Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Tribute to Tecmo Bowl

A fond, reverential look back at the greatest football video game franchise ever.


By: Jimbo X 
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@Jimbo__X

When the term "football video game" comes up, most people think Madden. However, for old school purists, the term drums up heartfelt memories of one thing, and one thing only: Tecmo goddamn motherfucking shitting Bowl. (Official title? Just plain Tecmo Bowl.) 

Indeed, while football games have certainly gotten more realistic looking and complex, the simple, unrefined joys of Tecmo Bowl remain the apex of the genre. As simple as the games were, they were just so much fun to play - who cares if you couldn't call 40 different audibles or challenge plays and the turf never deteriorated in real-time when you were having a blast just mowing down the opposing QB with a mere flick of the D-pad and racking up 1,000 yards a game in rushing offense? This series is so beloved that almost 30 years since the very first game came out, people are still playing it, cherishing it and - to a certain extent - worshiping it as the pinnacle of arcade sports game excellence. 

That said, a lot of people tend to overlook just how long the series has been around. Make no mistakes, this is a franchise whose import stretches well beyond the scope of the Nintendo Entertainment System, and even a little bit before it. As the rest of American society tries to make itself excited for a Super Bowl 50 matchup nobody is really all that interested in watching, I've decided to take the time and effort to shine a spotlight on an entirely different kind of Bowl - one that has not only shaped video gaming culture, but really, American football culture itself. 

So grease up your palms, keep your eyes on the cathode ray tube and whatever you do, don't let anybody pick the Detroit Lions; it's time to pay our respects to the best football video game series ever...


Tecmo Bowl 
Arcade (1987)



The first Tecmo Bowl game is the odd duck of the franchise. While it has many similarities to the Tecmo Bowl we all know and love, it's certainly a standalone game with no real connection to any of the subsequent entries. For starters, there are no NFL teams or players. In fact, there are only two teams to choose from - a generic red-bedecked squad called the Bulldogs and a blue-clad ensemble called the Wildcats. The iconography is clearly meant to mimic the college football experience, right down to the Big House-inspired stadium. Speaking of big, the cabinet for this sumbitch was one of the hugest of its time - next to the old six-man Konami X-Men coin-op, it had to have been the largest arcade unit floating around in the early George H.W. years. The two-screen cabinet was also one of the biggest coin-op scams of the decade, forcing you to pump quarters into the machine every 30 seconds to keep playing it; to finish an entire game - and thus, see that awesome concluding cinematic of fans tearing down the goalpost - you had to drop at least six bucks in pocket change. The gameplay is also pretty weird, chiefly in the fact that you don't get to pick plays - each down you find yourself in a randomly generated formation (sometimes you are working out of the shotgun, sometimes you are in the I-form) - and you can't change receivers or backs once the ball has been snapped (which, naturally, leads to a lot of QB scrambling.) While it's perhaps too simplistic a game nowadays, it did have some pretty cool touches, including the ability to jump for passes, break tackles with some joystick twiddling finesse and the big one, lateral the ball like a motherfucker. It's an extraordinary limited game, but it is worth at least one playthrough - especially on the .ROM sites, where thankfully, you don't have to shell out enough money for a McDonalds combo meal to play it. (Note: the game is also available as a Wii download and is featured on the Xbox compilation disc Tecmo Classic Arcade, which the Internet tells me IS compatible with the Xbox360 if you've downloaded the proper updates. As for its functionality on the XboxOne? You'll have to Google that shit on your own, whippersnapper.) 

Tecmo Bowl 
NES (1989)


Well, what more can be said about this one? With the possible exception of Walter Payton Football on the Sega Master System, this was the first American football game on a home console worth a damn. Seriously, have you people ever attempted to play stuff like 10 Yard Fight, NES Play-Action Football and God pity your soul, LJN'S NFL? While the game is undoubtedly limited, what is included is just balls-out fantastic 8-bit sports action. The lack of a proper NFL license hurts it (yeah, time for the Chicago Penguins Holding Harps to take on the Denver Blue-Hair Unicorn Chicks!) as does the fact the game only has a dozen teams to choose from, but at the end of the day, the core gameplay is just so satisfying hardly any of that matters. As soon as that awesome, Jock Jams before there were Jock Jams theme picks up (before slowly transitioning to what I have always thought sounded like the opening instrumental from Family Feud) you just KNOW good times are ahead of you. Sure, I could bore you with the same old commentary about how unstoppable Bo Jackson is in the game or how easy it was to block punts with L.T. and Dexter Manley, but for me, it has always been the little things that made this one so memorable; lobbing automatic touchdowns in the shotgun to receivers running curl routes, double teaming the shit out of Jerry Rice, LOL-ing at Minnesota's god-awful reverse run play,the fact that all of the black players were actually purple and, of course, all of that blatant advertising for Rygar. To this day, this game remains one of the funnest multiplayer sports experiences on the Nintendo; who'd thunk so many years of joy could've been derived from only four offensive plays, no? 

Tecmo Bowl
Famicom (1990)



In the pantheon of Tecmo Bowl games, this one is oft-considered the "lost" sheep of the series. By and large, it is the exact same game Americans got in 1989; the same teams, the exact same plays, hell, there isn't even any kanji to be seen. However, there have been considerable changes to the team rosters, which benefit a few squads and are to the detriment of a few others. Eric Dickerson is no longer with Indianapolis (as is the case with the second edition printings of Tecmo Bowl USA), Mark Green replaces Dennis Gentry as kickoff man in Chicago, Cleveland rises up the defensive tiers with the addition of linebacker Clay Matthews, and because he wasn't overpowered ENOUGH, Bo Jackson is actually even faster in this one then he is in the American version. But it is San Francisco that came out the best, gaining a killer defensive add in linebacker Chris Haley and a HUGE offensive upgrade in wideout John Taylor. Frankly, if you've played NES version of Tecmo Bowl, you've more or less played this game. Still, it's pretty cool knowing there is a slightly modified version of the iconic pigskin title out there - especially when it has cartridge art as WTF as this one

Tecmo Bowl
Game Boy (1991)



All in all, this is an extremely well-done port of the NES game, which sacrifices astonishingly little in the migration to the teeny-tiny monochrome screen. As with its NES older brother, you get 12 teams to choose from, each porting about four offensive plays a piece. Obviously, there is a limited color palette, but the sprites themselves are actually fairly detailed, and the graphics are well above average for the platform. Where the game really shines, however, is the audio department; not only is the music in the game on par with the music from the NES version, it might be even better (although some of the other sound effects, like the quarterback signals, are far more primitive.) Gameplay-wise, you really can't complain about anything here; the controls are virtually identical to the 8-bit game and the core fundamentals are totally unchanged. Toss the ball to a covered receiver? Yeah, that's still going to be an automatic INT. Hand the ball off to Sweetness when Dallas is geared up for coverage down field? Yeah, that's an effortless touchdown, just like on the Nintendo. There really weren't that many sports games on the original Game Boy, and this has to be far and away the best football game released for the system. If you've never played it, it is definitely worth checking out, if absolutely nothing else, to see the miraculous job the programmers did converting the title. Pour yourself a glass of Dirty Sprite, make sure the AC adapter is plugged in and watch those defenders bounce into the fifth row whenever Bo storms down the sideline - this game is pure, old-school Tecmo Bowl bliss, through and through. And as fate would have it? It would also be the only portable Bowl we'd be able to get our hands on for more than a decade. But more on that forgotten piece of Tecmo history a little bit later, dear reader... 

Tecmo Super Bowl
NES (1991)



For my money, Tecmo Super Bowl isn't just the best football game on the NES. In my humblest o' opinions, it's the absolute BEST NES game ever, the best 8-bit title ever released and quite possibly the absolute best sports video game of all-time (it's certainly neck and neck with NHL '94, at the absolute least.) Despite all of the praise the game receives - and has been receiving for a quarter century now - we still tend to overlook just how revolutionary this game actually was. Released extremely late in the NES life cycle (the SNES was already on the market by the time it hit store shelves), Tecmo Super Bowl can rightly lay claim to being the last "must-experience" 8-bit Nintendo offering. While the core gameplay is unchanged from its precursor, everything around it was amped up to 11, creating far and away the most comprehensive, features-loaded sports game of the third console generation. Not only did the game have every contemporary NFL team represented - complete with accurate representations of their respective 1991-92 rosters - the playbook was vastly expanded, a robust season mode was added and the presentation - complete with the iconic cutscenes of defenders looking like they are taking a piss on quarterbacks following sacks - was unlike anything we had ever seen in a sports game up to that point. This title took the tried and true Tecmo Bowl gameplay and absolutely perfected it, creating the most accessible - yet surprisingly nuanced - video pigskin offering ever. The term "timeless" gets thrown around a lot in the video game world, but TSB is one of the rare titles that is precisely that - it was a hoot when it first came out, it was every bit as fun and addictive in the Dreamcast era and now - in a world of smart phones and tablet devices completely unfathomable in the NES era - it's still an absolute blast to kick back and play. This game isn't just the zenith of virtual football - it might just be the zenith of virtual entertainment altogether. (And as an aside: 25 years later, I still hate the ever-loving shit out of Christian Okoye, and everything he has ever stood for.)

Tecmo Super Bowl
Genesis and SNES (1993)



Now here is a game that tends to get a bad rap. Released two years after TSB on the NES, this iteration is fundamentally the same game, albeit with the obvious graphical and audio upgrades. The rosters, of course, now reflect the 1993-94 season, so most of the teams that were great on the Nintendo - the Raiders, the Eagles, the Lions - now suck like a turbo-charged vacuum cleaner. By and large, this is one of the most unbalanced sports games of the 16-bit console generation, with five overpowered teams (Dallas, San Fran, Washington, the Giants and Buffalo) and a lot of teams fluctuating from mediocre (Atlanta, Houston) to flat out turd-tactic (Seattle, New England.) The playbooks are more or less the same as in the NES iteration, but the gameplay feels quite different. It's had to describe, but I guess the best way to put it is that the players feel a whole lot floatier - unlike in the Nintendo version, you never really feel as if you have 100 percent control of your receivers, especially when it comes to quarterback scrambling. Audiovisually, things are spruced up quite a bit, and there is a greater emphasis on cutscenes. In fact, on certain plays, if the defense has accurately guesstimated your call, as soon as you snap the ball a cut scene is triggered featuring your back getting Rock Bottomed behind the line of scrimmage. Yeah, that does get old, and fast. Alas, despite the over-reliance on the gimmick, the core gameplay is almost as smooth and satisfying as it is on the NES, and the heightened graphics definitely make this one a totally different aesthetic experience. Granted, it is more of remake than a full-fledged sequel (apparently, that's the Internet's biggest criticism of the offering), but you know what? It's still a fun, engaging and hard to put down arcade sports experience. And it's also notable for being one of the few SNES sports games - alike Boxing Legends of the Ring and Super High Impact - that is objectively superior to the Genesis version (thanks in no small part to having a better soundtrack, which is fundamentally a pseudo-industrial remix of TSB tracks from the NES game.)

Tecmo Super Bowl II: Special Edition
Genesis and SNES (1995)



This is probably the rarest of the mass produced, physical copy Tecmo Super Bowls out there. In fact, only 15,000 copies of the SNES version were purportedly shipped to the U.S., making it one of the few sports games from the era that will cost you more than a few bucks on eBay these days. The game is really strange in a number of facets; indeed, at times, it feels more like a prototype for the third and final TSB than an actual standalone game. Structurally, the gameplay is exactly what you'd expect. The field is still displayed horizontal, and the hyper-fast pass and run mechanics are unchanged. However, there are some differences. For one thing, you now have two playbooks to choose from, which finally makes defensive play a more strategic part of the game. But the big one is a loaner from Madden - the ability to call audibles when you just know the secondary is about to blitz your ass to the stone age. You get a solid season mode, a slew of multiplayer modes and the graphics are certainly a vast improvement over the visuals in the first 16-bit TSB. While the SNES version looks and sounds slightly better, the controls and overall gameplay are MUCH better on the Genesis (I attribute it to that Blast Processing, naturally.) Oh, and the coolest thing about this game (and really, the reason it is worth going out of your way to experience?) It gives you the option to play as every NFL team from the 1992, 1993 and 1994 season. Which means, yes, FINALLY, you can stage that fantasy match up between the 4-12 '92 Phoenix Cardinals and the 2-14 '94 Houston Oilers, just like in your dreams. 

Tecmo Super Bowl III: Final Edition
Genesis and SNES (1995)



While I will always consider Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES to be the zenith of the franchise, the third and final 16-bit iteration of the series is a kinda' close second. From the opening cinematic - which feels more like something out of The Terminator than Madden - you are just getting a bang-up experience from start-to-finish. The player models, stadiums and animations are all vastly improved, and the playbooks have been enhanced to create a slightly more simulation-like experience (although the core gameplay is still all about the hot and heavy arcade action.) The audibles return and the season mode has been beefed up considerably - in fact, now you can sign free agents and even make your own damn football players and mold them into homegrown superstars over the course of the season (a feature, I might add, which is really a game unto itself.) Sure, it has some glitches here and there (sometimes, when the ball is fumbled, the defender who scoops up the ball will magically transform into an offensive player and recover the pigskin), but on the whole, this is arguably the most satisfying, holistic football game experience of Bill Clinton's first term of office (although Madden '94 and Bill Walsh College Football '95 REALLY put up a fight for that superlative.) Both versions are very, very good, but I consider the Genesis version the superior offering. Its sound may not be as impressive, but the football action is much faster and more fluid, and I actually prefer its animations to the Super Nintendo iteration. You can't go wrong with either, however, and if you've never played this game before, you are really missing out on some high-scoring, mid-90s cartridge-based excellence. 

Tecmo Super Bowl
Playstation (1996)




Now here is a game I had totally forgotten about. Released in the weird transitional phase from the SNES to the N64, perhaps it is not too surprising the game never got a fair shake in the marketplace. In hindsight though, this is actually a really damn good game, which does an admirable job of fusing the old school Tecmo Bowl arcade model with the emerging, NFL GameDay type of simulation. By and large, the game plays a LOT like the last 16-bit TSB, albeit with improved visuals, MUCH better sound (it is a CD-ROM based game, isn't it?) and way, WAY more playbook options. The create-a-player mode from Final Edition is back, but it's kind of a moot point because the in-game team editor gives you the ability to trade as many players as you want - or even rename them, overhaul their technical abilities and change their ethnicity, if you so want. Still, you get a full play-by-play announcer (standard now, I know, but MIND BLOWING at the time), semi-3D player models and the biggie, a totally controllable 360 game camera - which means, yes, you CAN play the game from a vertical perspective, if that's your fancy. All in all, this is just a dandy pick-up-and-play experience, which holds up a LOT better than the more realistic, strategic Madden offerings from the era. This one really deserves more recognition - especially from TSB aficionados, who may have initially written it off as an unappealing novelty 20 years ago. 

Tecmo Bowl
Mobile (2003)


Unless you want to count the Tiger Electronics LCD "port" of Tecmo Super Bowl released in 1993, this was the first portable version of Tecmo Bowl on the market in at least a dozen years. Due to the media format it was released on, however, the game has all but vanished from the face of the earth; I tried as hard as I could, but I couldn't find a single .ROM of the title anywhere. In fact, any information on the game is pretty hard to come by today; there are a few screenshots floating around the Internet, but beyond a few old IGN and Gamespot reviews, that's about it. I even reached out to Brad of tecmobowl-vs-rbi.com, one of the absolute best online repositories for info on Tecmo Bowl, and he was stumped. "I did look for a YouTube video quickly out of of curiosity, but found none," said the dude who is so into Tecmo Bowl that he covered his body in pixel art from the game. "I've always been aware of it, but not interested enough to seek it out." So, uh, what do we know about the game? Well, it came out in the early 2000s and was produced by Tecmo's short-lived mobile game department. Remember, this game came out six years before the first generation iPhone was released, so we're not talking touch-screen gameplay; you had to play this sumbitch with a QWERTY keyboard or the old touch-tone dial pad, like it was a ColecoVision game or something. There was no NFL license or players, and 16 teams to choose from. Gameplay, per the old video game site reviews, was fairly similar to the NES iteration of the game, although the reviewers in question never really got into the specifics of how the controls worked. Did you push "5" to move forward and "6" to hike the ball, or did you select a play and a designated route runner and the game ran it for you, RPG-style? Sadly, it looks like we'll never find out; unless someone still has a Nokia phone from '03 - that's still in working condition, with this game still installed on it - this is one version of Tecmo Bowl that appears last to the ravages of time forever

Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff
DS (2008)



Excluding the mobile phone game, this was the first handheld TSB to drop in 17 years, and the first TSB you could walk into a store and purchase in 12. Among Tecmo Super Bowl enthusiasts, it is a very controversial title; the consensus, however, seems to be that it's a halfhearted nostalgic cash-grab, simply using the TSB handle without capturing any of the magic of the old-school 8-bit and 16-bit titles. While Kickoff no doubt has some shortcomings, I have to disagree with the majority (a shocker, I know.) All in all, this is actually a pretty sound little football game and easily the best handheld pigskin game on the DS ... which, yeah, is sort of like declaring yourself the most intelligent kid in remedial math, but whatever. Since EA gobbled up the NFL license all to themselves, there are no NFL logos or players when you first boot up the game - just a bunch of random dudes and teams with monikers like the Los Angeles Supercocks and Pittsburgh Poisons. Thankfully, however, the game comes with a fairly robust create-a-team and create-a-player editor, so if you have enough dedication and time on your hands, you can easily restyle every player in the game to contemporary pro football stars (just as long as their names don't sound like curse words ... imagine my surprise when I tried to rename a character "Matt Cassell" and the game wouldn't let me.) You get a decent regular season mode and multiplayer, including WiFi enabled online play. And that's where things get a bit disappointing. While the gameplay, overall, is fairly enjoyable, there are a lot of iffy things about the control scheme; it is way too easy to get intercepted and running the ball feels stiff (shit, its even a little difficult to do the iconic Tecmo Bowl zig-zag.) The stylus play does very little to improve the passing game (in fact, it probably makes it worse) and whoever decided to include those goofy "power-ups" deserves a thorough lambasting. That said, if you can just appreciate the game for what it offers and what it mostly follows through on, I think you'll find this one to be a rather entertaining little diversion. And for you trivia hounds out there, Tecmo originally had plans to port this game to the Wii, as well; following the slow sales of Kickoff, however, they retooled the title into Family Fun Football, which, as you'd imagine, looks like absolute and total shit

Tecmo Bowl Throwback
Xbox 360 and Playstation3 (2010)



To date, the last Tecmo Bowl game was an online download for the PS3 and Xbox360. Designed by the same guys who made the cult Xbox hits Death Row and XIII, the game is - at the same time - a loving homage to the Tecmo Bowl mythos and a much-more-entertaining-than-it-should-have-been standalone football offering. Of course, the game is sans an official NFL license and no actual players appear, but as with Kickoff on the DS, you can easily rename the characters and franchises to imitate their real-world pro football counterparts. The $10 download had both single-player and multiplayer options, with all of the usual season mode shenanigans. In terms of gameplay, it is actually a lot less in-depth than TSB II and III on the Genesis and SNES, instead offering a more pared back, offensive-oriented arcade score-fest a'la the NES masterpiece. The graphics are very sleek, but if you want, all you have to do is push one button and the game switches from 16:9 3D visuals to old-school, 8-bit 4:3 ratio sprites. Granted, the feature loses its appeal after awhile, but it is nonetheless fun to transform into 2D-mode to cap off a long TD run. Sure, it's not the full-fledged sequel to TSB on the PS1 we've been waiting for for 15 years, but for what it is - and isn't - this is still a pretty entertaining romp down memory lane. An iPhone version was released a year later - and although I've never played it, it looks pretty much identical to the console version


Shameless product placement ... in a Tecmo game? Get out of here!

And there you have it folks, almost 30 years worth of Tecmo Bowl nostalgia. Seeing as how Tecmo is in dire financial straits these days and Electronic Arts won't give up the NFL license until at least the year 3080, odds are we probably won't be seeing any new Tecmo Bowl offerings for quite some time. That said, even if we have indeed seen the last of the series, we can at least take take solace in the fact that, for a good ten year stretch or so, the franchise gave us some of the most entertaining arcade football games ever. Despite all of the fancy graphics and online play and ability to download rosters and gameplay that corresponds to the NFL's real-world concussion protocols (really), today's football video games just can't match the simplistic wonder of Tecmo Bowl. Yes, it is a weird imitation of American football and I'd be lying if I said it is the most technical sports game achievement out there, but what the games lack in realism, they more than make up for it in good old-fashioned fun. The gameplay was accessible to all, but nuanced enough to provide a literally endless array of single player and multiplayer possibilities. As good as games like Zelda and Metroid may be, they are still the same game - with the same bad guys in the same spot and the same bosses moving in the same pattern - every time you play it. With sports games like Tecmo Bowl, however, every time you pick up the pad, it is a different experience. No two games of TSB ever play out the same, and thanks to the hilarity of human err, every Tecmo Bowl contest has an aura of unpredictability to it. 

To this day, Tecmo Bowl and its long-line of successors - most notably, of course, being TSB on the NES - have maintained a huge following, with national tournaments held throughout the country, ESPN producing a full-length documentary on its significance to the world of sports, and even die-hard Tecmo Bowl techies who hack the TSB .ROM files to create annually-updated versions of the game with contemporary teams, rosters and stats (and if that wasn't enough, there are even some folks out there who have created entirely new games out of the tried-and-true engine, including the only NCAA-themed football games you'll be playing anytime soon.) 

Simply put, Tecmo Bowl is much more than an old video game series. It is a part of the American sports vernacular and a reminder of just how simple, uncomplicated and unpretentious video games used to be. There may be prettier and more realistic and more features-loaded pigskin sims out there, but to this day, I don't think I've ever played a football video game as absorbing, as addictive and as enjoyable as the games spawned by Tecmo Bowl. We're still talking about 'em 25 years later, and we're going to be talking about them 50 years later. Shit, we'll probably be living on the fuckin' moon some day, still talking about the infamous "nose tackle trick." 

Consoles come and go, you know, but true greatness never goes away. As long as there is both football and video games, people will forever flock back to Tecmo Bowl - and they will continue to celebrate it, as one would any unconquered champion of the gridiron. 


2 comments:

  1. Great article and amazingly complete. My team built the 2003 mobile game mentioned in the article and it was a labor of love. What a fantastic franchise!

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    1. That is awesome. Would you be up for an interview sometime about your experiences working on the game? There's hardly any info out there about it, and tons of people would love to learn more about what's kinda' become "a lost game" over the last few years.

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