Sensible Soccer completely redefined football games when it first burst onto the Commodore Amiga scene back in 1992. Jon Hare, Chris Yates and co. took the top-down viewpoint of Kick-Off, zoomed the viewpoint out a touch and came up with a fast, flowing and intuitive take on footy that was instantly playable, yet full of hidden depths. Its eventual evolution into Sensible World of Soccer took that depth even further via a succession of tweaks to the gameplay and a hugely absorbing management element. It was a heady combination, and by the 96/97 version, Sensible had refined it to a point where it was pretty much as good as it could get.
By then, the Amiga market was as good as dead as a commercial platform, and the PlayStation revolution ushered gaming (and the genre itself) into the third dimension. With Sensible hopelessly unprepared to make the transition to the new consoles - or 3D techniques in general - two poorly received versions of Sensible Soccer appeared before the company was eventually disbanded and its IP sold off to Codemasters.
Meanwhile, EA's FIFA completely captured the market, closely following by Konami with its ISS series, which then itself evolved into Pro Evolution - a situation which remains today, despite the fact that neither series appears capable of delivering on its potential, leaving many footy fans hankering after a game which could deliver on the fast-paced purity of the mid-90s SWOS titles. Sadly, despite having rich promise and some great ideas, Sensible Soccer 2006 arrived on the PS2, Xbox and PC pretty much an unfinished product. Another comeback thereafter seemed unlikely.
So when it was announced that the 96/97 version of SWOS was coming to Xbox Live Arcade in its undiluted, untampered Amiga form, gamers across the world tentatively rejoiced whilst keeping their breath unceremoniously bated. The anticipation reached fever pitch as release dates came and went. July. September. Silence. And then, when the game finally did get a release for a few hours on 19th December, it was of course pulled when it became immediately apparent that users were logged off Xbox Live as soon as they loaded the game, making online multiplayer games impossible. Fortunately, the correct version of the game was uploaded a couple of days later, and fans could finally enjoy what had become one of the most long-awaited games ever to grace Xbox Live Arcade.
The initial reaction is generally one of relief as it becomes apparent that Codemasters has conquered the urge to mess with SWOS' game mechanics and, as promised, delivered a spot-on port of the 96/97 update - albeit with online play and the choice of new, sharpened up visuals.
So, how does SWOS stand up in 2008?
Very well, as it happens. The presentation has been given a fresh lick of paint with a tasteful, faithful graphical update that now adheres more accurately to the rose-tinted memories we've held in our minds about all things Sensible Soccer. It sports some impressive new details as well as some sinister, but not too intrusive, Future Publishing-related advertising (fortunately it's limited to the hoardings in the enhanced version - the original version features no such product placement). The Richard Joseph-penned music and sound effects have also been tidied up a touch, without meddling with them.
As great as SWOS was as a multiplayer game, the career mode also helped set it apart from the competition (here's looking at you Kick Off 2), and I'm pleased to report that this element of the game has survived the journey to XBLA fully intact with hundreds of teams and thousands of players to choose from. I instinctively picked Mansfield, a team of minnow proportions that I have supported since I was knee-high. Mansfield's journey from the murky depths of the pond to the vibrant glow of the higher divisions was underway. Well, sort of.
Losing the first dozen or so games played sends home a striking reminder of how much you need to practice to get good at the Sensible World play mechanics you knew so well back in the '90s. After years of having those skills dulled in the intervening years by playing FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, getting back into the mindset required to play Sensi isn't as straightforward as you might expect - and getting used to playing it with a 360 pad certainly isn't easy to begin with.
The gamepad of choice for the hours of relentless matches played on my Amiga over a decade ago was the Megadrive's, with a d-pad allowing swift, accurate movement of team players around the pitch. The 360's d-pad unfortunately does not match the precision of SEGA's, offering a far greater span of movement over the Megadrive controller and thus introducing exaggerated movement of the player. Alternatively, the 360's analogue stick can be used, although after using the stick once I reverted quickly back to the d-pad - at least then I felt I was in control of the direction I wanted to send my player. A quick friendly game using a Mad Catz joystick, delivered by the big guy in red with the sack, also proves to be a frustrating experience and ultimately pointless.
The complex suite of moves and control pad combinations found in the likes of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer are intentionally (and thankfully) absent from Sensible Soccer. One-button control was the 'sensible' approach to the football introduced by Jon Hare and the Sensible Software team. Aftertouch added to the ball on leaving the player still makes for some sensational if somewhat impossible goals.
I can't help feeling though that the XBLA version of SWOS is somewhat harder than I remember when playing on the Amiga. The XBLA goalie displays athletic super-human skills, acrobatically saving goals from all angles; the ball is snatched from you relentlessly by the opposition on your approach into their area; quick directional changes see you losing possession of the ball as it trickles to the possession of the opposition whilst you run in the opposite direction thinking, for a brief moment, that the ball is firmly glued to your foot.
With your manager's hat firmly atop of head, tactics can be defined that improve not just a player's contribution, but the way the whole team works together. See your players' values rocket with careful management, or see them collapse in a heap with disappointing frequency. Changes to your formation will display a tick or a cross depending on how beneficial it is to your players, and, while it isn't always clear why these reactions are given, it's nice to see an instant improvement in your team's chemistry.
The much-touted graphical enhancements to SWOS will not disappoint the hardcore Sensi fans either, and will probably become the mode of choice for the majority. Playing the game in standard mode is a stark reminder of how dated the graphical look of the original game has become - especially apparent on the high-def monster screens of today. Gamers new to the series who have been brought up on the 3D delights of the modern console football games may very well blurt out in disgust at the 2D imagery seen on their screens. Remember, though, you were probably playing Sensible on a crappy old 14" portable. Were you really expecting anything else?
The online mode, which was tweaked to kingdom come to ensure multiplayer perfection (hence the ridiculous release delays), is refreshingly lag-free. Actually getting into a game though is a feat in itself. The disconnection rate is excessively high, and judging by the other player's ranks this is a problem across the online board. I could give SWOS the benefit of the doubt here, what with the problems experienced by players with Xbox Live over the Christmas period, but realistically only time will tell if this aspect of the multiplayer experience improves.
Online play has proved frustrating also due to a bug that seemingly affects off-the-ball moves such as heading the ball and tackling the opposition's player. More often than not, these moves cannot be successfully actioned during online play, though the single-player mode does not suffer such issues.
Once an online match is finally allocated, both players have control of the pre-match menus, which makes the setup screen a confusing battle for selective dominance. A Pro Evolution Soccer split screen, or just being able to see your own selections on-screen, would be far more user-friendly and less confusing, but I guess that's a legacy of staying true to the original code-base.
The rosters being used are those of the 1996/97 data, obviously to avoid licensing issues. The sheer volume of misspelled names and old data is crying out to be brought bang up to date. Unfortunately an edit feature has been omitted, so fans of Liverpool and Chelsea will have to make to do selecting Merseyside Reds and London Blues respectively. Somewhat grating I know, but there you go.
The Achievements are also something of a missed opportunity. It would have been nice to see more linked to the career mode. I'd much rather work towards winning a World Cup or getting a Div 3 team up to the top flight than shoring up a gamerscore for winning a penalty shootout or knocking in a header.
All minor gripes aside though, SWOS remains a triumph of playability over tedium and proves the franchise is still a strong contender for the greatest football game of all time. Ten years have passed since I first played this game and still I continue to soak up hours playing it. After the sorry series of franchise hiccups that have been bestowed upon the fan base over the last ten years, Sensible Soccer is back.