There’s always been an inherent problem with nostalgia. It works a little like a good post-processing filter, cleaning up the jagged edges and rough lines that our memories don’t remember or choose to overlook.
But some of the classics, the gems of yesteryear, cannot be brushed up, improved or glossed over. And one of those has been held up for decades as a pinnacle of great design, pacing, graphics and content. Hell, Amiga Power once praised it as the best game of all time. That game: Sensible World Of Soccer.
My response: bullshit.
Sensible World of Soccer, commonly known as SWOS and very rarely referred to as Sensi Soccer, is a bit of a classic. Actually, scratch that: it’s more like an idol. Amiga Power certainly thought so. So did a committee that was proposed by the University of Illinois, University of Maryland and Stanford.
That committee was designed to foster the idea that games had historical importance, cultural value and were worth preserving and studying. On it sat Warren Spector, Steve Meretzky (responsible for Planetfall, Sorcerer and Hodj ‘n’ Podj), academic Matteo Bittanti, and Christopher Grant, the current editor of Polygon.
They picked the 10 most important games of all time. This was in 2007, granted, so a couple of things may have swayed their opinion if it was done in 2015. But here’s their list: Spacewar! (1962), Star Raiders (1979), Zork (1980), Tetris (1985), SimCity (1989), Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990), Civilisation 1/2 (1991/1996), DOOM (1993), Warcraft series (starting 1994) and Sensible World of Soccer (1994).
Firstly, I wouldn’t have put the WarCraft series above StarCraft, considering the latter’s importance to eSports and its foundation as an RTS classic. But I can see why Orcs and Humans would fit the bill if you wanted an RTS.
But SWOS? One of the most important of all time? Hold the bloody phone.
Let’s be clear: there’s an awful lot to admire about SWOS. The fact that the developers were the first to acknowledge the existence of soccer — Sensible Software, sensible alliteration — outside of Europe was incredibly admirable. As Australians, it meant you could play as any team in the NSW, Queensland, or South divisions, as well as the first division (which included teams like Marconi, Olympic Utd and so on).
That’s pretty awesome, and being able to play as a player-coach or just a coach of any of those teams, as well as a suite of teams from the major European, North American, South American and Asian leagues. Christ, you can play as the Faroe Islands as well.
OK, so Sensible Software deserves a tick there.
Where I take issue with the game is the inaccuracy, although certainly not the simplicity, of the control scheme. Most should be familiar by now, if not when it was released on the Amiga in 1992, or multiple platforms a few years later, or the Xbox Live arcade a decade afterwards and on PC and Mac again through Good Old Games, with it’s one-button design.
This one button does everything. Got the ball? Then the button passes it forward. Hold the button longer to punt it. If there’s no-one in front, it’ll just be a straight shot. If the ball’s in the air, the button works as a header. If the CPU’s controlling the ball, then you can launch a bruiser of a tackle.
I wish the CPU would stop breaking the ankles of all my players — in the space of 30 minutes Marconi put two of my starting 11 in hospital and gave knocks to three others, and got one bloody yellow card for their troubles — but it’s more interesting than the super-sanitised environment of 2015 where FIFA won’t let you automatically slide tackle the goalkeeper.
But what kills me is the inaccuracy of the controls. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending the last month, on holiday and since I’ve returned, playing on my Macbook using the arrow keys. I think that’s entirely fair — I know the game supports the joystick as well, and I remember experiencing a bit of that on the Amiga 500 at a friend’s house back in primary school.
But if you don’t have that, and you’re not just playing as Brazil or Arsenal or Manchester United all the time, SWOS is nothing short of pure bloody frustration. Your players lose the ball ALL the goddamn time. You can see them struggling to hold onto it as they run forward in a straight line; the ineptitude is astounding.
I’ve had to resort to just passing backwards because my players lack the high-level control necessary to do any of the awesome 360 degree turns or even simple changes of direction without completely losing the plot. Maybe the game simply wasn’t designed to be genuinely enjoyable when messing around with Australian second-tier teams.
It’s been a long time since I’ve touched my Xbox 360 too, and I can’t remember what core changes the 360 re-release made (the graphical ones, as well as the inclusion of in-game ads, were obvious). But the more footage I watch, which is a far cry from the fury that builds up inside me every train ride to and from work as I resort to putting midfielders up front because they’re the only players I own skilled in both finishing and shooting, the more I start to mellow.
And this is the cycle that SWOS is taking me on. I suppose it’s part and parcel of why the game is genuinely good at it’s core — I’m not denying that. But maybe, like FIFA these days, it’s not really appropriate for players like me who want to bring teams and individuals up from the very bottom. Maybe players have to be of a certain value for the game to function on my Macbook Air’s arrow keys. Maybe I just need a controller.
Maybe Australian soccer players just weren’t designed to be fun. So I’ll go home tonight, and give it another go. And I’ll inevitably lose my shit, only to do it all again 24 hours later.
But one of the most important games of all time? Bugger that. Put Minecraft on the list instead.
What are your memories of Sensible World of Soccer — and games on the Amiga — like? If you don’t have any of the game, GOG can sort you out.