Sensible Software 1986-1999 book review

We delve into the first book from new publisher Read Only Memory - an exhaustive document from the UK’s Sensible Software...

If you were playing games in the 80s and 90s, it’s likely that you played something by the UK’s Sensible Software. You may have enjoyed the classic Wizball – perhaps not even realising that Sensible Software programmed it. You may remember its puckish sense of humour, as demonstrated in such games as Sim Brick, an amusing parody given away free on the cover of Amiga Power.

It’s equally likely, though, that you’ll remember Sensible Software for the string of games that really made their name in the early 90s: Mega Lo Mania, Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder. Although very different in terms of gameplay, each game was united by their pace and addictive qualities, their slick programming and presentation, trademark tiny sprites and, again, a sly and sometimes dark sense of humour.

The life and times of this influential and beloved studio is preserved in a new book, Sensible Software 1986-1999 – the first title of its kind from the publisher Read-Only Memory. Written by veteran games journalist Gary Penn, it’s essentially a book of two halves: the first being a collection of interviews that plots the studio’s history from beginning to end, while the second half is devoted to glossy colour screenshots and sprites from every game Sensi worked on.

Simply glancing at the cover provides an instant rush of half-forgotten memories: countless hours with friends in front of Sensible Soccer, with games ending in laughter and ridiculously high lines. The often nail-biting tension of the top-down shooter-strategy hybrid Cannon Fodder, where one misplaced hand grenade could end a game in an instant.

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Flicking through the book uncorks yet more nostalgia, and even a few surprises. Your humble writer was entirely unaware, for example, that Sensible Software created the into-the-screen shooter Twister, Mother Of Charlotte on behalf of System 3. A game whose surreal imagery gave me nightmares as a 10-year-old, the sudden appearance of Twister screenshots in the middle of the book still made me shudder even 25 years after I last played the game.

Beautifully designed by Darren Wall, from the dust wrapper to the elegant layout of the text to the little grids of dinky sprites, Sensible Software would sit happily on any enthusiast’s coffee table or shelf. It’s important to add, however, that there’s far more to the book than design and pretty pictures.

That first half is positively stuffed with entertaining interviews, which paint a portrait of the development scene of the 80s and 90s. Sensi founder Jon Hare talks vividly about he and friend Chris Yates began making games as teenagers, how they scored a great publishing deal with Ocean Software almost right away, and their subsequent rise to prominence in the 90s. There are also interviews with other people who worked with the pair throughout their partnership, such as Ocean’s software manager Gary Bracey, chiptune composing master Martin Galway, and even a brief contribution from Games Master presenter Dominik Diamond.

Penn peppers these interviews with amusing and informative interjections, and thanks to his evident rapport with Hare and everyone else he talks to, the book has a relaxed, effusive atmosphere – entirely in keeping with the output of the studio in question.

Between the stories of coding and deals, highs and lows and successes and failures – including a intriguing look at what the unreleased Sex ‘N Drugs ‘N Rock ‘N Roll would have looked like – there are other pictures and nuggets of information which further enrich the story. There are cuttings from contemporary magazines like Zzap! 64, drawings, production sketches and notes, and photographs of the long-haired programmers at work and sometimes just messing around. There’s even a table which lists how long each game took to make, how much of an advance Sensi were paid, and what royalties – if any – were received.

Candid, honest and insightful, Sensible Software 1986-1999 captures not only a snapshot of a studio’s rise and decline (Sensi was sold to Codemasters at the end of the 90s), but also an entire UK gaming landscape at a time of extraordinary innovation. That things like Mega Lo Mania, Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer – games played by tens of thousands of grateful players – were produced by relatively tiny groups of programmers makes their achievements all the more remarkable.

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A volume as entertaining to read as it is well designed, Sensible Software is a rare kind of videogame-related publication: a book rich with substance as well as style.

Sensible Software 1986 – 1999 is available now from Read-Only Memory.

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4 out of 5