In an era of motion controlled games, VR headsets, and thousand-dollar phones, people still play a Nintendo game back from when it was just called the Nintendo. Though most casual football fans get their fix from the latest version of Madden, some folks still fire up the old NES. A few even make a pilgrimage each April to Madison, Wisconsin to play in what is essentially the Tecmo Super Bowl Super Bowl. Yes, Tecmo is thriving. Two years ago, Tecmo Madison claimed to have hosted its final championship, its founders now adults with children and jobs and responsibilities. And yet it goes on; too many people want it to. There’s just something about the game that brings people back.
Enterprising modders take its ROM file and update it with current rosters and franchises, so you can play with Aaron Rodgers instead of Don Majkowski. Others tinker with the playbooks, tune offenses to feel modern. But the game is more than just a pleasant arcade sports title, or even a target for pixelated nineties nostalgia. Subtly, Tecmo Super Bowl changed not only football games, but football itself.
That Tecmo Super Bowl maintains its cult status 26 years after its release is no surprise. Though most people gave up blowing into their cartridges long ago, nostalgia for the Nintendo Entertainment System and its iconic football title are stronger than ever. It’s not just a fond remembrance for what may as well have been the Tecmo’s official mascot, the man who felt like a video game character himself, Bo Jackson. After all, there are other NES games with other legends that have faded into obscurity: Roger Clemens' MVP Baseball, John Elway's NFL Quarterback, Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball.
Tecmo Super Bowl lives on because it walks the perfect balance between intelligent, faithful simulation and fun arcade title. When the NES Classic appeared on (and vanished from) shelves, the game’s simpler, arcade-like predecessor, Tecmo Bowl, was one of the 30 choices out of the system’s thousand-plus title library. In an era where half of all video games take five minutes and three menu screens to load up, and the other half demand micropayments, Tecmo Super Bowl is still easy to learn, intuitive to control, ridiculous and somehow realistic. They don’t make them like this anymore.
How Tecmo Made Video Games Feel More Like Football
What Tecmo was able to do with its football titles, in the perspective of history, is nothing short of amazing. The game is a marvel of coding. The NES was, by Christmas of 1991, getting long in the tooth; it was half a decade old, and older in its original Famicom form in Japan. Its successor was already for sale. The Nintendo hardware created massive limitations that we take for granted today: each movable sprite could only contain four colors, and only a certain number of sprites could appear on the screen at a time. (Going over that limit created two bugs every eighties kid would recognize: slowdown and flicker.) Tecmo used some fancy trickery to get around these issues, including an animated background to give the crowd life, and the transformation of two blocking opponents into a single, “struggling” sprite. The result is a game that plays incredibly smoothly for its age.
Compare that to the gameplay of NFL, a game released by LJN two years after the release of the original Tecmo Bowl:
The players are identical stick figures; the rating systems in the pregame menu claim that they have different attributes, but in practical terms, they are indistinguishable. It’s easy to forget how football was, in its early days, an anonymous sport; the players hidden beneath bulky helmets and shape-changing pads, set to move in specific patterns, almost like automatons. Football cards of the era were often profiles of players sitting on the bench, the only time their faces were clear in the hazy photographs of the eighties. It was too hard, during play, to make out actual people in the cloud of dust.
Contrast this with Tecmo Bowl. Because of the limitations of the hardware, the little football players on the screen are no less identical, but the game used other means to bring them to life. It begins with the license: every team is stocked with real names and statistics, some of them slower, some of them more powerful, some of them, like Steve Grogan, throwing passes that are still, somewhere, waiting to come down. Some of it was simply an aid for an immersion; having seen Randall Cunningham run, a player would instinctively map that memory onto the pixelated avatar in front of them. But Tecmo used another clever trick as a workaround for the limitations of the graphics: unable to use large, colorful sprites for the players, the game inserted two-second, highly detailed cutscenes that reinforced the action. It was a cinematic touch long before games really tried to be cinematic, and it worked perfectly.
To further the realistic feel of the game, and to add variety, Tecmo introduced a rudimentary health system into its regular season; players would get nicked up and run slower, or have a hot hand and throw perfect bullets every time. A poor starter might call for substitution for a healthier backup, especially since there were also injuries: a whistle and the minor key of the injury music could cause a player, like a fan in real life, to tense up in expectation.
Tecmo Super Bowl was hardly the first sports game to blend simulation with action, or employ real players. Baseball, being a favorite in both Japan and the United States, was an obvious place to start. Earl Weaver Baseball, released five years earlier, provided individual statistics and ratings, let players customize everything from names to stats to skin color to park dimensions. The 1989 SNK title Baseball Stars allowed you to create a team from scratch, and imbued RPG elements into the game by allowing the earnings from a game to be poured directly into a player’s skills, like leveling them up. You could create your own leagues full of fictional teams, run a regular season and a playoff. R.B.I. Baseball lacked these stat-tracking capabilities, but it used (some) major league players and mapped their abilities to match the real-life avatars. But there was something that made football Bo Jackson feel like Bo Jackson, the way that bubble-figured baseball Bo Jackson could never replicate.
How Tecmo Made Football More Like a Video Game
By the early nineties, fantasy football was just beginning its development as a billion-dollar industry. Before the days of the internet, the hobby was largely a local affair; statistics had to be collected manually, or else contracted for $50 or so through the quarter-page ad of the lone fantasy magazine on the supermarket magazine rack. Nor had the (fantasy) sport emerged entirely from the shadow of its baseball predecessor. Leagues were generally based on simple scoring mechanisms, points awarded for touchdowns and field goals, ignoring the difficult calculations of yardage or receptions altogether. The product was something that still felt just a little too much like gambling to the mainstream: why bet on players to score points when you can just bet on the team? Especially when those players were semi-anonymous.
But there’s a case to be made that Tecmo Super Bowl shifted a generation’s perception toward statistics. They were no longer the plain, algebraic box score of a game already performed. Instead, they were the score.
Points have been around since the first arcade cabinet; they are, in a sense, the currency of video games. Points are what distinguish someone’s performance from the next person who puts a quarter in; the high scores always reveal who, objectively, is better at the game. In that sense, they serve the same purpose as they do in sports themselves. There was a time when, like in pinball, a score was literally the sole product of one’s labor, how long you survived in Pac-Man or how many waves you eliminated in Galaga. But as video games advanced and technology allowed for more refined expression, a second reward system appeared: story. At first these stories were laughably simple; a character hugging his kidnapped girlfriend, a peppy song as the credits rolled. But especially as games transported from the arcades to the home, and there was no longer an ever-present opponent with which to compare one’s scores, points grew increasingly marginalized.
For sports, however, that system doesn’t work. There are no princesses to rescue. In fact, a football season is remarkably similar to beating an early arcade game: a short congratulatory message, then repeat the entire thing, a little harder this time. Tecmo Super Bowl had its pixelated victory screen, and of course you got your upbeat victory song. But the game had a different way to let you know how you were doing: it kept track of your statistics.
Thanks to a battery backup, you could not only save your progress throughout a full 16-week season (its predecessor, only tracking which team you choose and which opponents you’d beaten, provided a password), but it tracked statistics on both a team and an individual level. And it’s to the credit of the designers that, despite streamlined gameplay, never-huddle offenses and the clock pace of a cocaine addict, the resulting numbers felt just about right. As I wrote this paragraph, I simulated an entire season—an act that requires ten minutes with 1991 technology—and the resulting league leader in passing, rushing, and receiving earned 4,420, 1,467, and 1,873 yards, respectively. Sure, four players topped 20 sacks, and half a dozen punters averaged 50 yards per punt. But it’s still pretty solid.
This realism was important, because it provided the player with a feeling of empowerment. When you got good at the game, the numbers of the computers around you still looked the same, while you towered above them like a behemoth. In fact, winning with a decent team isn’t really a challenge for an experienced player, and so individual totals became the true point system of the game. 5,000 yards passing, 2,500 yards rushing, 99 sacks (really)... all of them were possible, and made the individual players who reached those benchmarks the true heroes of the game, as opposed to the faceless sprites of games past.
And half a decade later, as the internet arrived and accessible fantasy football came with it, suddenly the idea of predicting players, rather than teams, didn’t seem so far-fetched. After all, a generation of players spent their childhood playing Tecmo Super Bowl to get the chance to be Bo, and found themselves having just as much fun pretending to be Al Davis.
How Tecmo Made 1991 Feel Modern
In preparation for writing this article, I dug my own copy of Tecmo Super Bowl out of a box in the garage. It was the same copy I had gotten for Christmas, a quarter of a century before. It worked on the first try; I didn’t even need to wiggle the cart in the little VCR slot.
I took over my hometown Seahawks and my favorite football player, the inimitable Dave Krieg, and the memories flooded back: the sleepovers where my friends and I would simulate full seasons as separate teams before finally facing each other in the playoffs. The names that matched our worthless Pro Set football cards, and never seen since: Mark Duper, Albert Bentley, and Jim Kelly’s doppelgänger QB Bills. (Kelly, along with Randall Cunningham and a few others, opted out of the NFL Player’s Association, and with it, a piece of immortality.)
And then the game began: Week 1, always easy. I enjoyed that satisfying rhythmic weaving of the ball carrier in the open field, dragged down by the lead football in his hands, dodging an endless stream of diving opponents. I marched down the field against the Saints, cursing myself for having forgotten to adapt the playbook beforehand, running slow toss sweeps with my pair of starting fullbacks, watching the soon-to-be-incarcerated Tommy Kane drop passes. I suddenly remembered: the Seahawks weren’t very good in 1991. On defense, my muscle memory served me better; I recognized the formations, the blocking patterns, and threaded through for tackles behind the line.
But I couldn’t score on offense, and the time slipped away so fast. A fluke play by the computer: another run stuffed behind the line, a fumble, a pile, and then Dalton Hilliard picking it back up and running all the way for the game’s only touchdown.
This box score, painful as it looks, is a testament to the beauty of Tecmo Super Bowl. If a sports video game has to accomplish one thing, it’s to feel as alive as the sport it copies, to open up possibilities, to feel infinite. No game has done that better than Tecmo Super Bowl.
Also, the Patriots are the worst team in the game, so that’s a good reason to play it, too.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.