In recent times, the sports genre of video games has erred more and more on the side of realism and simulation. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing; your flagship game for each major sport should be one that provides a realistic simulation experience that draws you in and makes you feel like you could do anything. I’ve ploughed so many hours into Madden NFL and NBA 2K that I’ve had premonitions of being able to line-up for the Washington Redskins and hold my own, or go 1-on-1 with Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving and hit ‘em with so many blistering crossovers that they fall flat on their back, but I know (and I’m sure most of you would too!) that I would have absolutely no chance of doing either of those, hell, the last time I played 1-on-1 basketball my shot got blocked, not once, but twice by my 5ft 2” opponent (I’m 6ft) and he proceeded to whip me into next week (cheers Craig!). It’s sports simulation games that allow you to live out a dream, or if you’re a franchise/manager player like me, take control of your favourite team and play through season upon season of realistic games, with realistic plays, and realistic outcomes. Realism, realism, REALISM.
I look at the sports genre of gaming and see vast improvements year on year, but the one thing I wonder as time passes; where have all the fun arcade sports games gone? I can remember spending many-an-hour playing NFL Blitz 2000 on the Dreamcast, or RedCard Football on PS2 with my friend George, dropping elbows on players after the whistle and drop-kicking referees. The Bigs was one of the first games to get me into baseball, while NFL Street gave me the chance to see some of my favourite NFL stars making huge unrealistic tackles and perform unnatural moves such as taking catches by jumping off walls, all while taking down Xzibit in the process! The majority of the best arcade sports games of previous years have all had some sort of dodgy, cheesy storyline tagged on as you play through but it made it enjoyable along the way, and most of all, they were easy-going, relaxed fun! So why have we seen a distinct lack of new (or at least decent) titles recently?
It was often the arcade games that gave the simplest representation of their respective sports, and gave new players/fans an entry point into understanding how the sport works (and having fun along the way!). Recently we’ve seen re-hashes of some older titles such as FIFA Street, NFL Blitz (although it was US only) and NBA Jam; all of which felt so far different from their predecessors that they ultimately disappointed anybody that had played the old titles. There is a gap in the market for a return of the old-school true arcade games, recent offerings such as RBI Baseball 14, Madden NFL Arcade and 3-on-3 NHL Arcade have provided us with games containing the arcade art style but have lacked any of the crazy-ness; they’ve been fairly bland and quite shallow. Even the likes of the Tony Hawk franchise has switched allegiances, from the archaic 23-trick linking, combo-breaking, board-flipping fun of franchise favourites like THUG to a more realistic ‘Skate’-esque style. To me, the whole reason of playing a Tony Hawk game was to perform the most craziest of tricks/trick combos to get the highest score, not land a perfect kickflip to noseslide down a 4-step rail.
One of the main reasons behind the lack of the outrageous arcade games of old is the unwillingness of the governing bodies of the various sports to associate themselves with games that do not portray a realistic representation (and therefore attract more viewers to the sport and make them more $$$!) or any game that associates their sport with the violent aspects of the game, ie. Blitz: The League. In a world where the NFL is currently being sued left, right and center by various ex-players, and groups of ex-players, for current issues as a result of past injuries/playing time, it would be a PR nightmare to then attach their brand to a game that glorifies the, very true, dangers of the sport that they put their players through in real-life. Now, I know what you’re thinking, why don’t the developers/publishers make the games without the governing bodies backing? Well, they could, but having their backing would automatically mean advertising, promotion and most importantly, sales!
All I’m asking for is a return of the proper arcade sports games. EA Sports failed miserably with NBA Live 14 last year, so why not jack it in and make a new NBA Street, or NFL Street, instead? I’m hoping that one day, we see a return to form for this genre, but in the meantime, here’s a rundown of my top 5 arcade sports games of the past:
5 - NFL Blitz 2000 (N64, PlayStation, Dreamcast) / Blitz: The League II (Xbox 360, PS3)
NFL Blitz 2000, like The Bigs 2, which comes later on, was one of the first games I played which portrays the best sport in the world, American Football (Oh, and I’ll have no arguments about that either). It was, and probably still is, the most fun I’ve ever had playing an NFL game.
Based of the original NFL Blitz, Blitz: The League brought back all the hilarity of the original but included a ‘Sniper Elite-esque’ injury camera which x-ray’d the body and showed bones breaking, or spleens being split open…...the sort of gore you’d expect from a Mortal Kombat game rather than a sports game. Tack on the ‘American Dream’, rags-to-riches story mode, with solid online play to complement, it provided an all-round game that could be enjoyed by all; as long as you’re not squeamish!
4 - Mario Strikers Charged Football (Wii)
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking…..well, don’t. This game was hella-fun! All the Mario characters that everyone loves, superpowers, crazy stadiums, good gameplay. What more you could you want? More?! Ok, how about reliable smooth online matchmaking, tons of modes, slick menus and a wickedly-catchy soundtrack? I know all that must have sold it to you now!
3 - NBA Street Vol. 1/2/3 (Xbox, PS2, Gamecube)
Now, before I even start, I just want to chuck it out there that I’m definitely not including NBA Street Homecourt in this, mainly because, well, it sucks! All three volumes of the original NBA Street franchise, on the other hand, can be considered as arcade sport masterpieces. Combining the big names of the NBA stars along with the fierceness, and hilarity, of streetball, the 3-on-3 games were a cavalcade of trickery, flashy moves and big plays, all played out in the goal to win, but also fill-up your GameBreaker bar. A full GameBreaker sent your team into an overdrive that guaranteed your team a bucket, but also took points away from your opposition.
Much like other games within this genre, the main single player mode consisted of taking a custom-made player around the ‘Circuit’, stealing NBA players from the hordes of defeated teams that are left in your path. Along the way you’d come across fictitious ‘Street Legends’ who acted as boss battles throughout the campaign; although, If you were a fan of NBA, then you’d be able to tell that these ‘Street Legends’ were obviously based on the looks and play-styles of various NBA legends.
2 - The Bigs 2 / Nicktoons MLB (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii)
The Bigs 2 was one of the first games to get me into baseball, it’s mixture of semi-realistic fast-paced gameplay that envelopes all the rules and regulations of a normal baseball game with power-ups, special player abilities, an arcade art style, real MLB stars and just a general over-the-top attitude. It’s deep game modes included a season mode (new for The Bigs 2), as well as the extremely fun Become a Legend mode where your created player is on a comeback from injury in the Mexican leagues, is picked up by an MLB team, then travels the circuit recruiting players from the teams you’ve beaten. Chuck in the Home-Run Derby mode which, as the picture above shows, places you in various (and crazy) locations around the world with the goal of scoring as many points as possible, with many of the items in the picture being hit-able for extra points. All-in-all, The Bigs 2 was a deep game, with fun enjoyable gameplay. As I said, this was the first game to get me into baseball, and although I’ve since graduated to the more realistic MLB 14: The Show on PS4, I still return to The Bigs 2 for some laid back fun.
Two games in one position again? That’s ludicrous! The ONLY reason this time is because Nicktoons MLB is essentially the same game as The Bigs, but with the added awesome-ness of all your favourite Nickelodeon characters being included!
1 - NFL Street Franchise (Xbox, PS2, Gamecube)
Yes, that is Xzibit. All joking aside, the NFL Street franchise from the now defunct EA BIG is one of the most celebrated franchises in arcade sports games history. Having been born from the success of NBA Street, NFL Street had three games span a three year period, and all of them receiving Metacritic scores of around 80, picking up any of these games would allow you to see just why it is loved so much. The simplicity of the controls during the 7-on-7 gameplay made it easy to pick up, mix that with the deep single-player experience, satisfyingly fun online play and you had a franchise that could rival the more-simulation Madden NFL. Players had individual abilities that included being able to jump off walls and make catches 15-feet in the air, or plough through defenders, having three hanging off the back of you, and still gain the extra 15-yards required for a touchdown. As well as winning, the idea was to pull off these moves in order build up your GameBreaker bar, similar to NBA Street. Filling it up then setting it loose ignited a sequence (on either offence or defence) that caused havoc for the other team and shifted the momentum in your favour, almost guaranteeing a TD on offence or a turnover on defence. These GameBreakers were unstoppable, unless, of course, your opposition also had a GameBreaker and applied it at the same time.
The NFL Street franchise is, to me, the epitome of what arcade sports games are all about. The feeling of fun and fulfillment has tried to be replicated in more recent titles such as NFL Tour or Madden NFL Arcade, but they have failed miserably to replicate something other than a shallow puddle of boring monotony.
Words by James Grantham.