From the Ref’s desk: On or shortly after the first day of each month, 1st and 10 is a list of ten favorites (not necessarily best, in random order) that will be published.
For the debut of 1st and 10, I decided to use a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: arcade sports games. They may have eaten many of my tokens, but I forgive them. Let’s get started:
1. Top Skater (SEGA, 1997): Here’s a nugget of truth about The Ref: Putting me on a skateboard is one-way ticket to the emergency room… but if you give me a pocketful of tokens and a Top Skater coin-op, I will shred (in a virtual sense) for hours. Top Skater has a skateboard controller that players stand on and move to the left or right to steer. Kicking back on the board causes the on-screen player to catch air… and, if on a ramp or a half-pipe, to pull off some amazing tricks. It’s also a bit of a racing game, as runs are timed and extended time is granted for passing through checkpoints or collecting bonus time icons. If you see a Top Skater machine still kicking around, give it a try. You won’t be sorry, even if you’re a poseur, like me.
2. Track & Field (Konami, 1983): This is one of my all-time favorite arcade games, and it was one that I regularly spent my last token or quarter on because I could usually make one credit last for as long as I wanted it to. If you’ve never heard of Track & Field, it’s a game that requires lots of either rapid button-pressing or revolutions of a track ball to build up speed– along with split-second timing with the jump button– to succeed. Some players used pencils or combs as a lever to rapid-tap buttons, but I always used the traditional method of tapping as fast as I could. The Hammer Throw remains the toughest of the events, and fun can be had by setting the angle of your javelin throws to 80 degrees! Sure, there are decent home ports of Track & Field, but the arcade original still stands out to me as one of the best arcade sports games around.
3. Tournament Cyberball 2072 (Atari, 1989): Football with robots is a fun concept, and gives new meaning to “kill the guy with the ball”. While some football basics are intact, there are significant changes; there are no punts, the “down” system is replaced by reaching a “defuse” line before the ball turns reaches critical status and explodes, and players in possession of an exploding ball are destroyed. One of my favorite additions in Tournament Cyberball 2072 (over the original) is the Gamebreaker mode. Here, players must complete plays in order to earn cash and complete playbook pages to move on to the next level. Combine that with the already-fun game that Cyberball is, and Tournament Cyberball 2072 stands ready to take your tokens and give you a challenge.
4. Capcom Bowling (Capcom, 1988): Before Incredible Technologies took bars and bowling alleys by storm with Golden Tee Golf, the team partnered with Capcom to produce a simple yet addicting track ball-driven bowling game. Originally dubbed Coors Light Bowling, Capcom Bowling is the “clean” version of the game– much like Midway’s Budweiser Tapper saw a revision to Root Beer Tapper. If you’ve played Golden Tee Golf or Silver Strike Bowling before, you’ll feel right at home with Capcom Bowling. Draw the track ball back, then thrust it forward (or just to the left or right of forward to find the pocket) and watch the pins fly. It’s a great example of the “easy to learn, difficult to master” school of video games. Also: one credit gets you a full game, instead of three frames or holes!
5. NBA JAM (Midway, 1993): “If you could own one arcade game, which one would it be?” That’s a question I see asked on Twitter a lot– and, for me, that game is NBA JAM. Home ports do their best to bring the arcade home, but the coin-op original still stands above them. The sound is amazing (including all of Tim Kitzrow’s lines), the joystick and buttons are perfectly placed, and four-player JAM sessions are crazy fun. The rubber-band AI may drive some players crazy, but it keeps games close in many instances and creates some exciting finishes. Finally, slow-motion shattering the backboard in the fourth quarter still generates fist pumps. JAM launched several fantastic successors, but without it… who knows where arcade sports games might have gone?
6. Champion Baseball (SEGA, 1983): This game holds enough nostalgic value with me that I wrote an entire piece about it. It really is an easy game to pick up and play, which is something that gets a bit lost in this day and age of simulation and realism in sports video games. Sure, the CPU cheats. Sure, fielding is pretty much automated and players might make some dumb decisions. Sure, there aren’t any licensed teams or players. Back in the 1980s, though, when I was trapped at a campground in the middle of nowhere for days at a time? I looked past that stuff and just enjoyed myself for as long as I could play.
7. NHL Open Ice (Midway, 1995): Here’s an analogy which kind of explains the game for the uninitiated: NBA : JAM :: NHL : Open Ice. Indeed, NHL Open Ice borrows quite a bit from the NBA JAM formula– lots of offense, crazy and over-the-top shooting, exaggerated hits, and more– but it manages to be its own game, too. Players need to find the best shooting lanes while keeping their eyes on the other team looking to take them down with vicious checks. Tim Kitzrow is replaced by Chicago Blackhawks stalwart announcer Pat Foley; I still laugh when I hear him say, “So many hat tricks that he needs a hat rack!” Like NBA JAM before it, home versions are decent… but not quite as great as the coin-op original. (That level of parity would come later on the Dreamcast for Midway coin-ops including NFL Blitz 2000 and NBA Showtime.)
8. Run and Gun (Konami, 1993): If you were a basketball fan who wanted a more typical 5-on-5 arcade game, instead of NBA JAM‘s 2-on-2 format, you played Konami’s Run and Gun coin-op. It may be 5-on-5, but there are no fouls and the game is all about action. Rim-hanging dunks, flashy alley-oops, epic blocked shots, and more awaited players of this game… and I was definitely one of them. Run and Gun is missing NBA licensing (which Konami rectified for its 1995 home port of Run and Gun for the Super NES, called NBA Give ‘n Go), but that doesn’t hurt the game one bit. Just be prepared with a pocketful of quarters if you want to “beat” Run and Gun, as it takes five total victories to get to and win the finals… and each full four-quarter game runs $2. Unlike NBA JAM, there isn’t a “save” feature, so if you don’t continue, you’ll start the playoffs over at the first round the next time you play. If you see a Run and Gun machine out in the wild, Give it a Go. (See what I did there?)
9. Mat Mania (Taito, 1985): Yeah, I know: “How can you have a wrestling arcade game on this list that isn’t WWF Wrestlefest or WWF Superstars?” Well, the answer’s simple: It’s my list, and I played a lot more of Mat Mania than any other arcade wrestling game… and all three games were developed by Technos. I played a lot of Mat Mania during my junior and senior years of high school (September 1988 – June 1990), and I admit that nostalgia plays a big role in putting the game on this list. The basic idea is to take your wrestler– known as “YOU”, because why not?– through a ladder of five opponents and win the TWA title belt. Mat Mania starts off easy, as the Insane Warrior is a Glass Joe equivalent… but the difficulty spikes in the third match when you take on Coco Savege. Coco is a mean offensive machine who will constantly shoulder block you to the mat and wear you down before tossing your carcass all over the ring and pinning you. If you manage to get past him, you’ll take on Golden Hulk (Gee, I wonder who that’s supposed to be?) for the belt. Beat Golden Hulk, and it’s title defense after title defense as you battle for the high score. It’s a fairly easy-to-learn wrestling game, and it’s worth playing even today. (You can buy it digitally for your PlayStation 4 for 32 quarters, or $8.)
10. NFL Blitz: As a 25 year-old man in 1997, I could be found during many nights at the arcade inside the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside. My tokens largely went to two games: Top Skater (listed above)… and NFL Blitz. NFL Blitz may be considered to be the football equivalent of NBA JAM, but there’s so much more to the game than that. NBA JAM didn’t have plays to call. NBA JAM didn’t have the over-the-top physicality that NFL Blitz has. NFL Blitz also brought arcade sports into the world of polygons for the first time, with three-dimensional players on the screen. Since Tecmo Super Bowl never made it to arcades, NFL Blitz easily triumphs as the best arcade football game there is… and while the home versions for the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation did their best to bring the arcade home, it wasn’t until the power of the Dreamcast was harnessed in 1999 that we got a version of NFL Blitz (in NFL Blitz 2000) that could make players leave their dreams of owning the coin-op behind… it was THAT good.
And… there you have it. The first 1st and 10 list. Feel free to drop a comment with your own list of favorite arcade sports games. Look for new 1st and 10 lists on or just after the first day of each month.