Here’s a story about how a chance meeting with a bearded stranger changed Richard Beecham’s life forever.
I was clutching the last £10 of my birthday money as I entered Electronics Boutique. Enthused with a newfound passion for football, I wanted, NEEDED a discount football game to install on my dad’s PC.
Grandma was my reluctant accomplice, attempting to navigate the landscape with all the familiarity of Carlton Palmer carrying out keyhole surgery. We pinpointed two football games I could afford – FIFA Soccer 96 and Sensible World of Soccer European Championship Edition – and we simply couldn’t decide.
But what Maureen lacked in gaming knowledge, she made up for with her life experience and cunning.
“Scuse me,” she asked a bearded shop assistant. “Which one of these is the best game?”
“Oh, definitely this one,” he said. “You can get Barnsley promoted!”
Grandma laughed politely, secretly oblivious to the incongruity of Barnsley FC and success. And thus my obsession with Sensible World of Soccer European Championship Edition (SWOSECE) was born.
Goalscoring superstar hero
Upon first firing it up, you were met with a succession of logos and details of the game’s developers and publishers, before a bizarre and surprisingly well-made music video jigs into action.
The song itself defied genre: a neat and tidy bassline topped off with psychedelic synths and a sweeping horn section. It was Level 42 meets KLF with a Leo Sayer sound-alike on vocals.
The video attempted live-action fun poking, interspersed with footage of a CGI football match – the players’ movements resembled the cumbersome removal men from Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing video.
Highlights included a goalkeeper irresponsibly reading the paper and smoking when he should have been guarding the net, a defender scratching his privates before shaking the hands of his teammates, a pitch-side saxophonist and a striker chugging a bottle – probably beer – after scoring a header. It all culminated in a team shower scene during which the song’s reassuring mantra (“You’re a goal-scoring superstar hero”) was repeated by the cast.
Although it was probably meant as just a bit of fun, it did seem like a significant amount of time and effort went into producing this part of the game.
But while the opening video suggested generous helpings of banter and laughs, things got serious very quickly. You were presented with dozens of leagues from around the world, each with real teams, real players and realistic valuations. This, for many, was where the game excelled.
Each player was assigned a monetary valuation which determined his base abilities, along with an alphabetical code showing three prominent statistics. For example, if a player had the code “VSC” that suggested he had good shot power, speed and ball control – ideal for a striker (or any player if you’re Arsene Wenger).
The game’s best players were generally the superstars of the day. George Weah and Romario were SWOSECE’s highest-valued players at £15m each. Del Piero (£12m), Cantona (£10m) and Stan Collymore (£8m – yes, really) were not far behind.
Indeed, the game encouraged a capitalist approach to football. The better you did, the more wonga you brought in through gate receipts and prize money – this could then be reinvested in the squad.
Do you remember the first time?
After starting up the game for the first time (and staring in bewilderment at the musical introduction) I shouted into the other room: “DAAAAD. Who is the best team in the world?”
“Probably AC Milan,” he responded, probably wondering why his son wasn’t out playing actual football with actual friends.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I quickly set up a friendly between my mighty Milan team – complete with Weah, Baggio and Maldini – and the worst team I could think of: Doncaster Rovers.
I was given an utter schooling by Sammy Chung’s men, who recorded a famous 3-0 walloping at the San Siro. It could have been more but for some world-class goalkeeping from Sebastiano Rossi. Pinned inside my own half for the whole match, I realised I had some serious work to do. I can only imagine what a horror show that post-match press conference was.
Movin’ on up
For a while, it would seem there was no way out. Gameplay was limiting. While other games at the time experimented with new-fangled 3D formats, SWOSECE stayed loyal to an increasingly outdated-looking aerial view, while the players were only able to run in eight directions.
But, over time, one would master the game’s nuances.
One should not take the ball into the six-yard box, for example, as the goalkeepers had lynx-like reactions. Instead one had to deceive them using curling long-range shots as the flight of the ball could be manipulated with the arrow keys.
You could tackle too, although this was mainly a way of giving away fouls to slow the game down. Holographically running through an opposition player was usually enough to dispossess them.
As your knowledge of the game’s database grew, you could also seek out bargains. A young Christian Vieri could be picked up from Atalanta for under £1m. A clinical finisher, he was a must-have for any newly-promoted Barnsley team. Graham Mitchell at Bradford City was another at £200k. A pacey centre back who performed manfully in a Libero role.
But it was Stevie Halliday from Hartlepool United who was undoubtedly king. Valued at just £160k, he had many shortcomings, but made up for them with his lightning pace. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve a pixelated Halliday leaving some of Europe’s greatest full backs in his wake – before his lack of control betrayed him and the ball rolled into touch.
The game also included European competition, which one would enter through a cup win or good league form. Through competition money, this would allow one to build your very own Galacticos in whichever country you chose.
The opportunity to see Zinedine Zidane (£3m) play in the Faroe Islands League was often too good to resist. And so, a generation of youngsters would spend weeks building Havnar Boltfelag into Europe’s footballing powerhouse.
The next video game I got was the glitzy Actua Soccer 3 on the PS1. Alan Shearer was on the front cover. Let Me Entertain You by Robbie Williams was the menu music. Barry Davies and Martin O’Neill were on commentary duty.
It was 3D. It was colourful and impressive. But it wasn’t Sensible Soccer.
SWOSECE’s genius was that it boiled down all that was fun and joyous about football in just a few pixels. It didn’t try hard because it didn’t need to.
I’ll finish with a nod to the game’s longevity. In 2010 – a full 14 years after first purchasing SWOSECE – I went to visit my family who were holidaying in Scotland (I was the oldest of four). On the first evening, everyone was watching TV, but my brother was violently stabbing at the keys on his laptop. After learning he had been given the job of managing the Faroe Islands national team (and somehow qualifying for a World Cup), we stayed up until 4am, taking it in turns attempting to defeat Argentina. I don’t remember anything else from that holiday.
I am forever grateful to the bearded man in Electronics Boutique and my grandma for putting me on the right track to a decade of homework postponement and failed relationships.
- Frantic and immersive gameplay
- Unbelievably detailed database for its day, probably only rivalled at the time by Championship Manager
- The music!
- Poor graphics
- Skill mastery was limited by rudimentary controls
- The music!
It might not look that good these days. Hell, it probably didn’t look good 20 years ago, but SWOSECE possesses a warmth, excitement and downright addictiveness that the big boys just can’t replicate.