Monday, January 26, 2015

The Six Best Football Games of the 128-Bit Era!

Counting down the half dozen finest virtual pigskin offerings of the PS2 years…

For me, video gaming really reached its apex with the Dreamcast. That’s not to say there weren’t a ton of great games released after the demise of Sega’s last console, it’s just that I feel as if the medium generally stopped progressing from that point onward.

The PS2/XB/GC era really hailed the end of console video gaming as we knew it. With DVD functionality and online services, the units really grew beyond gaming machines and became multimedia devices -- an evolutionary step that, in my humble opinion, has been for the worse as opposed to the better.

Contrary to what it may sound like, I was actually a big fan of the Playstation2, Gamecube and Xbox, having owned all of them at one point or another. In fact, some of my all-time favorite games -- including “Burnout 3,” “Virtua Fighter 4,” “Metal Gear Solid 3,” and “Metroid Prime” -- all came out during the epoch.

Second only to the 16-bit era, I don't think there has ever been a gaming generation filled with as many great sports game as the Dreamcast-to-Gamecube one. From outstanding footy titles like "Pro Evolution Soccer" to arcade B-ball extravaganzas like "NBA Street" to the still-relevant "Tony Hawk" series, the generation was just gummed up with outstanding virtual sports offerings, and perhaps no subgenre had as many standout, diverse selections as the arena (er, stadium?) of video american football.

Yeah, all of that came crashing down in late 2004, with EA's announcement that they had locked up the pro football licensing rights for years to come, but before that, there actually were a number of better-than-average to outstanding pigskin simulators out there for us to joyously bruise our thumbs upon -- and even a few unlicensed ones following.

With the 49th installment of the Super Bowl nigh approaching, I figured it was worth our collective whiles to take a relatively shorter stroll down memory lane than our usual nostalgic circle jerks, and reflect on the greatness of the football games of two console cycles ago. Man, it's feeling all shades of 2003 up in this muddah, and in the best way possible, too.

Blitz: The League

In the mid 2000s, it sorta’ became publicly acknowledged that a lot of NFL players had made themselves half-retarded from years of concussions and spine-rattling helmet-to-helmet collisions. As such, the National Football League decided to do a bit of a PR clean-up, and one of their first responses was forcing the makers of the popular arcade series “NFL Blitz” to tone down all of the piledrivers and clotheslines. This led to the half-hearted attempt at a “real” football sim, “Blitz Pro,” which for all intents and purposes, sucked.

Who didn't want to see a five-year-late video game adaptation of
"Any Given Sunday?"
After Electronic Arts snatched up the NFL license all for itself in late 2004, the programmers over at Midway decided to say “eff you” and crafted their own non-licensed football game, which appears to have been modeled after the short-lived ESPN drama “Playmakers” (which, itself, wound up getting axed because the NFL didn’t like a fictitious series alleging that all of its players were a bunch of crack smoking wife beaters. How preposterous!)

Released in 2005, “Blitz: The League” didn’t offer much in sheer gameplay -- really, it was a pretty lackluster variation of the engine used for the afore-mentioned “Blitz Pro” -- but it what it lacked in substance, it definitely made up for in style. The first sports video game I can think of with a genuine narrative, you took control of a player-made team and traversed your way through a full season just ripe with on and off the field intrigue, complete with what has to be the first ever subplot about a publicly-funded stadium deal in a video game of any variety.

Perhaps trying to cash in on the grim and gritty success of “Grand Theft Auto,” the game also had a shit ton of features you’d never see in “Madden,” including the ability to specifically target vital organs, shoot up steroids and even send hookers over to the hotel rooms of other players (a real-life tactic pioneered by legendary linebacker and unabashed paedo Lawrence Taylor, who also lends his voice and likeness to a character in the game.) As before, it’s far from being a great football video game, but just for the sheer audacity of it -- and the novel attempt at an actual narrative -- it’s probably worth playing, at least once.

ESPN NFL Football

As good as the “NFL 2K” games on the Dreamcast were, I’ve always thought the games on the PS2 and Xbox were even better. And while “NFL 2K5” remains arguably the most beloved installment in the series, I actually prefer playing its predecessor, “ESPN NFL Football.”

It even had Chris Berman and his kooky colloquialisms...unfortunately.
I logged more hours on this game than I did any other on my Xbox, save perhaps for “Forza Motorsport.” The ingenious “Cribs” feature gave you a ton of replay incentives, as accomplishing certain on-the-field feats (like holding an opponent to zero total offensive yards and throwing 15 consecutive passes in a row) netted you some really cool doodads, like bobble heads, air hockey mini-games and even a special guest player or two -- folks, I cannot tell you how awesome it is to be able to send Ryo Hazuki and Beat from “Jet Set Radio” to the Oakland Raiders mini-camp.

Structurally, the gameplay was just about pitch-perfect. The run game was much smoother than "Madden," although playing defense wasn’t as much fun. And then, there were the dropped passes; for the most part, the aerial game worked, but it just seemed that there was some sort of glitch in the code that resulted in way too many inexplicable bobbled balls.

Of course, the presentation was tremendous, with excellent commentary and really nice implementation of the ESPN brand. That said, the game’s big feature -- the much-ballyhooed “first person football” mode -- was fairly stupid, but at least you could turn it off.  That, and the game contains what is quite possibly the greatest, unintentional video football drinking game of all-time; just flip on the “every hit causes a fumble” cheat, and you too, can relive all the glory and splendor of Super Bowl XLI!

Madden NFL 2005

A lot of people consider “Madden NFL 2004” to be the zenith of the franchise, but for my money, “Madden” was never as good as it was in 2005 (which was actually released in 2004, but let’s try not to be such sticklers on that, OK?)

Ray Lewis, seen here in a rare moment not holding a butcher knife.
Simply put, this game had it all. The passing game and run game was just phenomenal, and the introduction of the “hit stick” made defense just as fun as playing offense -- probably the first time that’s ever been the case in a football video game.

The core gameplay was excellent, as to be expected, but where the game really shined was in its franchise mode, which was really deep enough to be considered a game onto itself. You KNOW you’re playing a game that takes the simulation angle seriously when you actually have the ability to jack up the prices of stadium hot dogs.

The last year the “Madden” series had any legitimate competition, interestingly enough, appears to have been its franchise high point. Next year’s follow-up, which introduced the ill-fated “QB cone” mechanic and a create-a-player mode that seemed to encourage eugenics, was a considerable step-down for the series, as was the arguably series-worst “Madden 07.” I haven’t had much experiences with the Xbox 360 and PS3 games, but if there half as good as “2005” was, well … methinks I may have to do me some pawn shop shoppin’ shortly.

NCAA Football 06

This is arguably the best college football game ever made … and since the NCAA players association won’t let anybody use their likenesses, that may very well be a statement of fact even thirty years from now, too.

To begin, the soundtrack. Ingenuously, EA decided to go with an all college-rock vibe, which means you could build your collegiate dynasty to the dulcimer tones of The Pixies and Guided by Voices -- strangely enough, a feature EA abandoned in the very next series update.

Nothing says "the college experience" quite like depressing emo-rock and
PlayStation football, no?
The core gameplay was as satisfying as you'd imagine it to be, but the career mode really put this thing over the top. Not content with just offering a create-a-player mode, this installment let you become a virtual collegiate athlete, complete with a filthy dorm, final exams and the ability to upgrade girlfriends as you performed better on the field. The only way EA could have made a more ridiculously in-depth title is if they included point-shaving and GHB-slipping mini-games.

The replay value on this sucker was off the charts. Even after completing a four-year run at BYU as a tailback, I immediately decided to start a new campaign as an outside linebacker at Toledo. And true to form, even though my squad went undefeated for an entire presidential term, we still managed to get screwed over on a BCS National Title bid every single year. Needless to say, the realism presented by Electronic Arts here is utterly astounding.

NFL Fever 2004

While “Madden” and “2K” were most certainly better series, Microsoft’s very own “Fever” franchise wasn’t too shabby either. While the first two games in the series were remorseless score fests, the third (and final) installment was actually loaded with all sorts of cool features, that sadly, portended what could have been a truly stellar next-gen series.

Pressing the white button allowed you to adjust your cup, if I remember
First off, the visuals in "NFL Fever 2004" were probably the best of any football game from the era. Unlike in "NFL 2K," the player models didn't look like Frankenstein monsters, and unlike "Madden," the running animations actually somewhat resembled human movement. That, and there were a ton of neat touches, like grass stains accumulating on jerseys and the crowds emptying the stadium during blowouts.

Gameplay-wise, yeah, there were some deficiencies, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But as a plus, the offensive selections were pretty robust (I goddamn loved the "create-a-play" feature) and the "read-and-lead" passing gimmick -- in which you chunked the ball to a spot on the field and than commandeered a receiver to said spot -- had a lot of potential. And the offseason mode beat the dogshit out of both "Madden" and "2K," and it wasn't even close.

Alas, "Fever" was short-lived, an especially cruel fate considering the series seemed to be on the verge of turning the corner from being a good football franchise to one that legitimately posed a challenge to the "big two" of pro football video gamin'. If you've never played this one, you can probably pick up a copy at Gamestop for less than a dollar ... just don't be surprised when the '72 Dolphins challenge you out of the blue after winning your first Super Bowl, though.

NFL Street

Considering the critical and financial success of the “NBA Street” series, I suppose it was only natural that EA would look heir hand at a similar NFL product, too. “NFL Street,” in a way, filled the void left behind by “NFL Blitz,” giving gamers a really out there arcade-style sports game that replaced the absurd violence with equally absurd gymnastic feats that bordered on the supernatural.

Football is always better when it look like "Katamari Damacy,"
doesn't it?
As the name implies, the fun here was all about crafting your own dream team, and then watching them do "Prince of Persia" shit in back alleys while Xzibit played in the background. There were quite a few NFL legends on the roster too, which made it all the more fun -- nothing like bringing Barry Sanders out of retirement for some "Tecmo Super Bowl"-esque ownage, no?

Probably the two biggest slights against the game were the defensive controls (man, a "hit stick" a'la "Madden 2005" would've made a world of difference here) and the "game breaker" feature, which pretty much resulted in an automatic TD, no matter what. That said, you gotta' give the game props for a seriously fun offensive game ... running sideways up brick walls and taunting linebackers for bonus points? Yeah, you know I am all about that.

Strangely enough, EA BIG was never really able to refine the core gameplay into a better series, with "NFL Street 2" (released the same calendar year as the first game, if you can believe it) suffering from a surfeit of glitches and the way-too-late follow-up "NFL Street 3" just playing like a lifeless sack of shit. Still, "NFL Street" numero uno remains a seriously fun little offering, and nothing -- I mean NOTHING -- will make you feel pangs of nostalgia for the W. years quite like staring at a cartoon-version of Ricky Williams. Absolutely freaking nothing.


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