After Further Review: NHL Hitz Pro (PlayStation 2/Xbox/Gamecube, 2003)

After Further Review: NHL Hitz Pro (PlayStation 2/Xbox/Gamecube, 2003)

After the releases of NFL Blitz 2003 and NHL Hitz 2003, Midway decided to change things up with their flagship arcade sports game series for the sixth console generation. While the earlier games had been fairly well-received, the decision was made to push Blitz and Hitz a bit closer to being simulations– but not so close that the pick-up-and-play arcade feel would be lost. Since Hitz developers Black Box Games had moved over to developing games for Electronic Arts, Midway tabbed Next Level Games to work on Hitz Pro… and the results were better than many fans could have hoped for.

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Next Level Games managed to carry over what was so loved about the earlier Hitz games while moving to a traditional 5-on-5 team structure and implementing a light version of hockey’s rule set. The action on the ice is as fast and action-packed here as it ever was in the first two games in the series; players can still be checked through the glass, one-timers are still extremely effective, and scoring opportunities are plentiful. Adding icing and some penalty calls don’t interfere with the action too much, but checking players without the puck too many times will attract attention from the referee and lead to penalties.

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Offense is improved in NHL Hitz Pro, with the additions of wraparound goals and deflections. These improvements reward players who stay close to the net, and are great ways to break through on a goaltender who has been stopping a lot of shots from distance. It’s tempting to load up slapshots and fire pucks at goaltenders, but goalie AI is a bit smarter here and more varied approaches to offense– especially in the harder difficulty settings– are important to execute.

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One notable difference from past Hitz games is the fighting engine. In NHL Hitz Pro, a random face button is selected for both combatants, and each must rapidly tap the respective button until a meter fills. The player that fills the meter scores a flurry of hits on the opponent, and the process begins again in another round. When a player wins three rounds, the fight ends. Both players go to the penalty box, but the team whose player won the fight is awarded a period of “on fire” time.

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These “on fire” states, as has always been the case in Midway’s arcade sports games, can make a team deadly. These states allow for unlimited use of Turbo, increase shot power and accuracy, and make hits on opposing players more punishing. They can lead to comebacks for teams that are losing by several goals, or they can lead to further separation for teams that are already out in front. Aside from winning a fight, drawing a penalty is another way to jump into an “on fire” state– which is enhanced by a short period of power play time. Having an extra player on the ice in NHL Hitz Pro is a serious advantage, especially for teams that know how to pass the puck well. Just like in real hockey, capitalizing on power plays is key to winning games here.

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Franchise Mode is the big attraction for solo NHL Hitz Pro players. It allows for a good deal of customization, from player names and faces to stats and equipment. Hero Equipment, which boosts player stats, can be earned in Franchise games by completing assigned tasks before the final horn sounds. There’s a nice variety in these tasks, and they often require players on secondary lines to achieve them. For example, one task challenges players to score three points with a left winger on the checking line; these players usually aren’t scorers, so strategy and skill are needed to pull off this goal and earn the piece of Hero Equipment at stake. There’s also skill by the player needed to carefully juggle lines for each faceoff. This isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it does often encourage players to play all of their lines instead of the same two every game. Winning enough games with a team in Franchise Mode boosts that team into the NHL as an expansion, and that’s when the real competition begins as contests become harder to win against stronger opposition.

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Franchise Mode may be the highlight for solo players, but NHL Hitz Pro offers several other modes of play to maintain interest. For example, there’s a Season Mode, which allows players to step into the skates of their favorite NHL teams and play through a full season in Hitz fashion. This mode has fewer bells and whistles than the Franchise Mode, but is still fun to play through–especially for fans of particular teams. Full stats are kept for all teams, and there are enough features within the mode to make it moderately comparable to other NHL hockey games. For players looking for quick Hitz, without the depth of Season or Franchise play, there are also single games that can be played for knocking players around and netting a few goals.

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Next Level Games delivers a pretty solid visual package with NHL Hitz Pro. On the ice, action is fast and remarkably smooth, thanks to consistent framerate. Some of the player faces are a bit muddy, but this is passable given the technology and time period. There’s some decent animation, including wraparound shot routines, big hits, and goaltenders sprawling to make big saves. The PlayStation 2 version of the game has a few occasional stutters and bouts with slowdown, though this happens more during replays and not during in-game action.

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In the sound department, NHL Hitz Pro returns Tim Kitzrow to the booth to call its games. Kitzrow delivers his usual over-the-top commentary style here, with the only disappointment being that some of his lines are recycled commentary from past Hitz titles. Joining Kitzrow in the booth is Harry Tienowitz, a former goaltender. Tienowitz serves as the color commentator and analyst here; while his banter with Kitzrow in the pre-game is pretty funny, the rest of his work is rather unimpressive. This doesn’t take away from the quality of the game at all, but if Midway’s intention was to skew more toward simulation with Hitz Pro, then this aspect of the game falls a bit short. Aside from the commentary, the sound effects are well done and the music is decent. Midway licensed Kernkraft 400’s Zombie Nation for use in this game, and hearing it as the players hit the ice before games raises the intensity level just a little bit.

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The presentation in NHL Hitz Pro is bolstered by some relevant stat lines during stoppages in play and a replay system that can be user-controlled, if desired. The stat lines show some interesting notes, including how close a goaltender is to pitching a shutout to faceoff stats for both teams. Other hockey games from EA Sports and SEGA Sports don’t use stat lines as relevant as these. The replay system isn’t the smoothest, but being able to control the camera on automatic replays– as opposed to player-initiated replays– is a nice touch. There’s also an automatic replay of the biggest play of the game at the end of each contest. Within Franchise and Season play, stats for individual players, team leaders, and league leaders can be accessed to see who’s hot and who’s not.

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Overall, NHL Hitz Pro successfully straddles the line between arcade sports and simulation sports. 5-on-5 play is executed well, and other introductory aspects of hockey– fatigue monitoring, line changes, and a few penalty calls– make Hitz Pro into the interesting hybrid that it is. Personally, it’s my favorite game in the series, and one of my favorite sports video games for its generation. It’s a logical evolution from the purely arcade-focused experiences that NHL Hitz 20-02 and NHL Hitz 2003 delivered. Most importantly, NHL Hitz Pro is just fun to play for pretty much anyone.

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If you’re interested in picking up NHL Hitz Pro for yourself, pricing ranges anywhere from around $6 for a loose disc for the PlayStation 2 up to nearly $11 for a loose Gamecube disc. Complete-in-box copies usually run between $10 to $15, depending on the console that you’re interested in buying it for.

After Further Review: NHL Rock the Rink (PlayStation, 2000)

After Further Review: NHL Rock the Rink (PlayStation, 2000)

NHL Rock the Rink is an arcade-style hockey game that flew under the radar of many PlayStation owners in the early months of the year 2000. There was already an NHL game– NHL 2000— that EA Sports had released in late September of 1999 that was a really solid entry in the long-running series. There was also the issue of the game’s release timing, as it launched in late February of 2000, which threw a wrench in the game’s potential success. The decision to release a game like this with March Madness just around the corner and with Spring Training in full swing was odd. It was also complicated by the fact that this was EA, and not Midway, that was releasing an arcade sports game.

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Video game players who chose to skip out on NHL Rock the Rink missed out on a pretty neat game. It’s not a game that wins any awards for graphics, but it’s got fast end-to-end gameplay that keeps players on their toes until the game-winning goal is scored. It’s also got a sense of humor and the character designs are something of a callback to an earlier arcade sports game from EA: Mutant League Hockey.

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NHL Rock the Rink is unique in that each game lasts until a team scores a predetermined number of goals. The default number is seven, which makes for pretty snappy games, but setting the number higher can pad stats, help players to set new records for unlocking certain rewards, and make games a bit longer for players who think that the games are too short. There isn’t a clock in Rock the Rink, although there is a shot clock that forces teams to shoot more  instead of playing keep away with the puck. (PROTIP: The shot clock can be turned off in Settings, but this is not recommended.)

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Each team in Rock the Rink consists of two lines of three players apiece, as well as a goaltender. Drawing some influence from Nintendo’s Ice Hockey, these lines are populated by two different classes of players. Small and thin players are faster on the ice and often excel at setting up one-time shots or getting to loose pucks quickly. Large players are powerhouses with hard shots and harder checks, but are slower to move and not as nimble in terms of getting around or past defenders. Unlike Ice Hockey, however, players do not get to edit the player classes on each team; instead, players need to pick the teams that have the lines and player classes that they wish to use. These different classes and lines do add some strategy to the game; however, it’s possible to win games with most teams, regardless of players and lines. Skill often prevails over team and player selection.

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Once on the ice, the action is fast. Players careen up and down the ice, and there are plenty of opportunities for offense. One-timers are often deadly if they can be set up right, and special shots (triggered by the triangle button) are even more devastating. Tornado shots, flip shots, and more shots– similar to NHL Open Ice— can be pulled off. These special shots, however, require some time to execute. As a result, if a defensive player checks the shooter during the shot sequence, it can be an easy steal. On the defensive side, the triangle button serves as a big hit button. If a big check lands, it often lays out the other player via a punishing wrestling-type move. It’s a bit clumsy in its execution, but the result often is a steal or turnover that send defense into offense.

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Passing, shooting, scoring goals, and winning fights build up a team’s BONUS meter. When it fills, the team goes into a kind of “on fire” mode; players skate faster, hit and shoot harder, and shooting accuracy increases. The meter rapidly empties once BONUS mode starts, so it’s essential for teams to take advantage of the benefits quickly. Much like “on fire” states in NBA JAM and NHL Open Ice, if the opposing team scores, the BONUS ends and regular play resumes. Unlike Midway’s games, however, BONUS states often happen several times in the course of a game… for both teams.

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Rock the Rink‘s replay value is fueled by a couple of key areas. The first is the NHL Challenge, which pits the team of fictional characters that the player chooses against all of the NHL teams. As games are won, extra equipment– including skates, sticks, and gear– is unlocked to power up the team and make it more competitive against the big boys. The NHL Challenge has three tiers (Easy, Medium, and Hard) and the increased difficulty between each tier is definitely noticeable. From personal experience, I went from shutting out my opponents in the Easy tier to getting shut out myself after the first Medium game. That said, each difficulty is beatable with some practice, despite the increases.

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The second key to increased replay value is the significant amount of unlockables in the game. Electronic Arts has hidden lots of rewards in Rock the Rink, which can be unlocked after hitting certain milestones. Think of this as Achievements… before Achievements were a thing. It’s certainly a challenge to run all the way through the NHL Challenge, and it’s another to satisfy the requisites to unlock all of the game’s secrets. Completionists will sink plenty of extra time into this game to see everything it has to offer.

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Visually, Rock the Rink isn’t going to impress many players. The skater models are blocky, the character designs seem to be taken from Mutant League Hockey, but they didn’t quite make the trip as intended. There’s also the usual gripes about PlayStation graphics (inconsistent frame rate, pixelization, sharp edges) that make the cover of this book rather unappealing. On the plus side, more often than not, the sense of speed in the game is impressive. Rock the Rink hasn’t aged well in this department, but it still plays extremely well… and that’s what counts.

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In terms of sound, commentary is provided mostly by Don Taylor. Taylor went on to team with Jim Hughson in the booth for NHL 2002 and NHL 2003, and is best known for his (attempts at) humor. His lines in Rock The Rink are hit-or-miss. Some will make you chuckle, while others will make you roll your eyes. There’s also an intentionally hilarious PA announcer who chides teams for poor play and makes very random comments throughout the game. The music, for the most part, comes courtesy of the Hanson Brothers (of Slap Shot fame). It’s all about hockey and it all fits the game to a tee. The sound effects are the usual decently-sampled stuff that EA has used in the past, and they sound fine.

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Would I recommend NHL Rock the Rink today? Despite a few warts, I sure do recommend it. Since we live in a time where arcade sports titles are an afterthought and since Rock the Rink is pretty easy to pick up and play for just about anyone… it’s easy for me to recommend this. There’s plenty to do for solo players and fans of multiplayer alike, and it’s a perfect game to fire up between periods while you’re taking in a hockey game on TV. Don’t let the aged graphics turn you away; there’s a really good– and really fun– game underneath it all, and that is what’s important.

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Also… I don’t know of too many other games where you can do a leg drop on a goaltender after scoring on him. Surely that counts for something!

Buyer’s note: As of this writing, PriceCharting has a value of about $2.50USD for a loose disc and about $5 for a complete copy of NHL Rock the Rink.

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.

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.

After Further Review: John Madden Football (SNES)

After Further Review: John Madden Football (SNES)

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or Super NES, or SNES) will be celebrating its 25-year anniversary here in the United States this month, so this is as good a time as any to take a look at the first football that we early adopters got for our new consoles: John Madden Football.

It’s important to remember that this was the only football game that Super NES owners had for the rest of 1991. Super Play Action Football, Capcom’s MVP Football, and Pro Quarterback didn’t arrive until 1992, while Tecmo Super Bowl and Super High Impact came out in 1993. Back then, this was all we had… and, to quote the Grumpy Old Man: “…and we liked it!”

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Playing John Madden Football 25 years later, though, was a rough exercise. Some of the missing features can be excused, but there are some technical issues that are simply too difficult to overlook… and made me wonder how I could have possibly enjoyed this game back then.

First of all, there are some positives in John Madden Football to mention. The sampled voices and grunts on the field are pretty well done. The music is decent, too, although it’s not going to stick in your head like music from other football games. There is a playoff mode, which is a randomly bracketed group of teams, and a password feature saves progress so that players don’t have to play all of the playoff games in one sitting. For those who just want a quick game, either against the CPU or against a friend, that’s easy to set up and allows for various settings for time per quarter, the type of surface to play on, and the weather conditions. Finally, during halftime and the end of the game, it’s possible to see “highlights” from other close games that are going on concurrently with the one being played. It’s a nice touch that future EASN/EA Sports games would continue to use.

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Things go downhill from there, unfortunately.

John Madden Football has neither an NFL nor an NFLPA license. This means that there are generic teams that are centered in NFL cities. The team colors reflect the franchises they represent, but that’s about it. There are no player numbers, either; this means that players can’t really know who’s who unless they are quite familiar with the team rosters and on which grouping (hands, fast, normal, big) the players would be on. On the plus side, this emphasizes “team”, since there aren’t any individuals represented, but that’s kind of a stretch.

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Since there aren’t any individuals in John Madden Football, there aren’t any individual stats. The only stats that are shown occur during halftime and at the end of the game, and they’re very basic team statistics. For whatever reason, the game counts :00 as one second elapsed; this means that the total Time of Possession (TOP) stat will end in :04 for a four-quarter game. Turnovers are too general and don’t reflect interceptions versus fumbles, and both are in the game.

Instant replay is also inexplicably absent here. Players (including myself) take instant replay for granted these days, but it’s sorely missed in this game. As an example, during my time playing the game, I picked a pass off after a deflection and ran it in for six. I wanted to look at the play again to see how I caught it, but the only option available when pressing the Start button was to call a time out. To be fair, since it was the first Super NES football game, instant replay wasn’t an expectation yet; however, it’s hard not to call this out after playing the game again.

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Easily the biggest problem that John Madden Football presents– and what makes it exceptionally difficult to play– is the atrociously low frame rate. This game makes Star Fox and Stunt Race FX seem like they’re silky-smooth games, by comparison. Once all of the players on the field are moving around, the frame rate drops to between 10 and 20 frames per second. This makes player momentum almost impossible to detect. Linebackers or defensive ends can have the opposing quarterback lined up for a sack, but timing when to dive forward or when to cut in toward the QB is like threading a needle at 75 feet away. As some players move off-screen, momentum is restored to players– usually in the secondary– but this causes player-controlled defensive backs to over-pursue on misfired passes or fail to line up properly with a wide receiver or tight end to make plays on accurate passes.

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On offense, it’s not much better. Running plays tend to be more successful (Hint: HB Toss Left is a slam dunk for San Francisco), as defensive players often ricochet off of running backs– especially if they execute spin moves or are accelerating forward. That said, it’s too easy for players to gain momentum and run out of bounds as they turn the corner. The passing game is made somewhat easier through the use of passing windows, so that players can see how open their receivers are. It will take some practice to learn how the receivers cut for each play, as well as whether to hold the appropriate button down (for a bullet pass) or to lightly tap for a lob. In my case, for the last three games of the playoffs, I exclusively selected HB Toss Left. I didn’t throw a single pass and still won by more than 30 points each game.

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It’s a shame about the frame rate issue being so detrimental to John Madden Football, because it would play decently otherwise. Despite being a football sim at heart, the play controls are fairly easy to learn and the difficulty is based on which team you select. If a player picks a powerhouse, the game is pretty easy. If a weak team is picked, the challenge will be higher. The plays make sense, and, with practice, anyone can grasp the basics and put up some points on offense. The CPU can put up a decent challenge, and occasionally goes for it on fourth down when players may least expect it. This can lead to taking surprise time outs and having to recalibrate defensive strategy.

Back in 1991, John Madden Football was the only pigskin offering for the Super NES, but it’s clear that the game’s development team, Park Place Productions, was still figuring out the hardware. Park Place would get another shot at football on the Super NES, as it developed Konami’s NFL Football (1993), a game that will be discussed here on the site at a later time. Later Madden releases were pulled away from Park Place and did improve, although it took a couple of years for EA Sports developers and contracted development teams to get a grip on the Super NES and produce better-quality games. Starting with Madden NFL ’94 (1993), the gap between the Super NES and the SEGA Genesis began to shrink a bit… but until then, the Genesis was clearly the front-runner– not just in football video games, but sports video games, in general.

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As of this writing, PriceCharting indicates that a loose John Madden Football cartridge goes for about $2.75 (USD), while a complete-in-box game is valued at about $9.00. If you’re interested in playing the game for yourself, the cost of entry isn’t that high– but be warned, it’s a very rough game of football with very few bells and whistles. You’ll get to experience football as many of us did a quarter of a century ago, and maybe even appreciate how far we’ve come since then. I don’t recommend this game, though; for better Madden experiences on the Super NES, keep an eye open for Madden NFL ’94 or Madden NFL ’95.

After Further Review: Peter Jacobsen’s Golden Tee Golf (PlayStation)

After Further Review: Peter Jacobsen’s Golden Tee Golf (PlayStation)

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My first experiences with Golden Tee Golf were either at bowling allies or at bars during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Golden Tee Golf is an addictive– and money-hungry– arcade golf game that uses a trackball controller instead of the customary joystick-and-button combination to execute shots. Roll the trackball back for the backswing, than hammer it forward and watch the ball fly. It’s a fairly easy game, with red numbers (scores under par) often in the double digits.

The one gripe that I always had with Golden Tee was the cost. $2 for 18 holes quickly adds up, much like full games of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz did. NBA Jam and NFL Blitz got home ports, though… and these were very good. It turns out that, in September of 2000, Golden Tee Golf got a home port for the PlayStation, as well– and that’s what I’m going to look at today. Golden Tee Golf was an under-the-radar release; the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 were competing for everyone’s attention, while games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and Chrono Cross were keeping PlayStation owners busy. For some review background, GameSpot gave Golden Tee Golf a review score of 2.3 back in September of 2000. IGN didn’t review it, and Metacritic doesn’t have a page for it.

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The first question that experienced Golden Tee Golf players will probably ask about the PlayStation version is, “How can you play without a trackball?” It’s a fair question; the coin-op centers around the trackball for control. There are nuances in terms swing power and ball trajectory that the trackball allows players to accomplish. Using a controller is different– but not awful. In fact, the using the digital controller option allows for even more precision in terms of shot power. Shots are executed by pressing the X button to begin the backswing, and then the triangle button to complete the swing and hit the ball. For the first four courses, the course map during the backswing will show the expected distance that the ball will travel; this makes it easy to know when to follow through with the triangle button. The last two courses in the game– Pearl Bay and Echo Canyon– disable the distance display, making for much more challenging rounds of play.

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Applying draw or fade to shots is a bit less precise, as players use the shoulder buttons to shape shots pre-swing. Adding draw or fade lends to more unpredictable shot results, and feels less controlled because the shoulder buttons offer fewer degrees of shaping than the trackball allows. Some players will lament this lack of shot-shaping control. That said, the loss of the trackball does not ruin the PlayStation version of Golden Tee Golf. It does require a bit of practice and adjustment, but once players master the controller-based swing mechanic, it’s an acceptably similar experience. For those players with Dual Shock controllers, an analog swing option is also available. I’m not a fan of this option, as it utilizes both sticks and feels unnecessarily imprecise and complex.

Putting controls are the same as swing controls. Press X to begin the backswing and build power, then press the Triangle button to follow through. While this works well for relatively straight putts, considerable breaks to the left or right are almost too difficult. Without the trackball to guide putts to the left or right, players are instead left to use the shoulder buttons to guide the trajectory arrow incrementally left or right. It’s not as accurate as it should be, leading to missed putts at times– and painful added strokes.

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Once players come to grips with the controls, though, Golden Tee Golf for the PlayStation is a pretty good representation of the arcade game. All three courses from Golden Tee ’97 are here, as well as three original courses. The courses range from forested challenges (Pine Creek) to golf in the high desert (Red Sands). Part of the allure of Golden Tee Golf is the selection of risk-reward holes that the game offers; the hole layout on these often shows a narrow window that players can navigate shots through in order to shoot low numbers. The catch is that bad shots can leave players in the water, stuck in trees, or left with poor approaches to the hole that can inflate scores significantly. While it’s certainly possible to shoot low scores without being too aggressive on these risk-reward holes, the temptation is sometimes too strong to resist. Skilled Golden Tee players can often shoot -18 or better, thanks to being aggressive on these holes.

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The main gameplay modes in Golden Tee Golf are Tournament and Stroke play. Tournament play is where most players will spend their time. Unlike most tournaments in other golf games, the goal here is to beat a certain score on each course. As these scores are matched or beaten, it unlocks a mirror version of the course. This doubles the potential number of courses from six to twelve. There are no tournament leaderboards or trophies to win here, although the best scores and other top performances are logged and saved to memory card. Stroke play is more casual, as it’s just the players and courses. When playing with multiple players, Skins and Bingo-Bango-Bongo (points for first on the green, closest to the hole, and first to get the ball into the hole) are other fun options for play. Two other modes– Speed Golf and Golf Roulette– round out the package. Speed Golf is the more fun of the two events, but neither will hold a player’s attention for long.

Visually, Golden Tee Golf on the PlayStation is unimpressive. Granted, the game is using courses and visuals from a 20 year-old arcade title… but the frame rate often suffers during shots and there’s a bunch of pixelization that can be seen. The ground occasionally looks like it came from a Super NES game. The graphics do get the job done, and don’t necessarily interfere with the game’s playability, but there are better-looking golf games for the PlayStation available. There are, occasionally, some funny player animations… such as after a missed short putt, when the player drops to the ground in agony.

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In the sound department, Golden Tee Golf performs adequately. Peter Jacobsen supplies some lines of encouragement or advice on occasion, and what are presumed to be on-course commentators add a few (repetitive) lines about a player’s performance here and there. The swing of the club, the impact of the ball on surfaces, and the reactions of the crowd are all here and are fairly standard for golf video games. There isn’t much music, and what there is comes from the Golden Tee ’97 coin-op.

It’s worth remembering that Golden Tee Golf is an arcade game… and there aren’t a ton of extras here to add replay value. Once players unlock all of the mirrored courses, the only thing left to play for is leaderboard status for each course. There isn’t any kind of cumulative tournament or career structure, and this is on a console that doesn’t have any kind of online functionality to download global leaderboards or stats to compete against. It’s best to play Golden Tee Golf in short bursts– a couple of rounds at a time at most– and then move on to something else.

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So… what do I think of Golden Tee Golf overall? It’s got flaws, for sure, but it’s also a decent representation of the arcade game that ate so many of my quarters back in the late 1990s. The scores are low, the controls are fine (after adjusting to them) for the most part, and it maintains the feel of the arcade experience. The course designs– especially the risk-reward holes– are the big draw, and players will be hard-pressed to not try and go for it on holes that are inviting for eagles. As a Golden Tee game, I enjoyed playing it.

After further review, I don’t believe that Golden Tee Golf for the PlayStation is nearly as bad as the 2.3 review score that it got 16 years ago, and I give it a 6.0 score. It’s an average golf game, but I give it an extra point for doing a decent job of bringing the arcade game home… and saving me $2 per play.