Gamers who were old enough to spend a significant amount of time playing sports games in the 90s will always have a soft spot for the best titles of that era. It’s not necessarily that the new sports games are terrible. They are more often than not a very thorough recreation of the sport they wish to emulate. But if we rate a video game’s quality on how fun it is to play, then the old school, 90s sports games, were just better.
Unless you are really into exact simulations and statistics, modern games can feel a little too sanitized. Whatever attitude they have is usually manufactured, usually through a carefully-curated soundtrack to show how cool the game is supposed to be. Sports games in the 90s existed in that sweet spot where they looked more like the real thing than the crude games from the 80s, and yet, they maintained a little of that arcade feel which made them more outrageous than real life. In recent years, EA’s biggest franchises have started to realize this, which is why the latest NHL version has wilder modes, such as the one which allows you to play hard-hitting games using the teams’ mascots.
This list contains fifteen games which perfectly exemplify that balance. They span the entire decade of the 90s, showcasing everything from the last hurrah of the 8-bit period to the early goings of 3D gaming. More importantly, they all share one characteristic: Though they strived to be an accurate depiction of their sport, they never sacrificed fun just to add more realism.
15 NHL 94
There’s a reason why NHL 94 is the ultimate hockey game in the eyes of a lot of fans. The gameplay is smooth and fast, the goaltenders are not too easy, and there’s finally a season mode for the first time in EA’s hockey series.
Don’t sleep on the shootout mode either.
It's a great addition, especially at a time where the NHL had not yet added them to the rulebook. There’s a lot of fun to be had from slamming into and sneaking the puck past the goaltender while your little brother is whining about fairness.
14 Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball
Remember when the Expos were still good? That didn’t last very long. Ken Griffey Jr. Presents MLB arrived at the perfect time to let Montreal baseball fans live their digital fantasy. This game also allowed you to customize everything and everyone, giving you the freedom to make the teams as realistic or as crazy as you want. Feel free to rename the players to match their real roster, or let your imagination run wild. The option to shorten your season is also a welcome one, because not everyone has time to play 162 full baseball games.
13 NBA Jam: Tournament Edition
This could also go for the original NBA Jam, but the Tournament Edition is the definitive version. It has enough secret characters to make your head spin and enough crazy dunks to make you feel like Superman.
The fast and fierce gameplay is the perfect distillation of everything we enjoy about basketball.
It has all of the exciting plays without any of the annoying fouls. If you have always wanted to shove Scottie Pippen halfway across the court mid-dunk, this is the game for you.
12 Mutant League Football
If you can hardly enjoy a game of football anymore because you are worried that the players are ruining their lives with concussions, then the easy way to make it fun again would be to replace the human beings by other creatures. Mutant League Football features teams of robots, skeletons, mutants, or orcs, and lets you do anything in your power to win the game. You can literally end your opponent, or simply bribe the referee if that’s more up your alley. There was an attempted revival a few years ago, but don’t be misled. The original is still the best.
11 NHL 96
NHL 94 will always have a place in my heart for how much I played it with friends, but NHL 96 was the first time I really dove head-first into a sports game’s single player mode. The full-featured season mode, now with individual stats, trophies, and trades, allows you to take control of your favorite team in a way that no other versions allowed you to do before. It’s slightly faster than 94, which is too fast for some purists, but the new-at-the-time create-a-player mode more than makes up for the difference.
10 Super Baseball 2020
Imagine if baseball had robots in it, and the players were actually all enhanced, but no one was pretending otherwise, and we all knew about it. Imagine if the teams were allowed to upgrade their players’ cybernetic implants on the fly. Super Baseball 2020 is all that and more. The game’s reinterpretation of baseball, with the slight rules’ changes such as the new home run zone and the trampoline warning track, turns the sport into an exciting alternative to the real thing. There’s enough strategy here to keep purists interested through all the extra fluff.
9 Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
Some people prefer the second one, but I will always be partial to the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, with the perfect simplicity of its levels.
Let’s not forget its wicked soundtrack, which turned way too many people into ska fans for a hot minute.
The gameplay is sweet and to the point, without the complicated additions of further editions. The moves are easy to pull off, but there are no manuals to keep a combo going indefinitely. A skilled player would study the levels’ layout and plan the perfect route for the biggest score.
8 NFL Blitz
If you prefer your football without fantastical creatures, then NFL Blitz is still better than the real thing. The hits are comically strong, the passes can cover the entire field, and some of the most stringent rules have been removed. It’s basically what would have happened if the XFL had actually worked the first time around, and if it had not been restricted by silly things like physics and gravity. Best of all, NFL Blitz is fast-paced, so you can play an entire game without sacrificing 4 hours of your life.
7 1080 Snowboarding
It’s weird that 1080 Snowboarding is 20 years old and yet, no one has been able to top this as the best snowboarding game of all time. Even the sequel on Gamecube tried too hard and lost the magic of the original.
The physics in this game were as close to the real thing as you could get without frostbite.
Last but not least, the music is as 90s as you can get, with a weird mixture of electronics and hard rock guitar riffs which will stick to your brain forever.
6 FIFA Road To World Cup 98
This game had so many options in it that it still looks ridiculous by today’s standards. It’s even crazier when you realize that they managed to fit all of this inside an N64 cartridge. FIFA Road To World Cup 98 allows you to take ANY of the 174 registered countries through a full qualification round, all the way to winning the World Cup. You could play indoors soccer. You could edit any of the teams’ kit to make it as realistic or as ridiculous as you wished. The soundtrack was second only to Tony Hawk’s. It was a watershed moment in football/soccer video games.
5 Tecmo Super Bowl
Probably the earliest game on this list, Tecmo Super Bowl built such a cult following that it is still being played to this day. The game strived for realism at a time when that was barely feasible and ended up striking the perfect balance. It was easy to pick up even for first timers, and yet, there’s plenty of advanced tactics for more experienced players. More importantly, it built on its predecessor by adding more players and teams, including actual NFL franchises for the first time. It’s no surprise that it’s often cited as one of the best sports games of all time.
4 Wave Race 64
Wave Race 64 was a launch title which felt as if Nintendo already had full control of its new console. This is the best portrayal of the sport that you will ever find. Short of the sequel, no one else has ever attempted a game about Jet Ski races because the first one did it so perfectly. The water is still one of the most realistic you will see in video games, despite being over 20 years old. For an extra challenge, try to clear the game at its highest difficulty level. It was a legendary feat among 90s gamers.
3 Virtua Tennis
The first Virtua Tennis came out in 1999. The game did something not even Mario could do: It made the sport so exciting that it could even be played in an arcade. It did all that without sacrificing an ounce of realism.
The original still packs a punch that the new ones seem to have lost.
The first one was twice nominated as one of the top 100 games of all time by IGN, while the newest version, dating from 2011, has received mixed reviews at best from critics. Sega definitely got it right the first time around.
2 Knockout Kings
Knockout Kings was one of the first boxing games to get all of the greats together: Mohammed Ali, Joe Louis, Evander Holyfield, Rocky Marciano, it was like Smash Ultimate: Everyone is here. The gameplay has just enough wrinkles to make the bouts feel like more than button mashing, but it’s kept simple enough to be enjoyable for everyone. While Fight Night got distracted with gimmicks and pageantry, Knockout Kings kept things simple, with one of the most fun Career Mode of the genre. You can’t find a good boxing game like that these days.
1 Baseball Stars 2
Don’t let the inferior NES version fool you: The Neo Geo version of Baseball Stars 2 is the ultimate arcade baseball experience. For a game that was made in 1992, it still looks gorgeous. The anime-like graphics give the game a flair that is lacking from true simulations. The animations are like a comic book come to life. It’s like Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball, but with the realism turned down and the craziness amped up. The players and teams might not have the recognition of the MLB stars, but they are still dripping with personality.