Monday, January 6, 2014

NFL Sports Talk Football '93 on the Sega Genesis!

Just in time for the NFL Postseason: A Random Review of a Football Game Nobody Really Cares About!


You know something I haven't done in awhile? A completely random and needlessly in-depth review of something I just found laying around the house. In this case: a copy of "NFL Sports Talk Football '93," a Sega Genesis football sim that's kind of an installment in the beloved "Joe Montana Football" series, but not precisely.

Time for a 16-bit history lesson, kiddos. The original "Joe Montana Football" was a dual release on the Sega Master System and the Sega Genesis (it also got a Game Gear iteration, which was pretty much the same as the SMS version), and it was a fun little arcade title. Devoid of a proper NFL license, however, the game was certainly a backburner offering to much more enviable titles from the timeframe, namely "Tecmo Super Bowl" and the then-fledgling "John Madden Football" series from Electronic Arts.

"Joe Montana II" is generally considered a superior title, as it included a slightly modified game engine and Sega's proprietary "Sports Talk" audio feature -- at the time, running commentary in a video game was absolutely unheard of, and the sheer novelty of listening to a virtual announcer do play-by-play was more than enough to get most gamers to overlook the title's mechanical flaws and gameplay deficiencies.

"NFL Sports Talk Football '93 Starring Joe Montana," then, is spiritually the third game in the "Joe Montana" series, although as apparent by the moniker change, Sega was definitely trying to rebrand the franchise. With the 49ers dynasty on the wane and Montana K.C. bound in a years' time, perhaps developers BlueSky Sofware (oddly enough, the same folks behind "Vectorman" and "Jurassic Park) were seeing the writing on the wall already. Alas, it wouldn't be long before Sega yanked away their rights to the franchise, culminating in a series of football games that stand out as among the WORST first party Sega titles ever released.

So, in our eleventh-consecutive NFL playoff season sans Oakland Raiders presence, why don't we take a look back at this long-forgotten 16-bit offering, and see if there's anything remarkable about the title in this, the era of DRM restrictions and overpriced digital downloads?

Graphics



The title looks pretty decent, although the character models are nowhere near as defined as they are in games like "Madden '93" or "Tecmo Super Bowl III." Additionally, all of the player seem to have Papa Shango-like paint smeared all over the faces -- apparently, helmet shields were really, really hard to animate back then.

For the most part, the fields all look the same, and the environmental effects, like in-game rain and snow, leave a lot to be desired. To be fair, the designers did try to differentiate between artificial and grass turf, and the dome stadiums do look a bit different than the outdoor stadiums. That said, the extent of the aesthetic differences is pretty bare bones; some fields have dark green grass, others having blinding yellow-green, and that's about it.

While the color palette and character models are kinda' disappointing, one area where you definitely can't slight the game is its animations. The run game, in particularly, look outstanding, and watching QB's drop in the pocket and gear up for a 40 yard floater is really an impressive technical feat for the time. The game also runs quite smoothly throughout, with no noticeable flicker at any point. The tackle animations also look downright amazing considering the technological capabilities of the era -- the physics in this one, I would say, are WAY better than anything EA was producing at the same time frame.

SCORE: 6.5 out of 10 

Sound



The music in the game is pretty good -- nothing great, nothing terrible, nothing too boring, but nothing too memorable. In fact, the music itself seems a bit muted, which, considering the game's primary selling point -- the running commentary -- makes quite a bit of sense.

Unlike most football games from the era, there's not a whole lot of on-the-field sounds in this one. You won't be hearing too many referee whistles or player grunts, although you do have the ability to call QB cadence -- in case you want to try and sneakily pull an opposing player offsides. Nor are there any real noticeable collision sounds -- and considering how cartoony such tackling noises are in some contemporary football games, that's probably for the best.

Of course, the real audio appeal of the game is its "Sports Talk" feature, and the commentary here -- from beloved San Fran announcer Lon Simmons -- is downright extraordinary. The audio stitching is excellent, and very few lines of dialogue are repeated -- a feat made all the more impressive considering the impressive lack of silent interstitials during gameplay. Certainly impressive at the time, I'd go as far as to call the commentary quality in this one superior than most early Xbox 360 sports offerings -- it's easily the best thing about the game, and probably reason enough to fire up the cartridge at least once.

Score: 8.5 out of 10 

Gameplay



"Sports Talk Football '93" is really a tale of two games -- one that's really, really good, and one that's really, really bad. First: the positives.

The first game in the series with an actual NFL license, you get to play as all 28 NFL teams, with the corresponding logos and uniforms. Of course, the only "real" NFL player to appear in the game is Joe Montana, so that definitely takes a lot of fun out of the experience. You get an exhibition mode and a league mode, which is fairly solid, although the password requirements are a real pain in the anus.

You actually do get a pretty lengthy set of game settings though, which include plenty of option re-sets that fundamentally change the entire gaming experience. For example, you can play the game horizontally (like a poor man's "Tecmo Bowl") or go the more simulation-style vertical, behind-the-offense camera that was popularized by titles like "Madden." You can even play in "blimp mode," which is some downright Atari-looking shit...you literally play as dots, and its stupid as hell. In terms of play options, you do get to reverse calls with one button, and you have the ability to call audibles, but the implementation is quite clunky. And for a real unforgivable sin? You're not able to edit your team's playbooks, which means you're stuck with a finite amount of plays...which in turn, leads to certain teams being WAY overpowered.

Score: 6 out of 10 

Controls



And here's where the game gets really heartbreaking. It's not that the entire game is bad, per se...in fact, in some ways, it actually outshines even "Tecmo Bowl" and "Madden." It's just that the game has one GARGANTUAN mechanical flaw, and it really deflates the entire experience as a whole.

But first, some pros. The run game in "NFL Sports Talk Football '93" is actually really fun and strategic as a motherfucker. You actually have to read blocks and seek out wedge openings, creating a sense of realism that most 16-bit football titles never even attempted. Granted, some gamers may opt to turn off the "zoom mode," but I think it makes the running game even more fun...it allows you to spot those openings and crank through defensive weaknesses, even if the reduced field vision is kinda' annoying. Similarly, playing defense is really, really fun, and the intuitive controls makes forcing turnovers a lot easier than it is in most football games from the era. In a welcome contrast to the high scoring arcade games of the timeframe, "Sports Talk Football '93" encourages some old school, extra-technical smashmouth strategy, which, if nothing else, leads to some pretty fun -- and draining -- defense-oriented contests.

And then, we come to the game's Achilles's heel, and the aspect of the title that takes it from being well-above average football sim to just mildly-above-mediocre; the passing game. I've played some football games with shitty passing systems before, and the passing system in this game is among the absolute shittiest I've ever experienced. Like in "Tecmo Bowl," you hit one button after the snap to pinpoint a receiver. The problem is, you have barely two seconds to fire the thing off, and if you scramble, you come to a dead halt for at least two seconds, which makes you easy sack bait for any wandering defenders. Furthermore, most of the time, you're just firing blindly anyway, as you can't see more than twenty yards in front of the line of scrimmage. This wouldn't be a problem if the short passing game was worth a toot, but it's actually HARDER to pass the ball five yards that it is 50. You're pretty much limited to sideline passes and long bombs up the middle, as anything else you toss is likely to be intercepted 80 percent of the time. And if you think that's bad, just try playing the game with the pass indicator ON, in which you have to use the directional pad to "aim" your pass...not only is it frustrating beyond words, it's virtually a broken feature.

Score: 4.5 out of 10 

Replay Value



With outstanding commentary, decent visuals, an all-right league mode and really fun defensive and run game controls, you're guaranteed to get at least a season or two out of the experience, even if wrestling with the passing controls is frustrating to no end.

As stated earlier, you do get a lot of game tweaking options, so you'll probably spend at least one or two games trying out all of the variables, like camera set-ups and the miscellaneous control options. With the smashmouth football emphasis, it's also a fairly fun two player game, although it's quite likely your opponent will get pissed off at the passing mechanics and opt for "Bill Walsh '95" after the first quarter.

If you can tolerate the shitty passing mechanics (a huge "if," I am aware), you'll probably really enjoy the game, which actually forces you to play like a non-retard and do things like "go for field goals" and "punt." The attempt at creating a more strategic football sim in admirable, but the iffy execution ensures that this one ain't rivaling "Madden '94" in terms of console-slot hours, I am afraid.

Score: 6 out of 10 

Overall Impression



There are some things I definitely like about this game, and pending you have the patience and the ability to overlook some of the title's offensive shortcomings, you'll probably enjoy it quite a bit -- it's the kind of game that makes a great rental, but I pity the poor kid that wound up dropping $49.99 on this one instead of "Gunstar Heroes" or "M.U.S.H.A." As a football sim, it's probably middle of the road; way better than most of the bullshit that came out on the SNES (ever play turds like "ABC Monday Night Football" or "Emmit Smith Football?"), but nowhere near as excellent as games like "Madden '94," "Bill Walsh '95" or "Tecmo Super Bowl III." It's a neat little diversion that does many things right -- some of which, perhaps even better than the afore-mentioned titles -- but that ultra-sucky pass game just tanks it. Had the QB controls been improved, and the playbooks been a bit more robust, and the franchise mode a bit meatier, this actually could've been one of the best football sims of the era. However, with its heavily flawed passing mechanics, this is a game that remains, at best, a mostly fun "what could've been" experience.

Score: 6.5 out of 10


2 comments:

  1. "although the character models are nowhere near as defined as they are in games like "Madden '93" or "Tecmo Super Bowl III."

    Wait... What? The models in JMF '93 are WAY more defined than the models in the two games you mentioned. It's not even close. Wow! And to top it off, JMF '93 and '94 were using motion capture tech for all of their animations. The other guys were still using hand drawn animations.

    I really worry about how much revisionist history is out there...

    ReplyDelete
  2. "although the character models are nowhere near as defined as they are in games like "Madden '93" or "Tecmo Super Bowl III."

    Wait... What? The models in JMF '93 are WAY more defined than the models in the two games you mentioned. It's not even close. Wow! And to top it off, JMF '93 and '94 were using motion capture tech for all of their animations. The other guys were still using hand drawn animations.

    I really worry about how much revisionist history is out there...

    ReplyDelete