Sports games tend to go one of two ways: Either they're simulations, like the NBA 2K series, FIFA, or Madden, focused on representing intricate details of a given sport.
Or, they're "arcade" style games, big, bold, and cartoonish—think NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, or even the Wii Sports games .
And then there's Tecmo Super Bowl, a game that splits the difference perfectly, and in doing so became my favorite sports game of all time.
Released for the NES in December of 1991—just in time for playoffs—Tecmo Super Bowl probably seems dated now. On offense, players could only choose between eight different plays—and on defense you didn't pick formations at all, and instead had to guess which play your opponent would pick. You want mind games? Tecmo Super Bowl's got mind games.
And yeah, most of the animation is really basic, and there aren't any advanced maneuvers. This isn't a game where you can hit a button to pull off a hurdle or a spin move. But listen: There is nothing in the world like seeing your pixelated running back go beast mode, breaking one tackle after another to go on a 50 yard touchdown run.
Over and over again, Tecmo Super Bowl makes up for its lack of detail with flare. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in its special animations. Whenever something important happens—a touchdown, a field goal, an incredible catch–Tecmo Super Bowl shifts from the normal, wide view of the field to a special cutscene, where the players take on gigantic proportions as they leap into the air, crash into each other, and achieve athletic greatness.
It's a game that captured football for me as a kid in a way that no other game did. Even as games like Madden and Joe Montana Football pushed the genre forward, I found myself coming back to Tecmo Super Bowl.
And at the time, I couldn't really tell you at the time why. I didn't really understand that the game was "important"—it was the first game that was allowed to use both player and team licenses, after all. I just loved it for what it was
But looking back now, I understand: Tecmo Super Bowl wasn't just an arcade game and it wasn't just a simulation. It gave me both sort of sports fantasies: The tactical challenge of play calling mixed with the grandeur of catching that impossibly long hail mary. The nebbish joy of stat tracking... with the explosive spectacle of an animated half-time show.
No game can be a perfect simulation. Real life has too many moving parts, too much unpredictability, too few certainties. Thankfully, the designers of Tecmo Super Bowl realized they didn't need to make a perfect representation of reality. What they needed to do, and what they did, was to represent our sports fantasies in a way we'd never seen before.