Originally released on the Commodore Amiga, Sensible Soccer was a top-down arcade-style game that was immensely popular with football fans. Ironically, for a series that eschewed realism, the greatest entry was Sensible World of Soccer, which offered a wealth of teams from around the globe and even basic management features. After a couple of roster updates to SWOS, and a mediocre PlayStation and PC update in 1999, the series was abandoned and gamers moved on to the realism of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer. But after well-received mobile phone and TV-game versions of Sensible Soccer, a proper update was announced by Codemasters under the supervision of original designer Jon Hare. That version is here in Sensible Soccer 2006, and for better or for worse, it travels familiar roads.
In updating the classic formula for modern hardware, developer Kuju has tinkered with the game's control system and graphics. Whereas one button was previously used to shoot, three buttons are now used to cover different types of shots. And where players were once rudimentary sprites, they now feature a cartoony, cel-shaded appearance and enormous heads. Alas, not all recent technological advancements have been utilised in Sensible Soccer 2006, as the game features neither online play nor in-game commentary. Technically, Sensible Soccer looks and plays identically between the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, although the PS2 pad is arguably more suited to the frantic style of play. The resolution can be increased on the PC, but this isn't a game that will challenge a top-of-the-range graphics card. Two gamepads or a PS2 adapter are a much more important consideration.
Despite the subtle change in controls, the game plays an incredibly similar game of football to the original Sensible Soccer. Seen from an overhead view, players can make either short passes or long crosses/shots, and an arrow at the player's feet shows the trajectory of the ball. As with all Sensible Soccer games, an enormous amount of aftertouch can be applied to long shots, letting you bend the ball into the goal or pick out a player after you've crossed it. Players can now sprint at the touch of a button, although they have a limited supply of stamina that you need to use strategically through each game. You can tackle by approaching the opposing player and pressing the pass button, whilst using the long pass button performs a sliding tackle, although this is riskier.
These simple controls provide an incredibly frantic game of football. Even though the ball sticks to your feet when dribbling, the opposition can take the ball off you with ease. Success is therefore down to making accurate short passes and curling long balls that can either pick out teammates or curl from obscene angles into the goal. While being incredibly simple to pick up and play, the game does reward experienced players, especially those who can curl the ball. However, with such frequent changes in possession, the camera's shaking and changing of direction can make you rather disoriented. And despite mapping more buttons on the controller, the game still chooses which player to place under your control instead of offering a 'change player' button.
Players used to Pro Evolution Soccer or FIFA may find Sensible Soccer 2006 too simplistic, but those with a fondness for previous versions of the game will find its simple charms as alluring as ever. However, the designers have tweaked the game subtly to warrant slightly more tactical play than before. Players feature new classifications such as generals, hatchers, poachers, stoppers, and playmakers, and although these are supposed to affect player's skills and attitudes, there's little evidence of it on the pitch. What's far more noticeable is player stamina, which forces you to choose when to sprint instead of just doing it as soon as you get the ball. The meter is finite and will run out if you use it too often, but it's replenished slightly at halftime, and you can make substitutions through the game.
As a Europe-only release at this time, Sensible Soccer 2006 focuses on this region in terms of team offerings, with the top two divisions from each of the major countries. However, without the officially licensed FIFA data, the team and player names have been subtly altered from their real-life counterparts. The acquisition of a license is somewhat unnecessary for a budget arcade football game, and the lack of sponsorship and cheesy pop music makes a refreshing change from the glossy FIFA series. Having said that, the game features a remix of the 'Goal Scoring Superstar Hero' theme from SWOS, but it's played at a mercifully low volume as not to drive you insane.
Sensible Soccer 2006 features most of the cups and leagues available to European teams in real life, but you can choose to create a custom team and take on competitions to improve it. Without the official FIFA license, team and player names are incorrect, although you can edit the data as much as you want. Some sort of roster update will undoubtedly be released for those with Action Replay cartridges or similar, but this game certainly isn't for anyone expecting authenticity. Presentation on the whole is very low key, which does the game some harm in terms of atmosphere. Audio is particularly weak, with only a few crowd reactions to what's happening on the pitch and a complete lack of commentary or team-specific chanting. The animation of the players is generally very good, but goalkeepers will often dive and snap from one place to another for no reason.
The game comes into its own in multiplayer where up to four players can compete at once, and despite some of the faults, the game is certainly worth the asking price for this mode alone. The game also offers a lot of longevity thanks to the number of cups and trophies to be won, and there's the incentive of unlockable extras, such as stadia, to keep you going. You can also create a custom team and play through the leagues and cups to raise their profile, until your team is ultimately the best in the world. Unfortunately, once you've chosen your starting lineup in this mode, it can't be changed midgame, which is rather annoying.
Sensible Soccer 2006 succeeds in retaining the feel of the original series, but with some important niggles in the gameplay, it doesn't usurp SWOS as the best game in the series. True, the budget price, wealth of tournaments, and fantastic multiplayer mode make this a recommendable purchase, but anyone expecting the next stage of evolution for the franchise won't find it here. Hopefully another update is on the cards; one that will address the small issues, lack of online play, and mediocre presentation. But for what it is, Sensible Soccer 2006 is still an enjoyable update of a classic formula.