September 1st and 10: Favorite Football Video Games

September 1st and 10: Favorite Football Video Games

Football season is almost upon us, and there’s a cornucopia of football video games for fans to choose from as we get ready to ring in another NFL campaign. There’s no better time than now to list ten of my favorite games. There’s no particular order to this list, so number one isn’t necessarily Number One. With that said… it’s time to blow the whistle and get this 1st and 10 list underway!

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1. Madden NFL 2005 Collector’s Edition (EA Sports for PlayStation 2, 2004): 2004 was a special year for football video games. In my view, it marked the height of competition between two giants in the business. Madden NFL 2005 was on one side of this battle, and the Collector’s Edition package for the PlayStation 2 was amazing. Aside from the additions that Madden NFL 2005 brought to the table– including EA Sports Radio with Tony Bruno, which was a neat presentation addition– the Collector’s Edition also added three older Madden versions (Madden ’93, Madden ’98, and Madden 2000) to sample, as well as a trivia game and bonus DVD content. Let’s not forget that the base Madden NFL 2005 game is pretty darned good, too. The Madden NFL 2005 Collector’s Edition package can be had for less than $5 complete, and football fans should give it a look if they don’t have it already. There’s a lot of football for a little money in this package.

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2. ESPN NFL 2K5 (SEGA for Xbox and PlayStation 2, 2004): On the other side of the 2004 NFL Football War was ESPN NFL 2K5, which was one hell of a swan song for Visual Concepts and its NFL 2K series. I still maintain that ESPN NFL 2K5 has the best overall presentation of any sports video game, despite the game’s age. Visual Concepts absolutely nailed the ESPN Sunday Night Football presentation package and adapted it for use in every game. In addition, the implementation of the ESPN SportsCenter desk for weekly highlight shows and analysis is really well done. Chris Berman delivers the highlights with fervor and Trey Wingo does a decent job of covering the trades, signings, and injuries every week. The presentation is just part of the ESPN NFL 2K5 package. First-person football, matchups against celebrities in The Crib, minigames, and a fun core football game add up to dozens of hours of fun. It was a great deal at just $20 back in 2004, and it’s an even better one at around $5 for either the Xbox (which is the better version) or the PlayStation 2 (which is still pretty great).

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3. 10-Yard Fight (Irem coin-op, 1983): While most sports video game fans are likely familiar with 10-Yard Fight for the Nintendo Entertainment System, that game is a port of this 1983 coin-op developed by Irem. In this game, players only play offense and must score a touchdown before the clock runs out. Time is added to the clock when first downs are made, but the clock accelerates as the difficulty increases. Points are earned for yards gained, completed catches, touchdowns, and any time remaining after scoring. Unfortunately, the NES version did away with the countdown timer and the scoring system, leading to a rather bland football game. The coin-op version of 10-Yard Fight, however, is still a lot of fun to play today… if you can find an arcade that has one.

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4. 4th and Inches (Accolade for Commodore 64/Amiga/Apple II/DOS, 1987): This was the first football video game that I really got into, when I got it for my Commodore 64 in late 1988. The user interface bears some similarities to Hardball!— another Accolade game– but this is definitely a football game. Players can call plays, run, pass, tackle, and everything else that you’d expect in a football game. It’s not the best-looking game out there, and skews more toward the arcade side of the game than the simulation side, but that makes it easy to learn and fun to play.

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5. Tecmo Super Bowl (Tecmo for NES, 1991; SNES/Genesis, 1993): Nobody should be surprised that Tecmo Super Bowl makes my list. This game improves on the Tecmo Bowl formula and adds a ton of features. All of the NFL teams– and most of the NFL players– are in this game, as opposed to a selection of NFL cities and many of the NFL players that were in Tecmo Bowl. Battery backup saves stats and season progress. Fumbles and injuries can change games. Impressive stat tracking includes league leaders in many different categories. What’s most important is that the gameplay is still very accessible. For all of the realism that the NFL and NFLPA licenses bring, Tecmo Super Bowl still holds true to its arcade roots. No penalties makes for a faster tempo. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, sports or otherwise, and no sports video game fan should be without a copy to fire up once the pigskin starts flying every September.

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6. Super High Impact (Midway coin-op, 1991; Acclaim for SNES/Genesis, 1993): I covered this game in detail recently. Like Tecmo Super Bowl, Super High Impact discards a lot of the rules that can make football so difficult to play or get into. It’s all action, both on offense and on defense. Although Super High Impact doesn’t have any licenses, it doesn’t need them to be an enjoyable, in-your-face game of football. It glorifies the violent side of the sport, although there’s no blood to be seen, and it doesn’t take itself seriously. Super High Impact isn’t a season-long game like Madden or Tecmo Super Bowl, but it is a blast to pop into your game console when you feel like scoring some points and busting some heads.

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7. NES Play Action Football (Nintendo for NES, 1990): This pick may be odd to some of you. Play Action Football is a slow game of football. It lacks an NFL license. The isometric view may be off-putting at times. The players aren’t detailed. I understand these criticisms, but I offer two features that make Play Action Football stand out for its time: stamina management and four-player action. Stamina, like it or not, is a part of football. Players tire after long runs or after playing many snaps in a row. Play Action Football attempts to simulate this through its stamina system, which forces players to substitute at certain positions for the best results. Sure, subbing in a backup quarterback because the starter is tired isn’t common in reality… but swapping running backs or wide receivers sure is. Also, playing a four-player game (with the aid of the NES Satellite or Four Score) is a lot of fun, and something that was pretty novel in 1990. Play Action Football isn’t the best game on this list, but it does have significance.

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8. NFL Football ’94 Starring Joe Montana (SEGA for Genesis, 1993): NFL Football ’94 is the apex of the Joe Montana Football series for the SEGA Genesis and competed pretty well against Madden NFL ’94 for the title of Best Football Game that year. The reason that the game earns a spot on my list is because of its presentation. For starters, the commentary still impresses me today. It’s not perfect, but for 1993… it was amazing to hear a commentator calling plays, play results, yard lines, and scores. Madden NFL ’94, by comparison, has sporadic Maddenisms and the series didn’t even add running commentary until the next console generation. Having the camera zoom in to where the active ball carrier on the field is helps offensive players to find holes to run to. There are also small cutscenes on the scoreboard that are a nice touch. The passing game can be a little suspect, but overall, NFL Football ’94 holds its own as a fine football game and is a title that set the stage for commentary in later football games.

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9. NFL Blitz (Midway coin-op, 1997; Midway for PlayStation/Nintendo 64, 1998): Like NBA Jam before it, NFL Blitz succeeds in transforming a popular sport into an addictive, over-the-top arcade game. Blitz draws a lot of inspiration from High Impact Football and Super High Impact, as there are big plays, big hits, and the scores are often pretty high. One major difference is that Blitz has NFL and NFLPA licensing, which means that players can now assume the roles of their favorite teams and athletes (from that time period, anyway). Another big difference is that the visuals received a major upgrade from sprites to polygonal characters. The players look bigger, meaner, and animate smoother. The violence from Super High Impact has been toned down, with the elimination of fights between plays and the removal of the Hit-O-Meter to judge viciousness of certain hits, but Blitz is still brutal. Players can hit each other after the whistle blows and can execute some WWE-type moves on opposing players. The home versions of Blitz also have Season modes, in addition to the option of playing and beating each team once to unlock super teams. This game is right up there with Tecmo Super Bowl in my list of favorite sports games– and favorite games overall– of all time.

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10. Madden NFL 17 (EA Sports for PlayStation 4/Xbox One, 2016): Here’s a surprise: I’ve really been impressed with what I’ve seen (and played) from Madden NFL 17. I know that there are some glitches that have to be ironed out (such as kickoffs received in the end zone as touchdowns), but I have yet to run into these glitches and have really enjoyed all aspects of what I’ve played so far. The game does a nice job of teaching players as much about football as they want to know, if interested. Knowing the Xs and Os of football makes watching the sport on television (or in person) a much different experience, and it can make you a better football video game player, as well. The Skills Trainer in Madden NFL 17, in my view, excels at being as good a teacher as it does at being enjoyable. I’m having a lot of fun in the Franchise mode, as well. Finally, I can’t say enough good things about the presentation in this game. The team of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis deliver excellent commentary that is being updated weekly to add references to current league events. There are nice summaries of starting offensive and defensive lineups that could be used on any broadcast, and relevant stat lines appear with decent frequency. It falls just short of ESPN NFL 2K5 in the presentation department, thanks to a lack of a weekly summary/sports network broadcast (which Madden NFL 10 and Madden NFL 11 had), but it’s the strongest overall Madden presentation that I’ve seen and heard– and one of my overall favorite Madden games ever released.

…and there’s your 1st and 10 for September. I’m sure your list of favorite football games has some different choices. What are they? Tweet them @TheRetroReferee with the hashtag #1stAnd10, and make your voice heard! In the meantime, enjoy this year’s NFL campaign– it’s bound to be another good one.

Ref’s Roll Call: SNES Sports Game Recommendations

Ref’s Roll Call: SNES Sports Game Recommendations

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System here in the United States. The console has a lot of great games that cover several different genres, from platformers to action games to RPGs. In terms of sports video games, however, the Super NES isn’t held in as high regard as its 16-bit competitor– the SEGA Genesis. Many EA Sports games, for example, tended to run better on the Genesis.

Despite not being considered as strong a sports video game console as the Genesis, the Super NES does have some games that do narrow that gap. Let’s take a look at a few personally recommended titles which demonstrate that Nintendo’s 16-bit console can hold its own in the sports game genre:

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Super Batter Up (Namco, 1992): The true successor to the RBI Baseball games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Batter Up will feel immediately familiar to fans and offers an MLBPA license so that real players (and their 1991 stats) are in the game. Unlike the 8-bit RBI games, though, the on-screen athletes here have a somewhat more realistic look to them. This isn’t a drawback, though, and is a nice step forward from the cutesy super-deformed players that the series sported for years. The game even outshines the Genesis port of RBI Baseball 3, giving the Super NES the best RBI Baseball (even if not by name) game of the 16-bit era. (Pricing note: A loose cart is valued at around $5 USD, while a complete in box version of the game is worth around $27.)

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Super Baseball Simulator 1.000 (Culture Brain, 1991): This sequel fixes some of the problems of the 1990 NES game while adding a few more extras to make it one of the most versatile baseball games of the 16-bit era. Players can choose to play baseball with normal rules, or with special Ultra powers that lead to some amazing results on the mound, in the field, or in the batter’s box. When engaged in Season play, simulated games move a lot faster in this version than the 8-bit original. Best of all, this game has a battery backup, so stats and season progress are saved to the battery and no passwords are required. (Pricing note: A loose cart is valued at around $6, while a complete in box version of the game is worth around $25.)

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Tecmo Super Bowl (Tecmo, 1993): It took a couple of years after its hit NES game for Tecmo to develop Tecmo Super Bowl for the Super NES, but it was worth the wait. Improvements from the 1991 NES game include new cinema screens, updated rosters, improved visuals and sound, and the ability to play multiple seasons. This game is so good that Tecmo used it as the “2D mode” for its 2010 digital release of Tecmo Bowl Throwback (minus the NFL and NFLPA licenses, which could not be renewed). Tecmo also developed and published a separate version of Tecmo Super Bowl for the Genesis in 1993, but the game suffers a bit in the visual and sound departments compared to its Super NES counterpart. (Pricing note: A loose cart is valued at around $10, while a complete in box version of the game is worth around $18.)

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NBA Give ‘N Go (Konami, 1995): This game is based on Konami‘s 1993 Run and Gun coin-op, which I talked about in my recent First and 10 piece. It improves on the coin-op by offering full NBA and NBA Players’ licenses, which the arcade game did not have. Don’t expect a pure basketball simulation with Give ‘N Go; this game is all arcade action, with tons of dunks, alley-oops, and blocked shots. The only real drawbacks are the lack of a Season mode and relying on passwords to save progress instead of battery backup. If you’re a fan of arcade sports games, this title needs to be in your Super NES library. It’s that good. (Pricing note: A loose cart is valued at around $7, while a complete in box version is worth around $10— although I’ve seen it go for as much as $20.)

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NBA JAM Tournament Edition (Acclaim, 1995): After 1994’s release of NBA JAM for the Super NES was missing lines of commentary and a battery backup like its SEGA Genesis counterpart, Tournament Edition fills in the missing pieces and is the definitive JAM experience for the Super NES. Using the shoulder buttons for Turbo makes for more comfortable play control, while the graphics and sound edge out the Genesis version this time around. Customizable options make the game as easy or as challenging as players want it to be, and the addition of optional scoring hotspots can make for higher-scoring affairs. My only complaint? The NBA forced Midway to remove the act of shattering backboards (which was a blast in the original JAM) from the sequel… so they’re not in the console versions, either. Still… it’s NBA JAM. If you don’t already own this game, don’t wait any longer. (Pricing note: A loose cart is worth a bit more than $10, while a complete in box version is worth $26.)

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NHL ’96 (EA Sports, 1995): NHL parity was finally achieved between the SEGA Genesis and the Super NES with this 1995 release. No matter which version you play, the entire NHL ’96 package is excellent. Season play accompanies the Playoff and Exhibition modes, and a battery backup saves progress and accumulated stats (including user stats, which is a nice feature). When the on-ice action starts, the pace is fast and the players animate and move very smoothly. One-timers are still deadly, but goaltenders are a bit smarter this time around than in years past. This was the last of the 16-bit NHL games to get significant upgrades before EA Sports began turning its attention to the 32-bit generation of consoles, and it’s a really strong finish. (Pricing note: A loose cart is worth about $6, while a complete in box version is worth about $15.)

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These titles are just a sample of what’s available for quality sports games for the Super NES. While this list doesn’t unseat the Genesis from its rightful position as the 16-bit sports game champ, it does show that the Super NES has games that make it a better competitor for the title than many people might otherwise be led to believe.

After Further Review: John Elway’s Quarterback (NES, 1987)

After Further Review: John Elway’s Quarterback (NES, 1987)

The Nintendo Entertainment System has a few football games in its library that are based on arcade games. Tecmo Bowl, released for the NES in 1989, is arguably the strongest game in this category. Like Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl deviates some from its coin-op cousin and delivers a fantastic at-home experience as a result. Cyberball, a futuristic game of robotic football, was converted to the NES by Tengen and published by Jaleco in 1992. It sticks to its source material and delivers an adequate– but not outstanding– arcade port. 10-Yard Fight, a “Black Box” launch title for the NES in 1985, is based on the 1983 Irem coin-op of the same name. It’s an okay game, though it’s missing the point-scoring and timer aspects of the coin-op and doesn’t offer a ton of excitement as a result.

Then… there’s John Elway’s Quarterback, which was ported to the NES by RARE and published by Tradewest in 1987. Let’s give this game a closer look.

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Hey. That’s not John Elway!

John Elway’s Quarterback is based on a 1987 arcade game that was published by Leland. The game is operated with a traditional joystick and a spring-loaded joystick. The spring-loaded joystick controller was used to pass the ball. Pulling all the way back on the spring-loaded stick fired long passes, while pulling back less threw passes a bit shorter– primarily for short receiver routes. Leland would also use the spring-loaded joystick for some baseball coin-ops; perhaps the best-known of these is 1987’s Double Play: Super Baseball / Home Run Derby. Quarterback also allowed players to enter their initials so that running stats could be kept as they continued to play the game. It’s worth noting that John Elway signed a deal with Leland not long after the coin-op was released. This led to his name being added to the home versions of Quarterback, as well as to a revision of the coin-op, called John Elway’s Team Quarterback.

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As usual, the running back is WIDE OPEN. Throw it!

The most obvious difference between John Elway’s Quarterback and its coin-op cousin is the loss of the spring-loaded joystick. RARE managed to compensate for this loss through a combination of holding the pass button down and using the D-pad to target where the pass is thrown. This alternative method of play control works, but it’s slower than it should be. This can contribute to quarterbacks getting sacked because it takes too long to set the desired target. Another occasional problem with the design is being forced to let the ball go before the target is set as desired, which can lead to costly interceptions by the defense.

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Bomb and Shotgun are your friends. The other plays? Forget ’em.

Make no mistake about John Elway’s Quarterback: It is a passing-oriented game. If you like to run the football with your offense, this is not the game for you. Of the nine offensive plays offered, only three are designed runs. The other six are passing plays. For players taking on the CPU, of these nine plays, only the Shotgun and Bomb plays are needed. As seen in the image above, the running back sets up to the right (or left) of the quarterback at the start of the play. After the snap, the running back streaks up the field and is often left uncovered, making for an almost-too-easy completion. Rinse and repeat with these two plays and, as long as you’ve mastered the play controls for passing, human players will almost always beat the CPU fairly handily. (PROTIP: Don’t bother with running plays. Just don’t.)

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Nowhere to run, red quarterback. You’re a Safety Sandwich!

Defensively, as in most football games, players will have to choose between whether they want to rush the quarterback or drop into coverage to break up or pick off passes. Best results usually come from mostly dropping into coverage, with occasional blitzing to keep the opponent honest. CPU-controlled rushers and blitzers tend to do a pretty good job of containing the quarterback if the receivers are covered, and– if playing against the CPU– computer-controlled quarterbacks seem to be prone to the interception bug, usually at the strangest times. Stay in coverage, read the receivers, and step in front of passes to end drives. (PROTIP: The CPU never punts on fourth down, so keep your special teams on the bench.)

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Most. Exciting. End of game screen. Ever.

While John Elway’s Quarterback plays just fine, it does have limited replay value. For starters, the CPU is just too easy, and there aren’t any difficulty settings to even things out. Given time and practice, most players will be able to lay at least 40 points on the CPU every game. Next, there isn’t any kind of season play or a lasting gameplay mode to keep players coming back. Once a game ends, the final score displays, and the game resets. That’s it. Finally, the ability to enter initials and have stats tracked didn’t make it into the NES game. There aren’t any leaderboards or tracked records. Overall, once you play a game or two, you’re done for a couple of months– if not for good. There’s nothing to keep you coming back.

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95 times. NINETY. FIVE. TIMES.

John Elway’s Quarterback looks fine. Visually, it’s not quite as sharp as its coin-op cousin, but the graphics get the job done. The players do blink quite a bit every so often, but since John Elway’s Quarterback is an early NES game, it’s hard to be super-critical of this. While I can let the graphics slide a bit, I can’t be so forgiving with the music and sound. As seen above, the Charge! fanfare gets played a bit too much. 95 times in one game? Come on. On some plays, it can be heard three times in succession. It will drive you nuts. You’ve been warned. The rest of the sound and music is stale, with crowds that sound like the ocean and an occasional bird whistle to break the monotony. If you play the game, you’ll miss nothing if you turn the sound off and stream some football music.

TD celebration on the helmet? Not cool, man.
TD celebration on the helmet? Not cool, man.

After further review, John Elway’s Quarterback is tough to recommend for NES owners. Granted, it is an early NES game, but there’s just not enough here to keep a player’s interest for more than a game or two. It is an interesting novelty, for those who haven’t played it, as the passing system allows for more control than most other football games for the NES. Overall, it’s just not a very fulfilling experience. That said, the game is a cheap buy at less than $2.50 USD for a loose cart (or $12 complete in box), per PriceCharting. If you’re looking for a cheap, arcade-style football game for your NES to play with a friend, you might want to give John Elway’s Quarterback a look.

Otherwise? Leave this Quarterback on the bench.

In The Booth: ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 (PS2/XBOX)

In The Booth: ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 (PS2/XBOX)

When you think of ESPN video games, chances are that you don’t remember the series of sports games from Konami from 2000-2002. That’s understandable, as these games released during the sixth generation of video game consoles, really weren’t that remarkable. The games were generally average in quality, with ESPN MLS Extra Time 2002 being the best of the lot with a Metacritic score of 77. What was memorable– at least to me– was Konami’s use of notable commentary teams in several of these games. ESPN NBA 2Night (and its sequel), for example, featured Brent Musberger and Stuart Scott in the booth. ESPN NHL National Hockey Night— while an unmitigated gameplay disaster– had commentary from Gary Thorne and Steve Levy.

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This In The Booth installment takes a deeper look at one of these Konami games: ESPN NFL Primetime 2002, developed by Farsight Studios and released in for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox platforms in early December of 2001. The game is a slightly above-average football sim that boasts features including full NFL and NFLPA licenses, a surprisingly deep Franchise mode, and– most importantly for this column– fairly authentic ESPN presentation.

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For the uninitiated, back in 2001, ESPN’s NFL Primetime show was what many football fans watched on Sunday nights in order to get caught up on that afternoon’s game action. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson were the centerpieces of the show. Berman was (and still remains) a veteran ESPN personality, while Jackson brought his NFL playing experience as a former linebacker with the Denver Broncos to provide player analysis. NFL Primetime was also the lead-in for ESPN’s broadcast of Sunday Night Football, with Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, and Paul Maguire in the booth. This was at a time before NFL Network, and when other NFL network affiliates would cut to normal Sunday night programming after games wrapped up– so Primetime was familiar to millions of NFL fans on Sunday nights. Berman established and used many of his famous catchphrases during Primetime, and these are still synonymous with him today.

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While ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 doesn’t feature the televised highlight/recap show that it’s based on, it does feature Chris Berman and Tom Jackson as game commentators. Berman handles play-by-play responsibilities, while Jackson fills the role of color commentator/analyst. Berman sounds genuine, although his trademark personality is dialed back a bit. His delivery is smooth and fairly genuine, although there’s why too much “He… could… go… all… the… way!” going on here. Jackson, on the other hand, is obviously reading his lines. He sounds wooden and disinterested. Berman’s effort can pass for decent play-by-play, but Jackson offers little insight and doesn’t do a great job as a color commentator in this spot. It’s possible that Jackson’s written lines were just uninteresting, but he makes Cris Collinsworth sound like a genius by comparison.

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Turning to the visual presentation in ESPN NFL Primetime 2002, Konami and Farsight Studios do a pretty good job of making games at least somewhat look like ESPN broadcasts. The ESPN broadcast graphics package for scores and stat lines looks quite good, and the occasional Inside The Numbers mini-segments that take place before plays are a nice touch. The game tracks a ton of stats; one in particular that I found interesting was the Average Starting Position After Kickoff stat for kickers. Other numbers to appear via in-game stat lines include Tackles, Rushing Yards, Yards per Carry, Yards After Catch (YAC), and many others. Oddly enough, there aren’t a lot of stat lines for quarterbacks. This is rather unusual, given how important the quarterback is to the offense. This is in stark contrast to, say, the Madden games. Madden NFL 97, for example, used a couple of different stat lines for quarterback performance.

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Unfortunately, automatic replays leave something to be desired. Many are shown at the angle in the photo above, and there isn’t much variation. It’s not always easy to see the block that sprang a running back for a big gain or where the coverage broke down in the defensive backfield that led to a huge catch and run. Thankfully, there is a manual replay option available to view the previous play, with a decent amount of user options to fine tune replays for optimum results. It’s too bad that a little more attention wasn’t paid to this feature, as well as writing some lines for Berman and Jackson to break down big plays.

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ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 is important from a presentation standpoint. At the time, it was the closest to an authentic ESPN broadcast as football video game fans like myself had seen. Past ESPN games were missing commentary and only featured some elements of ESPN’s broadcast graphics package, but NFL Primetime 2002 fixed both of these problems and– along with Madden NFL 2001— had drastically increased the quality of presentation in football video games. Some casual observers or passers-by could legitimately wonder if these were video games or TV broadcasts.

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Unfortunately for Konami, average gameplay led to poor sales of its line of ESPN sports video games. In the spring of 2002, Konami announced that “The ESPN license has ended” and that it would not be renewed. Konami’s retreat, along with struggles in first-party sports game development by both Microsoft Studios and 989 Sports, left EA Sports and SEGA Sports to battle it out for sports video game supremacy. What we didn’t know was that ESPN would figure prominently into the sports video game wars of the sixth console generation, beginning just 18 months later… but that’s a topic for another column.

imageBefore signing off, it’s worth noting that Tom Jackson retired from ESPN in August of 2016, after assisting with coverage of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremonies. Although Jackson didn’t really impress with his color commentary in ESPN NFL Primetime 2002, he was a staple of ESPN’s NFL coverage team for nearly 30 years. His retirement is what prompted me to return to this game and cover it for an In The Booth installment. Here’s to a happy and healthy retirement, T.J.; you will be missed by fans and colleagues alike.

Thanks for checking out this installment of In The Booth. We’ll do it again soon.

From The Ref’s Office: August 13, 2016

From The Ref’s Office: August 13, 2016

It’s been a busy week here on the site! I just wrapped up the fourth new piece this week, and it’s been a blast having some time to get some content posted.

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Three of the four pieces are football-related, including the first In The Booth article. I’m really excited about this series, because I’m one of the few people who considers presentation in sports video games to be an important thing. Commentary, stat lines, instant replays, and other bells and whistles that borrow from television broadcasts have always caught my eye, going all the way back to the EASN days. For the next article in the series, I’m looking to talk about ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 from Konami— a game that I believe laid the groundwork for Visual Concepts to perfect in its ESPN sports titles for SEGA in 2003 and 2004. (I’ll be covering the 2K games down the line, as well.)

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Two other pieces that went up this week are new installments of After Further Review, covering John Madden Football and Super High Impact for the Super NES. With the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Super NES in North America being celebrated later this month, I wanted to cover a few sports games for the console. If time allows, I’m hoping to do more of these by month’s end. There’s plenty of Super NES sports games to cover, including some non-Madden football games which would be perfect for discussing as we’re now into NFL Preseason mode. Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Quarterback Club, Pro Quarterback, Super NES Play Action Football, Konami NFL Football, Capcom’s MVP Football… and the list goes on. If there’s a football game for the Super NES that you’d like me to consider for After Further Review, feel free to drop a comment below. I can’t guarantee that I’ll cover it, but suggestions are always welcome– and I’ll credit you in the piece, if you like, for recommending it!

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The last of the four pieces that went up this week was a new installment of Coin Toss, talking about Track & Field. I know that it’s rather trite to bring up Track & Field during the Olympics, but it was nice to break up the flurry of football-related content… and Track & Field has a special place in my heart. If you haven’t read the piece yet, I don’t want to spoil it, but you’ll find out why the game meant a lot to me as a kid with few tokens to spend. The next Coin Toss piece will revolve around a Midway arcade sports game. You might be able to guess what it is!

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In other news, my summer classes are complete and I’ll have a bit more time to work on content for the site– at least for the next 2-3 weeks, as I’ll also be working on getting back into the workforce for September. I do have new content ideas lined up, starting with what I mentioned earlier, along with other things floating around in my creative mind. I can’t guarantee that the rest of August will have 4-5 new things a week, but I definitely have the material to fill at least the next few weeks. Videos, unfortunately, are still on hiatus due to the tropical heat and humidity that Mother Nature has been pumping into Southern New England most of this month. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get back in front of the camera more in September.

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I mentioned the 25th anniversary of the Super NES earlier, and I’m happy to announce that I’ve written a piece celebrating the occasion for my friends at Retroware. It will hopefully be going up soon. I may do something similar here, though I’m not sure how I’ll approach it just yet. The Super NES and I have a lot of history; I got my console in late 1991 at age 19, and it was a big part of my early adult life. I really wanted to shoot a video and share some personal memories of the console, but heat and humidity have made that quite difficult. Maybe it’ll be sports game-related, maybe not… but it’s a significant anniversary and one that I’d like to honor here, as well.

RWEXPO

And, finally, speaking of Retroware– I want to remind everyone about RetroWorld Expo. October 15th isn’t that far away, and the event is shaping up to be even more amazing than last year’s debut. The guest list is stacked, including appearances by Pat the NES Punk, Gamester81, The Gaming Historian, The Game Chasers, Pixel Dan, a host of awesome people from the Retroware family (Eric Lappe, Banjo Guy Ollie, site founders John D & Lance, and who knows who else), and more to be announced. Tickets for the two-day event are on sale now, with two-day admissions or single-day admissions for Saturday or Sunday. There’s also going to be musical guests, an assortment of vendors selling games and consoles, arcade games, console games, and a whole lot more. I’ll be with the Retroware crew, and I sincerely hope to see many of you there.

Look for more new content in the coming days. For now, I’m taking the rest of the weekend off to relax and recharge. As always, thanks so much for checking out the site. Take care!

After Further Review: Super High Impact (Super NES, 1993)

After Further Review: Super High Impact (Super NES, 1993)

Super High Impact is a 1991 football arcade game from Midway that takes all of the penalties– and as many of the more advanced rules as possible– and casts them aside. It’s a sequel to High Impact Football, which hit arcades a year earlier, and laid the groundwork for one of Midway’s best-known arcade games: NFL Blitz. The game was a blast to play back in the early 1990s; I played the coin-op some, but most of my experience with it was via the Super NES version, which I played against friends and against the CPU. How does Super High Impact for the Super NES hold up today, 23 years later? It’s time to go under the hood and review.

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Where’s Ed Hochuli to make this call when you need him?

Super High Impact teams have nine players on offense, nine players on defense, and a kicker. This is different from the standard eleven players on offense and defense, but it’s certainly acceptable. There aren’t any individual players, and there are no player attributes. Each team is equal, except for the city represented and the colors worn. This means that there isn’t a statistical advantage for picking a certain team over another. Want to play as Team Europa? Go for it. They’re just as skilled as the Cincinnati Not-The-Bengals. It’s the skill of the player in control– along with some interesting occurrences that the game will add to keep things interesting– that will determine wins and losses.

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NFL Blitz fans: Does this look familiar to you? It should!

The play-calling screen in Super High Impact may be a bit intimidating, as seen in the photo above; however, each offensive play has options to either run or pass– so picking the wrong play isn’t automatically a bad thing. Defensively, there is some difference between plays as to how the computer-controlled players will react, but it’s still possible to use the human-controlled player to blitz the quarterback, stay close to the line of scrimmage to guard against the run, or drop into coverage against the pass. Experimentation with the different plays during practice games will go a long way to learning what each really does.

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I call this touchdown celebration “The YMCA”.

Once the play is selected, controls are simple. On offense, the B button begins the play and is used to pass. Picking a receiver is as easy as pressing either up or down on the D-Pad, to choose the respective receiver to throw to. Unlike Madden and other football sims, only two-receiver sets are used in Super High Impact… so the passing game is simpler. Unfortunately, passing takes some time to pull off, so players must move the quarterback around to give him enough separation from defenders. If not, a sack– or worse– is bound to happen. The running game is easier, and since players don’t have different attributes, the quarterback functions fine as a runner. Players can either bounce him to the outside and press the R shoulder button to get away from defenders past the line of scrimmage, or they can try to rush him up the middle.

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Paging Chris Berman: “IT’S A FUMMM-BULLLL!!!”

Defensively, the B button selects the human-controlled player before the snap and switches to the defender closest to the ball carrier after the snap. Just as on offense, the R shoulder button provides a one-time boost. If used just before making a tackle, a power tackle is performed that can jar the ball loose or can blast the pads and uniform off of the ball-carrier. It’s possible to play the ball in the passing game, but it’s a worthless effort more often than not. Passes sometimes fall incomplete on their own, or can get intercepted automatically if thrown into a group of defenders.

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This screen doesn’t show it, but you CAN run in this game. Honest!

What makes Super High Impact stand out from many other football games is how much it celebrates violence. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Ed Boon— who would go on to co-create Mortal Kombat— was one of the developers of the original High Impact arcade game, along with Eugene Jarvis. While there aren’t any fatalities here, there are the pad-separating hits (described earlier) and players who roll around in pain while screaming about their knee injuries. The animations for the pad-separating hits are funny, but not graphic. Going for big hits on defense should be a priority.

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Roger Goodell’s worst nightmare.

There are also fights in the game, which can break out at any time. After “FIGHT!!!” is shouted by the game’s announcer, the screen displays two meters that are filled as players rapidly jam on all of the buttons. As the meters fill, the players can be seen fighting on the field, while picture-in-picture boxes show some fisticuffs of their own. The first team to fill its meter wins the fight, and the announcer finishes it off by exclaiming, “Somebody get a body bag!” The fights don’t play any part in deciding the game’s outcome, so they’re strictly for bragging rights. At halftime and at the end of each game, Fight wins are tabulated and have their own line on the Stats screen.

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Try to get this screen yourself. It’s harder than you think!

One other violent (but admittedly fun) feature of Super High Impact is the Hit-O-Meter, which is seen above. Sometimes after a big hit, the game breaks away to this screen and the announcer grades the “awesomeness” of the hit. Weak hits earn ridicule from the announcer and rankings like Granny or Dweeb. More violent hits can earn Wicked or Awesome ratings… and, if a hit is violent enough, it can break the meter and earn an Outrageous rating. Like the fights, these sequences are merely for bragging rights– but they’re fun to watch, and it’s always interesting to see and hear what the announcer thinks of your hits.

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I’m not sure that punching your offensive lineman is smart, Coach.

The best way to play Super High Impact is to set the length of each quarter to just two minutes, as it is in the coin-op. Games tend to drag if the periods are longer, and the scores just get ridiculous. Two-minute quarters keep the scoring in check and often work to keep the scores close. One game I played (on the hardest difficulty setting) ended with a score of 28-27 in my favor, after scoring a late touchdown to win. Five-minute periods can see combined scores over 100 points in matchups against the CPU, and are usually skewed in the player’s favor. These longer games just aren’t as much fun, at least in my view.

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Records are made to be broken– but they also reset whenever the game is turned off.

There isn’t any kind of Season Mode or round-robin play in Super High Impact. This limits replay value somewhat, as there’s nothing to keep players coming back day after day to play the game. This was a problem with the coin-op, too– as it was with the arcade machine and the home conversions of an earlier Midway sports game, Arch-Rivals. There are some leaderboards kept, as seen in the image above, but these aren’t saved once the power is turned off. While this lack of consistent replay value is certainly a flaw, it’s still very possible to enjoy Super High Impact in short bursts every so often.

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Extra points are pretty much automatic.

Beam Software did a decent job of porting Super High Impact to consoles for Acclaim, the game’s publisher. Visually, although the digitized characters look a bit muddy, the overall look of the game is reasonably close to the coin-op original. There’s no slowdown to speak of, and there’s a nice screen-shake effect after violent hits. The players are a bit non-descript on the screen, but since there aren’t any individual players or characteristics, this is fine. The game’s sound is quite good, featuring decent music, a few choice lines of trash talk from the players, and chatter from the over-the-top announcer. For 1993, this was a solid aesthetic effort… and I do think that it holds up okay today.

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The play-calling screen in NFL Blitz is strikingly similar to the one seen in Super High Impact.

Just as Arch-Rivals has ties to NBA Jam, Super High Impact and NFL Blitz are related. The play-calling screens in the two games are identical in their 3×3 layouts, and there are an equal number of legitimate plays and made-up plays to choose from. While the violence had to be toned down by quite a bit to get the NFL to sign off on it, Blitz still retains some of the edge that Super High Impact carries with it. Fights and the Hit-O-Meter are replaced by some brutal tackles and hits in NFL Blitz, including a selection of wrestling moves and the ability to hit players after the whistle. Both games are also usually powered by offense, with a lot of points on the board for both teams. Defensive plays can prevent a touchdown or two, but this is more the exception than the rule.

That doesn't look like Gatorade.
That doesn’t look like Gatorade.

After further review, I recommend Super High Impact. Arcade sports fans and casual football fans will enjoy the game’s accessibility and how easy it is to learn, and some fans who think that football “has gone too soft” will get a kick out of the big hits, fights, and the Hit-O-Meter. Purists and football simulation fans may not get as much out of the game; it doesn’t have either the NFL or NFLPA licenses, there are only 9 players on a side versus 11, and the rules and penalties have been severely relaxed or even thrown out. Although the game doesn’t have extras like a Season Mode or a battery backup to save stats, Super High Impact is a great choice when you feel like playing a simple and quick football game… and maybe causing a few injuries while you’re at it.

Coin Toss: Track & Field (Konami, 1983)

Coin Toss: Track & Field (Konami, 1983)

Track & Field stands as one of my favorite arcade games of all time. I played it a ton as a kid, back in the mid-1980s. When I make visits to FunSpot in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, I play it at least five or six times… and I’m still ranked in the Top 10 in scoring for it on the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard.

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From 2014: The Track & Field machine at FunSpot is still the same one that I set my Top 10 score on back in 2002.

Track & Field and I have history… more than 30 years of history. But let’s back up for a bit and break down the game, before talking about that personal history.

The main idea of Track & Field is to complete a series of six events, similar to what you’d see during the Olympic Games, and earn points based on the results from each event. The events are:

  • 100-Meter Dash
  • Long Jump
  • Javelin Throw
  • 110-Meter Hurdles
  • Hammer Throw
  • High Jump
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10.32 seconds is a pretty good time, but under 10 seconds is where you want to be.

The first four events rely heavily on building speed, which is done either by rapidly tapping the Run buttons or rapidly spinning the track-ball, depending on which variant of the coin-op that you’re playing. The 100-Meter Dash is the easiest of the events, as it solely relies on rapid button-tapping to succeed. Crucial fractions of a second can be shaved off by timing the start of the button-tapping routine with the sound of the starting gun. Any time under 10 seconds is very good, and anything under 9.5 seconds is excellent.

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The angle is perfect, but the speed and timing need work.

The Long Jump adds the use of the Jump/Throw button to the mix. Players rapidly tap the Run buttons, as they did for the 100-Meter Dash. As the runner approaches the white Jump Line, players press and hold the Jump/Throw button to launch the runner into the air and set the angle at which the runner will launch. (Hint: 42 degrees!) The event gives the player three attempts to qualify. If the runner takes off after passing the white Jump Line, it’s a foul and no result is recorded; this can happen even with skilled players, as waiting until the last possible moment to take off demands split-second timing. The Long Jump qualification distance gets tough by the third or fourth round, when jumps must clear 9 meters… but earlier rounds are more forgiving.

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Hey! Where did that chandelier come from?

The Javelin Throw is next, and it’s very similar to the Long Jump. Players rapidly tap the Run buttons to gain speed, and then press and hold down the Jump/Throw button to begin the throw and set the angle of the throw. This event also has three attempts to qualify and to best previous efforts. Any throw that begins after the runner crosses the line is a foul, so timing is critical once again. This event is also well-known for an Easter Egg that can grant the player bonus points by throwing the javelin at an exceptionally high angle.

...and the CPU bites it on the first hurdle.
…and the CPU bites it on the first hurdle.

Next comes the 110-Meter Hurdles, which is the last of the intensive button-tapping events. This event is similar to the 100-Meter Dash, but hurdles are erected every 10 meters that must be cleared by tapping the Jump/Throw button before reaching them. Success in this event requires rhythm and pacing, as players must learn to gauge when to press the Jump/Throw button so that the runner clears the hurdle instead of tripping over it or colliding with it. Personally, I’ve head success by rapidly tapping only one of the Run buttons and using my other hand to press the Jump/Throw button at the right time… but individual results may vary.

When your timing is early, you'll know it.
When your timing is early, you’ll know it.

The Hammer Throw has always been my nemesis. It doesn’t require any button-tapping, but rather precision timing. Once the on-screen athlete begins to spin around and his power and speed build, there are windows of time when players will hear a WHOOSH and see the hammer light up briefly. Pressing and holding the Jump/Throw button will initiate the throw and set the trajectory of the throw. As the on-screen athlete spins faster and as the power meter builds, the windows of time to press the Jump/Throw button shrink considerably. Poor timing will send the hammer careening against the throwing cage or into the crowd for a foul, while attempting a throw without enough power will result in not meeting the set qualification distance. This is a tough event that requires a TON of practice– even with three attempts– to get the best results; even after 30 years and hundreds of games, I still haven’t been able to consistently do well.

2.35 meters is the last of the "easy" jumps.
2.35 meters is the last of the “easy” jumps.

Finally, there’s the High Jump. This is a much different event, in terms of mechanics, than any of the previous five. A tap of the Run button sends the on-screen athlete running toward the crossbar. Before the runner reaches the crossbar, the Jump/Throw button must be tapped– and not held down– in order to launch into the air. Once the runner reaches the apex of his jump, players can tap or hold down the Jump/Throw button to decrease the angle and send the runner over the bar. I’ve personally tended to rapidly tap a Run button once the jump has started to see if I can add a bit of height to the jump, but I can’t really verify that this works.

Once the qualification height for the High Jump is cleared and three misses have been logged, one of two things will happen, depending on the setting of the coin-op. If the game is set to One Round, the game ends after the High Jump and the score displayed is the final score. Otherwise, the game continues as the events begin again with the 100-Meter Dash and the qualifying times/distances/heights are made a bit tougher.

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Will you ascend the podium to Track & Field glory?

Those are the basics of Track & Field. It’s a very simple game at its core, but it demands stamina, energy, and timing to play well. It’s a game that I have been fortunate to be pretty good at over the last 30+ years, dating back to first playing it in the Just Fun arcade at the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside in Holyoke, Massachusetts back in late 1983. I can’t explain why, but I’ve always had a decent amount of ability when it comes to rapid button taps or joystick wiggles. It didn’t take long before I was routinely spending at least 15-30 minutes on Track & Field per credit, and this came in handy when I was running short on tokens and wanted to make my arcade time last.

TGScores (2)

I’m still ranked in the Top 10 on the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard for Track & Field. I set that score while at FunSpot in 2002, competing in the International Classic Video Game Tournament. Twin Galaxies rules are that Track & Field is set to One Round play, so players must score well in every event while finding ways to earn extra points. The record score is 95,350 points, which was set in 2009. Amassing that score in only six events is an amazing feat. I’d prefer to set the game to Marathon settings and let players go as long as they are physically and mentally able to, but that’s just me.

The NES version of Track & Field has three events from Hyper Sports, including this one.
The NES version of Track & Field has three events from Hyper Sports, including this one.

For the console Track & Field experience, the Xbox 360 digital release of the arcade game ($4.99 USD from the Xbox Marketplace) is the best bet. It’s a near carbon-copy of the coin-op original, with only a few minor quibbles (such as input lag that makes the Hammer Throw a bit harder) that ding the experience slightly. The NES version of Track & Field (about $7 for a loose cartridge, or $26 complete in box) is a decent port of the arcade game, though it drops the Hammer Throw and adds three events from Hyper Sports (Konami’s coin-op sequel to Track & Field) in its place. Finally, International Track & Field for the PlayStation (about $4 for a loose disc, or about $19 complete in box) is an enjoyable and challenging experience that has events from both arcade games and from Track & Field II for the NES.

Whether it’s in the arcade or if it’s taking up a controller at home, Track & Field is a fun game to play any time– not just during the Olympics. Put your dexterity and reflexes to the test, and go for the Gold! (Just don’t use Turbo controllers.)