October 1st and 10: Favorite Hockey Video Games

October 1st and 10: Favorite Hockey Video Games

It’s almost the start of a new month, and that means it’s time for a new 1st and 10 piece. With the NHL preseason underway, it made sense to make this month’s list about hockey. There is no shortage of hockey video games to consider, including in arcades and on consoles. Since I can only include ten games on this list, it was tough to make the final cut… but, just like in the pros, not everyone can make the final roster. It’s also worth noting that this list– as with the previous 1st and 10 lists– is in no particular order.

Let’s hit the ice!

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1. Hat Trick (Bally Sente coin-op, 1984): This 2-on-2 hockey game may be unfamiliar to at least some of you, but it ate quite a few of my arcade tokens in the mid and late 1980s. Hat Trick is very simple. Each team consists of a skater and a goaltender. Players control the skater for 90% of play and play either offense or defense, depending on whether the player has the puck. When the opposing skater takes a shot on net, play control then shifts to the goalie, who can move up or down to deflect the shot away. There aren’t any fancy dekes and penalties don’t exist here, but with the clock ticking down in an abbreviated one-period game, the action can get pretty tense. Hat Trick is best played against a human opponent, but the CPU can present a decent challenge for a quick game. If you see this coin-op in an arcade, it’s worth a credit to try out. Few rules and responsive controls make Hat Trick a fun play for casual hockey fans or arcade game fans.

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2. NHL ’94 (EA Sports for SEGA CD, 1994): It’s almost impossible to put together a list of great hockey video games and not include NHL ’94. What is notable here is the platform– the SEGA CD. The CD-ROM format allowed for multimedia, including a full-motion video intro, a fully voiced pre-game segment featuring Ron Barr, and CD-quality crowd sounds and music. These bells and whistles solidified the presentation in NHL ’94, making for the definitive version of the game. The only real downside here is that the limited amount of on-board RAM to save data on a SEGA CD… so, unless you have a Backup RAM Cart, NHL ’94 will take up a lot of memory if you save your progress during your playoff run. It’s too bad that more people didn’t get a chance to play this version, but the SEGA CD just wasn’t a big hit. That said, the Genesis version is still excellent, and remains a favorite of many hockey fans and sports video game fans alike. It’s so good, in fact, that my good friend Chris Alaimo from Classic Gaming Quarterly put together a great video that covers the history behind the game. (PriceCharting has the game valued at around $6 for just the disc and $10 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)

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3. Blades of Steel (Konami for NES, 1988): As is the case for many of Konami’s coin-op conversions for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Blades of Steel is better than the arcade game that it’s based on. The biggest improvement is that the NES controller works far better than the rather cumbersome and less-accurate track-ball controller that the coin-op uses. Moving players up and down the ice is easy with the D-pad, and passing the puck is a breeze with the B button. Shooting the puck is a bit more challenging, as shots must be timed to be released when the accuracy arrow– which glides back and forth in front of the goal mouth– is pointing toward an open part of the net, away from the goaltender. The only penalties in the game are for fighting, and are only assessed to the player who loses the fight. With three difficulty settings, options to play multi-game tournaments or pick-up games against a friend, and some neat Easter Eggs during intermissions, Blades of Steel offers a ton of replay value and is a must-have for your NES library. Nearly 30 years later, this game is still a winner. (PriceCharting has this game valued at $6 for just the cart or around $16 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)

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4. NHL Open Ice (Midway coin op, 1995; Williams/Midway for PlayStation, 1996): After NBA JAM hit it big in arcades in 1993, NHL Open Ice followed the same basic blueprint for Midway two years later. Open Ice is primarily a 2-on-2 matchup with offense as the main highlight. Crazy shots, including 720-degree spins and leaps in the air, are common. Checks on defense are also overpowered, but fights never happen. Players can achieve “on fire” status by scoring three consecutive goals, allowing for higher shot power and accuracy and for unlimited use of Turbo while in that state. It’s basically JAM on ice, and that’s not a bad thing at all. The one major difference from JAM— and from future Midway arcade sports titles– is that Tim Kitzrow doesn’t have announcing duties here. Chicago Blackhawks play-by-play man Pat Foley takes over, and does a solid job on the call. Fortunately for fans of the coin-op (like myself), the home versions of Open Ice are really well done, with only minor compromises. The PlayStation version has a bit less commentary, and the video clips that play after a goal is scored are a bit more grainy, but the gameplay from the coin-op is fully intact. (PriceCharting has the PlayStation version of this game valued at around $17 for just the disc and $20 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)

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5. International Hockey (Advantage Artworx for Commodore 64, 1985): This game makes the list mostly on its nostalgic value, but it has some technical merits, as well. On the nostalgic front, my brother and I played this for hours during the late 1980s. He was on a youth hockey team, and we both liked sports, so this was a fun bonding experience– except that I never let him win. Beatdowns were often followed by angry shouts and storming off into another room. I guess it was my “Mean Older Brother Phase”, but there were a few times when he did win on his own. I can admit now, nearly 30 years later, that I really was proud of him then. As for International Hockey’s technical merits, the game has a fair amount of digitized speech, which was very impressive for a home video game from 1985. Scoring calls, penalty calls, and shouts of “Fight! Fight!” during fisticuffs were really cool to hear back then. Similar to Blades of Steel, only the losing team in a fight gets penalized in International Hockey. Unlike Blades of Steel, however, winning a fight earns a player’s team a penalty shot. Aside from these notables, the game is average and hasn’t necessarily aged well… but it was a legitimately good game of hockey in its time, and remains one of my favorite hockey games to this day. (PriceCharting has no pricing information for this title; however, a cursory look at eBay showed two copies selling for less than $25 apiece.)

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6. NHL ’98 (EA Sports for PlayStation, 1997): Here’s a hot take– if I had to choose between NHL ’94 and NHL ’98, I would choose the latter. Why? NHL ’98 plays fast, has great presentation, and offers full-season play. These advantages, at least in my view, make NHL ’98 the better overall title. It’s a game where one-timers are deadly, and where offense rules the day. It’s the first hockey game with a play-by-play man (Jim Hughson) and an analyst (Daryl “Razor” Reaugh) calling the action on the ice. It’s got pertinent stat lines that show up during stoppages in play. Visually, the polygonal player models may not hold up as well against the test of time as the sprites from NHL ’94 have… but the gameplay certainly does, and the overall presentation package really laid the groundwork for what we would see from EA Sports and its NHL games for years to come. The game also has one of the best intro sequences of all time. Just be sure to have an empty memory card before starting a season, as this game requires considerable space to save progress. (PriceCharting has this game valued at around $4 for either a loose disc or for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)

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7. ESPN NHL 2K5 (SEGA Sports for PlayStation 2/Xbox, 2004): The 2K5 sports year (which was 2004 on the actual calendar) was an amazing year for SEGA Sports, at least in terms of game quality. NHL 2K5 is another example of how strong the games were. While EA Sports was still retooling its NHL series during 2004 and 2005, ESPN NHL Hockey (2K4) and ESPN NHL 2K5 were steady games with improvements in presentation and customization. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement– who would go on to be picked up by EA Sports to provide commentary for its NHL games on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3– provided solid play-by-play and analysis, respectively. The visual presentation was close to telecast quality, with multiple angles during scoring replays and authentic score and stat overlays. As with NFL 2K5, plenty of off-ice activities (including air hockey and trivia) are available, as is a customizable SkyBox and a robust in-game achievement system. Oh, and the actual on-ice product is fantastic, too. Smooth and consistent frame rates, responsive play controls, smart AI, and deep gameplay modes (including a fantastic Franchise mode) are all here. ESPN NHL 2K5 is the pinnacle of the NHL 2K series, and it’s super cheap to own now. Go get it. (PriceCharting pricing data for this game is inconsistent; however, complete-in-box copies are commonly available for less than $5.)

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8. NHL Rock the Rink (Electronic Arts for PlayStation, 2000): So far on this list, there have been 1-on-1, 2-on-2, and 5-on-5 hockey games– so where are the 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 formats? Well, here’s the 3-on-3 game: Rock the Rink is an arcade-style hockey game that is a rather interesting mash-up of Nintendo’s Ice Hockey, EA’s own Mutant League Hockey, and some over-the-top elements from NHL Open Ice. Like Open Ice, it’s light on rules and heavy on offense. Borrowing from Ice Hockey, Rock the Rink offers different player sizes with their own advantages and disadvantages. Rock the Rink also has some of its own gameplay wrinkles that make it a different game, including a 12-second shot clock and a BONUS meter that powers up a team when full. The game won’t win any awards for its graphics, but it’s a blast to play and offers a ton of replay value, thanks to a ton of unlockables. I’ll have a more in-depth review up this month, if you’re not convinced already, but I’ll risk spoiling it by telling you now that it’s worth a spot in your PlayStation library. (PriceCharting has this game valued at around $2.50 for a loose disc and around $5 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)

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9. Ice Hockey (Nintendo for NES, 1988): …and here’s the 4-on-4 game. What makes Ice Hockey so interesting to me is the strategy involved in setting a team lineup, because of potential matchup problems. Thin skaters are fast, but are easily knocked off of the puck and have weak shots. Burly skaters have powerful shots and can withstand contact from other players before giving up the puck, but are slow on the ice and are more susceptible to having the puck stolen. Well-rounded players are slower than thin skaters and have weaker shots than their burly counterparts. Who will you choose, and who will your opponent counter with? Once the chess match ends and the hockey game begins, the play controls make Ice Hockey a joy. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of replay value for extended play sessions, but Ice Hockey is still a fun game to pull out when you have a friend over or for a quick match when you have just a few minutes to spare. Be warned: you’ll be humming the music long after the final period ends. (PriceCharting has this game valued at around $6 for a loose cart and around $16 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)

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10. NHL Hitz Pro (Midway for PlayStation 2/Xbox/Gamecube, 2003): I had honestly considered bending the rules a bit and including all three NHL Hitz games under one entry, but decided on listing only NHL Hitz Pro instead. Next Level Games built on the foundation that Black Box Games had established with Hitz 20-02 and Hitz 2003 by creating a 5-on-5 Hitz game that can skew either toward its arcade roots or more toward a sim experience for more serious fans. Deflections and wrap-around shots have been added to the offensive repertoire, which allow for more scoring. In addition, penalties are called based on how much rough play there is; when the penalty meter fills up, the next questionable play can trigger a short power play for the opposing team. For those who enjoyed the earlier Hitz games, the move to 5-on-5 from 3-on-3 is a rather easy transition… and many of the hallmarks of 20-02 and 2003 (“on fire” states, big hits, checking through glass, and more) made the trip to Hitz Pro. While I highly recommend any (or all) of the three Hitz games, NHL Hitz Pro is the best of the trio and earns its spot on this list because of it. (PriceCharting has the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game valued at between around $6 for loose discs and $10 for complete-in-box copies. The Gamecube version is higher, valued at around $13 for a loose disc and $16 for a complete-in-box copy.)

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There are definitely some honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut. Activision’s Ice Hockey for the Atari VCS, despite being a very early 2-on-2 hockey game, still plays pretty well and is fun to play with a friend. FOX NHL Championship 2000 for the PlayStation implemented NHL on FOX presentation while sporting a decent game on the ice. NHL FaceOff for the PlayStation was the first taste of hockey action for early adopters of Sony’s rookie console, and it launched a series of games that persisted into the next console generation. Finally, NHL ’96 for the Super NES managed to finally close the gap between the SNES and the Genesis that had been in place for years, matching the speed of the Genesis games while offering cleaner sounds and music.

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Many of you will probably have lists that differ from mine, and I’d love to see them. Feel free to jump on Twitter with the #1stAnd10 hashtag, and be sure to add me @TheRetroReferee. You can also leave a comment below with your list, if you like. Maybe you think that NHLPA Hockey ’93 got hosed? Or perhaps NHL Stanley Cup for the Super NES deserved some love? Where’s Mutant League Hockey? Hopefully I’ll hear from some of you on this.

As always, thanks for reading. 1st and 10 will return on November 1st, and you won’t have to jump through any “hoops” to see it. Until then, stay tuned for more reviews and features throughout the month of November.

Ref Retrospectives: Sony PlayStation and SEGA Dreamcast

Ref Retrospectives: Sony PlayStation and SEGA Dreamcast

September 9th marks the release anniversaries of two important video game consoles here in the United States: The Sony PlayStation and the SEGA Dreamcast. The two consoles are among my favorites of all time, with both sports games and other games that make them memorable for me.

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September 9th, 1995 was the launch date of the PlayStation. Among its launch titles was a port of NBA JAM Tournament Edition, which was one of the two games for the console that I bought that day. This port looks pretty close to the coin-op original, despite some weak “on fire effects”, and offers plenty of Tim Kitzrow commentary for the ride. The game itself, however, is plagued by a focus on shoving players and inflating injury stats. This focus takes away from the offensive thrust of the arcade game, especially when playing against the CPU.

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In the weeks and months that followed the console’s launch, the PlayStation gradually became a powerhouse for sports video games. Sony Interactive Studios led the way with its early slate of sports games, including NFL GameDay, NCAA GameBreaker, NHL FaceOff, NBA ShootOut, and MLB Pennant Race. These games were surprisingly strong efforts out of the gate from Sony, and the two football titles would go on to challenge EA Sports for pigskin supremacy on the PlayStation in the years to come. As for the other sports, EA went on to overcome its slow start and seize control of those sports. The NHL, NBA Live, and Triple Play Baseball series one-upped competition from Sony and became staples on the PlayStation. Most notable of these is NHL ’98, which still stands as one of my favorite entries in the series with its fast gameplay, deadly one-timers, and entertaining two-man commentary. FIFA International Soccer can’t be forgotten, either, as it dominated the PlayStation pitch. Golf was an interesting battle, with Sony’s Hot Shots Golf on the casual side and EA Sports’ PGA Tour/Tiger Woods games on the simulation side.

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Outside of the EA Sports v. Sony battles, the PlayStation saw sports games from other publishers. Tecmo Super Bowl, released in 1996, was the last hurrah for the series on consoles. Acclaim, after purchasing the NBA Jam game engine from Midway, went 3D with NBA Jam Extreme that same year. Konami released a few sports games of its own, including golf, baseball, basketball, hockey, football, soccer, and fishing titles. Slam ‘n Jam ’96, a 3DO port from Crystal Dynamics that bears an uncanny resemblance to Konami’s Run ‘n Gun, is still fun to pick up and play today. Several publishers, aside from Sony and EA, tried their hands at golf. Tecmo, Psygnosis, Interplay, and FOX Interactive all delivered PlayStation golf games, but none really stood out. Finally, FOX Interactive released what were decent NBA and NHL games for the 2000 sports year. Developed by Radical Entertainment, these games are notable because of the FOX Sports presentation package that they used. FOX Sports NHL Championship 2000 enlisted the voices of Kenny Albert and John Davidson to deliver commentary, and I’m honestly surprised that Kenny Albert hasn’t been commissioned since.

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Extreme sports games really made their mark on the PlayStation. The Xtreme series, beginning with launch title ESPN Extreme Games, spans three total games and offers skateboarding, biking, and snowboarding. Cool Boarders triggered an avalanche of snowboarding games from publishers including Capcom, Accolade, and Electronic Arts. Skateboarding games were highlighted by Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, although Thrasher: Skate and Destroy and Street Sk8er gave virtual boarders other ways to shred.

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If we look at the PlayStation’s sports game library in chronological order, it’s interesting to watch the genre change and grow. EA Sports withstood early challenges from Sony to emerge as the dominant force in sports games for the PlayStation. Looking at the changes from Madden NFL ’97 to Madden NFL 2000, for example, it’s easy to see the improvements and additions that helped to push Madden past GameDay in the second half of the PlayStation’s lifespan. It’s also interesting to see how Sony’s sports games declined as the PlayStation aged. For example, NHL FaceOff was strong out of the gate, but the series weakened as the years went on… while EA’s NHL series only grew stronger and faster.

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As for the Dreamcast, the lack of software support from EA Sports meant that SEGA needed to come up with its own sports games. Visual Concepts answered the call and largely delivered with its 2K line of sports titles for the platform. Although NHL 2K and World Series Baseball 2K1 were a bit underwhelming, the greatness of NFL 2K and NBA 2K could not be denied. Both games looked amazing at the time, ushering in the sixth generation of consoles with highly-detailed graphics that animated at a silky-smooth 60 frames per second and player faces that showed emotion. Replay angles were so close to telecasts that bystanders might have confused 2K games as actual broadcasts. The decision to go with voice actors as commentators, instead of hiring experienced booth talent, paid off as play-by-play and analysis lines were delivered with just the right amount of energy. The 2K sports games were solid reasons to own a Dreamcast in 1999 and 2000, and were excellent alternatives to EA Sports games through much of that console generation. NBA 2K is still going strong today, in fact, with NBA 2K17 set to deliver one of the most elaborate presentations to date in a sports video game later this year.

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Arcade sports games also have fantastic support on the Dreamcast. SEGA Bass Fishing, like Fisherman’s Bait for the PlayStation, makes fishing accessible and fun for anyone. Virtua Tennis adds minigames and full career progression to its core coin-op experience. Sports Jam, a little-known SEGA coin-op, offers bite-sized versions of several sports into one enjoyable port. Tee Off is a golf game that’s similar to Hot Shots Golf, but isn’t quite as addictive. Finally, NFL Blitz 2000 and NBA Showtime on the Dreamcast represent the narrowest gap between console and coin-op that had been seen to that point in time. Both games look nearly identical to their coin-op counterparts, and both play just as well. It’s not a stretch to argue that the Dreamcast was Midway’s highest point in its console software history.

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Unlike the PlayStation, there really isn’t a progression of Dreamcast sports games to evaluate through the console’s lifespan. What’s more notable about the sports games for the console is that they were mostly strong from the beginning, instead of noticeable and gradual improvements over time. While it’s easy to see how Madden improved from 1996 through 2000 on the PlayStation, for example, it’s a bit more challenging to see how NFL 2K1 improved upon NFL 2K. By the time NFL 2K2 hit the video game gridiron, other sixth-generation consoles were benefiting from it. What can be said about the Dreamcast is that, even though its lifespan was so short, its sports games were consistently impressive.

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Happy birthday to two great sports video game machines. Both have given me hours of entertainment and memories over the years, and both gave me reasons to bolster my enjoyment of sports video games… and the impetus for becoming the Retro Referee.

Scouting Report: Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football (Wii)

Scouting Report: Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football (Wii)

So… here’s an oddity for football season. Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football was released in August of 2011 for the Nintendo Wii. It’s not quite NFL Blitz gone to the dogs, but Dog Football does draw some inspiration from Blitz and one other Midway coin-op. More on that as we go.

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The basic idea in Dog Football is that each team has a human quarterback and a set of six dogs on offense, and seven dogs on the defensive unit. Plays are called in similar fashion to most other football games, with a photo for each play showing how each receiver will break or where defensive players will go. The offensive playbook is a bit more complex than the defensive playbook. Offensively, it’s important to pay attention to each receiver’s drawn-up routes so that players know where each dog will be running. Defensively, it’s more simple: drop into coverage, play tight at the line of scrimmage, or blitz.

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On offense, the human quarterback will either toss the ball short to a running dog or pass deeper to a receiving dog running a route. When a dog is ready to receive a toss or pass, it will bark and a visual effect on-screen will show that the quarterback can act. Once the dog has possession of the ball, the player uses the Wii remote to lead the dog upfield toward the the goal line while steering the dog away from on-field obstacles and through agility areas for bonus A.R.F. points (which are a new addition to football rules). Players can also hold the A button down on the remote to let the dog choose the best route to run.

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As this is a Wii game, there’s a bit of waggle in play with Dog Football. Pointing up with the Wii remote hikes the football and begins the play, and pointing the remote straight ahead (just after releasing the A button) tosses or passes the ball. This takes a bit of practice to get used to, but it consistently works as it should once players get the hang of it. Thankfully, there isn’t any crazy amount of shaking the controller to gain speed. The waggle is, for the most part, held in check.

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As mentioned earlier, A.R.F. points are built up as dogs gain yards and pull off certain feats while possessing the ball. There are stairs to climb, objects to jump, and other opportunities to build these points up during a series. The payoff for building A.R.F. points comes if a touchdown is scored. Kicking the ball through the uprights nets the offense half of the A.R.F. points accumulated in a series; however, if a player gets back into the end zone with a run or pass (basically a two-point conversion), the full A.R.F. point value is added to the offense’s score. This can make a big difference in games and may persuade players to find longer and more interesting paths to the end zone instead of the more direct path. This addition is perhaps the best part of the Dog Football rulebook.

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Defensively, once a dog is selected, holding the A button down will let the dog choose the best path to the ball carrier. Waggling the Wii remote left or right will attempt a tackle. It’s not always best to let the dog choose its own route, however; sometimes it’s best to use the pointer to keep the dog a couple of yards ahead of the line of scrimmage and react to the play. It’s also possible to jam and even knock over canine receivers while on their routes, which can disrupt timing or even lead to interceptions. No penalties are called for pass interference, so don’t hesitate to get a little ruff— errr… rough with the receivers.

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Dog Football‘s biggest solo player draw is the Season mode, which allows players to unlock new dog breeds and other bonuses along the way. It’s pretty fun to play, and allows players to experience all of the teams and venues in the game (while unlocking most of the game’ goodies). There are also some neat powerups to unlock, which can give players a leg up over the competition.

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Aesthetically, Dog Football is fair. The frame rate is uneven and there’s not a lot of detail for the dogs– or human characters, for that matter. Like so many other Wii games, the character design skews more toward the cartoonish side. The field layout for each venue is different, at least, so players will need to learn the ins and out of each for the best A.R.F. results. The sound and music are okay, with Jerry Rice playing the role of John Madden and lending his voice to certain in-game events, like first downs or touchdowns.

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After playing a couple of games of Dog Football, I can see inspirations taken from NFL Blitz and from a lesser-known Midway game called Pigskin 621 A.D. The latter has a football field that’s littered with obstacles that players must avoid, or else bad things happen. Dog Football doesn’t have the death and dismemberment that Pigskin 621 A.D. has, but it does deploy quite a few obstacles that dogs must navigate around in order to either make their way upfield or to close in on opposing ball carriers.

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Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football isn’t going to challenge Madden, Blitz, or Tecmo Super Bowl for video game gridiron supremacy… but it is certainly a unique take on the sport and only requires Wii remotes to play (no nunchuks). The game is getting harder to find, however. GameStop stores are selling the game for $7 USD, while eBay prices have been trending upwards of $20. $20 is too much, but $7 might be low enough to bite on this game and try it for yourself.