Sensible World of Soccer – Grandeur unsurpassed

Posted on February 1, 2011


Pro Evolution and FIFA Soccer may have overwhelming sale numbers to report, their fans will nitpick every detail and swap ever more intricate arguments over which one is the best football simulation game. On the other hand, Football Manager fans will laugh at their arguments, and state that there can be no comparison to the sheer behemoth of data made available by their beloved franchise.

Considering the amount of people, and the lost hours debating the issue, it is ironic that all of them are so blatantly wrong. One game created in 1996 still stands unbeaten as the champion of football simulation. We are talking, of course, about Sensible World of Soccer (SWOS). Now, if you, esteemed reader, are not familiar with the aforementioned game, and share the love for the beautiful game as we do, then you should try to get your hands on it as soon as possible¹.

Either if you are coming back to it after years in the dark, or have just installed a copy of the game you shouldn’t let the graphics or gameplay’s simplicity put you off. For therein lies its secret and virtue. Four directional buttons provide a combination of eight possible directional moves, plus one button for every action: shot (be it long shot, volley or tap in) header, pass, long pass, cross, diving header and tackle. Additionally, after the ball is either passed or shot at goal, it’s possible to control the swerve and height which provides moments of incredible beauty.

The gameplay is frenetic and can be a bit daunting at first. However, as you become experienced, you will realize that a vast array of strategies is available for you to explore, from “tiki-taka” to “kick and rush” with everything in between!

As you probably noticed, the graphics are an elegant exercise in constraint. Each player is made up of a mere 55 pixels (fifty five!). There are 2 skin tones (lighter or darker) and 2 hair colours (blonde or dark hair) which can be combined between them. Likewise, the kits are bore down to an absolute minimum: plain shirt, horizontal stripped, vertical striped, sleeve variation in the style of Arsenal or shirt divided in half like Blackburn Rovers’, and that is it. Just enough to attain a perfect depiction of almost any (Boca Juniors and River Plate notwithstanding) team kit (e.g.: Man Utd’s red shirt, white shorts and black socks), there is no team sponsor, it would be hard to fit one of those into 55 pixels anyway, or new season subtle shirt variations. The game lets you go on a 25 season long career or just play friendlies, tournaments or league championships once, and there are over 1,500 teams and 27,000 players in the database, which is unusual for a game of this nature at that time.

Although being impressive, the amount of selectable teams and championships is not what makes me keep playing it to this day. There are several reasons, first of all I admire the magnificent cohesion between graphics, gameplay and sound. Besides being masterfully executed, the players embody an array of moves and actions which are as remarkably simple as additively fun. Each player has 7 individual characteristics: Ball control, finishing, heading, passing, speed, tackling and shot power, which are rated from 0 to 7, the combination of these features gives each player his individual ability (and market value). The gameplay is supplemented by simple sound effects that convey just enough atmosphere. Shot on goal, pass, tackle and referee’s whistle sounds, are complemented by, very English sounding, supporter chants and cheers. Old games have always lacked at least one of these features, specially gameplay, and none has ever been able to achieve the artistic cohesion of every element being stripped to it’s underlying structure with the exact same measure. It would feel out of place to have very detailed sounds, or more intricate player animations, as it stands the parts are coherent among themselves and with the whole.

However, this is still not enough to grant SWOS with the King of football simulation games title. All of the features in SWOS are present in PES as well as in the FIFA series, and with greater detail. What sets SWOS apart is that, by going down the simplicity route (either because of technological or budget restraints is irrelevant) the authors have tapped into the essence of a football match. They have achieved a yet to be surpassed synthesis of some of the most relevant aspects of the game. Playing SWOS is not so much playing a football simulation, as is experiencing the concept of a football game. Every element is remarkably close to its archetypal; consider graphic elements like the archetypal ball or team kit. Lets imagine that someone, less football savvy, asks what the Manchester United kit looks like, the probable answer would be something along the lines of “a Red shirt, pair of white shorts and black socks”. Not overly detailed as to include sleeve or shirt neck design details for example, but not overly abstract as to stop the enquirer from getting a fairly accurate visual description. More importantly, the gameplay itself taps into the essence of the game. Although being striped down to basics, the combination of the different actions, strategies and tactics allow for a close depiction of what a football match has always been. Furthermore, by not providing every detail, it allows the mind to have the possibility of filling in the gaps, the action becomes closer to our imagination, making for a richer experience.

SWOS is not about what football was like in 2008-2009, it’s about what football is. The question then arises, can you still play FIFA 1998, PES 2, or Championship Manager 4 without it feeling dated?

by Jack Rabbit

1 We recommend the AMIGA version (it’s much more rewarding) which can be emulated through a PC or MAC.

To know more

Posted in: Level up