Many thanks to James Swift for stepping in and reviewing these sports games!
GENRE: Sports – Football
Master System: 12/90 – (US), 1990 – (EU)
Game Gear: 10/91 – (US), 05/22/92 – (JP), 1992 – (EU)
Joe Montana‘s 8-bit iteration is nothing like the Sega Genesis game. Whereas that title had a vertical, Madden-style field P.O.V., this game employs a more Tecmo Bowl-like horizontal, sidelines-view of the action. The presentation is nowhere near as cool as its Genesis big brother – the missing sound bites from Joe are a big loss – and the playbook has been greatly reduced. And while that game offered full 11-on-11 play, the Master System version only provides 9-on-9 gridiron action.
To be blunt, this is a very bare bones imitation of Tecmo Bowl. You’ve got 28 teams to choose from, but there are no NFL licenses or real players included (besides Joe, of course). The teams all play identically, with each squad having the same 20 or so offensive plays (about half and half pass and rush) and less than 10 defensive packages altogether. Even stranger, none of the teams have the right color schemes. The home team is always blue, and the away team is always red.
Not surprisingly, it’s nowhere near as nuanced as the Genesis title. There are no injuries, you can’t flip plays, you can’t call audibles and you can’t commit penalties (you can’t even run offsides, because your players – on both sides of the ball – remain frozen solid until the pigskin is snapped). There’s no swing meter for field goals and punts; the computer decides if the kick is good or bad, depending on how far away from the uprights you are. And if you’re looking for a robust season mode, prepare to be disappointed: the only game mode offered is a one-and-done solo game, against either the CPU or another human opponent.
Three difficulty levels are offered. Beginner mode is insultingly easy and the intermediate level isn’t too hard, either. Playing on the professional difficulty, however, is a major pain, since the CPU seems to always know what play you selected and exploits it incessantly.
Presentation-wise, this game is a dud. The music is fairly minimal. Most of the game’s soundtrack is just ambient crowd noise, with a brief buzzing sound to denote interceptions and touchdowns. The animations are just OK, and the backgrounds are bland. In fact, every stadium looks identical down to the pixel.
Even with lackluster presentation, Joe Montana serves up a tolerable game of football. If you’re playing on offense, one button selects a receiver or a running back and the other button lobs the rock. And if you’re playing defense, only one button works and that’s to cycle through players. There’s nothing fancy about the tackling system here, either: you run into the ball carrier and he flops over. Interestingly, your quarterback doesn’t automatically drop back in the pocket when the ball is hiked. It’s a small detail, but it makes the game far more challenging and entertaining, since you have to run backwards a little before you can lob the deep pass. Running the ball, however, is pretty crappy. Instead of handing the ball off automatically, you still have to target the back before he can start running; which, 9 times out of 10, means your ball carrier is going to get dropped behind the line of scrimmage.
The major difference between Joe Montana and Tecmo Bowl, however, is the tempo. Simply put, this game is slower than Christmas, with players moving at the speed of smell. It took me 15 seconds to return a punt endzone to endzone, no joke. Either these guys need to improve their cardio or that’s a 1,000 yard field instead of the regulation 100.
So yes, this is a considerable step down from the Genesis version. But considering the hardware limitations and the overall soundness of the football engine, Joe Montana on the Master System isn’t a bad little offering. The no-frills aesthetics and lack of game modes definitely hurts it, but it’s still a game you can break out for an hour or two and have a bit of fun.
Joe Montana’s Game Gear outing has a couple of noteworthy differences from the Master System version. There’s an entirely different team selection and play selection menu, but you still have the same teams and plays (with maybe one or two new rushing plays snuck in there.) This time around, there are only 7 players per team, but the pace of the game is way faster. The sprites are more defined and the animations look much better, but that comes with two huge drawbacks.
First, the field this time around feels way too small. In fact, it almost feels like they’re using a basketball court instead of a football field. Second – and this is the game’s single biggest flaw – the camera doesn’t scroll across the field when you pass. That means as soon as your receivers run routes beyond 20 or so yards from the line of scrimmage, you have to make blind throws to players that aren’t actually visible on-screen. Naturally, this is a recipe for interception city, and it pretty much prevents you from working the long bomb into your repertoire. Oddly enough, it’s insanely easy to catch passes down the sideline, no matter how many defenders are covering your receiver. If you’re a cheap little cretin, you could exploit that for all its worth.
And there’s another oddity when you’re playing defense. Sometimes, the game appears to glitch up so that your defenders get welded to your opponent’s front four. That makes penetrating their offensive line practically impossible, thus giving their QB ample time to throw the ball (My suggested fix? Always select the defensive end when you’re playing D).
Beyond that, this is the same game as the Master System iteration. The music remains minimal, the control scheme is practically unchanged and you have just as many game options. Unfortunately, this is just an a la’ carte one-player game, pending you don’t have one of those fancy Game Gear connector cables on hand.
All in all, Joe Montana on Game Gear is a mostly fun and functional little arcade football experience, although some of those design gaffes really make it aggravating. Like its Master System counterpart, it’s not a great long-term investment. As far as quick, bite-sized, instant gratification sports action goes, you could do a lot worse.