5/27/2009

Tecmo Super Bowl: the greatest sports video game ever created



Greatest sports game ever? A bold claim, but I will stand by it. Some deluded wingnuts think the original Tecmo Bowl is better, which it most definitely is not. Some people might say John Madden Football is the superior football video game franchise, to which I say: feh! Madden's a good game... if you're wearing a white baseball cap backwards and have a Bob Marley bumper sticker on your Ford Explorer. It has nothing on Tecmo Super Bowl and the same goes for the rest of EA Sports' hallowed lineup. Fun, straightforward classics like R.B.I. Baseball don't quite measure up either. Even wonderfully cartoony sports games like Super Dodge Ball and Super Mario Kart can't match the sheer enjoyment of playing TSB.



And why? Balance. TSB strikes a perfect balance between accessibility and depth, and I mean that quite literally. I have never found another sports game that you can pick up and play without even a great understanding of the sport on which it is based, and yet is also sophisticated enough to keep even hardcore players interested in virtual perpetuity. I still play TSB regularly, and the game was released nearly two decades ago.

It is accessible mainly because of the brilliant way it reduces the complexities inherent in real football, and because of its simple, intuitive user interface. Eight plays are available, four runs and four passes, each represented by easy-to-understand diagrams. When defending, you simply pick the play in your opponent's playbook you want to defend against.



The great interface design even extends to minor features like kickoffs: the bar rapidly fills and then resets. The higher the bar, the farther the kick goes, and when you press A when the bar is blue, you'll get an onside kick. It's easy to make a decent kick, but if you go for the "full juice bar," and slip up, you'll regret it. Easy to learn, tricky to master.



And unlike a sloppier design team might have done, the system for kicking field goals and extra points is simplified, with just a directional arrow that moves up and down--you just have to worry about centering it.



On offense, you simply control whoever has the ball. Plays develop automatically, so all you have to worry about is avoiding the sack and passing with the quarterback, or just waiting until the running back has the ball on a run play. You can't just tear around the field all willy-nilly though: you have to follow the play or your blockers won't be there on a run. You have to watch the defenders on a pass. The action is quick but requires thought and planning.

On defense, you pick your defender before the play begins--and you can't change mid-play. It makes it so you don't have to worry about too much, and yet it forces you to make good decisions because there isn't much room for error: if your chosen defender gets locked in a tussle with a blocker, you'll be forced to watch as the play develops and your CPU-controlled teammates simply do their best, which usually isn't much to speak of.

Games move quickly too: an entire game only takes 15-20 minutes to play. You can take a team through an entire season in one evening. Compare that to the time investment other modern football games demand. And that's the appeal for most people: it's simple, it's fast, it's fun. You don't have to go any deeper than that. But for people who want to, there is so much to learn.



All 28 NFL teams are represented (at least, the ones in existence when the game was released), and with I believe three exceptions, the rosters are made up of real names (the exceptions are Randall Cunningham, Jim Kelly, and Bernie Kosar who are mysteriously rendered as QB Eagles, QB Bills, and QB Browns, respectively). And all players are rated with a variety of stats, depending on their position.







Although you're stuck with your defense, you can actually make substitutions on offense, and across positions. Quarterbacks can only play QB, but running backs, wide receivers and tight ends are interchangeable. For such a simple game, the level of analysis you can perform to try to optimize your offense is remarkable: if you have a slow running back, do you replace him with your fastest wide receiver or do you need him downfield catching passes? How can you optimize your power blocking? Should you put your slow fullback at tight end to help the running game?

There's so much more too. In season play, players get injured, and stay out of action for a random number of games, making roster depth just as important as the strength of the starting lineups. You can customize playbooks for any team, allowing you to tailor them to the team's strengths. You can call time outs (mainly a clock management device, since you can leave the game on the playcalling screen for as long as you want as a means of pausing). Players have four levels of physical condition (bad, average, good, excellent) that change (one notch at a time) at random throughout a season. Average is the default; a player in bad condition will have all his stats decreased by one pip, while good is a +1 increase and excellent +2. Monitoring these conditions is key, especially for teams that don't have many standout offensive players: a mediocre player in excellent condition can suddenly become a key component of your attack. You can also play a Pro Bowl, and the lineups are completely customizable: you can pick any player from any team in the conference. Want to make Pro Bowl teams of the worst players in the league? Can do.

And let's not forget the stats! You get a neat summary screen at the end of each game, much more detailed than games made in this era usually offered:



But in season play, the game tracks an incredible number of stats, and keeps leaderboards not only for team offense and defense...



But also offers a stunning variety of individual leaderboards, which can be viewed by individual conference or both conferences combined:







For a NES game in 1991, this level of detail was unheard of.

The depth and complexity that all these elements lend to the game have added to the game's longevity. TSB enjoys a very active fan base, with lively Internet communities, an incredible array of ROM hacks, even leagues and regular tournaments that people travel for. My friend's cousin, an accountant, apparently participates in an annual TSB tournament with his coworkers.

The game has spawned its own bizarre lexicon: Jackso, Groganballs, JJ ("Jumping Jackass"), jumpball, the Lurch, cheating up, moonballs, popcorn, a "possessed" player... etc. It has spawned its own pantheon of legends, too. The game features many famous players, like Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice et. al., but mistakes and odd choices by the programmers led to the likes of Bob Nelson of the Green Bay Packers and Lonnie Young of the Phoenix Cardinals, unremarkable players in real life, being absolute beasts in TSB.



You've probably never heard of these guys, but ask a TSB fan, and they'll nod knowingly. The game also features players that were very good in real life, but were nothing less than gods in TSB, like Bo Jackson, QB Eagles/Randall Cunningham, Rod Woodson, and David Fulcher.





If you're still reading this post, it should be obvious to you how much I love this game, and how much I've learned about it over the years by playing it. Even if you don't ordinarily like sports games, I urge you to give this one a try. I generally don't like sports games either, but I count Tecmo Super Bowl among my all-time favorite games, bar none.

If you're interested in learning a bit more about TSB and its intricacies, some dude named Leif Powers has written a two-part FAQ available on GameFAQs that is probably the best, most extensive fan-written documentation for a video game I have ever seen.

Download Tecmo Super Bowl

Bonus! Check out the amazing Super Bowl half-time show starring Mighty Bomb Jack!

No comments: