Hey guys! The NFL is back! It’s 2014, America’s Game has rotted with domestic abuse, concussion lawsuits, archaic drug policies, the occasional exceptionally out-of-touch reporting on its first openly homosexual player Michael Sam… yeah, it’s been an interesting year.
The conclusion we all seem to reach is that despite all that nastiness, we can’t stop loving the game of football. I am one of those people, and I know full well that it’s the sort of cop-out “yeah, but” argument that resists the much-needed reflection the sport needs. I suppose it’s nothing different—like boxing, or MMA, or hell, pro wrestling, football has always been a sport of complicity. The only difference is we now know those hits rupture the brain, not just the bones.
So with all that gloominess out of the way, let’s look at the greatest football videogames in history! Developers have been trying to simulate the NFL for decades, and to be honest, they’ve yet to get it totally right. In the end, it’s a lot easier to program a league of mutants than to successfully replicate the dynamics of an offensive line. Seriously, it’s underestimated just how difficult it must be to balance the collective A.I. of an entire team. Maybe I should keep that in mind next time I’m frustrated with the latest Madden. But so, in no particular order, here’s the list.
It’s difficult to articulate the ubiquity of Tecmo Bowl. After all, we are talking about what is for most people the sole founding father of football games, and perhaps the best implemented sports system of all time. What I keep coming back to is simply how much Tecmo Bowl I played without ever knowing its name, identity, developer, or whatever. To me it was just The Football Game, a bare-bones simulation polished to an absolute mirror shine. You could run, you could pass, and it makes sense. EA Sports has spent the last couple decades desperately trying to come up with a reason football games need to be more than those core components, and we’ve been mostly unimpressed with the results. Tecmo Bowl is proof that digital football was solved all the way back in 1988.
Look, you knew I was going to include at least one Madden game on this list. The thing about the Madden series is that it always accidentally serves as the arbiter for a new generation. Every year, there will be a new Madden, and most of the time that’s pretty unremarkable. But in 2000, Madden NFL debuted on the then-futuristic technology of the PS2, and sports games were never the same.
It seems quaint now, but the technological jump from N64 blockhands to the PS2 precision was utterly unprecedented. Computer football had never looked so good. Is it funny in retrospect that the members of System of a Down were featured as unlockable characters? Totally, but let’s not have that distract from the innovation at hand. Madden NFL 2001 still stands as my favorite Madden because it was the first time that franchise actually consummated the promise, and delivered something one-of-a-kind.
I’ve played Blitz with people who don’t have any feasible interest in actual, real-life football. The Blitz franchise peaked back in the Midway heyday, and it was best displayed on the floors of soda-sticky Chuck E. Cheeses. No penalties, no pace, no defense, and a whole lot of late hits. We’re talking about a game that was so gleefully cartoonish in its grotesque consumptions of yards-per-play, that it actually had to counterbalance the speed by putting the offense in a 1st & 30 situation after every conversion. I’m sure there were some people out there who hated Blitz, and thought that things like Big Head Mode were stupid. I probably don’t need to tell you not to hang out with those people.
If you remember, ESPN NFL 2K5 was that very fateful edition where 2K Sports dropped the gauntlet and said “you know what? 20 bucks, that’s all you need to buy our game.” This was especially useful if you were around 14 and getting tired of the yearly hemming and hawing that always comes with trying to convince a parental figure to front up the (then) 50 bucks it took to take home a new disc. It still stands as one of the best business moves in the history of videogames. It exploited that unavoidable truth that, yes, these games don’t change all that much from year to year, and getting ripped off because you like football never feels all that great.
So I played a ton of ESPN NFL 2K5, but I also played a ton of ESPN NFL 2K4. I always appreciated the lighter, high-flying tone that Visual Concepts always brought with their sports games. At the time, I probably thought it was pretty cool that you could play against Steve-O. Pretty much everything seems like an awesome idea when you’ve dropped two-thirds of the normal price for admission.
Of course after 2K5’s release, EA strong-armed the NFL into giving them exclusive rights to develop NFL-licensed football games until the Sun consumes the Earth. Yes, a massive company forging a world where they don’t have any competition due to their massive resources, I’m sure that turned out just fine for consumers!
In a far off future where the dead have risen from the ground and the apocalypse raked over the globe like an intergalactic microwave, turning much of mankind into chittering, ghoulish mutants, the only natural thing is to put them all in a football league. What should we name the divisions? How about the Toxic Conference and the Maniac Conference? But how are we going to get around the whole not-having-an-NFL license thing? Who would want to buy a football game that so clearly exists outside the confines of foo-FUCK YOU THERE IS A GUY NAMED “BONES JACKSON” IN THIS VIDEO GAME. THERE IS A MECHANIC CALLED “BRIBE REF” FOR GOD’S SAKE.
Mutant League Football is still just as fun as it was all the way back in 1993. More fun, really, because it makes you remember a time when an idea this silly would get effusively greenlit by a fresh-faced EA. There are rumors that someday the Mutants will trudge their way back to current-gen consoles, but honestly? I’d rather see them forever preserved in those muddy Genesis graphics. We don’t need no stinkin’ particle effects.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.