Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Greatest 16-Bit Football Games of All-Time!

Paying homage to the classic pigskin games that rocked the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis 

Many, many years ago, the great Southern songbird Hank Williams, Jr. penned a dulcimer tone so enchanting and captivating that, even today, it remains an irremovable, cultural imprint upon American society. Like the ides of March, every September - when the leaves are browning and you can gleefully shill out five bucks for a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks - the immortal words of Bocephus echo throughout the nation en masse, ringing church bells in Maine and shaking statues off their foundations in Tijuana. You can smell it in the air, that wondrous odor of Candy Corn M&Ms and novelty bleeding candles at Pier One; and then, that rumble hits you, and now, we all know the time is nigh. Junior: please do us that kindness for which you are universally adored…

The National Football League is back, America, and for the first time in eight months, our collective lives once again have some semblance of meaning. Depending on how the Raiders do over the next four months, my life is either going to become a thrilling renaissance of personal discovery OR a good seventeen weeks of me yelling curse words at the TV set and being pissy and hormonal because Carson Palmer still hasn’t learned to throw right. Either way, I cherish these months, and what better way to get us back into the spirit of the gridiron than by reflecting on some of the absolute best American football games from our youth?

While there were plenty of great football games prior to the advent of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, I think it’s safe to say that video pigskin titles didn’t REALLY come into their own until the 16-bit revolution came about. Thanks to more powerful graphics and processors, home consoles could now provide gamers with more intricate and realistic gridiron experiences - and also, some insanely violent fantasy titles that took on-turf mayhem to dizzying new heights.

Seeing as how I’m already knee-deep in ONE massive video game countdown this month, instead of quantifying the best of the best when it came to 16-bit football titles, I elected to iron out a brief, seven-game list of Genesis and SNES football games that I think are just about perfect for getting you into the spirit of a new pro football season. And to make things a little more diverse, I decided to include just one installment per football series, so that instead of producing a list populated solely by all of the “Madden” games that got released in the early ‘90s, there’s some actual by-god variety on this one.  Now, who’s ready to dust off their gamepads, slam some cartridges into their respective 16-bit machines and relive the golden age of video football? That’s right: every freaking one of us…

Bill Walsh College Football ‘95

Peculiarly enough, I’ve never really been what you would call a big college football fan, but like many pigskin enthusiasts of the mid-’90s, I loved the hell out of this game right here. There’s a HUGE roster of NCAA teams, including a ton of all-time squads, and the gameplay really does seem to have a faster, smoother tempo than the similar “Madden” engine of the same timeframe.

The graphics were really well done, and the audio was low-key, but effective and memorable. The sprites had a brighter look to them then in the “Madden” games, and since this is college ball we’re talking here, there were all sorts of offensive and defensive schemes at your disposal that you weren’t able to toy around with in the NFL games, including what was far and away the most enjoyable wishbone formation in ANY 16-bit title. And for those of you that couldn’t stand the “box” presentation in EA’s other football games from the era, REJOICE! You have a longer depth of field in this one, so gawping at wide receivers imprisoned in rectangular frames is a thing of the past.

Even non-NCAA fanatics such as myself (we being the people still that giggle every time we hear the term “cornhusker”) can tell that this is a truly tremendous sports sim. It’s far and away the greatest 2D college football game I’ve ever played, and a title you definitely need to give a try if you prefer your pigskin on Saturdays as opposed to Sundays.

Jerry Glanville’s Pigskin Footbrawl

OK, OK, calling this game a “football” title is stretching it quite a bit; even if you were to strip away all of the fantastical elements, you would be left with a game that, in terms of sheer mechanics, is more closely related to rugby than what you see on NFL broadcasts every Sunday. Even so, the game is just ridiculously fun, and a title every football fan ought to check out at least a time or two. I mean, shit, if it’s good enough for a former Atlanta Falcons head coach, it ought to be good enough for the gaming masses, no?

If the game seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it’s essentially a home port of the legendary, cult-coin-op title “Pigskin 621 A.D.” which was pretty much what would happen if you put “Arch Rivals,” “Ten Yard Fight” and “Golden Axe” into a blender and hit puree.

While this Sega Genesis port isn’t as pretty as its arcade inspiration, it’s still a really fun game, and a completely unique gaming experience that, unlike a lot of “humorous” games from the timeframe, is actually kind of funny. You can pick up maces and axes and murder opposing players in scrums, and if you’re leading by double digits late in the fourth, unstoppable troll monsters show up as a means of “equalizing” the contest. There’s not a whole lot of depth to the game (half the time, you can’t even directly control who has the ball), but what the game lacks in strategy, it makes up with sheer kookiness. How many other football games can you think of where bales of hay prove more dangerous obstacles than all-out blitzes, anyway?

Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football

The idea of running commentary in sports games, nowadays, is pretty much a given. In fact, if a modern football game DOESN’T have play-by-play, it’s considered extremely gimpy. With that in mind, you can imagine how awesome it was to hear genuine, human commentary in “Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football” - and considering the technological constraints of the time, the audio quality of the game is downright awe-inspiring.

The game featured running commentary from Lon Simmons - perhaps best known for his immortal 1964 call when greatest-dumbass-of-all-time-nominee Jim Marshall decided to pick up a fumble and run all the way to his OWN end zone to score a safety for the other team. While Simmons digitalized audio is a little warbled, it’s still surprisingly clear considering the technology of the timeframe, and he even spits out a couple of lines that have become gridiron lore - particularly, his perpetual refrain of “I CAN’T BELIEVE IT” whenever you line up for a really illogical play.

So, the audio in this one is world class, most definitely, but the other aspects of the tile: the graphics, the controls and ESPECIALLY the gameplay, are likewise phenomenal. It’s a nice mixture of arcade and simulation, and I really dig how the game “zooms” in on players during the certain plays. The season mode is pretty cool, and the multiplayer mode is seriously fun. The play selection is a little sparse, but beyond that? This is just a tremendous little title, that I think any and all Sega Genesis owners should have in on their bookshelves (or wherever else they store their cartridges, ostensibly.)

Madden NFL ‘94

If you get a bunch of Sega Genesis owners in a room for a longtime, an argument about which was the best 16-bit Madden title is sure to break out. Some will tell you that “Madden ‘92” - the one with the ambulance that runs over players - is the best of the bunch, but there are others that will tell you that “Madden ‘93,” with its robust playbooks and greater emphasis on strategic play, was the one-to-rule-them-all.

If I had to go with just ONE 2D “Madden,” however, I would definitely go with the ‘94 iteration. For my money, this is arguably - note, I said ARGUABLY - the greatest 16-bit football game of all-time, and if it isn’t, it’s at least the most technical. Of all of the games released on the SNES and Genesis, I would say that “Madden ‘94” is about as close as we got to a true “football simulation” - everything felt realistic, and smooth, and it took just a little bit of grey matter to play it. This is a football game for serious football fans, no doubt.

This game has to have the deepest playbooks of any 2D football game, with dozens upon dozens of offensive and defensive packages. Even more awesome, the guys at High Score Productions gave you the ability to call audibles - a pioneering game mechanic that completely altered multiplayer experiences for the better. The passing game, admittedly, takes a while to get used to, but in no time, you’ll be airing it out like Steve Young and Troy Aikman used to. And if you know anything at all about video football, you don’t need me to tell you how awesome the run game is here…

Mutant League Football

Let’s say that football sims really aren’t “your thing.” Yeah, zone blitzes and hook-and-ladder plays are cool and all, but sometimes, you don’t want to waylay a QB, you want to literally vivisect him on the field. And if that’s your personal itch? Electronic Arts definitely has something for that.

“Mutant League Football,” obviously, is not a game concerned with realism…but then again, you probably would’ve picked up on that when you noticed that instead of the Green Bay Packers, the game features golden skeleton warriors wearing shoulder pads with spikes on them. If you like puns, this is a game that will give you your fill - calling a player “Bones Jackson” and naming a team “The Deathskin Razors” are actually some of the subtler jokes in the title, if you can believe it.

“Mutant League,” however, is still a pretty sound little pigskin game, using what I believe is a modified “Madden ‘93” engine. You have a run game, a passing game, and the defensive and offensive packages - despite some more pun-filled names - are all fairly standard football fare. Where the game goes crazy, of course, is in the variables that affect the on-field action - things like, mines on the sidelines, and mad quarterback scrambling (with an assist from a jet pack, no less) and the occasional “exploding football” trick play which usually results in the innards of the opposing team’s QB  getting scattered across the turf. And if that’s not enough for you, you even have the ability to bribe the referee so that B.S. penalties get assessed to your opponent. Pending the next “Madden” game doesn’t feature a New Orleans Saints “Bounty Bonus” mechanic, this is probably the most wantonly violent football title you’ll ever get your grubby little meat hooks on.

Super High Impact

In the early ‘90s, there was an arcade football game called “High Impact,” and it was, essentially, “NFL Blitz” a good half a decade before it existed. The funny thing is, “High Impact” even predated “NBA Jam,” so in a way, it was at the FOREFRONT of the arcade-sports revolution of the Clinton Years. Well, not really, but I figured the guys at Midway need as much encouragement as they can get nowadays.

“Super High Impact,” the console port version of the game, was a pretty memorable title, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it really showcased the graphical and audio discrepancies between the two consoles, as the SNES version of the game looked and sounded as crisp as fresh autumn leaf, while the Genesis version, for lack of a better term, looked and sounded uglier than a pair of worn-out bowling shoes. I’ve always though the technical merits of the consoles were a lot closer than most people assume, but in this case…yeah, Super NintenDOES what the GenesISN’T capable of doing right here.

The on-field action, while a little simplistic, is quite fun, and I liked the fact that the game incorporated a horizontal perspective as opposed to the more traditional vertical field view. Next to the “Tecmo Bowl” games, I really can’t think of a game from the timeframe that provided play of the like as well as “Super High Impact.” And of course, it’s almost impossible to deny the stupid charm of the title, as it features loudmouth announcers spitting out clichĂ©s a mile a minute, kick returners LITERALLY getting broken in half by defenders and quite possibly the most bizarre set of teams in the annals of video game football - since when did the entire continent of Africa get an NFL franchise, anyway?

Tecmo Super Bowl III: Final Edition

It’s impossible to talk about old-school video football without bringing up “Tecmo Bowl,” and this installment - available on both the SNES and Genesis - is not only one of the best sports games of the 16-bit era, but in my humble opinion, one of the absolute greatest sports games EVER. For me, it’s really a toss-up between this game and “Madden ‘94” for title of “best 16-bit football” game - and if you prefer hot and heavy arcade action to strategic play, then there’s NO denying which one takes the cake.

The graphics in this game were absolutely phenomenal, as the title had an almost 2.5D look and feel to it. Additionally, the audio was just superb, and the gameplay? Dude, it’s freaking “Tecmo Bowl”…you KNOW it’s going to be awesome!

Some have argued that the play selection screen looks a little muddled, and I think that’s a fair criticism. But, since cycling through plays ALSO results in that killer “shotgun being loaded” sound effect as you hop across the menu, I think it’s a minor gripe that can certainly be forgiven. In essence, the game plays like a mildly more refined “Tecmo Super Bowl” - that is, you get way more packages, even though the core game play feels pretty much the same is it did back in 1991. It’s an utterly addictive game, and features perhaps the best presentation of any football game from the era. It may not be the most strategically satisfying pigskin title from the timeframe, but if you’re looking for an undiluted, arcade gridiron experience…I really don’t think it’s possible to do much better than this game.

Are you ready for some TOOTH DECAY (and also, football)!

And that, kids, is my seven-pointed list of suggested retro titles you give a play in anticipation of the new football season. Now, who is ready for SOME referee strikes and Arena Football League scores and concussions a-plenty? I think this season is going to be one for the record books, no doubt…

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