Since the early days of video gaming, there has always been room for the sports we all know and love. The passion for sports games goes back to days of mainframe computers on university campuses. Atari’s release of Pong showed the commercial potential of sporting titles. Mattel advertised their Intellivision as a console that boasted more spectacular sports games than the bestselling Atari 2600. Since the 8-bit era, sports titles have been staples in console gaming. By the time of the console wars between Sega and Nintendo, franchises like Madden and NBA Live were making each of their releases an annual occasion.
The revealing of Madden covers gets more coverage on ESPN than other actual sports activity. There are legions of people who preorder MLB: The Show and Madden as a yearly tradition, without second-guessing themselves. That is how big console sports games have gotten. The technology that goes into them, nowadays, would be considered improbable a decade ago and impossible two decades ago. They’re all supposed to be as authentic to the on-the-field, floor, or ice experience as you can get.
Though modern sports simulations feature some of the best graphics, gameplay, and real-world authenticity, very often, they become overly-complicated and always tinkers too much with the gameplay from year-to-year. There is something special about those retro titles. The older, the better. Sure, some feature ridiculous glitches and are heavily unbalanced, but the simplicity of their design allows the gamer to just pop the cartridge in and relax. Some of them are even fun to play right now. Here are 15 retro sports classics that will make you embrace the good-old days.
Two tiny bars, one large line, and a dot. That was the formula for one of the most influential games of all time. Not only did Pong allow Atari to dominate the arcades, but it was successful as a standalone home system, as well as a cartridge game for the Atari 2600. People went to Andy Capp’s Tavern just to play on the Pong cabinet. Home Pong was even Sears’ best-selling product in 1975. Atari was successful in pioneering the home console boom in the 1980s because of Pong. Not only that, but copycat versions of the game helped companies like Nintendo net enough profit to enter the console market, as well. Just based on those reasons, no list is complete without the inclusion of this amazing game. Those who wonder what’s the big deal about a ping pong game obviously takes the technology around them for granted.
14 Tecmo Bowl/ Tecmo Super Bowl
Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl were essential the same game, with the original having only authentic players and the sequel being the first ever football title to have both licenses from the NFL and the NFLPA. Though loaded with ludicrous and unrealistic gameplay, people could not get enough of the Tecmo football games. If you were good enough, you could pull off some amazing feats worthy of Youtube stardom. NFL players who were featured in Tecmo Bowl and Super Bowl are still contacted by fans on social media complimenting their in-game personas, which was sometimes even more superhuman than what they did on the actual field. Christian Okoye wasn’t called the Nigerian Nightmare for nothing, but in the game, he was even more impossible to tackle because linebackers just flew off of him. Bo Jackson was so fast that he could not be caught be anyone, not even by the real Bo in a Kia Sorrento. It was because of these inaccuracies that make the Tecmo football games still fun, today. If you want authentic, go get the newest Madden.
13 Super Monaco GP
As one of the top racing game in Japanese arcades in the late 80s, Super Monaco GP was also one of the best-rated titles on the Sega Genesis. Compared to the racing simulations SNES offered, Super Monaco GP blew most of them out of the water, apart from Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing and Mario Kart (which shouldn’t even be considered a racing sim). The Genesis version of the game adds a story mode where the player can attempt to win the Formula One titles two seasons in a row. Though it lacked actual licenses, the game was still one of the most authentic pro-racing experience for its time.
12 Shufflepuck Café
Shufflepuck Café is an often-overlooked sports title because it was mainly released on personal computers in the late 80s to minimal fanfare, and it was essentially an air hockey simulation. This might be the only list that features this game. I first came across this little gem playing on my cousin’s original Macintosh computer. As you might guess, the controls were really simple and only required directional input. It was so simple that a toddler could play it. Yes, as a 4-year-old, I played this game rather well, but the difficulty on the later levels meant that I was only able to complete it when I was much older. The characters were filled with personality and resembled patrons at Mos Eisley Cantina. Besides this hidden gem, Brøderbund had many wonderful titles for computers, such as Carmen Sandiego, Myst, and Lode Runner. People who grew up in the ‘90s knows what I’m talking about.
11 WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game
Made during a time when Midway was obsessed with using digitized characters in their arcade titles, games like WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game contained fast-paced action, simple controls, and an outlandish and cartoonish presentation. When compared to the available wrestling titles at the time, it was head-and-shoulders above the competition. Not only did it look better than the pixelated-monstrosities created by LJN, the game played like Mortal Kombat and was loaded with charisma. The roster was filled with the best the New Generation Era had to offer, with names like Lex Luger, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, the Undertaker, and Razor Ramon. With Vince McMahon touting a family-friendly product at the time and gaming violence a being hot-button issue, this game was the perfect compromise of violence and fun-for-all-ages, such as blood being replaced by objects and logos of each wrestler. Nearly two decades later, WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game still looks stunning and its ports aren’t half bad.
10 Arch Rivals
Before NBA Jam, Midway’s Arch Rivals was the most ridiculous two-on-two spectacle to ever be held on the hardwood not named the Harlem Globetrotters. The best defense was to punch your opponent to dislodge the ball from their possession. If that wasn’t wacky enough, there was debris on the court that would force a turnover if stepped on. Though it lacked an NBA license, it was loaded with animated basketball fun and considered an important precursor to insane arcade sports titles like NBA Jam, the Mutant League series, and NFL Blitz. After all these years, Arch Rivals could still be played on various next-gen consoles through several Midway Arcade compilations and is still highly recommended, no-nonsense fun.
The original Punch-Out!! featured some of the most-colorful characters and interesting gameplay that allowed any gamer to become a master if given enough training. The schoolyard was filled with strategies of how to get King Hippo to drop his trunks. Remember, this was a time without online strategy guides. Whether the boss was Mike Tyson or Mr. Dream, it didn’t matter. Little Mac was an ultimate underdog that relied on cunning to defeat larger and more powerful opponents. Every character had their weakness, and it was up to you to find it. You couldn’t be like Floyd Mayweather, run for 12-rounds, and have it go to the judges. Punch-Out!! was special because it remained the best boxing game for such a long period. Super Punch-Out!! continued its legacy, and Ready 2 Rumble adapted it for the next-gen consoles.
8 Double Dribble
Konami’s Double Dribble was the best basketball simulation of its time, but it was filled with exploitable gameplay that made masters of the game, unbeatable. In the programming, there were designated hot spots. This meant that any shot taken from that area automatically went in. The one hot spot I remember required the player to take a three-pointer from the far baseline fading out-of-bounds towards the direction of the hoop. That shot almost always went in. But be warned. If you do that against someone who doesn’t know of that trick, it might cause him or her to throw the controller down and storm out of the room. Still, the game is simple and entertaining. It is amazing how far basketball games have evolved throughout the years.
7 RBI Baseball
Namco’s RBI Baseball on the original Nintendo was the first video game to be granted a license by the MLBPA, but it lacked the rights to use the actual team names and logos. It was the first time that gamers could play as their favorite professional baseball player in the comfort of their own home. Unfortunately, there were only 8 usable teams. Thus, the popular players from the unfeatured cities, such as George Brett of the Kansas City Royals and Dale Murphy, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves at that point in his career, were only playable on the all-star teams. It was also one of the first sports titles to be released annually, much like Madden does today. Though the gameplay was straightforward, the special abilities of each player allowed depth and offered some replay-value.
6 Super Dodge Ball
Technōs was best known for creating the Double Dragon and Kunio-kun series. Many of the Kunio-kun titles made it to North America with the street gang's plotlines taken out. Super Dodge Ball was one these titles. The comical character designs and the fast-paced gameplay were left intact. The rules of Super Dodge Ball were slightly different than competitive dodgeball we know from the schoolyard and media. A player hit by an opposing player’s throw was only knocked out if the health gauge is depleted. Also, each player had specialty shots that expanded strategy. Super Dodge Ball was the first Kunio-kun game I ever played, but it was hardly the last. Technōs sent a myriad of them to North America as localized version, such as Nintendo World Cup and River City Ransom. Even with the plots altered, Kunio-kun games were undoubtedly the best time-wasters for any kid on summer vacation.
Essentially a motocross game, Excitebike is one of the earliest and best X-games in gaming history and was great enough to be a launch title for the original NES. The point of the game was to ride a motorcycle through a circuit filled with jumps and obstacles, while managing the temperature of the engine. Going too fast would cause the bike to overheat, and not landing jumps correctly led to wipeouts. My favorite thing to do is to force other players to run into the back of my bike, which would force them to crash. Not only was it hilarious, but it was a sound strategy. In an era where games were difficult to master, Excitebike humored gamers and had a low learning curve.
4 NBA Jam
This game was the king of the arcade. The first time I saw an NBA Jam cabinet was at a food court in Downtown Los Angeles during a class field trip. It had flashy graphics, four sets of controls, and an unreasonable need to be fed one-quarter coin per quarter of play. No wonder it was the highest-grossing arcade game during its run. What made NBA Jam so fun was that it incorporated the lack of rules with the most exciting way to score a basket, the slam dunk. The dunks were inhuman. The players leap 20-feet into the air, sometimes with somersaults, and finished with such ferocity that the backboard would explode. Plus, you got memorable one-liners from Tim Kitzrow, such as “He’s on fire!” and “Boomshakalaka!”. Also, there were secret characters just waiting to be discovered. This and Mortal Kombat allowed Midway to dominate the arcade market. Despite lacking the same charisma as the arcade version, the home ports were also met with great success and positive reviews. A lot of arcade-styled sports games followed the formula of simple gameplay with comical features. It became more fun to hit the other players than to score. That must be how hockey was like twenty years ago.
3 WWF WrestleFest
Using the engine from its previous game, WWF Superstars, Technōs further refined it to create a pro-wrestling masterpiece, WWF WrestleFest. A variety of moves were added to an expanded roster of wrestlers that included Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Ted DiBiase, and the legendary tags teams of Demolition and the Legion of Doom. Most importantly, the game didn’t take itself too seriously, which resulted in a fun-filled game loaded with easy controls and silly graphics. The characters looked exactly like the Hasbro WWF figures released around the same time. Because WrestleFest never made it to home consoles, SNES players were stuck with several garbage WWF games made by LJN and Genesis loyalist got their pieces of crap from Acclaim. The game was remade by THQ with a modern roster and called WWE WrestleFest. Unfortunately, THQ’s demise also led to the disappearance of the game from app stores.
2 NHL ‘94
How great is NHL ’94? Over two decades later, there is a website that still holds online tournaments using the original rom. That is almost as impressive as Jaromir Jagr, who was in NHL ’94, playing in the National Hockey League. Though my favorite hockey game growing up was NHLPA ’93, this game takes it a notch further by finally obtaining the NHL license, as well. Most people love NHL ’94 because of the chaotic nature of the gameplay. Flying down the ice was easy. Trying to weave around defenders was the hard part. You often overshot a gap and got checked on to the ice, but you could easily deliver sweet revenge on the other end. The only downside of this game compared to NHLPA ’93 was the fighting was removed. Playing this game taught me a lot about the rules and strategies of professional hockey, and made me love the sport.
Sorry, I cannot figure out which retro Madden was the best, and even other video game pundits have trouble with this, as well. They were all special in their own way. Remember in Madden ’92, when the ambulance would drive onto the field whenever someone was injured and committed vehicular manslaughter on anyone in its path? Or is it Madden ’94, the first game in the series to finally get an NFL license? Or is it Madden ’96, the best and last Madden game in before the 32-bit era? To me, they are all winners. The Madden franchise is the measuring stick of every sports franchise in gaming. The gameplay of early Madden games was surprisingly balanced and realistic. Every year, there were a few new features and modes. The A.I. became progressively smarter and more impossible to exploit. These are all foundations of a great sports game. No wonder we are still putting preorders in for this year’s Madden.