Tecmo Super Bowl
Nintendo Entertainment System
Sports videogames often exist in their own bubble. With the exception of entries that take liberties with the realism of the sport, such as “NFL Blitz” and “NBA Jam”, most sports games are only relevant as long as the team rosters remain accurate. Very rarely does any sports game rise past this ceiling, let alone one that takes a “simulation” route as opposed to an “arcade” style of gameplay. Today, we're looking at a game that does all that and then some. And with the Super Bowl coming up in just a few days (as well as the recent announcement of the XFL revival.....OK, not so much that...), it's only fitting we discuss our game today. Make no mistake about it folks, “Tecmo Super Bowl” transcends the “Best Sports Game on the NES” discussion and enters the pantheon of not only being considered the “Best Sports Game of All-Time”, but rightfully deserves mention in the discussion of the best game on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
It's worth mentioning that getting to “Tecmo Super Bowl” was a process. “Tecmo Super Bowl” arrived at a time when, outside of the original “Tecmo Bowl”, a true NFL football game with the actual teams and players hadn't even been done at all, let alone done well. Some games just used their own original teams and rosters, such as the archaic and slow black box NES title “10-Yard Fight”. Others had the NFL team rights but not only would fail to use the actual players, but in the case of LJN's “NFL Football”, make players select a pre-made roster, making the use of the real teams moot. The original “Tecmo Bowl” would actually have a “Players Association” license, allowing the use of the real life players, but without a proper NFL license, this limited the players to play for mascot-less, figurehead-less teams named just by the city they're in with no use of logos or even the full roster of NFL teams (“Tecmo Bowl” only included 12 teams).
The gameplay in these titles were all over the grid as well; “10-Yard Fight” and LJN's “NFL Football” were excrutiatingly slow and boring. “NFL Football”, in a strange move, stored the playbook within the instruction booklet and having players enter a key combination to select plays; if you don't have the instructions or have/want to bother with an FAQ, this renders “NFL Football” nigh unplayable. And while “Tecmo Bowl” played arguably (though, good luck arguing against it) the best game of football on the NES up to that point, the fact that the game carried a limited number of teams, 9-on-9 football gameplay, having the only single-player mode be a gauntlet-style ladder through all teams and other questionable design decisions (literally all passes resulted in a completion or interception, for example) left room to improve.
Enter “Tecmo Super Bowl”, the first NES football game to include both an NFL and “Player's Association” license. On top of that, it was the first to include all 28 NFL teams. So finally, after numerous football games, we finally had proper NFL representation. But the bright spots of “Tecmo Super Bowl” shine much brighter than mere authenticity.
The gameplay is so simple, at first glance it might seem too much so. Each team has an offensive playbook of 8 plays; 4 passes and 4 runs. While playbooks can be edited before a game starts (another TSB innovation), the balance of 4 passes and 4 runs can't be altered. This includes runs to the left and right, handoffs up the middle, and even a QB run in some cases. Pass plays include regular and shotgun formation passes, and even include long bomb passes and flea flicker handoffs. Defenses actually have no playbook at all. Instead, the defense must try to pick the play they believe the offense will pick. If the defense picks the right type of play but not the precisely correct play, they'll be in formation to make a stop but can still be beat if the player on offense executes the play well. If the defense picks the correct play exactly, the line will fail to block the oncoming defense, resulting in a likely loss of yards or a sack. If the defense picks the wrong type of play outright (predicts a pass play when the offense calls a run), it'll leave them out of position, resulting in a likely large gain or a wide open receiver. This style of playcalling is vital to “Tecmo Super Bowl”, and lends to some of the fun. If you have a talented enough running back (we'll get to that in a second), it might be worth a shot to call a run on 3rd and long, a decision that wouldn't make much sense in an actual football game but has a decent shot of working if the opponent thinks in a conventional football sense and guesses a pass play. It might hurt to those gamers looking for realism, but it makes for a very fun strategic experience to say the least.
With Tecmo also being responsible for Ninja Gaiden, it's no surprise they'd work cutscenes into their football game. And they're always awesome.
And that's all before you get into the in-action gameplay itself. And man, oh man, does “Tecmo Super Bowl” deliver. The sprites for the players are fairly simple, and there is some flickering once the game gets going. However, this is done to prevent slowdown and you'll forget about it quickly. It's a necessary caveat to having proper 11-on-11 football and having each player move independently. There are other graphical questionmarks; the most notable (though hilarious) is having players run into or get shoved into the crowd. But this adds to the charm of the game and doesn't take away from the gameplay, which, like any other truly amazing videogame, is worthy of prime time.
The flickering eventually becomes a non-factor the more you play, but it is a little jarring for first-time players. Rest assured, it's a function of the game needed to make true 11-on-11 work, not a faulty cart.
Everything moves fast in this game. Players move fast, the ball is thrown fast, hell, even the clock is quicker than normal cadence (something first-timers will have to get used to quickly). You cannot afford to take your eyes off the action for a second. On pass plays, you simply flip through your receivers with the A button and pass it with the B button. If given enough time (usually when the opponent calls a run defense on a pass play) you can attempt to launch incredibly long passes. A good handful of these will miss, but it's worth it to try a couple per game as they are successful enough from time to time, especially if you have a QB with a cannon for an arm like the Miami Dolphins or a talented receiver corp like the Raiders (or both, as is the case with the 49ers).
Add to this the fact that it's actually fun to run the ball as well (something Madden games didn't figure out how to pull off until the PS2 era). Many runners in the game at least have enough speed to burst through the d-line if you steer them on the correct path (as in “you paid attention to the play call”) and assuming the defense doesn't shut the door. Some can run to the outside and gain a burst of speed. In what was once seen as an exploit but eventually became “part of the game” (ala Mario Kart's “snaking” and vanilla Street Fighter II's combo system), running in a zigzag pattern can counteract the “rubberband” speed defenders receive in order to catch up to a ballcarrier. It's features like this that have made videogaming gods out of names such as “Christian Okoye” and of course “Bo Jackson”, whose speed burst and agility is so much higher than anyone elses, it's possible to run out entire quarters in one play (though very difficult, and likely not possible with a second player out to stop him). Hell, even the act of making/breaking tackles becomes a fast-paced test, as mashing the A button when tangled with an opposing player (ballcarrier or blocker) will either get you free or bring them down. A well-aimed dive tackle will bring any ball carrier down regardless, including if they're already tangled with another defensive player, so the battle for a ballcarrier becomes not just getting free but getting free quick enough to create space from other tacklers.
Fun side note: One other player with fast running speed is actually a QB, who is strangely named “QB Eagles” and wearing the number 0. Three players actually didn't sign off on their Player's Association deals, meaning Tecmo either had to receive individual permission from these players or just give them generic details while having their in-game attributes reflect the real life counterparts. Therefore, Randall Cunningham, Bernie Kosar, and Jim Kelly became “QB Eagles”, “QB Browns” and “QB Bills”, respectively, all while rocking #0 on their jerseys.
Now, I've mentioned a few exploits to the game up to this point. The passing game can be exploited if you have a team that rules at it, and certain running backs can carry entire ballgames on their backs. However, it's this metagame that has formed its own tier of competitiveness amongst longtime “Tecmo Super Bowl” players. Two players that know these fairly simple tips and tricks can bring the competition to a whole new level. Because of this, and because of the sharp, fast, easy to pick up but well-nuanced gameplay, that the NES edition of “Tecmo Super Bowl” continues to be a hit even today. Many tournaments are still held for this game yearly, and there's even fansites that create roster updates that host all 32 teams that are released not only in ROM form but can also be obtained on an NES cart and played in an actual NES (though whether they work in clone systems is a dice roll). Could you imagine if a randomly numbered Madden game from the mid 2000s had any semblance of a tournament scene in 2018? And yet, here's an early 90s NES game that is still finding new audiences, updates, and tournaments. NFL 2K5 is the only non-arcade sports game I can come up with that is even remotely close to the iconic status “Tecmo Super Bowl” holds.
And I've mentioned all of this while simply covering the single-game exhibition mode. “Tecmo Super Bowl” also includes a full 17 week season mode along with playoffs, a first for NFL games. On top of that, it includes full season stat tracking and record keeping. It even runs for 3 seasons, allowing for you to defend your Super Bowl title or even attempt a “dynasty” and win the title 3 times over. And it all saves on battery back-up (it's worth it to make sure the battery on your cart is working, trust me on this). Another neat feature is that you can control multiple teams in season mode, something that even Madden today can't get right. And I don't mean just one or two or four teams. If you wanted to, you and 31 of your closest friends could control all 32 teams yourselves! Or if you want to skip the messing around, there's a “Pro Bowl” option that pits the best in the league in an AFC vs. NFC showdown. In fact, you can even edit the rosters for these teams before you play, so you can assemble your own dream team as long as you stay within the conference boundaries. If you play against the CPU in season mode, the difficulty is slightly raised and goes even higher as you get to the playoffs and finally the Super Bowl championship (there is no difficulty selection in this game), so it's a good idea to be sure to at least learn the game before you tackle a full season. Season mode also includes injuries, something the exhibition mode avoids outright. This is a smart idea; you don't want someone using the excuse “QB Eagles got injured on the 2nd play of the game!”, as if that changes the fact they let you run for 300+ yards as the Chiefs.
Add on iconic music that never gets repetitive due to how focused and fast the gameplay is, additional play modes including a “coach mode” which allows you to call the plays while the CPU executes them, and even a “CPU vs. CPU” mode that allows you to kick back and watch a game unfold (which...I must admit, is more fun in the roster updates to see who'd win upcoming matches), and all of the customizable aspects to the game such as adjusting starting lineups (which can actually boost some teams, depending on the play style you prefer), the aforementioned changing of the playbooks, etc. It's stunning how much of a jump Tecmo took to go from a very good 9-on-9 football game with no season mode and no stat tracking to an amazing, full 11-on-11 football classic with season modes, customization and a crazy amount of statistics.
Is “Tecmo Super Bowl” the greatest football game on the Nintendo Entertainment System? Absolutely! Is it the best sports game on the Nintendo Entertainment System? I haven't played “RBI Baseball” since I was a little kid, and I hear “Baseball Stars” is awesome too, but I feel pretty comfortable in arguing “yes”. “Tecmo Super Bowl” is one of the greatest sports videogames of all-time, untouched on the NES, and still going strong today. If you own an NES, sports fan or not, this is a game you have to add to your collection. If you see this for a single-digit price at a flea market and just dismiss it as a basic sports game, you've passed on not just a great sports game, but a masterpiece that's every bit as super as Mario and every bit as legendary as Zelda. Currently running at $24 on average on eBay, it's worth that with ease. My own Complete-in-Box copy might be my favorite piece in my entire gaming collection, not just for being complete, but for being the greatest sports videogame of all-time as well as one of the greatest games on one of the greatest consoles of all-time.
Rating – 5 out of 5