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Sensible Soccer, Foot-to-ball And Me

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[This was originally published in a slightly different form over at the Escapist under the title “Sensible Soccer: How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Ball“. I’m republishing it under a different title, because that one won’t fit into the terribly restrictive page-width of narrow-set RPS. And I’m republishing it because… well, apparently there’s some kind of Foot-to-ball battle-cup starting today. Or something. It’s about the Amiga giant that was Sensible Soccer, the whole scene and how I can to actually grasp football…]

Football is the world’s greatest sport. It just took Sensible Soccer to make me really realise it.

When my Dad heard my Mum was pregnant he went out and bought his future child a present. It was a large, colourful book explaining how you played football, full of annotated diagrams showing the best way to head the ball, get perfect dribbling technique and all the other basics his child would need to become Stafford’s answer to Pelé. He didn’t know anything about the kid other than existed, but pretty much his first thought was to try and pass his love onto it.

When I was old enough to read it, I loved it. Of course, I took the wrong message. My dad gives me a book about football? It means my Dad wants me to read books.

Man!

You have to understand, I’ve never hated football. I just didn’t understand football.

Oh, obviously in a mechanical way, I understood football. I knew how it worked. I knew the names of the famous players. I could explain the off-side rules to foreigners. I knew what an Old Firm derby was and why they could be so messy. I’d watch a few games on the box, especially the big ones, and kind of liked them.

But I fundamentally didn’t get it.

It took the dawn of the nineties for anything to change, a collusion between three influences in my life: The Amiga, Amiga Power and Sensible Software.

Despite being a Californian import, the Amiga is in my personal history of the British scene, one of the two or three definitive UK videogame machines. Probably two: the third is the first Playstation, and it conquering the world kind of undermines why the machine was specifically interesting in a British context in the mid-nineties… but that’s another article. The first was the Spectrum, the cheerily-rubbish erotically-rubber-keyed fun-pixie which remains arguably the most loveable home computer ever made.

The Amiga was its spiritual successor, a true Home Computer; a hobbyist machine, which you were meant to do literally everything on. It had a keyboard and recordable media and all that, so obviously like a PC. But it was primarily used through a TV, had standardised hardware and lots of chips which were primarily of use for lobbing a mass of sprites around the screen. Even better, it had one processor called Fat Agnus, which made it have a little of the Spectrum’s quirky charm. This chimeric nature continued into what you actually did with the machine. In terms of its games, it straddled the gap between what the PCs and Consoles were up to. It couldn’t do the action games as well as the Megadrive or the SNES. They couldn’t do more heavyweight topics as well as the fledgling PC – specifically, it struggled with 3D, even early vector 3D, let alone when people started lobbing texture maps around. But since it could do manage some simulacra of both, you had a climate where both sorts of games were accepted, hybridised and a middle-ground between the two explored.

Yes, you can play a decent game of Pro Evo or Outrun 2 on a PC now. But you couldn’t then and the attitude – that, somehow, you don’t play action games on the PC (unless they’re first person and/or online and/or enormously macho) – has fossilised into dogma. That simply wasn’t true on the Amiga, which means that any time I hear a modern gamer say “That’s not my sort of thing” I end up sighing. Back then, it was all our sort of things. True gaming sluts, we were up for anything.

This attitude was personified by Amiga Power, unarguably the greatest magazine about videogames ever written. No, really. For half a dozen reasons, but here’s a relevant one: they marked the hardest anyone’s ever dared. Sub-10% was absolutely commonplace, even for relatively big games. By the time it closed there was a considerable list of publishers who’d just refuse to send their games. Because they were… well, to use AP’s own words, whining childish hatemongers.

AP were a bit juvenile at times. Which is fine, because games are a bit juvenile and being juvenile isn’t just a pejorative. Being idealistic and having a complete unwillingness to compromise are two of the absolutely primary juvenile traits. I’d swap a lot of quasi-seriousness professionalism for them.

(To be fair to AP, they also had critical teeth and had fairly hefty things to say about games. They shunned generalities, and were big on saying Why Something Was Bad Or Good. They just didn’t treat it ponderously. People who never got that seriousness and sobriety weren’t the same thing never quite got AP.)

If something got a mark in nineties in Amiga Power, it meant something. I didn’t always agree with them, but I knew that /they/ agreed with what they’d wrote and they’d lead me to enough interesting places for me to follow whatever they suggested. Hell, they’d already got me into pinball via the divine Pinball Dreams (It’s rare a single developer manages two separate classic games in lineages as separated as Pinball Dreams is from Battlefield 1942, but somehow Digital Illusions managed it).

AP gave Sensible Soccer their highest ever mark.

I trusted AP.

For what it’s worth, I trusted Sensible Software too. Everyone trusted Sensible. While it’d have been harder to call at the time, with the match long over, it’ll be fair to describe Sensible as the definitive Amiga Developer. Despite being rooted throughout the eight-bit scene, they came to their full power with Commodore’s sixteen-bit machine. They’re also definitive in a way that they ended up being tied to the Amiga, being unable to transform into something else as its age came to a close. While people like Bullfrog became a PC developer of note, Sensible disappeared down a hole of their own making with their infamous unfinished great-lost game, PC graphic adventure Sex And Drugs And Rock’n’Roll.

But before that, they left a string of genuinely classic games. Mega Lo Mania was Civilization as observed through an English surrealistic filter and one of those pre-Dune II proto-real-time-strategy games which people tend to forget about when writing the history books. Cannon Fodder was an over-head viewed action/strategy game using a mouse-control. Arriving at a similar time to Bullfrog’s Syndicate, it was a fascinating example of how two development studios could approach a similar concept with their own design priories and end with a radically different games. Where Syndicate was oppressive, Cannon Fodder was witty. Where Syndicate was black satire, Cannon Fodder was underwritten with a quiet moral rage at war. Where Syndicate strove to create a world, Cannon Fodder was determinedly a game. Of course, there was Wizkid, a game so delightfully warped that it makes Psychonauts look like Gary Grigsby’s World At War and probably remains the only graphic adventure/Arkanoid-clone hybrid the world has ever seen.

And there was Sensible Soccer.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, sitting down to play. Not quite true. Back on the spectrum, I’d played a fair chunk of Jon Ritman’s seminal Matchday II. I’d dabbled with Kick Off 2 before throwing it away. While I don’t think anyone could write this exact article about their experience of Kick Off 2 due to its divorced-from-Footy nature – put simply, learning to play Kick Off 2 well taught you how to play Kick Off 2 well, and nothing else – there’s certainly those who’d argue a similarly historic/nostalgic position for it. It was loved by many, but loathed by a considerable few, including AP and me. I’d also enjoyed Microprose Soccer, Sensible’s chunky eight-bit fore-runner. But Sensible Soccer was obviously something quite different.

It was obviously a Sensible game. Unlike Matchday’s side-on view – now the standard one ala FIFA or Pro Evo – it was viewed from above. And not slightly from above, but some distant point, perhaps suspended precariously from the bottom of a blimp. You could see huge expanses of the pitch. The men beneath you were tiny blurs of pixels. Even if there was masses animation, it’d be almost impossible to tell.

Sensible Soccer didn’t really look like the best game ever, if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

Admittedly, I did. The tiny sprite thing was just one of Sensible’s constant visual signatures. Sensible’s John Hare has since talked about how this minimalism wasn’t actually a weakness. In fact, Sensible Soccer is better animated than a modern football game, by using the impressively sturdy anti-aliasing of the human mind to fill in the gaps. When watching FIFA, there’s always going to be tiny problems which drag you out of the world where animation doesn’t quite match up. As you approach perfection, the errors scream. In Sensible, the reverse happened, with people claiming to have seen animation where there was none. It all happened so quickly, over-head kicks were pasted in our inner minds. Which reminds us that videogames are just the world’s most elaborate magic trick, and whatever works, works.

Meanwhile, thanks to its perspective and one-button control system, Sensible Soccer was reminding me of Kick Off 2, except where the latter was some bizarre impenetrable thing whose on-screen actions seemed to only bear the loosest connection to what I was doing with the joystick, the former was Audrey Hepburn elegant. Where in Kick Off 2 it was all desperate boot and chase, like the Scottish Second Division, in Sensible you were instantly passing the ball around the pitch in balletic movement, from player to player to player.

It took me time – I was only young – but I eventually worked out the reason. Firstly, the initially odd camera angle. Taken out so far, you saw most of the pitch. You were aware of the positioning of all your team at any moment. You could see who was free. You could see who was covered. You could just see. And since you could see, you could actually choose would be best to pass to.

Yes, other games had a scanner. But no-one, no-one, no-one ever used the scanner.

Secondly, the basic button press. In Kick Off 2, you charged up a kick by holding down the single button, with the ball being sent flying when it was released. In Sensible, the ball was kicked the second the ball was tapped. An instant, accurate pass at whoever you chose. Tap. Tap. Tap. The ball moves from one to the next to the next, in perfect movements. While there was very little skill in performing the action, with it automatically choosing the appropriate player, this freed the player’s attention to considering the higher level matters. Passing was easy, so – yet again – people were free to choose who would be best to pass too.

The result was strings of passes that had the geometrical perfection of cheekbones.

There was more to the game than passing, of course. Like Kick Off 2, it allowed for impossibly dramatic aftertouch to the ball, allowing it to swerve past the outreached pixel-fingertips of the keeper. You could abandon the passing, and just play the long hoof… but even that was more tactical than in a game with a closer view, and in practice proved an ideal way to take advantage of a lapse in the defence. Enormous leaping headers and sliding tackles allowed a sudden thrust to reclaim a ball or turn a cross into a goal-threatening shot. You could play with formations for strategic effects. And Sensible were always ahead of the world in terms of memorable sound effects, and the crowd-chants were as rousing as the period got: this added hugely to the atmosphere.

But the passing was always the skeleton around which the game was built, that everything else was added on. Even the basic skill of dribbling the ball up the pitch was – in game terms – defined in how it’s not passing the ball. When doing this, your players basically bobble the ball at their feet, a far, far trickier proposition than a pass, risking a loss of control. Your ability to risk a run was based around a tactical commitment, of giving up the ability to easily slide into a pass. You ran, and – in most situations – you were going to go for a shot, some manner of upfield lob or a something similar. You believed you could swap flexibility for a tactical gambit.

Which means that, compared to a modern football game, Sensible Soccer had a many less moves. In terms of “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game”, it was a far less accurate simulation of a football game… but I suspect that they wouldn’t have taught me to understand football in the way Sensible Soccer did. Sensible Soccer was a cartoon of a football match, and cartooning is the art of magnification by removal. What remains is what the artist consider important. And in this cartoon simulation of football, you’re left with what is – basically – the core of football.

And over those first few months with Sensible Soccer, that’s what it taught me. The core, the reason why people watch this bloody game. Yes, the atmosphere is one thing, but not the only thing. I’d been to matches before as a kid, and even then got the intensity of tens of thousands of people staring at a field of grass and desperately wanting a small ball to go one way or another… but that didn’t explain why they were doing it in the first place.

Equally, the iconic images confuse you. The absolutely showy seconds, caught on film, played forever in slow motion over recent AOR hits on evening television aren’t what football are about. Not really, any more the icing’s the cake or the orgasm’s the sex. You watch a ninety minutes game, it’s not really for the high-marks of skill. In fact, if you watch a game in real life, you can barely see the skill when it happens. It may be part of the payoff, but football – the bit you should be watching – is a structural thing. And the trick is that Football, more than any other major sport, is one of constant fluidity. Others have lots of handholding for the viewer, regular stops and consist of short bursts of play before the game comes to rest again and giving the observer a chance to consider. Football, relatively speaking to baseball or American Football or even basketball, never stops. You have to read it on the fly, following a long tactical sentence of meaning. To really watch a game of football, is to know why the ball is moving over there, why that defender is being pulled from position, what is going to happen next… or, rather, what should happen next and why someone’s being a bloody idiot if they don’t do it. That is, to understand its language and grammar; to read it. Sensible Soccer’s simplified form showed me the structures to watch for, in platonic-perfection. Sensible Soccer explained it all.

And what’s true of Sensible Soccer is true of other games that honed in on the finer details of life. Games can simplify a real world event, and impart that knowledge almost invisibly. Veteran Games Journalist Owain Bennalack telling me about how Wave Race prepared his body for the thump-thump-thump of a jet ski hitting a wave then crashing onto the following trough. After Guitar Hero fulfilled Harmonix’s desire to bring the joy of playing to non-musicians, Francesco Poli – somewhat outspoken blogger and Only Serious Student Of Gaming – ended up setting about learning to play the guitar. And so on. It’s all educational gaming in a way which no-one would ever dream of describing as such, as it’s so invisible, so fun – the presentation of a system that catches the soul of something else, makes it tangible, and puts it inside your head and makes you see the world and its possibilities in a new way.

After Sensible Software, I understood football. I was never going to love football as much as – say – any of the narrative forms, or a decent conversation or a movie. I was never going to love it like my Dad – the sort of love which redecorates the garage door with an enormous Everton logo when they got to the cup-final – but I get it, and know why – as far as sports go – there’s none finer, and why it’s the world’s favourite. And I like understanding it and I understand liking it.

The Bitmap Brother’s Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe taught me how to follow Speedball too, but that’s a whole different story.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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