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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.)

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.

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.

You make the call!

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