The Story Behind Football’s Greatest Video Game

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Football video games have delighted and thrilled fans for as long as there have been home computers.

Fans of a certain vintage will doubtless remember hunkering down with their Commodore 64 to play something like Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, with its in-game music and changeable kit colours. It is described by The Guardian as being one of the classics, along with Kick Off 2 and Championship Manager. However, one game tops them all.

It’s a game found among the myriad of mobile football game options, even today. A quick search for iOS and Android football titles returns hundreds, if not thousands of releases across different genres, all trading on the beautiful game’s imagery. Some games put you in the middle of the action, such as IOSoccer or New Star Soccer. Some take the accepted football icons, balls, pitches and goals and repurpose them as something different. That’s the case with the Gala Casino online slot title 11 Champions, with trophies spinning away on the slots. You might even manage a team to glory with something like Top Eleven Be Football Manager. Or, you might visit a retro classic, a legend of its time, Sensible Soccer (even as the repackaged Sociable Soccer).

Sensi, as nineties kids knew it, was the football title of the Britpop era. Sure, FIFA was in its early stages, and other titles were still doing the rounds, but Sensi had something the others couldn’t, playability. It wasn’t a dedicated football simulation; there were no skill moves, no real tactical accountability, just a frantic top-down arcade game that often saw Liverpool beating Manchester United by a score that looked more like your bank card PIN than a football result.

The game boasted Dutch legend Ruud Gullit on the box, and although it was the first of its name, it was the spiritual successor to another popular title, Microprose Soccer. One of the game’s developers, Jon Hare, had previously worked on the Amiga football game, one of the first to introduce the banana shot used to beat the keeper. As he told Read Only Memory, Sensi could even have had a different name; they were close to allowing Virgin to release it, but as with Microprose the developer wanted to rename the product Virgin Soccer. Instead, they took it to Renegade, and the rest is history.

Where did the inspiration for Sensible Soccer come from? Like all great footballing dynasties, it came from another familiar game, albeit not one you’ll have played on a computer. Hare admitted that he was a huge fan of Subbuteo as a youngster, having played the game with his Dad throughout childhood. “To me, SWOS (Sensible World of Soccer was the sequel) was an electronic version of Subbuteo. But you could play against the computer and, as a child, when I wanted to play with my Dad and when he wasn’t there or not home from work, I couldn’t play against anyone.”

Another fascinating piece of Sensi history is the two teams that played in the first-ever game. There have been millions, if not billions of games since, but Hare revealed that the first game was between his beloved Norwich City and Sunderland, supported by another programmer, Jules.

In terms of being innovative, Sensi also broke new ground in terms of player race; it was the first game to have black footballers in. “We were the first game to have black players,” Jon said. “I remember playing another game, and it had John Barnes in it as white. That’s not John Barnes! It doesn’t look like John Barnes! So we put guys with dark skin and guys with blonde hair in there so you could at least identify players.”

It doesn’t sound groundbreaking now, but anyone whose age starts with a ‘4’ or more will remember the thrill of finally getting their hands on Sensi, playing until deep into the night with their friends, and not having to learn a complex button system. It was the title of the nineties, and it is still as addictive and enjoyable today as it was almost 30 years ago.