13 Most Awesome Old-School Sports Video Games
The other day, as I was negotiating a trade between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals in the franchise mode of MLB 11 The Show for PlayStation 3, I made a very obvious realization: sports video games sure have come a long, long way. There I was in 2011, tending to every minute detail of a simulated Major League Baseball team; meanwhile, back in the day we thought it was awesome when R.B.I. Baseball started using real player names. Oh, and the gameplay! Well actually, I think the changes in visual presentation don’t require any explication. The difference between then and now are just ridiculous.
Anyway, I thought it would be really fun to compile a list of the most awesome old-school* sports video games. So that’s what I did. Now, if you’re of a certain age—say, 28 and over—these games may bring back some great childhood (or adulthood) memories. On the other hand, if you are not of that age, you may find it hard to believe people actually enjoyed playing these games. But we really did.
* Just so we’re clear, by “old-school” I mean basically anything 16-bits or less. So, no further than Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo—or up till about 1994.
13. Excitebike (NES)
Long before we had the X-Games, there was good old Excitebike for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was one of the original titles available for the NES when it was released in North American in 1985. Unlike many of the other titles on this list, you could probably still have a pretty good time playing this game today—if it were on your cell phone and you were trapped in an elevator.
12. Black Bass (NES)
This 1989 gem, of all the games on this list, is probably the least likely to ever be enjoyed again. You drive your boat around a lake and catch fish. If at the end of the day you have caught X pounds of fish, then you get to move on to the next level. As I recall, the early levels provided less entertainment than drying paint, so you pretty much had to fork over $3.99 for the issue of Nintendo Power that had the codes that would take you straight to the championship level lakes. It sounds ridiculous now, but I used to love that game. Maybe it was the awesome 8-bit music?
11. Double Dribble (NES)
Why would they name a basketball video game after something that almost never happens in higher levels of competitive basketball? You got me. Still, this 1987 classic was one of the first sports games for the NES that actually resembled the sport you were supposed to be playing. Also, it had that awesome slam dunk animation after the menu screen, which was totally insane for that time.
10. Duck Hunt (NES)
Another one of the original titles for the NES, Duck Hunt was awesome because it truly brought the arcade into your living room. Apparently critics thought it was garbage because, you know, all you do is shoot ducks flying at various speeds. But every kid I knew loved it. (What kid doesn’t love pretending to shoot hundreds of innocent living creatures?)
9. Ice Hockey (NES)
You had to love the simplicity with which Nintendo named their early sports titles. Makes you wonder why games like Commando were not just called Murder. Anyway, with this 1988 game, they really captured the essence of the sport. Just like in real hockey, in this video game there are only three types of players: skinny, regular, and fat. The skinny guys are fast but weak, the fat guys are slow but strong, and the regular guys are the perfect combination of skills.
8. Tecmo Bowl (NES)
Originally an arcade game, Tecmo Bowl was released on the NES in 1989. It was pretty advanced for its day. Each team had four plays on offense and various strengths and weaknesses, all of which required the person playing the game to take strategy into account. It was no Madden, of course, but again, it was good for the time. Plus, this was the first game to feature real NFL players (like Bo Jackson, Walter Payton, and Joe Montana).
7. Blades of Steel (NES)
Ice Hockey was fun because it was kind of ridiculous, but Konami’s Blades of Steel (also released in 1988) was fun because it was the first truly good video game simulation of the sport. I mean, just look at the two videos and see for yourself. Also, how awesome is the name Blades of Steel?
6. R.B.I. Baseball (NES)
Like Tecmo Bowl, Namco’s 1987 release of R.B.I. Baseball was groundbreaking in that it acquired the rights to use actual player names from the Major League Baseball Player’s Association. It was also the first baseball simulation that was worth playing. Compared to the other main baseball title of this era, Major League Baseball (which had rights to team names but not players), the gameplay of R.B.I. Baseball was practically from the future.
5. NBA Jam (SNES, Genesis)
This game was the first to introduce what they call “exaggerated realism” to sports video games. While more realistic-looking than any previous game, the action of the game was ludicrous…and therefore really fun. Players could jump about 20 feet into the air to perform spectacular physics-defying dunks, and when they made a couple baskets in a row they became “on fire”—and by that I mean literally ablaze, running up and down the court with flames flying off of them. This was also the first game to be licensed with the NBA and feature real teams and player names. But of course there were none of the rules of the real NBA (only 2 players per team, no fouls, and no free throws), because rules are for nerds.
4. Virtua Racing (Genesis)
I don’t think this game was ever as popular as many of the other games on this list. Perhaps this was because the cartridge’s super advanced “Sega Virtua Processor” meant the game retailed for about $100. However, anyone who ever played this game back in 1994 got to experience the future of gaming. The 3D-like graphics were unheard of at the time, at least in the realm of home video game consoles (as opposed to arcades).
3. John Madden Football ’92 (Genesis)
John Madden Football debuted as a computer game for the Apple II computer back in 1988. It made it’s debut on the Sega Genesis console in 1990. By 1992, it was the undisputed sports video game champion of the world. In 1993, EA Sports acquired rights from the NFL to use actual team names, and subsequently all versions of the game have been called Madden NFL. The key visual innovation of Madden was the way users got to play the game from the vertical perspective of the quarterback. With previous games (like Tecmo Bowl) the gameplay was horizontal across the screen. The greatest overall innovation of Madden was the painstaking detail. Never before were there so many plays and strategies in a sports video game. It really changed the genre forever.
2. NHL ’94 (Genesis)
This is widely regarded as one of the greatest sports video games of all time, let alone one of the best “old-school” games. In fact, IGN.com has NHL ’94 ranked at #47 all-time among all genres of video games. That’s how big this game was when it came out. Basically, what made it so amazing was its smooth realistic flow, the (relatively) intricate control you had over players, and its detailed features—like the ability to do one-timers, the way you could break the glass on a slap shot, and the team-specific organ music played at the beginning of games and after goals.
1. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (NES)
The previous title may have been the most ground-breaking of all the old-school sports video games on this list, but without a doubt the most entertaining—both in 1987, when the game first came out, and today—has to be Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!. Hell, any game with two exclamation points in it’s title has to be good, right? Anyway, this wasn’t even close to being a good simulation of actual boxing. What made it so much fun was how, unlike other sports games, you didn’t just acquire one set of skills to succeed. You had to figure out each opponent’s particular flaw or weakness and exploit it at just the right time. That’s what makes this game timeless, and the best of these old-school sports titles.