Sunday, January 26, 2020

PS1 REVIEW: Konami’s “NFL Full Contact” (1996)

Think Sega pioneered the virtual art of first person football? Here’s a fairly obscure arcade pigskin title from the house Castlevania built that actually gave us the video game gimmick seven years earlier


By: Jimbo X

You know, there were a lot of great — or, at least, really, really good — football games on the original PlayStation, and believe it or not, not all of them were called Madden or Blitz. And for me, the quasi-holy trinity of non E.A. American footy games on the PS1 has been Tecmo Super Bowl from 1996, NCAA Gamebreaker from 1996 and one more offering from the year Bob Dole was last relevant to any capacity, Konami’s NFL Full Contact.

Now, before we get into what made these games so guldarn good for their time, you’ll need a little bit of context. You see, with the arrival of the PS1 and the Saturn (and the impending release of the N64), the home console market had finally made the great leap from 2D animated sprites to 3D polygons, and few genres felt the immediate paradigm shift as much as sports games. And since nobody played John Madden Football on the 3D0, I’m just gonna’ go on and assume that the first time any American video football game fan played a virtual pigskin offering in three-dimensional space, it was via one of those three aforementioned titles. Indeed, you have to remember, the first fully 3D Madden on the PS1 wouldn’t hit store shelves until 1998, so seeing this shit — as crude as it may be by contemporary standards — back in ‘96 was downright earthshaking.

Oddly enough though, none of the quasi-holy-trinity of pioneering polygonal pigskin products on the PlayStation seem to have gotten that much reverence, then or now. And it’s especially irksome when it comes to NFL Full Contact, a title that, in all sincerity, was damn near half a decade ahead of its time.

Let’s start by getting the demerits out of the way early. By modern standards, there ain’t a whole lot going on with NFL Full Contact, comparatively. For starters, in terms of gameplay modes there’s very, very little to work with. Basically, your only options are quick-play (against the CPU or against player 2) or a very brief “playoffs mode” that has you playing four games back-to-back-to-back-to-back en route to a Super Bowl throwdown. There is nothing even remotely approaching a “season” mode to be found herein, and don’t even THINK about pinpointing a “franchise” mode in the mix. You won't be able to trade players or finagle with the salary cap here — it’s just you, a buncha’ bright green pixelated grass and a lot of running it up the gut (especially until you get the passing mechanics down.)

And speaking of mechanics, to say this game is lacking technical depth would be an understatement. I’m pretty sure Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES had a more robust playbook than this game does, and for the most part, all of your blitzes and zone coverage options are totally interchangeable. And since you really can’t flip plays, you’re pretty much stuck spamming the same passing routes over and over again, and if your receiver is in double coverage, just fuckin’ forget about it

And you know what? Let’s cut the proverbial bullshit here and hypothetically call a spade a spade. The presentation in this game, well, it pretty much sucks. The player polygons are blocky, blurry and fugly as all hell, with every single player — despite being modeled after actual NFLPA-affiliated athletes — are painted the same all-purpose caramel skin tone, as if the entire League was suddenly overrun by Polynesians. Hell, sometimes, you can’t even make out the numbers on players’ jerseys, which from the behind-the-ass cam, usually ends up looking like everybody on the field is wearing an enigmatic letter “M” on the back of their shirts, for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Oh, and commentary? Forget it. You get the same chirping crowd noises, the same huddle grumbles and the same ref whistles over and over and over again. Hell, there’s not even that much legitimate music to be found in the game, the more I think about it. So yeah, all signs point to some VERY unremarkable audiovisuals throughout the experience. 

Of course, the way I phrased all of that, it made it sound like NFL Full Contact is absolute irredeemable hot trash, but it really isn’t. In fact, I’d feel pretty confident calling it one of the more underappreciated football video games of the 32-bit era, and one that certainly deserves substantially more acclaim now than a lot of its contemporaries. Why so, you might be thinking? Well, I can boil all that down to two things, folks.

Ah, back when Jamal Anderson still had ACLs. And a driver's license.

First, as do most Konami games before they went to shit, this whole package celebrates gameplay uber alles. The visuals might be blocky-looking throw-up, but the core pigskin mechanics are fun as fuck and once you get the core fundamentals down, it almost starts playing like a perfect fusion of Tecmo Super Bowl and Madden NFl ‘94, albeit, with a much, much greater emphasis on the arcade-tomfoolery. Like a proto-Blitz that at least TRIES to maintain some semblance of strategy, Full Contact is an immensely enjoyable pick-up-and-play experience, made even better by the nostalgic thrill of seeing Tim Brown and Jeff Hofstetler and silver and black Raiders garb again — even if just virtually.

But outside of the core gameplay being pure-D fun, there’s another very important reason to go out of your way to play this title. Remember back in 2003, when Sega released ESPN NFL Football (which, essentially, was NFL 2K4?) Well, the big addendum to the gameplay was the inclusion of something called First Person Football mode, which allowed you to handle kick returns and play armchair quarterback LITERALLY through the eyes of any player on the field. Of course, it was one of those ideas that sounded WAY better in theory than execution, although it’s pretty hard to NOT want to play a game that literally markets itself as “fuckin’ Doom, but with you sacking the shit out of Jake Plummer over and over again instead of chainsawing up hell spawns.”

Alas, that “novel” approach, apparently, wasn’t all that novel. Indeed, a good seven years before ESPN NFL Football purportedly pioneered the concept, guess who ELSE was giving video gamers first-person football action? That’s right, NFL Full Contact, and in many ways, it pulled off the gimmick even better than Sega!

Yeah, you KNOW it's virtual reality when the '95 Bengals have an actual rushing attack.

Really, the camera system in NFL Full Contact is reason enough to give this one a look-see. Just hitting the L1 and R1 buttons allows you to zoom in and out in real time, which is something that is oddly aberrant for games of this nature. But if you REALLY wanna’ have some fun, all you have to do is hit the select button and you can hotkey your way from zoomed out, TV-style mode to quasi-third-person proto-Madden view to — the obvious selling point here — first person mode.

Now, in first person mode, on offense you automatically take control of the QB first (sorry, all of you folks out there who have long dreamed what it would be like to play a fuckin’ center through a Wolfenstein 3D perspective.) The camera actually shakes up and down to simulate the first-person breathing and the POV shifts left and right while calling audibles in the huddle. It’s a really cool visual that’s made even more awesome because both your own lineman and the opposing D are obfuscated to the point of being blurred out football player pixels. Now, that may sound like a demerit, but as soon as you experience it firsthand, you’ll recognize the intrinsic greatness of the concept.

So immersive, you can almost FEEL the early, onset CTE!

Long story short, kids? NFL Full Contact is basically FIRST PERSON TECMO SUPER BOWL on the NES, and that is EVERY BIT as stellar as it sounds. 

Of course, the perspective switches when you hand the ball off to a running back, and the designers here should definitely be commended for making the first-person action here feel visceral as fuck. You can pretty much feel the collisions as your 240 pound fullback smacks headfirst into a 300 pound lineman, and cutting your way through a defensive tackle and breaking off a big gain feels almost euphoric. Hell, you can even cut back and juke in first person, and the field of vision is actually a lot clearer than you’d anticipate for a game from its timeframe. This is a game that makes the field feel spacious and manageable, but without ever sacrificing the trench warfare dynamic of the run game. It’s a big, bad, bruising experience, and needless to say, it’s an instantly addictive one. 

Now, when you throw the ball, the camera leaps out of the quarterback’s body and does this weird sideways pan to the intended receiver. What’s cool here is that you can take control of said receiver and try to position him in front of the football, which is something that makes the overall gameplay feel that more intuitive and reflexive. Of course, if you DO snag the ball, the camera reverts back to the regular ball-carrier POV, which is also the default for literally every defensive player on the field. My suggestion? Always set your cursor on the middle linebacker, shift to your left side and proceed to BLITZ the ever-loving fuck out of the opposition on every down. Not only is it a hoot and a half, I’d say at least 85 percent of the time it results in a guaranteed sack, to boot.

Yeah, a first-person mode is pretty much the only way to get anybody excited about special teams play in a video game.

And the first-person shtick is also applicable to special teams play. While the first-person field goal kicking and punting is just kind of meh, holy shit, is handling kick returns a blast in this one. I mean, shit if you though the early Medal of Honor games were harrowing, just TRY and make it past the sea of jerseys when you’re playing as the shitty back-up kick returner of the ‘95 Falcons up against Steve Young’s 49ers juggernaut. Talk about tension!

Now, as groovy as the first-person football feature may be, it would be a dereliction of my duties to say the gimmick makes up for all of the game’s other imperfections. Literally every stadium in the game looks identical and the lack of audio (save the same crowd noises and brief announcer clips, repeated ad nauseam) makes the game feel woefully unpolished, and the lack of game modes (you fucks couldn’t even give us one measly 16-game regular season mode?) definitely takes a lot of replay value out of the title.

Still, it’s a fun pick up and play game that any old-school football video game fan should give a look-see, if just for its strangely overlooked historical significance. And it truly is a fun multiplayer game, the perfect weekend timewaster for you and a pal to blast through while shooting up bath salts or vaping heroin or whatever you college-aged assholes are into nowadays. And if absolutely nothing else, it sure does the heart good to see so many retro-tastic players like Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, Warren Moon and Barry Sanders again.

I mean, where else are you going to find a Dallas Cowboys’ team this solid in the year 2020, anyway? 

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