While I’m finishing up my NES book, writer James Swift of Uncommon Journalism has graciously offered to pen some Sega-themed articles for the site. Expect them once a week for the next while!
Fall means a lot of things. Halloween, crispy leaves, Boo Berry cereal, alienating your friends and family with vegan turkey alternative. More than just about anything else, it means one thing: FOOTBALL.
No, not that European tomfoolery we Yanks call soccer. We’re talking real football, the kind with helmets and shoulder pads and people getting hit so hard they forget how to do long division. And in my humblest of opinions, there’s no better way to herald the arrival of the new NCAA and NFL seasons than by kicking back, dusting off the old lima bean control pad and playing some awesomely old school Sega football games. And with both the college and pro football seasons kicking off, what better time to revisit the Genesis library and pay our respects to some of the system’s most beloved pigskin titles?
Whether you’re a hardcore football fanatic or a casual gamer that can’t tell the difference between Fred Biletnikoff and Fred Flintstone, each of the seven virtual pigskin games below offer something fresh, noteworthy and/or are exceptionally well executed. As that old songbird Hank Williams Jr. once asked, are YOU ready for some football?
Bill Walsh College Football ‘95 (1994)
DEVELOPER: High Score Productions
PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts
When it comes to collegiate pigskin games, Bill Walsh College Football ‘95 is undoubtedly the Genesis library’s big man on campus. Beating Madden to the punch by nearly half a year, BWCF’95 was the first Electronic Arts gridiron game to eschew the old top-screen, receivers-in-windows presentation for the still-industry-standard full-field view (with each receiver mapped to a different face button, naturally). There are 30 real NCAA teams to choose from, plus a couple more historical teams for good measure. The atmosphere is tremendous. The game has real school fight songs and each stadium bears a solid resemblance to its real-world counterpart. And since this is a college football sim, you get all sorts of cool plays that you’d never see in Madden, including a ton of options running the wishbone. College Football ’95 is a tad light on features – an exhibition mode, a season mode and that’s it – but considering how smooth and addictive the gameplay is, you won’t complain too much about the barebones package. NCAA nuts, take note: this is the only 16-bit college football game you will need/want to play.
Jerry Glanville’s Pigskin Footbrawl (1992)
Yep, it’s a port of the cult favorite arcade sports game Pigskin 621 A.D., only with a new title and a bewildering endorsement from the former Atlanta Falcons head coach (enjoy that check, Jerry!). While the game technically plays more like rugby than anything you’ll see on the Sunday afternoon gridiron, the title should be instantly accessible to anyone with a working notion of football’s fundamentals. You can pass the ball, lob it back and forth like in college and even get in some downright intense scrums for the (in this case, quite literal) pigskin. But unlike the “real” football we’re used to, the medieval trappings allow for some creative license. Things like obstacles such as ponds and humongous rocks littering the field, the ability to punch your opponents without being penalized, and yes, even the option to pick up a javelin and spear the opposing players with it. No worries about any lopsided 63-0 finishes, either. When teams start getting the tar whupped out of them, the game sends a backup troll (read: virtually unstoppable god character) to help ‘em even the odds. Pigskin Footbrawl ain’t for all tastes, but it’s still a really fun arcade multiplayer game.
Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football (1992)
DEVELOPER: BlueSky Software
Blue Sky Software didn’t do a lot to improve upon the original Joe Montana Football with this one. With the exception of a couple of trick plays (including a fake field goal that is pretty much an instant score against the computer), the playbook is virtually unchanged. And, just like in the previous game, there’s still no official NFL license or players involved (besides Joe, of course). That said, the game is definitely worth experiencing, if only to hear the incredible running commentary from Lon Simmons. Today, audio commentary in sports games is all but an afterthought, but having virtually seamless, TV-quality play-by-play in a video game was positively mind blowing in the early 90s. Even now, you can’t help but be awed by what the technical wizards at Blue Sky were able to do with the Genesis’ sound chip here. The controls may not be as smooth and accessible as other football games on the system, but running the ball is a blast, especially when the camera zooms in to give you a preposterously close look at all the on-field action. Sports Talk Football has some very obvious shortcomings, but it’s worth playing for its aural impact on sports video games alone.
Madden NFL ‘94 (1993)
DEVELOPER: High Score Productions
PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts
Madden NFL ’94 is the version of Madden for the Genesis. While Madden ‘92 had its infamous, player-murdering ambulance and Madden ‘93 elevated the series to a full-fledged sports sim, this is the best embodiment of the old school Madden experience, complete with archaic “receiver boxes” at the top of the screen. You’ve got 28 NFL teams to choose from (only 90s kids will remember the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Oilers!) and a litany of real NFL players circa 1993 filling out each roster. The gameplay is superb. Even though the offensive and defensive play are a cinch to learn, the nuances and complexities of the robust playbooks will take you a lifetime to master. The player models are great, the attention to detail is immaculate and the surfeit of game modes (complete with a fantastic season mode) ensure you’ll be playing this one long after the Big Game has been decided. The ensuing Madden games on the Genesis all became fairly indistinguishable from one another, making the ‘94 version the last truly idiosyncratic incarnation of Madden on the platform. Not only is it the best EA football game on the Genesis, it’s the best football game of the 16-bit era, period.
Mutant League Football (1993)
DEVELOPER: Mutant Productions
PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts
And now for something completely different from the House of Madden and Bill Walsh. Using an extremely modified Madden ‘94 engine, Mutant League Football is a ridiculous arcade sports title that replaces the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots with the Psycho Slashers and the Deathskin Razors and subs out Troy Aikman and Steve Young for a troll named K.T. Scary and a skeleton named Bones Jackson. The field is littered with landmines, you can bribe referees for more yardage, and you can literally kill the other team’s quarterbacks until they can only run the ball. And yet, despite the game’s wacky gimmicks, it’s still a surprisingly deep little pigskin simulation that requires honest-to-goodness on-field strategizing. The characters may be robots and werewolves, but if you want to be successful in Mutant League you’ve still gotta’ know how to read routes and work a snap count. Nothing embodies fall quite like football and Halloween, and this game manages to merge the best of both worlds into a tremendous little synthesis. And honestly, how can anybody hate a game that allows you to sharpshoot marching bands during halftime performances?
Super High Impact (1992)
DEVELOPER: Midway Games
PUBLISHER: Arena Entertainment
Although Super High Impact is one of the few multi-platform sports games from the early 1990s that looked and played better on the Super Nintendo, the port we got on the Genesis isn’t too shabby, either. Essentially a 16-bit version of NFL Blitz, the game allows you to take control of one of two dozen fictitious teams (this has to be the only football game ever made in which “Africa” is a playable option) and battle it out on the gridiron. Gameplay-wise, it’s a weird fusion between an arcade-style shootout and a bona fide football sim, with the seemingly limited playbook giving you a sizable number of running and rushing options. Like Tecmo Bowl, the idea is to guess the “cancel-out” play for your opponent’s selection, but there’s a little more wiggle room here to transform busted plays into football heroics. Overall the rushing controls feel a little iffy, but the passing controls are perfectly fine. And oddly enough, Super High Impact is one of the few football games of the era where it’s more fun to play defense. Boy, is it a hoot doing sit-ups and calling the quarterback “a mama’s boy” right after you sack him out of his shoelaces!
Tecmo Super Bowl III: Final Edition (1994)
DEVELOPER/PUBLISHER: Tecmo, Ltd.
Of course, what list of outstanding Genesis football games would be complete without an appearance by Tecmo Super Bowl? While the first two TSB games on the system were certainly good games in their own right, Final Edition blows them out of the water with better graphics, a vastly improved playbook and some of the best presentation you’ll see in any 16-bit sports game. The core gameplay is pretty much unchanged from the NES masterpiece, albeit with far more offensive and defensive options at your disposal. As in Madden, you get real NFL teams (about 90 of them, actually, because you can select the 1992, 1993 and 1994 roster for each squad) and real NFL players. And the hybrid arcade/sim action is just as satisfying as it’s ever been, offering a faster (but no less challenging) alternative to its contemporary EA competitors. Even now I go back and forth on whether this or Madden ‘94 is the preeminent pro football game of the era. Thankfully, this gives me an excuse to play Final Edition for another hour or two ahead of kickoff for this weekend’s Raiders season opener.