A tribute to Sensible Soccer
Russell Degnan

By contrast with board games, or card games, the great failing of the vast majority of computer games is the longevity test. It is an area barely commented on; in most cases it is taken for granted that a player won't want to keep going with a game that has poor graphics or sound. That lacks the flash of a newer, brighter game. But I don't think it should happen - except from a marketing viewpoint - even though it is hard to pinpoint what makes a game that you'll return to indefinitely, and therefore, truly great.

Rd 3 (H) Bolton Wanderers 5-1
Unfancied third division side, Doncaster Rovers thrashed Bolton Wanderers in the third round of the FA Cup. New Japanese signing Masauki Kanno putting away four goals in a dominant performance. Manager Degnan was pleased, saying, "We've had a few injuries, which cost us against West Ham in the League Cup. So for Kanno to come in and play as he did and as we did is fantastic."

A few (non-multiplayer) games stand out in this way. Elite, with it's almost endless dimensions, Sun Tzu's Ancient Art of War because there is no clear strategy, and the pre-3d versions of Sensible Soccer.

Rd 4 (H) Cambridge United 3-0
Doncaster Rovers league form continued against a hapless Cambridge United, easing to a three nil win in the fourth round. Kanno scored twice again to take his tally to six goals in two games, but manager Degnan is looking to the next round against Coventry, "this is where it starts"

Sensible Soccer has average graphics, even for its time. The view is simple but it works because it enhances playability - as opposed to the isometric or perspective views that don't. As often as not I play without sound. And I have played enough that it is not that difficult to win any more - though it could be with some tactical enhancements. And yet, almost a decade after release I still play it constantly.

Rd 5 (H) Coventry City 1-0
Doncaster Rovers furthered enhanced their reputation with a shock one nil win against Conventry City. Never in any danger, Coventry were lucky not to lose by more, having only two shots on goal for the game, both from distance. "This gives us a lot of confidence, Coventry are a good side and we outplayed them today", manager Degnan said.

The true beauty of the game is that - like a good card game - it is easy to learn, and difficult to master. The controls are deceptively simple: one button, and the arrow keys. You control the kick with how hard you press the fire button, and the curve by pressing the arrow as you kick it. It is a difficult skill - integral to the game - and it takes hundreds of hours of playing to master.

QF (A) Liverpool 2-1
With their biggest scalp yet, Doncaster Rovers dominated Liverpool, with Kanno scoring twice to take his cup tally to nine. Liverpool had the best of it early, and were rewarded with a goal by Fowler. Doncaster responded with the confidence of a team that has won 29 straight games, pinning Liverpool into their own half. The winning goal in the 74th minute coming from a penalty, as they advance to the semi-final.

Similarly, tactics and player movements are simple but it takes time to master the timing that makes all the difference between a loss and a win. The simple graphics no longer matter. You become immersed in the game because the fast play means everything has to happen on instinct.

SF Newcastle United 1-1 (Lucas 76)
A thrilling late goal from makeshift striker John Lucas against Newcastle United has forced a replay in the FA Cup semi-final. Newcastle United might have the busier schedule, but Doncaster are struggling with a depleted squad, losing Le Grix and Kanno before the game, and top-scorer and the sensation of the season, Mark Moncur to an injury in a torrid affair. Newcastle opened the scoring, as Shearer glided through the defence and hammered home the shot. Rovers controlled possession but couldn't get the goal they needed without Kanno's striking prowess, until Lucas hit sweetly from the top of the box after replacing the injured Moncur. Both managers praised the opposition play, Degnan saying "Newcastle are one of the best sides in the world, so it was never going to be an easy game. Hopefully we can get our players back for the replay next week."

It is the learned behaviour that makes the game great. It is a rewarding game to play because, more than any other game, it takes skill, and practice, and never completely reveals itself such that the challenge goes. In some ways it is like learning to play music, with the difficulty of execution and the reward for successful completion being the most enjoying part.

SF Rep. Newcastle United 2-1 (AET) (Kanno 9, Dixon 114)
Newcastle United have crashed out of the FA Cup in a thrilling tussle at Old Trafford. In the same week they surrendered the league title to Manchester United, Newcastle were beaten by a Doncaster side that for the most part outplayed them. Doncaster entered the match with both Kanno and Buhagier carrying injuries but it didn't seem to matter as Kanno shot brilliantly after Dixon chipped the defence to put him into the box. But, "ten minutes of madness", Degnan called it, as Kanno and Moncur were injured again, and a brilliant long pass by Ginola split the Doncaster defence and Ferdinand skipped a tackle to score. Rovers dominated from then on though, playing out of their skins and it was Kanno and Lucas who were the hero again. At the death of first half extra-tome, a neat pass from Kanno collecting a goal kick found Lucas on the edge of the box. His shot was parried but Dixon slid in for the follow-up to put them in front. Degnan was thrilled, "this is as good a game as you'll see, the players were brilliant today"

The game is not perfect. No game is. But they don't need to be. Sensible Soccer is brilliant because it allows the player of the game the framework to play it. Any changes to it would not in any way change the way it is played. I'd merely tweak it to make it harder to score, or to make the managers smarter and more pro-active in career mode. In terms of pure playability, it is the game. And that is why it still has people playing it years after other games are seen as "completed".

F Manchester United 1-0 (Kanno 63)
Manchester United's treble dream lies in tatters, as Doncaster Rovers pulled off the greatest upset in FA Cup history. A second half strike by Masauki Kanno - his eleventh of the cup - was the difference in a dour defensive game. United started brightly, Beckham heading a ball goalwards, but the brilliant central line of Buhagier, Utley and Le Grix shut down the game to the extent that United didn't have a shot after the 30th minute. Indeed, United was playing so deep that Keane was to be seen mopping up attacks on the edge of the box, and it took a brilliant goal from Kanno to break the deadlock, hitting it on the angle from outside the box. the one moment for United came in the 76th minute, when Cantona was brought down 30 metres from goal. Buhagier escaped a card, and the free kick hit the wall leaving Doncaster to run out the last 10 minutes for a brilliant win. Manager Degnan was ecstatic, "this was our best game of the season, no question. How often do you see Manchester United defending from the box?". Ferguson agreed with the assessment, "We were outplayed today. We have the European Cup next week. We are looking to that".

Frivolous Pastimes 7th September, 2004 12:35:52   [#]