A Very Sensible Post

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Different people discover music at different times in their lives. For me, the breakthrough came when I was 15-16. In relatively quick succession I saw Kingmaker supported by Elastica, and then Suede’s debut album was released. The sounds of Madchester had largely passed me by and, while I had developed an affinity for REM, then only just breaking into the big time, my musical eduction was only just about to begin with the blossoming of the Britpop scene. I was a late bloomer, that was for sure.

Until that point, much of my cultural intake had been conducted via the computer, specifically a Commodore Amiga 500+. When other kids might have had footballers or pop stars adorning their walls, I had posters of games collected, in the main, from Amiga Power*, possibly the greatest magazine about anything ever produced. Yes, I read. Yes, I listened to music (generally, the bad stuff), and yes I watched the occasional film, but really, games were where it was at for me.

And as with any sub-culture, there were heroes to be had. There was Peter Molyneux, the genius behind titles such as Populous and Syndicate, and many more besides. But from the outside he always seemed too intelligent to be any fun, he was the Amiga’s headmaster. Then there were the Bitmap Brothers, the coders behind Speedball and The Chaos Engine. Theirs were games that built brilliant worlds inspired by steam-punk and with a fantastic visual style. But the Bitmap Brothers felt like the loners in trench coats who you would probably try to avoid (somewhat ironically, as I became a trench coat wearer myself just a few short years later).

And then there was Sensible Software.

Sensible Software were the Amiga’s crazy gang. You felt that they must have been the most fun to work with. You felt that it was amazing that any work got at all in their offices. They were the Amiga’s Monkees – a bunch of guys living in a crazy world, having fun, playing games, living the dream. I’m sure they worked very hard and it wasn’t all puppy-dogs and ice cream, but there’s no way it can have been a chore to wake up and go to work at a company that could create the soundbites used in Mega Lo Mania (the scientific reassurance that an invention is “Ergonomically terrific” and the gleeful shouts of “We’ve nuked them!” still get parroted at inappropriate moments) or the theme tune to Cannon Fodder (“War – Never Been So Much Fun”). Let alone the Amiga Power demo/freebie of a WW2 football match played with a hand grenade that would go off and kill your troops/players every so often.

Playing Sensible Software games was a joy because you could sense that they were a joy to produce. They managed to lace them with little jokes that meant it felt like they were playing along with you in spirit at all times.

I’m still a pretty dedicated games player now – I don’t have the same kind of time available to me now to play, but I still clock a fair few hours on the PS3, Vita and PC, as well as bits and pieces on the iPhone – but it’s rare to come across a game that is quite so full of personality as those old Sensi games were. Don’t get me wrong, there are great games around now – Portal 2 is one of the best ever produced – amazingly funny and frustratingly devious, while being eminently solvable. But because of the sheer processing power and size of the programming teams involved, it’s rare for a personality to come through. Have I explained what I mean well? Probably not. How about this:

Pixar animation is brilliant, but Aardman stop-motion animation has a bit more personality to it – you can (often literally) see the fingerprints of the creators while Pixar is smooth and polished. Well Portal 2 is smooth and polished – Mega Lo Mania was covered in fingerprints.

So are there the fingerprint covered games out there now or have things just got too big and that’s no longer possible? Undoubtedly there are, but they aren’t the best-selling games in the country like Sensible games used to be. You have to hunt them out. There may be the odd one available for download on the PS Store or through the XBox online side of things, and there are bound to be some on the App Store, but finding them is not necessarily easy – there’s a lot of stuff to wade through to find the gems.

Anyway, rather than dwell on how in my day all round here were fields and kids today don’t know their born, let’s get back to the point. I recently signed up for Kickstarter. If you don’t know, Kickstarter is a site where people can launch all kinds of creative ventures and ask people – anyone – to help back their project. Rather than have to find someone to invest thousands of pounds to get something off the line, lots of people can invest £10 or £20 and build it up. In return, those asking for money will reward investors with various goodies. A small pledge might net you a bookmark or some stickers, a larger pledge a signed copy of a book, or a massive pledge an invite to a movie premier and opportunity to hang with the stars.

So, what was the first thing I saw when I signed up? Darren Wall’s Sensible Software 1986-1999 book. It was kismet. The first thing I did was watch the pitch video and it brought all the glorious memories of Sensible’s greatest hits come rushing back. It’s a marvellous thing. Rather than describe it to you, why not watch it?

The pitch promises to “tell the story of Sensible through interviews and anecdotes from those who were there – including Jon Hare and the Sensible team – and a feast of visuals celebrating the company’s idiosyncratic, groundbreaking style” – and certainly the images on display on the site live up to the billing, as does the list of interviewees for the book, including many of the Sensible team, Peter Molyneux, Archer MacLean and Dominik Diamond.

The different tiers of support offer rewards such as dedicated copies of the book, 12 inch vinyl pressings of some of the great Sensible tunes and personalised Sensible-style posters.

Darren has set up a publishing company – ROM (Read Only Memory) – to publish this book and is hoping it is the first of many. As he says on the Kickstarter page:

This will be ROM’s first product, and we’re committed to making it the book we’ve always wanted to read ourselves.

We know our goal is ambitious, and it all goes towards making the book feel as special as it possibly can. We want the games to look even better than you remember them, and first-class print, multiple paper stocks and special inks will all contribute to this. And we want your feedback to make this the fans’ dream Sensible book – so please include your suggestions and ideas when you back us.

If amazing things happen and we exceed our goal, we’ll be speaking to backers directly to see how you’d like the project to evolve, whether that’s extra content, more contributors, or an even higher spec. We’ll also be seeking your input on ROM’s future endeavours. With your help we can make this the first of many products that document great moments in gaming history.

Of course I had to sign up for a part of this exciting project and I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished article in the middle of next year. If you had an interest in games back in the 80s and 90s I’d urge you to take a look – the memories will come flooding back – and, if you can, invest.


*I’ll have to do a post on Amiga Power at some other point.


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