How To Make Sensible Soccer Interesting Again

Sensible Soccer was my favourite game when I was a kid. I still own an old Sensible World of Soccer Amiga disk, which I keep as a memento of childhood like a favoured cuddly toy. But I have no interest in playing that game, anymore. If I did, I could play the 2007 XBLA release, and if I wanted an indie attempt to recreate the experience I could play Natural Soccer, Active Soccer 2, Super Soccer Champs, Kopanito All-Stars Soccer, Super Arcade Football or a dozen others.

So let’s try to come up with something more interesting. Let’s come up with some tenets for redesigning Sensible Soccer.

Sensible Soccer and its sequel SWOS were great game designs because they captured the core satisfactions of stringing together passes, of moving the ball around defenders and of striking it into the top corner of a net. It had simple one-button controls that made it easy to play, and it had pace and a high camera which meant that, though you couldn’t perform the finer control or tactics of a FIFA game, it was fast and flowing, like the football played in dreams.

Or as Kieron once put it:

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.

So, Sensible Soccer: great game; the above is why.

But simply recreating that isn’t interesting and someone else has already gone down the route of making a football game that feels more like football, as FIFA does. If I was remaking Sensible Soccer today, then, I’d be pushing harder on that cartoon route. To the point where I’d forget about football altogether.

Let’s call this point number one.

1) Make it more like a cartoon.

Because already it’s true that if you play Sensible Soccer for long enough, it feels less and less like football. You begin to recognise the zones of the pitch in which it’s best to shoot, and then go further and find the only zones on the pitch it’s possible to score from. Thoughts of footballing tactics disappear as you focus entirely on passing and running to reach those areas. Scoring becomes about memorising how long to hold the button and push the stick for in order to get the ball beyond the keeper from each of those zones. And eventually you begin to recognise the logic underpinning the movements of opposing computer-controlled players, such that they cease to be footballers or humans and become mere obstacles.

In my head, when I play Sensible Soccer, I see this:

The red markers are the areas it’s possible to score from. These areas represent zones where your ability to precisely judge power and curve maximise the odds that you can hit a ball while minimising the odds that the goalkeeper will save it.

Real football has concepts of ‘zones’, but not quite like this. Thought of this way, Sensible Soccer is less a football game and more a bullet-hell shmup in which you have a single projectile, must dodge the 11-bullet pattern of your enemy, and destroy them by steering your projectile towards the netted weak spot at their rear.

It’s worth pausing to note that, though these zones feel like you’re exploiting game systems more than playing football, Sensible Soccer had far fewer exploits like these than its competitors. It didn’t have anything like Manchester United: The Double in which you could reliably run to the opponent’s touchline before cutting towards the goal from the corner flag and simply walk the ball around the keeper at his near post.

But let’s not try to fix these things. Let’s embrace them. Let’s call this point number two.

2) Ignore the football theme; embrace its game genre, which is closest to a shmup.

Because goalkeepers are always computer controlled, most of these zonal exploits carry over into multiplayer, but human-controlled obstacles are considerably more interesting to play against. Sensible Soccer was a great game to play on a couch alongside another person, where the speed of the game felt even more frantic and where progress towards those pitch zones created a sudden increase in tension because you knew that they were about to shoot. This led to dramatic, joystick-wrenching attempts to hurl a defender in front of the path of the player or the ball.

The XBox Live Arcade release from 2007 added online multiplayer, which was a welcome addition, but it felt tame again compared to being able to hear and see your opponent. Where couch multiplayer created excitement in friendly rivalry, and the singleplayer created excitement through the added context of league tables and cup finals, online multiplayer matches always felt like consequence-free pre-season friendlies.

I don’t think management or leaderboards are the way to make individual matches feel relevant against strangers. Instead I’d be grabbing the meta-games added to shmups and roguelikes of the past five years, where individual lives are short but aid your progress towards various unlocks.

I’d make our ball-based cartoon shmup one in which you could unlock and deploy mid-match powerups, to boost players’ speed, build defensive barriers, or place novelty hats upon the heads of players. This requires much more thought and iteration and balancing than I’m willing to do for the idle musing of this article, but let’s call this our third and final tenet.

3) Embrace online multiplayer; make individual matches relevant with a meta-game.

Maybe I should just play more Rocket League.

And more than likely there are much better ideas to be had. But I’m convinced: if you want to play a game of football, you are well served by FIFA and PES; if you want to play a game of Sensible Soccer, you are well served by Sensible Soccer and its many modern imitators.

If you want to make a new game which captures some of the spirit of the original, but which isn’t retro and banal and unnecessary, you need to look at and expand the core of what made Sensible Soccer fun. And that wasn’t the football.

This post was funded by the RPS Supporter Program. Thanks for your funding!

16 Comments

  1. JamesTheNumberless says:

    There are a couple of extra zones a bit further back if you like trying to score with big bouncy lobs. And in SWOS it varies a bit depending on which version you’re playing and the stats of the player.

    Also, the worst exploit in any football game was probably the one in Actua Soccer, where it was possible to bend the ball one way and then the other with aftertouch, and doing this meant the goalkeeper would reliably fail to anticipate where the ball was going to be. As soon as you got the ball to your striker, if he had enough power and shooting skill, you could score easily from anywhere on the pitch. Bebeto, Martin Dahlin and (strangely) David Platt were the best as far as I remember.

    • wondermoth says:

      Actua Soccer’s shooting mechanics (like SWOS) required skill, though, which is something that’s sorely lacking from the glorified dice rolls of PES/FIFA’s shooting mechanics. And I’ve just realised how similar Actua’s fly-by-wire shooting is to Rocket League’s aerials. Two of my favourite games of ever, there.

  2. Windows98 says:

    Ah, Cannon Soccer, I remember it well. On a transparent green floppy stuck to Amiga Format just after I’d gotten an A1200 for Christmas in 1993.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      I think that was my first issue of Amiga Format too. There was a red disk too; I think it was Music-X or something.

    • Premium User Badge

      Al__S says:

      Snap! Was that the issue that had Amiga Power embedded in it? As just one of the many acts of warfare between Power and Format, an actual land grab.

  3. Little_Crow says:

    I think I just want a SWOS 96/97 with updated teams – excellent online multiplayer would be a bonus.

    I feel like one of the SWOS games (though it might have been Football Glory) had more granular stats for shooting, speed, etc – so maybe that too.

  4. Hypocee says:

    It’s on the wrong platforms, but Sega Soccer Slam. Yeah.

    And on the NES, Tecmo bowl mostly passed me by and left me underwhelmed but Tecmo Cup engrossed me for a long time. It’s a weird hybrid real-time approach to die-roll football that I’ve never seen repeated.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      The only footie game that has impressed me anywhere near as much as Sensi is Pro Evolution Soccer on the Wii. In abandoning the mode of play that every football game since International Soccer and going for something more like a real time strategy title, Konami created something special.

  5. WillyOD says:

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed Sensi games on Amiga, and if you’re looking for something similar try out New Star Soccer 5.

    I’ve lost all interest in Sensi-anything after they (Jon Hare) asked for 300 000 GBP on their Sociable Soccer Kickstarter. 300 000?!?!? For a simple soccer game, that they seemed to have developed pretty far already. I mean come on.

  6. El_MUERkO says:

    Oooh, Football Glory, I remember the dudes would run on with the magic spray to heal fowled players :)

    I also remember 96/97 had standing headers which created some new ways to score.

  7. pccsoares says:

    Great post. I would like to show you my new mobile game inspired by Sensible Soccer. It’s called World Soccer Challenge. Trailer:
    link to youtube.com

    I’m an indie developer. In 2012 I released a game that went to the top downloads, both android and iOS (Elastic World).
    Now I just released my new game, after two years of intensive work,.
    You can replay past World Cups and go as far back as the Mexico 1986. And you can choose from among 196 national teams. World Soccer Challenge uses retro pixel art graphics in keeping with the nostalgia theme. And speaking of which, you will be able to see illustrations of most famous (and infamous) moments in football history, like Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal as well as Zidane’s head butt in the 2006 tournament.

    Android: link to play.google.com
    iOS: link to itunes.apple.com

    Best regards,
    Pedro Soares
    http://www.monkeyibrowstudios.com