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.
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