Book review: Sensible Software 1986 - 1999

by Paul Morrison


Speaking as someone who's some distance into writing a book about British (and European and Australian...) gaming in the Eighties, I always pay particular interest when anything else on the subject comes to light.  Not in case they're better than mine... because I don't think anyone else out there is writing anything quite like my book... but because I have a genuine love of and interest in the subject.

In most cases, these projects are more tightly focused than mine.  There are books in the works, for example, on Hewson Consultants and Ocean Software.  Narrowing the subject down like that must provide a lot of advantages when it comes to writing a book, which I suppose I envy to a degree.  But I'm doing exactly what I've wanted to do for years, so no complaints there.  I'm looking forward to those books immensely.

Apparently the flash on my phone's camera is crap. The book looks much nicer than this. 

Apparently the flash on my phone's camera is crap. The book looks much nicer than this. 

Another book has just been released, and it focuses on just one software developer... but what a name to focus on.  The book is simply called Sensible Software 1986 - 1999

You can't really ask for a better title than that.  You know exactly what you're getting before you've even turned a page.  It was so glaringly obvious that I backed the project on day one when it appeared on Kickstarter.  After a wait of over a year, it finally arrived on my doorstep.  Was it worth the wait?

Whoever would have thought that war could be Sensible?

Whoever would have thought that war could be Sensible?

"Look, if you really want to understand Sensible, you've got to understand where we're coming from." - Jon Hare

Things get off to a good start with a striking cover sleeve, adorned with small patches of Sensible artwork.  Remove the sleeve and the actual book cover is filled with the rings from Wizball's "Get Ready" screen.  A nice touch!  I know a lot of people have bemoaned the fact that the book isn't a hardcover, but it's pretty sturdy as it is and I'm OK with it.

There are two things that strike you once you open the book.  The first thing comes on the Index page, where you notice that the book is split into two distinct sections.  The first 192 of its 340 pages contain the text, whereas the rest of the book focuses on images.  It's a different and interesting approach, and not one that would work for my book.  But "different and interesting" sums up Sensible Software pretty well.

Apparently I am playing Greg Rusedski in this game. 

Apparently I am playing Greg Rusedski in this game. 

The other thing comes when you actually start to read the book.  I will just mention that the author is Gary Penn, ZZAP! 64 reviewer extraordinaire.  This is a good thing for two reasons: one; he already has a great writing style which most of us that read the book can instantly relate to, and two; he was a well-known personality in the games industry at the same time as Sensible Software and already knew the protagonists well.

This is a good thing because the most unusual thing about the book is that it's written in an interview format.  I was quite surprised by this at first.  It's a pretty unusual way to write a book, even when it's a "documentary" such as this.  But because both interviewer and interviewees have great personal relationships, it works really well. You get a lot of banter and reminiscing that you might not have otherwise heard (I won't have any such reminiscences in my book, for instance, because I don't personally know anybody I'm talking to).

The interviews are interspersed with GP's comments on the games in question.  When GP talks about a game, you sit up and take notice.  When any of the original ZZAP! 64 Dream Team (Rignall, Penn, Liddon) talks about games, any self-respecting Commodore 64 owner is in rapt attention, myself included.

It's the game they couldn't stop! Couldn't... or wouldn't?  I am proud to have been one of the hundreds that fell for it.

It's the game they couldn't stop! Couldn't... or wouldn't?  I am proud to have been one of the hundreds that fell for it.

 "With sales numbering in the hundreds, Galax-i-Birds hatched into a joke that fell on deaf fingers." - Gary Penn.

Starting at Sensible Software's beginning (a very good place to start), the book covers Krix and Jops' early, pre-Sensi days and their influences, moves on to their first programming ventures and then dives headlong into those famous Commodore 64 days.  For many, that might have been enough... but of course, Sensible's biggest games came once they'd moved on from the 64.

Naturally, then, more than half the text goes into those post-C64 games.  For all that Wizball is a classic title and very important to us Commodore fans, there's no question that Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder are considerably bigger names.  Of course, I go and say that and they don't actually get that much more text.

The legendary Parallax title sequence. Made your eyes bleed and your ears orgasm. 

The legendary Parallax title sequence. Made your eyes bleed and your ears orgasm. 

Of equal interest are the chapters on the games that never were.  Most of the titles have been heard of, at least, but it's great to get some behind-the-scenes information on what happened to them and why they never made it to completion.  Such was Sensi's way of working that there is very little existing material from these games.

I could scan a page and crop it to use here, but that's a bit naughty and too much effort.  Instead, I loaded up the graphics demo from a ZZAP 64 sampler tape. ZZAP! called this demo The Day The Universe Died, which I like as a title.  It's a real shame that this wasn't developed any further as the graphics are amazingly fast and smooth for a C64.  An epic space opera with Sensible sensibilities could have been something really special.

Whizzy spaceship graphics made better with an infusion of Sensible humour. 

Whizzy spaceship graphics made better with an infusion of Sensible humour. 

As it happens, a lot of the joy in the book comes from the stuff that has nothing to do with the programming of the games.  Just wait until you find out how a game of office cricket was conducted, for instance.  I'm tempted to go on eBay and get myself the required game components so I can recreate it myself. 

There are also recollections from a number of other people who have been involved in the Sensible story throughout the years.   From the lads' early days at Ocean Software, through their Palace days and right up to their spells with Virgin and Renegade and beyond, there are contributions from all kinds of industry bodies, whether they worked with Sensible or were peers or fans.

These contributions are important because they add colour and variety.  It's also nice to have a few outside perspectives... not that it's necessary for them to add unbiased viewpoints as Jon Hare does paint it pretty much warts and all.  There's certainly no glossing over events, and while it's not exactly uncomfortable it does make for a more interesting read than if it was purely an exercise in fawning. 

Well, well... what have we here, then? 

Well, well... what have we here, then? 

"There was so much more I wanted to do with Wizball than we did." - JH.

I mentioned much earlier that the book has all the game images in a huge section at the back.  It sounds odd when you say it like that, but there's logic to it.  Each image page is referenced in the text of the book, and if you turn to that page you get a nice full-page or even double-page spread of images.  That means you get to see them in all their Sensible glory, rather than having to strain your eyes at a little quarter-page screenshot (although I will probably be doing just that in my effort.  Hmmm.).  The other advantage is that you retain more of that glorious new book smell.  Mmmmmm.

One thing the book is missing, sadly, is any input from the "other half" of Sensible Software, Chris Yates.  Now, I'm all too aware that sometimes you want to talk to someone about the games they made over twenty years ago and they just aren't interested.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the case here.  There's no doubt the book would have benefited greatly if Chris had contributed, but there are times when you have to respect a person's decision and just leave them be.  And although I say the book would have benefited from his input, it would be harsh to say it loses anything without it.

Oh, England... an eternal disappointment. 

Oh, England... an eternal disappointment. 

I grew up with Sensible Software's games.  I owned, played and loved every single one of their Commodore 64 releases.  Not so with the Amiga as I never owned one, but my mate bought most of their Amiga titles and I'd play them at his house.  They were good times.  Revisiting the games is always fun, but hearing first-hand about their development is like filling in holes in my gamer brain.

Sensible Software 1986-1999 does that, and a lot more besides.  It's not a quick read... possibly because of the density of the text... but because the chapters are split per game it's really easy to dip in and out of.  Perfect for the times when you have a pesky bit of time to kill.  If you were a Sensi fan, or even just a fan of computer games in the 80s and 90s, or, in fact, remotely interested in behind-the-scenes accounts and gossip, then I would go so far as to say that this book is an essential part of your library.  And if you don't have a library, what better way to start one?

Buy Sensible Software 1986-1999 here: