Yeah, let’s hear it for some good old-fashioned SPORTSBALL, beeyotch!!
Look, you either love sports games, or you love to point out how much money EA makes repackaging and re-selling the same game (sometimes literally) to players year after year. I unabashedly fall into the latter category, not only because I can’t tell you the difference between a grand slam and a field goal, but also because these titles are the textbooks of the video game industry. Rehashed and tweaked just slightly, utterly incompatible with last year’s edition, sold for top dollar on the new market, and worth nothing when you trade them in later because a new version’s coming out. Sports games are the ultimate in disposable digital entertainment, and retail stores dispose of them by the thousands because no one wants them. There are a small number of exceptions to this rule, but by and large if it’s a yearly release with either a date or a number on the package, it’s going to collect more dust than value over the course of your lifetime. I don’t want to knock nostalgia: I myself love Nintendo’s Ice Hockey for the NES, and a number of my friends have specific editions of NHLPA or Madden from the 1990s they still play today for the memories. But let’s be honest here. Games based on mainstream sports have an expiration date, and that’s usually 12-16 months after their initial release. That’s why you’ll almost always find more fun (and a lot more value for your buck) in retro games that feature a more alternative take on the sporting, like these games right here.
01) Super Dodge Ball – NES
I challenge anybody to pick up Super Dodge Ball and not have fun. And I don’t mean “yeah, that was enjoyable for five minutes” either. I’m talking hours of smack-talking with you and your best mates trading the controllers as frequently as you trade insults. Made by Technos as a part of their Kunio-kun line of games where high school students wage war on other gangs in non-traditional fashion, Super Dodge Ball is endlessly entertaining because it takes an already questionable, violent activity from gym class and turns it into an Olympic-level competitive sport fifteen years before Peter La Fleur and White Goodman faced off.
Featuring three different play modes, two difficulty settings, solo or two-player play, nine teams representing eight different countries, a variety of field conditions like packed dirt that slow players down or an icy surface that sends players sliding all over the place, over fifty different players each of whom has his own power moves and individual stats, and a secret ‘Shadow’ team you can tangle with at the end of a single-player tournament, no two games of Super Dodge Ball are ever alike.
There are many incarnations of this game, which was originally made for the arcade in 1986, along with a number of sequels and ‘me too!’ versions, some of which are fun and some of which aren’t worth the silicon they’re printed on, but even the best of them like All-Star Slammin’ D-Ball on the PS1 and Super Dodge Ball Advance on the GBA can’t hold a candle to this 1989 classic’s charm.
02) Mutant League Football – GEN
International readers: understand that every reference to ‘Football’ in this section means ‘American Football’. We still can’t admit it should be called ‘Handball’.
It’s not uncommon to threaten physical violence against the other team, and injuries are a fact of life, but what would happen if they made a Football league where the rules were more like guidelines to be trampled upon? Mutant League Football was the darkly humorous attempt to answer that question. Taking place in the wasteland created by nuclear war, Mutant League Football features reanimated zombies, robots, aliens, trolls, and radiation-drenched subhumans squaring off in a traditional game of tackle football, played in some very non-traditional and actively-hostile environments.
While you’re trying to catch the ball and not step on a landmine or fall into hard vacuum, the other team will do its level best to tear you limb from limb. Both sides have access to a variety of dirty tricks ranging from trading the ball for an explosive or strapping on a jet pack all the way up to turning players invisible or ordering your guys to ignore the game and dogpile on the opposing quarterback for the kill. Referees do their best to enforce order, but both sides can bribe the ref once per half, with a successful bribe resulting in five-yard penalty calls against the other team for fictional rules infractions like excessive gas, flicking boogers, and unnecessary kindness. These continue until the opposing team orders a Kill the Ref play, which results in a newer, tougher ref being sent in to regain control along with an additional five-yard penalty on the team who called the audible for being a bunch of dicks.
Perhaps most surprising about Mutant League Football is that EA made it using the same engine they’d developed for Madden ’93. It’s hard to imagine Electronic Arts churning out a non-licensed sports title using the same assets that created Madden ’16 today, right? They also made Mutant League Hockey in 1994, but for our money you just can’t beat two players, one television, a Genesis, and a copy of Mutant League Football, even if you actively boycott the Super Bowl.
03) Classic NES Series: Excitebike – GBA
Few games are so simple to pick up and so complicated to master as Nintendo’s classic Excitebike. The setup couldn’t be easier: take your dirt bike to a track filled with other people riding their dirt bikes, and go faster than the rest of them while navigating everything from patches of mud and speed bumps to long jumps and multi-tier obstacles designed to make your life hell. With only five tracks (two laps per track), no multiplayer capability, and 19 different pieces to choose from, Excitebike can still invoke a Zen-like feeling if you let yourself be absorbed into its simplistic, 8-bit majesty.
We’re picking the GBA version of Excitebike over its NES counterpart for two reasons. First, we already have an NES game on this list and we’re trying to promote diversity over here. Second, the NES version is broken since the track design function won’t actually save your track design. The GBA version of Excitebike fixes this second problem, thus letting you create your own obstacle course o’ DOOM and challenging other people to finish it. Of course, the downside of this is that you’re playing it on the GBA’s smaller screen, but this is a small price to pay to enjoy one of the best 8-bit alt-sports titles in its glory, and if the small screen is that big of a deal, then get yourself a GameCube and a Game Boy Player. You can thank me later.
04) Test Drive: Eve of Destruction – Xbox
All those other Test Drive games are amusing, but if I’m being honest I have to admit there’s very little to keep me coming back for more. Whether it’s sports cars in the original series or jeeps in the Off-Road offshoot, these have always been one-and-done racing games for me. All that changed when, on a whim, I picked up Eve of Destruction (European readers will know this as Driven to Destruction).
Eve of Destruction doesn’t play like other Test Drive titles. The allure isn’t sliding behind the wheel of a souped up Porsche or free-wheeling around the countryside in a mud-eating Hummer. No, Eve of Destruction‘s allure stems from taking a beat-up hunk of what used to be a car, grabbing some fishing line and chewing gum to MacGyver it into working order, then using it to careen wildly around a track, smashing into other people’s similarly-jury-rigged contraptions until there’s nothing left to smash, all set to a soundtrack of the best fratboy anthems you could ask for. If the prospect of fishtailing around a figure-eight track behind the wheel of a giant bus trying to destroy every other competitor going the opposite direction while douche rock giants like Bumblefoot, Hoobastank, and Sum 41 serenade you does not move you to tears, I can only assume there’s a gaping ectoplasmic wound where your soul once resided. Eve of Destruction is the racing game for people who hate racing games. It’s an unabashed, hold-my-beer, zero-fucks-given celebration of American redneck culture and vehicular carnage that has no equal. It was released on both the PS2 and Xbox and is nearly identical on both platforms. We went with the Xbox version here just because it looks better, but either one will entertain you for months.
05) California Games – 2600
If there’s anything more 80’s than a video game tribute to “sports” that involve roller skates, surfboards, and dirt bikes, then I want it shot, stuffed, and mounted on the wall of my man-cave. Epyx hit pay dirt with this best-selling title in 1987. It was ported to the 2600 in 1988, because believe it or not people were still buying 2600 games after Nintendo arrived on the scene.
The Atari 2600 port of California Games is one of my favorites. From its simple chiptunes rendition of “Louie, Louie” that graces the title screen to the choices of skateboarding, surfing, BMX downhill, and hackey sack, it’s all fun and games in the sun. Each sport is easy enough to learn but plenty challenging to master, and after each session it’s so easy to say, “Just one more round!” that eventually your mom will hurl you outside just to get your butt in motion for a while. The BMX obstacle course is my favorite, tasking the biker to perform jumps, flips, and tabletops while careening down a slope littered with trees, rocks, mud, stumps, cow skulls, and ramps. It’s a simple game, each event is over in a matter of minutes, and each time you play you get a little bit better. What more could you ask for from a joystick with a single button?
06) Downhill Domination – PS2
Plenty of games let you race other people down a mountain, but the reigning champion of the genre is Downhill Domination. Programmed by Incognito, Inc. (the guys behind Twisted Metal Black) and released as a PS2 exclusive in 2003, Downhill Domination is best described as a mashup of SSX and Road Rash. It pits you and a bevy of other bikers in a race to the finish down a mountain flush with obstacles, secret paths, insane jumps that will send your heart into your throat if you’re sitting too close to the TV, and plenty of opportunities to make your rivals bounce their anatomy off the nearest boulder.
Downhill Domination tracks your wins, awards cash prizes for top placement, and lets you use your money and fame to unlock new gear and upgrade parts for your cycle. Additional riders are unlocked by breaking certain thresholds, including real-life pros Tara Llianes, Brian Lopes, and Eric Carter. Throw into this mixture a soundtrack featuring the likes of Run D.M.C., Saliva, Brian Setzer, Slipknot, and the Black-Eyed Peas and I can tell you’re already ordering this game in another tab, so I should probably just stop talking before it gets awkward.
Is it awkward yet? I don’t know. I spend a lot of time just talking to myself. If it’s awkward, will somebody chime in and let me know in the comments? Otherwise I’m apt to do this all day.
Anybody? Seriously, anybody…?