Readers of a certain age will get a warm glow on hearing the name “Sensible Software”. From the late 80s-mid 90s, you could pretty much buy any Sensible game, secure in the knowledge that you would be buying a good quality (often slightly quirky) game.
Sensible’s bizarre budget take on Galaxians – Galax-i-Birds – was one of my more leftfield choices in my Top 10 C64 games post. Knocked out in just a couple of weeks by the sickeningly talented duo of “Jovial Jops” (Jon Hare) and “Cuddly Chrix” (Chris Yates), if this been their only release Sensible would be little more than a footnote to gaming history. However, they were also the brains behind some of the most recognisable titles of the 8 and 16 bit era, including Wizball, Parallax, Cannon Fodder and, of course, Sensible Soccer. This book, written by ex-Zzap!64 writer/editor and released by Read Only Memory books charts their rise and fall.
The book looks at each of Sensible’s major games (including those which were never completed or released) which gives the book a logical (Sensible?) chronological approach helping you to understand how the company developed. It’s mainly a two way interview cum conversation between Penn and Sensible co-founder Jon Hare. The two have clearly been good friends since the Zzap!/Sensible days, and this comes across in the text, but is actually both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, there is clearly a level of trust which results in a very open, honest and affable account. On the other hand, there were times when it felt a little bit too cosy – as though you were eavesdropping on a private conversation between two mates down at the pub. As such, the reader can sometimes feel a little excluded.
The Q&A format does make for a very readable book. It is never less than entertaining and frequently revealing and informative. Hare is an engaging interviewee and it’s interesting to read his thoughts on Sensible almost 20 years after it closed its doors (can it really be that long??!!). Whilst seasoned retro gamers will have heard some of the anecdotes before, plenty of new material is brought to light or certain aspects are covered in considerably more depth than in your average magazine article or webpage interview. I particularly enjoyed reading about the games that never were (particularly “Have a Nice Day” and of course, the infamous “Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll”) and seeing some screenshots from those games which I’d never seen before.
Speaking of screenshots, how good is the artwork in this book? With pages and pages of full colour, glossy photos taken from Sensible’s full catalogue of games (released and unreleased) together with various design documents that Hare has dug out of storage, it’s a real feast for the eyes. True, I’d have preferred the pictures to be interspersed throughout the text (they are all presented together at the end of the book); partly to break up the text, partly so that the screenshots sat with the games under discussion, but this is a personal thing. What’s not up for debate is how great those sprites still look, even in today’s world of photorealistic graphics.
Although Gary Penn was a hero of mine growing up (which of us didn’t want to be a reviewer for one of the Newsfield mags?), there were times when I found his style a little irritating. Sometimes his use of language felt a little too self-consciously “hip”, as if he’s still trying to get “down wiv da kids”, even if “da kids” in question are now mostly be in their mid-late 40s. In fairness, this could well be his normal style of speech (he was always an outspoken and enthusiastic individual), but there were times when it felt a little contrived. There’s also a fair amount of bad language, some of which felt unnecessary. I’m certainly no prude and I accept that this is probably a verbatim transcript of what was actually said, but there were times where the language could easily have been edited out, without having any impact on the overall sentiments expressed.
The book scores highly for being a warts and all account of the Sensible years. Hare is open about Sensible’s successes and his (and the company’s mistakes); and about the things that he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight and greater experience. This is no whitewashing of Sensible’s History, but an at times painfully honest appraisal of the company’s highs and lows.
Where it falls down a little is that, for the most part, it offers a single perspective: that of Jon Hare. True, there are probably around 20 other contributors with connections to Sensible (including collaborators, publishers and competitors such as Stoo Cambridge, Chis Chapman, Gary Bracey and the Bitmap Brothers,), but the majority of the content is provided by Hare. And for all his honest about the Sensible years, you have to recognise that other people’s recollections of those same events might be very different – either because they remember them differently, or because they experienced them at a different level. So, whilst this is certainly not a whitewashing of Sensible’s history, it is mostly a single perspective. In particular, the voice of Sensible Co-founder Chris Yates (who apparently isn’t interested in being involved in these things) is missing. As such, the book is perhaps more A history of Sensible Software, rather than THE history.
But don’t let that dissuade you from buying this book. It is a comprehensive, honest, entertaining and informative look at one of the most quintessentially (or “quintessensibly” as the book would have it) British software houses of the 80s and 90s. As a massive fan of Sensi’s output over the years, I found it a fascinating read and anyone with an interest in old games will too.
Sensible Software 1986-1999 is available from Read Only Memory Books, priced £25.