Tecmo Super Bowl: The Birth of Competitive Sports Games
(a.k.a. "Why Ninja Gai-Den Sucks")
OK, I have to admit that I have never actually picked up a controller to try out the new Ninja Gai-Den on any platform, but the new game is following in some very large Tecmo footsteps. And I don’t mean the footsteps of the original series for arcade or Nintendo. I mean the footsteps for a game that towers above all others, particularly those developed by Tecmo, the game that brought competitive gaming to the greatest heights which have yet been scaled by man: Tecmo Super Bowl. Every platform game that’s come since is trying to attain that perfection. It’s the Siddhartha Gautama of video games.
What made the second Tecmo NFL game so perfect and, ultimately, unbeatable? Certainly fortuitous timing plays a major part. It was a huge hit for the first generation of kids that really came up as gamers.
It came along just as games really began to accelerate in graphics capabilities; go back and compare NFL from 1989, Tecmo Super Bowl from 1990, and John Madden Football from 1992. And it caught the cultural crest of the first wave of athletes to double as media-savvy superstars. Why does this matter? Let’s go back to 1990.
George Bush was president. We were gearing up as a country for a War! (with a capital ‘W’) Our economy was tanking, and our video games still promoted active imaginations. You had to really try to believe those giant square pixels were people or animals or cars or whatever and, most notably, sports games stunk. Nobody ever missed a real game or stayed home from football practice to play Tecmo Bowl. It was a fun game, and was the first NFLPA licensed game to hit the NES, but it wasn’t a life-altering experience. That game didn’t even have all 28 teams, much less keep stats on passing, rushing, receiving, and, um, special teams. But the second you stuck in that cartridge and laid eyes on the blue-lipped, bug-eyed, crack addicted cartoon versions of NFL players that came out of Super Tecmo Bowl, there was never a reason to watch the NFL again. Except to scout out players for the next crop of video games of course. It was the opening salvo of a revolution in sports gaming.
Pretty much anyone who was playing video games at the time remembers Tecmo Super Bowl as the pinnacle of childhood bonding. For the first time, anyone’s favorite team could play, and almost anyone’s favorite players could represent, unless your favorite player rode bench. There were no substitutions and there were no trades.(Remember when Sportstalk Football for Sega had those commercials with Joe Montana playing for any team on the planet?) What there were, in abundance, were stats. Statistics were kept in every category except blocking. It took years for any company to pick up the slack and start tracking stats for special teams again. Stats lead to trash talking, which then lead to arguments, which then lead to more games, and finally lead to a huge body of shared experience among friends and family. See how we grew up with this game? Entire weekends were swallowed by it.
There were only four plays on offense: two passing plays and two rushing plays. This strategy never works in the NFL (except for the ’95 Dallas Cowboys, who might’ve only had three plays), but were more than enough to gain as much as 1200 passing yards in a Tecmo game using the 49ers. If you want offensive production, that’s way better than the NFL. The NFL record is 554 passing yards in a game.
How could that work out? Some players were just ridiculous. Jerry Rice and Bo Jackson are the most memorable. No figure in the history of sports, or video games, can hold a candle to the memories of Tecmo Bo. He could score at any time. I used to purposefully make my kick-off return player go out of bounds at the 1-yard line just to gain more yards with Bo. Everyone I know did the same thing.
The only thing Bo couldn’t do from the 1-yard line was get a cool animation scene. That’s why Jerry Rice gets mentioned with Bo. You could do the 1-yard line trick with the 49ers, chuck it to Rice and sit back and wait for the scene of him jumping 300 feet into the air to catch it and then run the rest of the way for a score. It was exhilarating.
Ever since Tecmo’s shining moment (the original Ninja Gai-Den hit arcades around the same time as the original Tecmo Bowl), the line between video games and sports has steadily blurred. The greatest accomplishment (curse) an athlete can achieve now is, arguably, the cover of a video game. This is a far cry from the generic players that graced the covers of Tecmo’s original line.
It’s hard to explain the enigma that is Super Tecmo Bowl, but ask anyone that lived through those days: zubasz was always for rednecks and trailer trash but a lot of otherwise normal people did have mullety hair. Also, nobody can ever make a game to change your life the way Super Tecmo Bowl did. Madden may have replaced it on shelves, but never took it out of our hearts.
By Steven Starkweather