My faith in the future of sports gaming has been somewhat renewed with the recent Dreamcast efforts of Sega Sports. Games like NHL2K and NFL 2K1 have proved that it's possible to wow gamers with graphics and still keep the gameplay and controls fun and easy to understand. However, after spending much time recently playing the latest PlayStation football games from EA Sports and 989 Sports, I was absolutely disgusted. I felt dirty and confused. The same question kept repeating itself in my mind: "Is this the direction videogame football is headed?"
Complicated controls, sloppy graphics, slow and incomprehensible gameplay—with a few exceptions, that's pretty much been the story of the sports games of the Saturn/PlayStation/ Nintendo 64 era. We've seen the promise and fun of the 8-bit and early 16-bit sports games deteriorate into the mess we see today. Thankfully, I still have my Calgon to take me away from the madness that engulfed me while playing the new GameDay and Madden games. That Calgon is Tecmo Super Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Though Tecmo Super Bowl was a sequel, I like to think of the game as the Velvet Underground of football games. It was so far ahead of its time that it's easy to forget how many of the ideas it introduced have become commonplace in modern football games. Super Bowl is easily in the same league as other pioneering NES sports games like Baseball Stars, Double Dribble and Goal!
Tecmo Super Bowl was the successor to the original Tecmo Bowl, which was released for the NES in 1989. While not nearly as good as Super Bowl, the first game laid down the basic concepts, visuals and gameplay that would be used to full effect two years later. Tecmo Bowl featured 12 teams—all based on real NFL squads—but since the game didn't have an NFL license, they were identified by their respective cities only and were represented by bizarre logos made up by the Tecmo developers. Strangely enough, Tecmo Bowl did have an NFL Players Association (NFLPA) license, so the real players of the day were included in the game. Also included were very brief stat lines from the previous season for each player, which the game used as a guide to measure player abilities.
The first game's most important achievements were its functional graphics, which featured large and well-animated player sprites—18 on-screen at once with no slow down; and its simplistic and addicting gameplay, which focused on fast arcade action but took the time to accurately portray the fundamentals of the sport. Tecmo Super Bowl simply did what all good sequels must do—build upon the strengths of the original while improving the weaker parts at the same time.
From a gameplay perspective, not much changed from Tecmo Bowl to Tecmo Super Bowl. The action still took place on a horizontally scrolling field, but the graphics were slightly miniaturized to accommodate 11 players per side and sidelines that featured realistic first-down markers and animated cheerleaders and crowds. Play selection once again consisted of the offensive and defensive teams choosing from the same set of diagramed plays, with the defense trying to guess the play the offense would run next. Super Bowl offered twice the number of selectable plays however, plus a comprehensive play book that any team could dip into if their existing set of plays proved unsuccessful. And while the lovable things remained, like music that played all throughout the game to complement the non-stop action on the field; the quarterback barking out, "Ready, down — hut- hut- hut- hut- hut- hut- hut- hut" infinitely until the ball was snapped; and the relentless jamming of the B button to shed would-be tacklers from your ball carrier, the gameplay was refined to make the experience more authentic. Defenders could no longer make automatic interceptions by simply guarding an open receiver until the ball was thrown his way. Other gameplay tweaks also went far in balancing the gameplay, like giving the players on the field the ability to jump. In a way that would make Randy Moss jealous, receivers could go up and grab passes that would have otherwise been overthrown. Defenders could also use this ability to intercept passes or even deflect them, which resulted in a little "X" on the field that revealed where the ball would land. (Curiously, no matter how many players on either team stood on the "X," no one ever, EVER caught the tipped ball—perhaps a cheat implemented late in development to prevent a flood of interceptions in a game.)
Though it was vastly improved, the gameplay in Super Bowl was a familiar formula to anyone who played the first game. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about it is that it didn't complicate the issue. The game brought more to the table and was still simple and fun to play. But however good it was, the gameplay wasn't what put Tecmo Super Bowl on the map. To discuss the many other vital aspects of the game is a daunting task simply because practically everything we now take for granted in our sports games began with this game. I'll try anyway.
One of the most obvious things Tecmo Super Bowl did that no other console sports game had done before was successfully include real teams and players. Because it was licensed by the NFL and the NFLPA, the game had all of the official teams and logos, and complete team rosters filled with real NFL players. Even more amazing was how the game accurately reflected the skill levels of the actual players and teams of the time. (Being a huge Buffalo Bills fan, this was a real treat for me, because the Bills are among the best teams in the game!) Each player was measured in various skill categories, ranging from running speed to hitting power to ball control. While these variables were adjusted to the talents of their real life counterparts, they could change throughout the course of a season depending on a player's physical condition—which in turn would affect his performance on the field (players in poor shape were more prone to fumbles and injuries, while players in "excellent" condition could run like the wind). Conceptually, no other sports game had attempted to capture such authenticity, and this just served as Super Bowl's foundation.
Another feature unique to Tecmo Super Bowl was how it imaginatively brought gamers closer to the action and to participating in the NFL experience. The viewpoint on the field and much of the action in general must have originally seemed very distanced and small in the eyes of the developers. In an attempt to make the action bigger and more exciting, the game would quickly cut from the tiny default sprites to large, in-your-face spot animation at various points in the proceedings. Crucial moments in a play—like a defender closing in on the quarterback just as the ball is thrown or a receiver and a defensive back jumping sky high to battle for the ball—took place in real time in sophisticated, superbly animated action sequences. Almost every facet of the game took advantage of this feature: Touchdown celebrations were brought to life as the quarterback would pump his fists while the receiver spiked the ball; following a sack, the responsible defender would jump up into the screen in triumphant fashion; and every field goal and punt became a thrilling affair.
Furthermore, the animation didn't only serve in the singular capacity of bringing more excitement to the game (though it is a noble function in itself). It had a much deeper purpose. The featured player in a particular sequence always had his name emblazoned below in large, bold type. The game actually made an effort to spotlight the NFL's stars, whether they were throwing a touchdown, breaking up a pass or blocking a field goal. Super Bowl even showcased three of the biggest stars of the time in a lengthy cinematic introduction, and also made use of animation sequences during half time and the closing credits. Tecmo Super Bowl was probably the first console sports game that was absolutely dedicated to capturing the atmosphere of the sport, and the excitement generated by its players and fans. That feeling was apparent all throughout the game, largely due to the expertly rendered animation that Tecmo alone used exclusively in its games. It was this same animation technique that Tecmo pioneered in their NES classic, Ninja Gaiden, and was used extensively in subsequent NES titles like Tecmo World Wrestling and Tecmo World Cup (a bizarre soccer game that was comprised solely of cinematic animation sequences). Tecmo Super Bowl merely took a design element that Tecmo had mastered and incorporated it into its basic structure.
Tecmo Super Bowl's season mode was perhaps the game's ultimate attraction and is probably the main reason why the game is remembered to this day. With this game, football fans could play through the entire 1991 NFL season. Since there was no limit to the number of teams that could be human-controlled during a season, friends could get together and play through the season together. The computer would simulate games you didn't feel like playing—which really had never been done before. There was even a primitive coaching mode that let you call your team's plays while the computer ran them for you. Such a season mode in a sports game was unheard of at the time, but even more rare was one that featured full stat tracking. Super Bowl not only used the in-game battery to save your progress through a season, but it also saved all player and team statistics for that season as well. You could read the basic team and player stats after every game, but you could also sit back and admire them as they piled up throughout a 16-game campaign.
Conference and division standings not only included win-loss records, but points-for and points-against. Teams were also ranked in offense and defense according to the number of yards gained and allowed. Player stats could be viewed individually, but they were also divided up into nine different "league leaders" categories, each of which could be sorted into near countless subcategories. The degree to which player and team statistics were recorded could prove dizzying to any football fanatic. Making sure your team and its players were prominent in the league rankings could become almost as important as winning and losing. For a sports game to place such an importance on the numbers game was truly unprecedented.
But even that doesn't tell the whole story about what made Tecmo Super Bowl's season mode truly amazing. Tecmo has always showed a flair for storytelling in their games, and Super Bowl was no different. They say that every game has a story, but it seems Tecmo realized this before anybody. Super Bowl combined all of its elements in the season mode—the gameplay with the animated embellishments; the dramatic music that played constantly throughout a game; the team and player stat tracking; the agony of watching a star player go down in injury only to watch him return triumphantly a few games later; and the race at the end of the season for the playoffs—all of which culminated at the end with the Super Bowl, which the game almost treated like the final boss confrontation in Ninja Gaiden. Indeed, the season mode in Super Bowl played like a platform game, with each game representing a different level—the difficulty rising in each. The playoffs were like the final stage as the music suddenly took this strangely dark tone during games. It became more than a sports game—in fact, the game would have you believe it was more like a matter of life and death! After the Super Bowl, the game treats you to one of the longest and most satisfying ending sequences the NES has ever seen. As if all this wasn't enough, to make your season truly complete, you could make your own AFC and NFC All-Pro teams and play them in the Pro Bowl.
Tecmo Super Bowl went on to become the final word on football games at the time. It seemed like everyone had it. It even got a brief mention in the film, Boyz In The Hood, when Dough Boy called his brother Ricky a "Tecmo Bowl playin'" you-know-what. The game's great success paved the way for later releases on the Sega Genesis and Super NES. The 16-bit Tecmo Super Bowl added further enhancements—simple things that for some reason you couldn't do in the first game—like the ability to block punts and down the ball in the end zone. More significant additions included deeper and expanded use of play books, three full seasons and more detailed and colorful graphics. That version proved popular enough for an entirely overhauled 16-bit sequel called Tecmo Super Bowl II, which featured a more realistic gameplay perspective among other things. Though the game lost some of the simplistic fun of the original (not to mention the cinematic animation that made the series so unique), it was an extremely limited release as either Tecmo didn't anticipate the demand or just tried to create a demand. Whatever the case, an updated version, still for the 16-bit consoles, called Tecmo Super Bowl III: Final Edition was released soon after. An unheralded PlayStation release several years ago marked the most recent incarnation of this remarkable football franchise.
Tecmo used to be a fairly heavy player in the sports market not that long ago—not only with their Super Bowl series, but with regular entries in basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer. Unfortunately, the runaway success of their Dead Or Alive fighting games seems to have put the company on a new track, as they've all but abandoned sports development. It's too bad. Tecmo seemed to be the only developer that knew that with a little creativity, a sports game could have fast and furious arcade gameplay and still be a simulation. This idea was fully realized in Tecmo's NES masterpiece, Tecmo Super Bowl.
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