Oxymorons are ever present in today's society: military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, Sensible Software.... hang on, could they REALLY be crazy? All will be revealed as we delve into the early life of one of the UK's most prestigious programming groups....
Sensible Software started out as just two individuals, Chris Yates and Jon Hare. Nowadays they are directors/managers of Sensisoft Inc, employing many other people to do basically what they used to. However game design is still their field of direction, with ideas and concepts being thrashed off over time between the two of them. One thing was always certain though; originality. Licensed games were despised, and arcade conversions treated with caution as they felt the game was more important than the money. Well to begin with at least, but reviews were always vital to them as it was the only reliable feedback they felt was available. You can never complain a Sensi game doesn't have some work of genius within itself. And so the story begins....
Chris and Jon met each other in the fifth form at school in Essex, and formed a band called Touchstone with a couple of mates. Their music was mostly 70s type rock with both Chris and Jon playing guitar. Unfortunately distance forced the band to split up, but Chris still composes music to this day in the hope of discovery! Both however had a love of computers, and soon a primitive partnership was formed. In the beginning, weird ideas and conversions came their way whilst still at college, despite nothing actually bearing fruit. Ideas such as "Drugged Out Hippy" and "Office Chair Massacre" are examples; the former involved a drug addict fuelling his seven different habits with deals and swinging between overdose and cold turkey, whilst the latter speaks for itself! They were also involved with the Spectrum conversion of the C64 game "Gandalf", jokingly titled "Sodov the Sorcerer". That assured the game's moment of success before disappearing into obscurity.
After "Sodov", Sensi became involved with Mark Cale at System 3 and were offered some temporary contracts. Jon (the graphics man) did some static screens for "International Karate" but when Archer Maclean came in to save the project (see Retrogamer #5) he redid them all! The bit work continued with screens for the Spectrum conversion of "Skyfox", "Flyerfox" and "Lone Wolf". They were also responsible for the legendary and notorious "Twister: Mother of Harlots" promoted by lingerie clad dancing girls! Sensi had written the program, and Cale simply put his name to it and sold it through System 3 (which in 1985 was a fledgling company as well). Cale had the storyboards for "The Last Ninja" drawn up at the time, but never offered the job to Sensi; instead it eventually went to known programmer John Twiddy and was released in the summer of 87. One wonders what the game would have been like with Sensi at the helm and released say a year earlier than that.
Eventually Chris and Jon heard about a Government small business scheme and officially set up Sensible Software in 1986. The first work for the `official' Sensi came from Firebird, to convert "Runestone" to the C64. This was done in the mind-blowing space of two weeks! However they didn't get any money for it, and Firebird never released it claiming it was too slow; Jon blames the fact Firebird's loader slowed it down! Their parting shot with Firebird came with their first proper release "Galaxibirds".
As can be guessed from the title, this is a version of the arcade game Galaxians, but given the Sensi touch. In other words, all hell breaks loose with the player having to shoot down Bounders, IK men, dodos and other assorted aviary adversaries. It is a completely bonkers program which must be played just for the experience! The graphics were okay, the sound as well, you get the impression this was written just to pay the bills. It was reviewed in issue #17 of Zzap!64 with Julian Rignall saying "To be honest, this game is a load of rubbish, but it's enjoyable rubbish!". The magazine gave it a mark of 60%. However next month....
One thing Sensi wanted to inject into the games industry was humour. That was evident in "Galaxibirds", and their next project "Parallax". It was evident that Firebird had kept Sensi's game back a bit as "Parallax" had taken them 6 months to write, but Ocean decided to sign them on the spot upon seeing it. "Parallax" was reviewed in issue #18 of Zzap!64 and awarded 93%. The game was a sort of Time Pilot clone with parallax scrolling (hence the name) where the player flew around five different worlds blasting aliens and searching for security codes. These were obtained by landing and entering the number of hangers scattered about the worlds. Inside many hangers were scientists that could be drugged (ho ho!) by your little pilot guy, then you could either nick their credit cards (to gain money and buy items) or use one to access the main computer and escape (once the password has been found). Each scientist carried a letter of the password, so multiple `persuasions' were required to complete each world. Weird, funny and hard to beat all at the same time, a worthwhile program for any collection. This of course was enough in those days, but the graphics and sound also stood out. Psychedelic effects and sprites that wouldn't seem out of place on Minter's side sprung out at the screen, the scrolling (nickedfrom "Bounder" allegedly) was top notch, and the title sequence.... well, the music certainly goes down as one of the greatest computer pieces ever, written by Martin (nephew of James) Galway who was to become a temporary addition to the dynamic duo.
One idea that never came to fruition was a game initially called "The Day the Universe Died". This wasn't to be the final name, as that was thrown open to the readers of Zzap!64 in a competition. It was to be a 3D space game, much like Elite, but using filled in vectors (and sprites I presume) for the craft. All that is known to exist of this game is a demo I have demonstrating the graphics routines. Where it went to probably will never be known, but I can guess it either got boring or required too much processor power or memory for it to work properly in the end. Either way it would have made a great game. Speaking of which....
What makes a good game? Sensisoft believed the following were essential criteria:
1. A well thought out totally watertight universe in which to operate.
2. A defined and logical set of rules.
3. A brilliant control system.
4. Just the right balance between what the computer does automatically for you, and what you have to do for yourself.
5. High `easy to play, difficult to master' factor.
6. Non linearity and hidden depth to keep you coming back for more.
7. To suck you in to the extent that your psychology is altered so that you think you really were within the game.
Which were all part of the greatest Sensi game known as "Wizball". Now this is seriously demented action, and like "IK+", the original C64 version was the best there was. None of the conversions could ever hope to live up to the original. Wizworld has been drained of colour by Zark and his evil henchsprites, so it is up to Wiz and his pet cat Nifta to put things right. The Wiz uses his magic to enter a ball, a Wizball in fact, to explore the eight landscapes, destroying the aliens and collecting colour droplets that float around. Unfortunately Wiz cannot do that, he must use Nifta (in a `cat'alyte ho ho!) to perform that task. A few aliens that float around reveal powerup bubbles that can be used to enable double fire, spray fire, the catalyte and more. Once under control, Nifta can slurp up the droplets present. However things are not what they seem, and some droplets reveal other features such as a filth raid, extra life, a total blackout and insanity. Three levels are open at any one time (which can be accessed by travelling down tubes), holding one of the colours red, green and blue. By collecting in the right proportions, a target colour for a particular level can be completed, then the bonus game kicks in. Here the Wiz must destroy as many aliens as possible for a bonus score and automatic weapon kick-in should he die subsequently during the normal game. Each landscape requires three target colours to complete it; upon doing so, you are given a view of the entire coloured in level and the next landscape opens up. So that's the game in a nutshell, but how did it play? Brilliantly! The immaculate presentation (lots of help screens), graphics and sound drag the player straight into the game, not to mention the 2, 3 and 4 player modes. Although it was a little tricky to get used to initially (due to the awkward momentum and bounce) once the powerups had been sussed and grabbed, the rest of the game opened up beautifully. Superb sprites and colourful backdrops (look for a mini Mount Rushmore!) together with more masterful music from Galway put this up in the greatest games ever list. Zzap!64 rated it at 96% and only gave it a Sizzler; many letters were to follow as to why it didn't get a Gold Medal! The only downer for Chris and Jon was that Ocean eventually licensed the game to Nintendo for conversion to the NES and they never saw any of that money. Millions of yen through tills and nothing came their way. Still it didn't stop them going out and producing the most used utility ever though....
Which was "SEUCK", or the Shoot Em Up Construction Kit, which must hold the `Greatest number of games released using it' award hands down. I can't begin to contemplate just how much software (and it even went as far as commercial on-the-shelf stuff) was put out from this, certainly in the thousands. Not bad for something turned around in six months from a series of graphics utilities! Admittedly there could have been much more done with it had the time been available, but Palace wanted the program out for Xmas. In the simplest of terms, "SEUCK" was a collection of small modules each doing it's own job to bring one whole game together. There was a sprite designer, background editor, SFX composer, animation module, fonts, priorities and of course, test game facility! Plus the ability to save the finished game out to a separate file, independent of the creative program. It was very hard for any real reviews to be given because the graphics, sonics and playability of any title produced would be down to the indviduals using it. So Zzap!64 stood by and awarded the game a Gold Medal but no ratings (the second time, after "The Sentinel"), then proceeded to help people by getting Jon to produce a two part guide to getting the most out of the utility.
With "SEUCK" under their belts, the guys could afford to splash out a little with the royalties coming in, and bought (and sold!) a series of cars, typical lads! Things then started to go quiet a bit, as the twosome had a rest, released "Oh No!" on Firebird's budget label in mid 88, and started to get involved with Origin after their monster hit "Space Rogue" had been critically acclaimed. With the mention of Minter before, "Oh No!" brought back more memories of his style of gaming. It is the year 1,000,000 and not surprisingly the world is a bit different to now. However the themes of good and evil are still around. You are a ox breeder, and your job is to protect your herd from gangs of marauding rustler aliens. Armed with a variety of weapons, you must clear the hordes up without letting them steal all your oxes. With adequate graphics and meaty sound, this is the type of shooter Jeff would be proud of in his heyday. Basically it was released to keep the money coming in whilst Sensi worked a big RPG project.
This project had been planned and worked on since "SEUCK", and was called "Touchstone" (remember the band?!). It was to be a huge role playing game, with many plots and subplots intertwinned, similar to many Japanese games on the SNES. However after much work, there wasn't a lot of progress to show for it, and Origin had decided that the American market (it's primary aim) was turning towards consoles. Hence a collective decision was made eventually to halt the project in November 1989. As far as I can tell, perhaps with the new power of today's machines, the project may see the light of day. Before that decision however came another moment of Sensisoft genius, "Microprose Soccer".
The funny thing about the game was that despite Sensisoft's reputation and cred, it took a while to get a publisher for the game. Actually it was a preview in Zzap!64 that tipped the balance slightly and brought the game to the attention of the major companies. In the end, it was Microprose that offered the best deal, and the game came in a fancy double box with detailed instructions (typical Microprose!) around Xmas 88. Well what can be said about soccer that anyone doesn't know? The game played with an above view with vertical scrolling (though it was released a few months before that `classic' game "Kick Off") using hi-res sprites and realistic, but dull looking grass. On one side there was the traditional 11-a-side match with some typical Sensi humour. Try setting the banana shot power to max (circular shots anyone?) or slide tackling in the rain for entertainment. On the other was an indoor 6-a-side game with tight playing area and a need for differenttactics. This was more reminiscent of the old American soccer leagues, reflected in the use of American city names. It seems logically that Microprose wanted the game to be sold at `home' and this would help it's appeal. Either way it was a nice addition to the terrific normal game, and made the package worthwhile at œ14.99 when it was originally released! As usual the music was suitable manic....
Next out of the hat was Insects in Space. Knocked up in two months over Xmas 88, they offered it to every budget house under the sun but with no success. Eventually Hewson took it, paid for it and planned to release it on their Rack-It label. However they stopped the label very soon after. It eventually surfaced on Hewson's "4th Dimension" compilation (which also featured "Cyberdyne Warrior" - see Retrogamer #6) in early 1990 and was very good indeed. Employing a two plane planet structure (as in "Sheep in Space") and game structure similar to "Stargate", your job was to fly St. Helen Bak shooting the insects attempting to kidnap babies on the surfaces. Rescuing babies and flying into a magical dust cloud (in a similar manner to "Stargate") stored them away and endowed you with a manner of powerups depending on how many babies you were carrying, and which surface they came from. Most of the game's insect foes took inspiration from said game, and overall it was a very fast, playable, frantic game! Addictive nd worthwhile in a different manner to which "Dropzone" had taken the same concept. In typical Sensi tradition the title screen was wierd, together with `fly' like music to boot. And then there was the main sprite.... risque isn't the word, you couldn't get more obvious even if you opened the Sun to page 3!
Last on the production list for the C64 was "International 3D Tennis". This was released in the summer of 1990 and had taken them the whole year to produce. I guess in some way I am indebted to this program as it started my life off as a reviewer! The first thing to hit you is the typical Sensi manic music, a catchy version of the Wimbledon theme. After that it gets interesting. Not only are 10 different camera angles available, but the players are wire frames that move very quickly and smoothly. You think it can't work, then play it and discover you are wrong. With a wide range of animation and shots, coupled with an intelligent control system, you can do most of the things on a real tennis court. There are variable sets of controls for beginners and pros, that start off with your man flashing to indicate for you to hit the ball, up to putting angle and spin on the ball. Of course no sports game is complete without a 2-player mode, and this didn't disappoint. Matches between my brother and I became battle of words and attrition off screen, such was the ferocity of combat! On top of all that were a wide variety of tournaments to enter, to test your skills against increasingly difficult opponents. Plus the option to compete in the Tour, choosing what to enter and earning money along the way, just like a real player. This was a terrific tennis game that deserved the attention and ratings it got.
So that was it from Sensi on the 8-bit machine. Later they went on to produce the Amiga games "Megalomania", "Cannon Fodder" and the Kick Off clone known as "Sensible Soccer" amongst other things, all classic programs in their own right. Sensisoft have been a bit quiet in the last year or so, but don't be surprised if they just spring from nowhere, ready to surprise us once more....