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Tecmo Super Bowl 2018 Review: the gold standard in arcade football still holds up

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The classic video game has been updated with modern rules and rosters, and it’s still as good as arcade football gets.

Tecmo Super Bowl Paul Noonan

It is really a shame that there is only one football video game. In 2004, Electronic Arts obtained an exclusive license from the NFL and NFLPA, essentially killing all competition for the John Madden Football series. It has been bad news ever since, and while the Madden games are rarely bad, the lack of competition from the once proud 2K series, among others, has caused the pace of innovation to stagnate and, more importantly, has locked football video games strictly into the “simulation” realm. Madden presents a fairly similar game with fairly marginal upgrades from year to year, generally using the “All-22” perspective, but the most important thing is always that official license which allows them to use real names and real statistics in the campaign.

One of the first games to really benefit from a license was Tecmo Bowl, the classic Nintendo Entertainment System game released in 1987. While Tecmo Bowl was an important step forward and introduced the world to video game Bo Jackson, the series reached perfection with the immediate sequel Tecmo Super Bowl, which remains a great game and a legend within the football genre. Tecmo Super Bowl took a good concept and fixed nearly every issue with the original, including the addition of a running tally of league-wide season long statistics. TSB is a true 2D, sprite-based game, and the view is fixed from the side. They don’t really make them like this anymore, but there is a place for a quick, arcade-y game that escapes the Madden viewpoint. The limitations of the original Nintendo often forced game producers to get creative with their visuals and control schemes, and Tecmo Super Bowl is no exception. Perhaps the best thing about it is, despite simplifying everything about football for an underpowered 8-bit system, it still produces fairly realistic game play.

There are, officially, no new Tecmo Super Bowls, but a dedicated group of fans program new rosters into the old game every season, and a few have even added new moves, two point conversions, and various ROM hacks to keep the game modern. I recently obtained a copy of TSB 18, and it’s absolutely marvelous. It does everything a retro-throwback should do, relishing in the style, fixing a few kinks, and making only marginal upgrades to gameplay. Best of all, It comes with a fully modern roster of players:

Gameplay

Not much has changed from the original. Each teams has 8 plays, with 4 runing and 4 passing, and they can be changed before a game starts, but i the creators have taken great care to provide each team with a logical playbook. Seattle, for instance, uses two sweeps that work in tandem with what is essentially a read-option keeper that fooled me on more than one occasion, and to make defending them even harder, they have a nearly identical rollout pass as well.

The Packer offense is fairly conventional, but works best out of shotgun, where a defense too concerned with the pass can be burned with a direct-snap draw to Ty Montgomery. Yes, the Packers don’t have this exact play, but the direct snap saves a second on what is essentially a standard draw, and it works well, as you can see here.

Davante Adams even excels at his signature slant play.

While the variation in plays in Tecmo Bowl is necessarily limited, the concepts put together in the simple playbooks are inspired.

Look and Feel

TSB 18 hasn’t updated the look at all, and gameplay changes are minimal. One of the problems with the original Tecmo Bowl was that busted passing plays always resulted in interceptions or sacks with very few exceptions. In TSB, turnovers are not exactly uncommon, but they rarely feel cheap. Since the original TSB, the league changed the kickoff position and implemented the 2-point conversion, and you will find both updated here as well. PATs are also backed up to their modern, 30-yard distance.

The game still records statistics throughout the season, so if you want to push Montgomery to 2,000 yards, you have that option. You also get a full report at the end of every game. I had the system simulate a Packers-Cowboys game, and it’s not bullish on the Pack.

Substitutions can also be made freely, so if you want to pull off the modern equivalent of Sterling Sharpe at RB, you can. While I have a retro-tinged nostalgia for 8-bit games, I will freely admit that the vast majority do not hold up. TSB is different, and everything that worked in the original is wisely left alone here. Button combos and mechanics are intuitive, and plays are easily understandable. This is best played as a 2-player game as the AI can get a bit wonky at times — it excelled at controlling Seattle, but made dozens of strange decisions when in charge of Green Bay — but the season campaign is still a good time, and it’s fun to crank up the counting stats.

The Future

In 2014, Major League Baseball brought back the game “RBI Baseball.” Originally developed by Tengen/Atari, RBI is a classic of the genre, using simple mechanics and cartoony graphics to create a fairly realistic game experience, all while including the official names and statistics of actual major leaguers. It is in many ways the Tecmo Super Bowl of the baseball genre, and nearly as beloved. The graphics and music are charming, and the gameplay remains solid to this day. This was a good idea by MLB, but their internal development squad completely botched the remake, resulting in a nigh-unplayable mess. Baseball has its own Madden in the form of the Sony-exclusive “The Show”, a hyper-realistic sim, but the baseball video game monopoly is less rigid, with franchise-building sims like Out of the Park Baseball continuing to exist. An arcade-style retro game was almost idiot-proof, but that didn’t stop MLB from screwing it up.

The problem with the RBI remake was that it did not go with a retro aesthetic or gameplay. Instead, it tried to make itself modern, but in doing so it brought itself into competition with The Show, all while alienating the retro-audience which would have gobbled up an accurate port. It’s in a hellish uncanny valley that alienated all older people looking for a throwback, with no appeal to the younger generation who has no existing affection for the series. As the recent releases of the NES and SNES Classic have shown, there is a huge market for this if you actually do it right.

TSB doesn’t really compete with Madden, as sims and arcade-style games aren’t really the same in any true sense. Retro-gaming is currently all the rage, and the NFL would make a boatload if they simply took this already existing game, legitimized it, gave it online play with season-long online leagues and statistics, and charged a few bucks. It would cost very little in terms of development, they already control the expensive licensing portion, and in addition to money it would bring them some good will.

As it stands, playing an up-to-date Tecmo Super Bowl is still completely worth doing. It’s a tad pricey, but given that it’s a labor of love and doesn’t enjoy the economies of scale of a big game manufacturer, it’s well worth it.