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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.