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9 Classic Sports Video Games We Loved As a Child
There is something to be said for being first. While video games now are presented in HD, with supercomputers rendering graphics to the point where it looks like I’m staring out my window, the bar is being raised so often that very few games are shocking or even pleasantly surprising.
Whether or not they are better is a conversation for another day, but the sports games of the 80’s and 90’s were advancing so quickly that every iteration or new title improved on its predecessor by leaps and bounds.
While it may sound corny, there was something very cool about finding a game where you got to be Wayne Gretzky or fight Mike Tyson. Let’s take a look at a few of the classics that stand out. Here’s to simpler times…
1. Tecmo Bowl
It wasn’t the most graphically advanced game, it wasn’t remotely realistic, but it will go down as one of the most fun and iconic sports games in history. This is largely due to the fact that the teams and players were real, unlike it most of its predecessors.
A game consisted of 3-minute quarters played in a generic stadium, with the only perspective being a bird’s eye view. Playbooks consisted of 4 plays on offense and 0 plays to choose from on defense. On defense, one attempted to guess the offensive play. If the defense guessed successfully, all hell broke loose and the play would result in a yardage loss. Sometimes. You could choose from 12 NFL teams with real players whose skills varied in proportion to their real-world abilities. Sometimes.
The best players in Tecmo Bowl exhibit a level of dominance that is borderline absurd. Walter Payton would literally run circles around the defense, running up and down the field to kill the clock before scoring. Lawrence Taylor would block EVERY field goal and extra point. And for some reason, Chicago’s kick returner, Dennis Gentry (!) would run kicks and punts back for TD’s 9 times out of 10.
Then there was Bo Jackson, who was bar none the most un-defendable player in the game. If there was a video game hall of fame, they could simply induct Bo Jackson and close the doors permanently. Their job will be done.
Although with the advent of newer more complex games, I still find myself playing the original on Wii, zoning out, and running the score up on the Vikings 74-0. I’ll sacrifice realism for fun every time.
2. NBA Jam
Speaking of saying goodbye to realism, let’s revisit NBA Jam, originally an arcade game that was a full-court 2-on-2 basketball game that pitted the league’s best against each other. If a player made two unanswered baskets, he would heat up. Once a third was drained, the player would be “on fire”, which meant that your player could jack up a shot from the backcourt and have a 60% chance of draining it. “On fire” players could also jump approximately 10 million feet high and throw down summersault dunks that left a trail of fire in the air. Good stuff.
Basketball coaches and purists cringed.
Again, the sky was the limit when it came to scoring. Crossing the century mark with 5-minute quarters was de rigueur, and you were legally allowed to slap your buddy across the face if he took longer than 8 second to throw up a shot.
NBA Jam also made the most of secret codes, allowing players to unlock relatively strange duo’s. A few of these players include:
* Bill and Hilary Clinton
* Air Dog (?)
* Atari VP of Software Programming (Yay?)
* Members of the band P-Funk
* Chow-Chow (?)
* And for some reason, Warren Moon
NBA Jam demonstrated that the quality of a video game can’t just be measured in how closely it reflects reality. The WTF nature of the game was what separated it from the rest.
3. RBI Baseball II
Taking a cue from the success of Tecmo Bowl, many subsequent games hinged their success on the ability to lock up pro licenses and feature real players. In addition to providing a more realistic gaming experience, the beauty of this strategy was the fact that every game became obsolete at the end of every year, compelling kids to buy a new version.
While the original RBI Baseball featured full rosters for about 12 teams, the gameplay was frustratingly remedial and the graphics were only a small step up from Atari.
However, when Tengen introduced RBI II, they played to their strengths while fixing their weaknesses. RBI II had all 26 teams and very deep rosters, improved graphics, and gameplay. However, RBI II suffers from the same shortcoming of almost every other baseball game – the pitcher vs. batter duel.
Batting was difficult as it was hard to read a pitch as a ball or strike and gauge how low or high it would be. Consequently, playing against the computer could be a real bitch. However, 2-player contests worked so long as your friend promised to throw over the plate. Failure to do so could result in you getting punched in the arm and me tossing my controller and storming out.
4. Ice Hockey
The name says it all. “Hockey is a sport. Here’s a hockey video game. Have fun.”. It wasn’t particularly innovative (or even that fun) but hockey was a foreign sport to much of the country in the 80’s, so the novelty was enough to keep us coming back.
Teams represented various national teams. USA was everyone’s first choice. If someone chose USSR, they were pure evil. If they chose Sweden, they were pussies. Pretty straightforward.
Not much else in Ice Hockey is noteworthy, save for the way that you could assemble your team. You could select the size and shape of your players. They ran small, medium and large. Skinny players were the fastest but got rocked every time they were checked and couldn’t check very well. Medium players were average across the board, and large players were comically spherical and slow, but they could shoot hardest. They also made a very satisfying “boing” sound when the smaller players tried to check them.
That’s about all there is to say about Ice Hockey. Trust me, it was interesting at the time.
5. NHL ‘94
On the other end of the spectrum is EA Sports’ NHLPA (also known as NHL ’94). The game was perhaps the most advanced sports game introduced up to that point. Full rosters, coaching strategies, the ability to toggle penalties on and off.
Further, this game was released at the beginning of America’s infatuation with hockey, so not only was it a complex game, but it came out during the rise of the sport, increasing its relevance.
However, that’s just academic. The real reason this game was so popular was that it was fun to play. Gameplay was advanced enough that everyone could adopt their own style: playing fast vs. methodical, slap shot vs. wrist shot, etc. And when you’re 13 years old, a well-timed one-timer goal is just about the pinnacle of happiness. Sprinkle in a liberal dose of hockey fights and you’ve got a winner.
EA Sports ran with their winning formula and never looked back. Though technology has made strides since then, the game still displays a remarkable amount of its lineage from NHL ’94.
You’re Little Mac. You’re from the Bronx and you’re about 2 feet tall. You rise up the boxing ladder fighting colorful opponents until you reach the godfather, Mike Tyson, who appears to stand about 65 feet tall and weigh about 4700 pounds. He knocks you out with one punch.
The crux of the game was learning opponents’ patterns and timing. It was so vital to the game that I recently found myself playing Punch Out to find that all the patterns and strategies were still in my subconscious. I felt like the Rain Man of NES.
To its credit, Punch Out also was made engaging by the fact that it featured a storyline, albeit a simple one. As Mac won different titles, we were taken throughout Manhattan and given codes to pick up where they left off.
Sadly, it seems the simple approach has been the best one, as few other video games have entrenched themselves in pop culture the way this game has, and more recent boxing games seem to be contest to see who can push buttons the fastest.
Probably the most technologically simple game on this list (which is saying something), Excitebike was one of the first games launched on the NES, which means it was widely held by many who had the system.
The game couldn’t have been easier to explain. The camera was essentially a bird’s-eye view of the track. The bikes lined up on the left side of the screen. They raced to the right until the game was over. There were some jumps, some traps to avoid, and the tracks were sometimes different colors. Not exactly revolutionary in that regard, but it was very revolutionary in one aspect.
Despite being one of the first games for the system, Excitebike allowed players the opportunity to customize their own courses, a feature that was so cutting-edge that it wasn’t widely replicated for years later.
Ultimately though, the one memory of the game that will endure the test of time is the unending stream of profanity we would scream at our riders while they were running back to his bike after a tumble. Those little guys took a lot of abuse from my 7-year old potty mouth. They’re good sports.
8. Super Mario Kart
Some games succeed in spite of their simplicity. Others, like Super Mario Kart, succeed because of it. Super Mario Kart was a straight forward racing game that featured the usual cast of characters from the Mario franchise, racing around on fantastic courses that were appealing to toddlers and stoned teenagers alike.
Perhaps the most advanced aspect of Mario Kart was the split-screen presentation that allowed two or four players to share the screen, all while maintain a first-person perspective while racing.
The best use of these split screen was during Battle Mode, in which players would compete in a closed-course arena, firing projectiles and dropping bombs to destroy one another. To this day, there is no better application in a video game than the ability to completely screw over your friends, then make fun of them for it. It may have been a game for little kids, but Super Mario Kart had that in spades.
9. NFL Blitz
If the Madden franchise is the Radiohead of football video games, then NFL Blitz would be Insane Clown Posse. The game is ridiculous in every sense. Unlike Insane Clown Posse, playing NFL Blitz is enjoyable and satisfying.
Essentially NBA Jam on the gridiron, NFL Blitz pares the teams down to seven men per side, opening up the field to huge runs, devastating hits, and cartoonish physical violence. Positions existed in name only as receivers would run, quarterbacks blocked downfield, and linemen did whatever the hell they wanted. It could have just as easily been called Steve Spurrier Presents: NFL Blitz.
Unlike Madden, which penalized you for late hits, Blitz penalized you for not taking every opportunity to maim your opponent, regardless of context. A first-down needed 30 yards, PI was a standard defensive strategy, and the cracking of a leg was the sound of success.
NFL Blitz demonstrates that for every realistic simulation of an NFL dynasty, there should be at least one twisted caricature of the sport. Most of the time, we’re playing video games to escape reality anyway, and what 12-year old kid dreams of successful front office when he could be ripping the QB’s head off?