Every year, a new Madden football game comes out, and every year it claims to be more “realistic” than the last. The most recent iteration requires you—as general manager, coach, and player—to not only throw masterful back-shoulder strikes in the end zone, but also to conduct mid-season free-agent negotiations and run weekly practices. It’s taken as a given that the realer these sports games get—not only on the field, but also off—the better the game experience will be. One day, no doubt, the role-playing aspect that these games have adopted will extend to choosing whether or not to join class-action concussion litigation against the NFL, all for the sake of a more true-to-life experience.
Madden’s relentless drive to merge reality and virtual has done more than squelch fun. Beside squeezing out its own direct competitors, the unquestioned quest for the “true” sports experience has also cost us innovation in the world of arcade-style riffs on traditional sports. These wonderfully idiosyncratic games, often only barely recognizable as professional sports, have largely gone by the wayside. Oh sure, they still exist—many have been remade for current consoles—and Nintendo has its own brand of quasi-sports Wii experiences. But EA’s humorless dominance of the market has all but assured the eventual extinction of arcade sports games, if just in spirit. In pre-memoriam, let us celebrate the greatest titles in unrealistic sports gaming history.
The Littlest Pugilist: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, 1987
Generally speaking, the smaller the boxer, the bigger the mouth. Back in his heyday, if you had asked, say, Prince Naseem if he could take on Evander Holyfield or Lennox Lewis (two of the better heavyweights of their era), he’d probably laugh and say it wasn’t worth his time. He’d say that he would dance circles around them and they’d get TKO’d through sheer dizziness. But boxing has weight classes for a reason, and one good shot from either of those guys on the 120-pound showman would result in instant regicide.
Little Mac, the star of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, was seemingly undaunted by his size disadvantage. Mac was 4’8’’ on tiptoes and weighed in at an unintimidating 107 pounds. He didn’t have Naseem’s flash, but Mac did have a huge uppercut, used to devastating effect on opponents that outweighed him many times over. Would Iron Mike Tyson lose to a 107-pound white dude from the Bronx? Not today—not even if Mac joined the Nintendo Fun Club.
The Ron Artest Experience: Arch Rivals, 1989
No one disputes that the NBA of Michael Jordan’s era was a different beast than pro basketball today. It was just a more physical thing, closer to hockey or professional wrestling than many people appreciate. Today’s coddled players complain if they don’t get a foul call over the slightest contact. (A few minutes in the paint with longtime Knicks enforcer Charles Oakley would teach them some manners.)
Arch Rivals, a 1989 game from Midway, brutally encapsulates the sharp-elbowed epoch by introducing sucker punching as a legitimate form of sportsmanship. The in-game violence wasn’t so much of a shock in Blades Of Steel, the era’s preeminent hockey game, but basketball is typically a less pugilistic enterprise. Being able to deck a guy and steal the ball—with no foul call—on the hardwood was flagrantly wonderful. In true gladiatorial fashion, fans would throw trash onto the court, foreshadowing the infamous “Malice In The Palace” over a decade later.
Honorable Mentions: Base Wars, 1991; Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball, 1991; Super Dodgeball, 1987
THE GOLDEN AGE
Boom Shakalakalaka: NBA Jam, 1993
The synthesis between arcade silliness and real professional sports reached its apotheosis in 1993 with the release of NBA Jam. The game pitted teams of two against each other, just like Arch Rivals. But where Rivals used archetypes with descriptive sobriquets like “Mohawk” and “Hammer,” NBA Jam used actual NBA players. There were a couple of notable omissions. Michael Jordan was not featured—Midway couldn’t get the rights to his likeness—and neither was young Orlando big man Shaquille O’Neal, at least in home versions.
There was still plenty of star power to go around, including marketable ’90s stars like Penny Hardaway and Larry “Grandmama” Johnson. The game also featured several unlockable characters, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore. We can only hope that seeing her husband set basketball nets on fire wasn’t too violent for Tipper.
XFL: Mutant League Football, 1993
Most sports fans, at one time or another, have wished bodily harm to a referee or umpire. Either that, or a divine miracle curing their total blindness. But we don’t really want them dead (most of the time, at least). In Mutant League Football’s grim future world, though, refereeing is about as dangerous as drunken zombie wrangling or drawing a cartoonish mustache on the likeness of a local warlord. That’s because the Mutant League—in addition to explosions, land mines, toxic waste, and other deadly in-game obstacles—allows teams to bribe referees. It’s not exactly subtle: After money changes hands, the opposing team can then choose to kill the corrupt official, fulfilling the unstated wish of millions of real-world sports fans around the globe.
The Would-Be Future Of Sports: Super Baseball 2020, 1993
The future has been a pretty big letdown so far. By “the future,” I mean the world as we thought it would look in 1990. How have we not colonized Mars? Where’s my hoverboard? And why are there no robots, women, or jetpacks in professional baseball?
Super Baseball 2020, it turns out, was a pipe dream, although Barry Bonds’s elbow guard came pretty close to the full-blown body armor worn by the game’s human players. The timeframe was just too limited. We’re still a long way off from the mandatory steroid injections and seventh-inning grope of the 31st century’s favorite baseball-esque sport, blernsball.
Honorable Mention: Brutal Sports Football, 1993
Da Bomb: NFL Blitz, 1997
In 1997, Midway released NFL Blitz, a football variant on NBA Jam. Blitz celebrated the sport’s violence when it was still acceptable to do so. The game encouraged pass interference, late hits, and pro wrestling-style take downs. The NFL—conscious of growing concern over players’ long-term health and pending lawsuits—eventually pressured Midway to de-escalate the violence in subsequent editions. Midway, though, was a company that thrived on blood and guts and cartoonish mayhem, and it went back to its bloody roots with Blitz: The League in 2005. That game was later banned in Australia.
In 2009, following Midway’s bankruptcy, EA bought up the rights to Blitz, bringing us full circle. Having already sucked the fun out of the realistic experience, the company now set its sights on ruining fake football too.
Honorable Mention: NHL Hitz (2001)
EA’s market dominance, coupled with an increased scrutiny of violence in both video games and professional sports, bodes ill for the future of over-the-top arcade sports. You want evidence? Look no further than some recent examples. Diabolical Pitch (2012) has you take control of a pitcher with a bionic arm, stuck for some reason in a haunted carnival. Using Kinect, you throw baseball-grenades at the attacking freaks. It’s about as much fun as a surprise visit from an agitated Jadeveon Clowney. Without Midway around to champion gratuitous cruelty, whimsical competitions like Winnie The Pooh’s Home Run Derby (2010)—a popular Japanese flash game that features A.A. Milne’s beloved woodland creatures—are in the ascendant. Charles Oakley would definitely not approve.