The best game I ever played: Sensible World of Soccer '95/'96
Forget FIFA and PES, this is the undisputed king of football games
The Amiga 500+ had already bewitched me by the year 1994.
After many years of pleading had led to the purchase of the Cartoon Classics bundle, the mystical machine had not disappointed, as countless hours were lost to saving my suicidal Lemmings, spraypainting Springfield with Bart Simpson and rescuing the world with Captain Planet.
'How could things possibly get any better than this?' thought my young, naive mind.
Well, that fragile mind was about to be blown to pieces by the twin football attack of Championship Manager - both the original 1992 version, and the sensational '93/'94 update - and Sensible Soccer, which arrived in 1992 with the European Champions edition. In fact, it's a wonder I am still able to form coherent sentences given the shock of the two juggernaut titles taking over my brain for pretty much the next decade.
Champ Man was the slow-burn addiction; the heroin of gaming, slowly sucking you in until all that mattered was getting your next fix. Things like sustenance, clothing, cleanliness, daylight and sleep all went out of the window until you realised you were a skeletal shell of a man. A happy skeleton, mind, who knew the true transcendent bliss of leading Leyton Orient to multiple European Cup triumphs with Prince Arnold Litana banging in the goals up front.
But football, after all, is the cocaine of sports: an instant, all-action hit for 90 minutes of pure highs. And there can be no doubt that Sensi was the crack of gaming.
Its initial release changed my life. The school day was merely something to be got through in order to get home to start playing again. It was so good that I completely lost interest in playing actual football. No, this was so much better, with the high-speed, ultra-playable arcade action as I wrestled with my zipstick to master the quick passing game and aftertouch shooting required to slam in the goals. I played it solidly for months until I'd got pretty good.
But then the rumours started, in pages of the One Amiga and in the playground at school: a successor was on its way, with the lofty title Sensible World Of Soccer. How could this possibly improve on the greatest arcade game of its age?
Simple: by subtly expanding the gameplay - adding in injuries, referees and cards; introducing a variation of players - with different abilities and strengths; and creating a genuinely brilliant management environment, including a full 20 season career mode.
It was utterly perfect. The most playable, fun game, taken to its absolute zenith.
Now, it wasn't just about the impeccable gameplay. It was the creation of a full storyboard, a canvas upon which to paint epic stories of taking a team from the lower reaches of the pyramid, finding and buying those hidden gems, winning a cupboard full of trophies, and then landing that international job, when the hopes of a nation would rest upon your shoulders.
And those hidden gems? Who could forget Aitor Karanka, the fastest full-back in the West, just £450k from Athletico Bilbao; Kevin Gallen, a goalscoringsuperstarhero and a snip at £950,000 from QPR; Didier Deschamps, only £2m from Juventus and the best midfielder in the game; and then the incredible Jorgen Petterson, languishing at Malmo, ready to be unleashed into your strikeforce, when his talents - which made him the best value player in the game - would finally receive the stage they deserved.
The player attributes are still indelibly imprinted on my mind. To this day I can't walk past a car number plate containing the letters 'CSV' and think 'useful winger', or 'SVF' and think 'ideal striker material there'. 'THP'? Get him marshalling that defence.
Of course, alongside the sport itself, Sensi was truly educational. Where else would I have learnt about teams in far-flung corners of the globe like Hearts Of Oak in Ghana?
The one closest to my heart though, will always be Skonto Riga, who I led to multiple triumphs in the Latvian First Division before embarking on European triumphs for decades. Why Skonto? Well, as any serious SWOS player will know, the Latvian league had the fewest teams of any league in Europe, so was the best quick shortcut to winning the league enough times to get offered an international job.
The management side of the game was so well developed that some crazy people even started playing the game purely for this aspect, leaving the computer to take control of their sides, watching the simulation to see how their tactics played out.
But really, Sensi was still all about that gameplay, and racking up the goals. Me and my mates played it so much that it became second nature to us, like breathing. At our peak, my friend Ally refused to ever take the many international jobs he was offered, instead ploughing on with leading Spartak Moscow to 19 consecutive trebles, blasting European football into total, meek, humiliating submission, led by the unstoppable Savo Milosevic - a failure at Villa but finally fulfilling his destiny in Russia - scoring comfortably over 1000 career goals, making Pele look like a total amateur.
Blasted strikes in from the edge of the area, lofted 35 yarders from the wings, rounding the keeper, we mastered it all. And yes - I even learned how to score comedic headed goals with a long ball from defence met by my striker throwing himself fully 25 yards to nut the ball like a cannon into the back of the net.
The '95/'96 version took the 99.9% perfection of the original and ironed out a few subtle bugs to achieve, essentially, the perfect game.
But there was also something that ran through every release of Sensi: a sense of humour. While every other game strived for realism, for accuracy and the rest, Sensi prioritised an overwhelming sense of fun. The famous graphics, of course, were an obvious representation of that - it wasn't meant to look real, it was meant to just be brilliant fun to play - although, ironically, by ignoring the graphics, they ended up with a more iconic and distinctive look that all of their rivals. But it was also evident in the comedy re-jigging of names on console versions where they didn't have the rights (Roberto Beggio up front for Italy, for example). It was evident in the unforgettably brilliant theme tune, by Captain Sensible himself. The crowd noises, which constantly seemed to be chanting your name.
And it was also evident in the 'custom team' section of the game, where you could play matches between mighty teams such as these:
Fast, furious, fun and frighteningly addictive. You can forget FIFA, PES and all the rest, SWOS was and is, hands-down, the greatest football game - no, the greatest game - ever made. It's just sensible, right?