a blasting shot or clearance from distance), but the use of all three buttons allows for a semi shortcut to the pad's limitations. Being able to hit the 'shoot' button does provide a graceful way out, but as a one-button purist it takes a while to adapt to this way of doing things.
The game itself simply oozes with playability. Still. Within minutes you're setting off on jinking runs, pulling off little pass-and-move tricks you remember, and smashing in corking goals left, right and centre - before running around with your t-shirt over your head. And when you're fed up with tonking the computer (or fed up being tonked) the game really comes into its own against a mate. As a two-player game it's surely one of the all-time greats, and this re-issue is certain to revive lord-knows-how-many festering rivalries. Sure, the silly stickmen graphics don't really cut it these days, but then they didn't really in the first place; it's more about being able to see the build up play better than you can playing any current football game. In that respect, Sensible has never been bettered, and no amount of slick, three-dimensional takes on the genre can deliver the same degree of tactical awareness that the top-down view does.
Of course, Sensible isn't remotely realistic, with completely crazy heading dynamics, twenty-foot-long sliding tackles, the ball sticking to your feet and goodness knows how many other foibles. The fact that it feels more like an elaborate game of pinball is all part of the charm and always was. Almost by accident and limitation these early attempts to simulate football ended up simply being great games, and that's all that mattered to most of us. Sensible's was simple, watertight design that didn't overwhelm the player with 49 combos to learn and that's precisely why players liked it and why it still feels fresh today.
There was, obviously, a great rival to Sensible in the shape of Dino Dini's equally masterful Kick Off 2, and arguments rage to this day over which was better. Perhaps the thing that gelled with most players is that unlike the harder-to-control Kick Off, Sensible was the sort of game anybody could pick up and play immediately; it was a high-scoring affair though, and some hilarious results could emerge. What a classic, what a time to get back into it.
Phwoar. Never been so much fun.
But that's not all. As a special 'bonus' the package also includes the Mega Drive versions of two other Sensible classics: Cannon Fodder and Mega-Lo-Mania. The former was another hugely-acclaimed 16-bit title that originated on the Amiga, and was a wonderfully original tactical shooter that put players in command of a squad of soldiers with the simple premise to clear each level of enemies while trying not to get killed in the process.
Originally designed for point-and-click mouse control, the idea was to point a targeting cursor where you wanted your men to move to, click with the left button and fire with the right. Simple. Ported with excellent effect to consoles, the d-pad controlled the cursor, the fire buttons executed the shots and lobbing of grenades and that was more or less all there was to it. Along the way you had to ensure huts were blown up, that your men avoided the numerous traps on the floor and didn't stray into the line of enemy fire if they could help it.
In common with almost all the Sensible titles, the design was tight, the gameplay slick and intuitive, the graphics were full of charm and all round the game made the most of the crippling limitations while also providing plenty of replay value along the way. The fact that it's still a really entertaining game now says it all. Why on earth Codemasters (which bought out Sensible back in 1997) never made a Cannon Fodder 3D (despite having attempted it numerous times) will forever be a mystery. Hopefully this re-issue will expose it to a new audience and Codies will recognise the vast potential for a next gen reworking.
Mega-Lo-Mania, meanwhile, is slightly at odds with the rest of the package, being a much less immediate God-style game that will probably take newcomers some time to understand. If it was possible to mix up gaming systems in these retro compilations then other Sensible classics like Wizball (or even Wizkid?) would have probably made more sense and gone down better with the pick up and play gamer. However, if you've got the required patience or enjoyed it the first time around it's a game that picked up a legion of admirers at the time, once being placed at No.6 in Amiga Power's all-time Top 100.
The basic idea was to build up your armies and go out and conquer worlds, but Mega-Lo-Mania kind of fast-tracked the Populous idea of an evolving civilisation. So, while initially you'd be doing research into spears and pike weapons for your Cavemen, before you knew it you were building UFOs and rocket launchers, and forming alliances with the enemy to try and take over the planet. While it was undoubtedly wonderful at the time and had all sorts of amusing comic touches (including voice samples, which were uber-impressive at the time), the appeal isn't quite as strong today, sadly. One for the archivists.
For a penny under thirty quid it's slightly pricier than we normally expect to pay for retro goodness (we recently bought a fully working Amiga off ebay for Ł20, for example), but we're sure if you shop around you'll be able to find it retailing for less. Radica reckons Firebox is taking pre-orders from the 17th June, but we're sure they're not the only ones who will be looking to sell this awesome piece of retro gaming. If you buy only one piece of retro gaming this year, make sure it's this. It's seriously worth it for Sensible Soccer alone - even now.