When I first started playing the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as a child, it seemed as if the best sports games were based on baseball. Sure there was Double Dribble for basketball and Ice Hockey was not a bad game for its time. But I can easily list off several baseball NES titles off the top of my head such as Baseball, Bases Loaded 1-3, Baseball Stars, Little League Baseball: Championship Series, Baseball Simulator 1,000, RBI Baseball 1-3, and Major League Baseball. For football, there was 10-Yard Fight, NFL Football, and John Elway’s Quarterback Challenge. But football games didn’t become interesting to me until the release of the original Tecmo Bowl in 1989. This was the first football video game I ever loved.
Because John Madden NFL Football is such a staple in gaming today, many forget that it was Tecmo that first brought anywhere near a representation of the NFL to home gaming consoles. While Tecmo Bowl didn’t have all the teams (and the teams were only represented by cities due to the lack of an NFL license) or the real number of players on the field, what it had was an entire suite of features that blew its competitors out of the water. One such feature that gave it the edge immediately was its inclusion of real NFL players.
In Tecmo Bowl, you could use Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Walter Peyton, Dan Marino, John Elway, Howie Long, Mike Singletary, and Bo Jackson. Oh my…BO JACKSON. The Raiders running back was basically a cheat code. Hand the ball off to him, blow past the defense, and maneuver all around the field until you score a touchdown. Rinse and repeat. My favorite NFL team has always been the San Francisco 49ers but when it came to Tecmo Bowl, the Raiders were my favorite squad to take the field with. Running with Bo was a thrill.
The differentiation between players was something that Tecmo was very good at in its football games. The star players felt like stars. This was through the use of numerical values for player attributes that became more apparent in Tecmo Super Bowl and the other games beyond the original Tecmo Bowl. But this was key in making Tecmo Bowl stand out as a unique football title compared to its predecessors. You can actually see the difference between Montana’s softer throws versus Elway’s cannon arm.
Presentation was also something Tecmo focused on from the beginning of its football series. Tecmo Bowl was the first football title that I can recall using cinematics. That feature in Double Dribble during dunks was what made them stand out that much more. Cinematics occurred during touchdowns and were also used for the halftime show. Yes, the touchdown celebrations were based on the Walter Payton hi-five but it was still a great touch to have in the game.
The gameplay was first rate. Yes, there were elements such as not being able to avoid a sack if the opponent picked your play. Throwing into coverage always resulted in an interception. But this game was not intended to be a realistic simulation of football. It was a fun representation of pro football with realistic characteristics. The emphasis on fun is what made this game legendary and a fond memory for the gamers who were alive to experience it.
While Madden NFL today has hundreds of selections to browse through when selecting a play, there were only four in Tecmo Bowl. Yet those four plays provided a world of depth for the time that made it seem as if it was sufficient. You would be hardpressed to find a sports game that utilized what it had with as much efficiency as Tecmo Bowl. It was an incredible game and the first step into football becoming the premiere video game sport.
Tecmo Bowl eventually spawned Tecmo Super Bowl, which is considered to be Tecmo’s crowning achievement in sports gaming. Tecmo Super Bowl was the first console football title to have both the NFL and NFLPA license. This meant for the first time a game had real teams and real players. It also introduced gaming’s first true season mode complete with stat leaders, division winners, postseason, injuries, etc. Personally, I also enjoyed the first Tecmo Super Bowl on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) but felt the series started to take a nosedive after that. With Tecmo Super Bowl II, the series took a different visual and gameplay direction that they never recovered from and failed to recapture the magic of before. By the time the series made it to the original Playstation, it was dead.
Though Madden NFL is the series still standing today, it was Tecmo that built video gaming’s first complete NFL game. And the building blocks started with the original Tecmo Bowl.