Sports games are an inevitability.
You can set a calendar by EA’s Madden release schedule, a new title emerging every year promising bigger and better action than the year before (and rarely delivering). The challenge for actually developing football games, though, is that football doesn’t change much. You don’t have the freedom of an Apex Legends or Battlefield that allows you to alter roster sizes or objectives or landscapes.
Football will always be 11 men on one side and 11 on the other with all 22 of them focusing all their merit and muscle on an oblong brown ball inside a 100-yard rectangle. Blood Gulch, it is not.
The flipside to this simplicity is it is easier to go back to the roots of the genre without leaving much behind. Sure, the polished graphics and mountains of player stats are gone. On a fundamental level, just as football has barely changed, so too have football games. Why not take the time to revisit an icon, a true classic, and discover that it is just as fun as anything on the market today?
Tecmo Bowl debuted in 1989 for the NES after living its early life as a 4-player arcade cabinet, but it’s available to play right now on Nintendo Switch at no additional charge if you have a Nintendo Switch Online subscription.
Upon its original release, Tecmo Bowl laid the groundwork for what every football game would do for time immemorial. Players choose from one of 12 teams, which include NFLPA-licensed players for maximum realism. Tecmo Bowl does not have NFL franchise licensing, so while you get to play as Phil Simms you don’t get to be “the Giants.”
You do get halftime pageantry though.
Sure, the reality stops with the names once you get on the field and players look like twitchy Tic-Tacs, but the gameplay is oddly familiar. You pick your plays, try to outmatch the other team, and then you execute the play. Controlling key players lets you in on the action. Performing a pick-6 or 80-yard TD run is every bit as thrilling in a 32-year-old game as it is today.
Then there’s Bo Jackson.
It is worth playing Tecmo Bowl simply for the comedic experience of controlling the most OP character in video game history. Seriously. Bo Jackson makes Pikachu look like Little Mac. Just watch this insanity if you don’t believe me:
Spend an afternoon with Tecmo Bowl and you’ll understand why it has such an enduring legacy as a frequent entrant on Top 100 games of all-time lists.
The music is awesome, the sound design stupidly delightful (Ready! Down! HUTHUTHUTHUTHUT!) and the rage quitting shockingly authentic. To play through a whole season, you have to beat all 11 teams in random order. And, unlike modern games that track wins and losses, Tecmo Bowl is all-or-nothing. Keep getting crushed by Bo Jackson? Too damn bad. You play Bo Jackson until you beat Bo Jackson. End of story.
Even better, in an uncharacteristic display of technical competence, you can actually play this ONLINE with other Switch-owning friends. Older gamers can try to reignite old feuds with long-lost friends and modern fans can pull a friend along for the ride and feel like retro pros together. Good luck becoming the next Brad Bell, though.
Tecmo Bowl is available now in the NES Online library for Nintendo Switch.