Sensible Soccer. Cannon Fodder. Wizball. For graphic designer Darren Wall and other UK kids of the Britpop generation, these titles were household names. As Blur was climbing the charts and Oasis was picking fights with the rock elite (and frequently themselves), Sensible Software was building a 16-bit empire with smart, witty, and veddy British games. At their peak, Sensible founders Jon Hare and Chris Yates were local pop heroes up there (or almost) with Jarvis and the Gallagher brothers.
Darren Wall's new Kickstarter-funded book Sensible Software 1986–1999 vividly details the rock star days of the storied "Britsoft" developers, as well as what came next. For Oasis, not long after the fade closing out Be Here Now had dissolved, the demise was the heaving sound of dimwitted swagger overtaking the music. For Sensible Software, it was the arrival of PlayStation and 3-D gameplay. The reign of the joystick was over. In its place rose the D-pad.
The definitive new anthology captures this dramatic rise and fall, with a narrative by pioneering gaming journalist Gary Penn. "I wanted to equally balance the written and visual content of the book," Wall tells Co.Design. His book charts all of Sensible’s prolific output, from the mega-hit games to the failed projects, easter eggs to yes, pop singles. It also explores the personal dynamics between Hare and Yates and others who came to shape the fortunes of the Sensible machine.
Sensible Software weaves long-form interviews with Hare and Penn’s adjacent commentary with Wall’s constructed or collaged visuals. Presented in the manner of an art monograph, Wall's work combines graphics, storyboard sketches, and other archival ephemera. "alf of the volume’s 340 pages feature in-game art, level maps, sprites, texture tiles and development artwork," he tells Co.Design. The spreads, he adds, create immersive representations of the game worlds that wouldn’t have been possible with straightforward screenshots.
The matter of sourcing the visuals proved difficult. Wall’s widescreen ambitions for the project forced him to revisit the Sensible canon for the first time in more than ten years. The ensuing hours and hours of button-mashing were draining, as he explains: "Some of the more complex compositions took days to create, as they often involved playing the game over and over to collect the necessary screenshots and then piecing them together in Photoshop."
Luckily, Wall was armed to the teeth with cheat codes, saving himself much physical and psychological duress. He did, however, come to a somewhat embarrassing realization. "I have become hugely crap at old games in my advancing years," he says.
It’s understandable. Sensible released its last game on the eve of the new millennium, and its unfinished magnum opus, an adult-themed romp called Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll, fizzled out like the Britpop comebacks of the last decade.
Even so, when Wall launched the book project on Kickstarter, the response was immediate. "It was really encouraging to hear from hundreds of Sensible fans who had exactly the same relationship with the games as I did myself," he says. When the campaign sailed passed its $30,000 goal a year ago, "it became clear just how important Sensible still are to a lot of people, even decades after their biggest games were released."