The 6 Best Classic Football Video Games

Super Bowl week is a perfect time to remind us that Madden (the game) wasn't always king in the video game world.

Variety isn’t merely the spice of life, it’s the rare thing that gives us control. Suddenly, we have options and choices. Even when we’re trying to do something as simple as buy a video game, it matters, because a lot of us don’t get to treat ourselves often, so we want what we want and we want the best version of it that we can get.

Unfortunately, for a decade, video game football fans have been denied the basic joys of variety thanks to Electronic Arts’ shrewd exclusivity deal with the National Football League and the NFL Players Association. Forged in 2005, the deal effectively killed Visual Concepts’ debatably superior NFL2K series, allowing the Madden Football franchise to lazily sit on its throne.

That’s not to imply that the Madden franchise hasn’t made any advances in the post “Hit Stick” era. Obviously, graphics have improved alongside the upswing in hardware capability and there have been tweaks that improved gameplay and brought it closer to parity with real life.

Madden is a consistently lush and well-crafted experience, but is it the best that it could be? The want to top oneself and push back against charges that Madden is little more than an annual roster update must push the game’s development team each year. But without real competition, we can’t really know how much better Madden could be or how the NFL2K series would have continued to mature.

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In a time before exclusivity deals and Madden’s singular dominance, the field was flush with pro football console (praise should also be given to Front Page Sports: Pro Football line of PC games, which were true trailblazers in the areas of franchises and team management) video games — some good, some terrible and a few great. In that these games were things that many of us held as children, many inspire sepia toned fits of nostalgia and fierce defense.

I’m not going to kick dirt on your (and my) memories by talking about the worst of those games, but since the latest iteration of Madden is the only football game on the shelves once again, I thought it might be fun to look back at a few of the best non-Madden console pro football games in history. So here they are, in chronological order:

Tecmo Super Bowl

The advances in basic gameplay between Ten Yard Fight and the first Tecmo Bowl represented a more significant leap forward than the advances between Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl, but the options and the depth-of-experience that the latter offered players in one package was revolutionary. With Tecmo Super Bowl, you could play as real NFL players in real uniforms with realistic ratings off of a real schedule. There was a Pro Bowl, Super Bowl, trackable player stats, editable plays, substitutions, and the rumbling mountain that was Christian Okoye.

Did I mention Bo Jackson? There are still people in parts of this great land of ours that say his name in hushed tones because of the great impact that he had on this game. Look at this insane YouTube video of a nearly two minute long, 99 yard touchdown run by Jackson in the game. The guy with the controller is surgical with that shit. Look how he toys with the defense. This is the most impressive sporting achievement that I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve seen all of the Air Bud movies.

Still played religiously by people the world over in leagues and tournaments, Tecmo Super Bowl belongs to the stars now… and also, the customizers, apparently, because there are unofficial editions of the game with up to date rosters circulating. So, I guess Madden does have some competition this year. What is dead may never die!

Joe Montana Football

The NES was and still is a magical system, but the Sega Genesis will always be my first real console love, and as a young sports gamer back in the day, it gave me everything that I needed thanks to the Electronic Arts collection of yellow tabbed tall-boy cartridges for the MLB Triple Play, NHL and NBA franchises. When it came to football, though, I had to go with Joe Montana Football (aka BlueSky’s Sports Talk/NFL franchise) and it had absolutely nothing to do with anything besides star power and my love of the San Francisco 49ers.

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You can scoff all you like, but I completely understand the 11-year-old version of me’s thought process, as he stood in Toys R’ Us looking at those plastic cards that determined which game you would get out of the cage. “What’s it gonna be, kid? The one with the old man in a tie or the one with Joe Montana mid-roll out?” It’s a wonder that the Madden franchise survived all those years before they finally started using cover athletes.

Montana football was more than a pretty package, though. NFL 95 starring Joe Montana had the ability to trade players and, throughout the franchise, there were smoother player models than what the 8-bit games had and a fun arcade style of play that got more sophisticated as the years went on.

Where the Montana franchise really shined was in its presentation. Though super robotic, Joe Montana Football had rudimentary play-by-play, action zoom, and the ability to scan downfield 65 yards while looking to pass. The game also had a bit of swagger, with taunts like “Where you going!?” after a big hit. You also had the ability to level another player after play had stopped. I did that lots.

Freshly retired from the NFL, Montana’s visage was absent from the box cover when the 1996 version of the game came out. He was replaced by Deion Sanders and the NFL franchise would linger for a couple more years with rotating cover athletes. By then the magic had faded and the competition had both outpaced the NFL franchise and grown in numbers, but a recent tweet by Montana that displayed a CGI image of the Hall of Fame Quarterback in uniform with the hashtags #YouveWaitedLongEnough and #JoeMontanaFootball16 gives some hope that there may be another comeback coming for “The Comeback Kid.”

Quarterback Club

Evolution can be an ugly process. As the late 90s and early 2000s arrived, new systems like Sony’s PlayStation (and the PS2) and the Nintendo 64 freed developers to get out of their comfort zone and reach for more realistic 3D player models.

When you look at the latest version of Madden, the players look almost indistinguishable from reality. Do we get there without these earlier experiments and boundary pushes? Almost certainly not, but while we look back upon the crude and hamstrung efforts of the games that lived on the NES and the Genesis, we almost coo nostalgically. Those games are video game football’s adorable baby pictures, but the games of this era are the awkward, acne covered teenage years that everyone is ashamed of.

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After looking back at some of these games, I understand why. Acclaim’s Quarterback Club was a prime offender, featuring blocky and poorly proportioned 3D players with real life player face textures that were emotionless and a little creepy.

Launched in 1996, Quarterback Club lasted through seven editions before falling by the wayside thanks to Madden, GameDay, and the NFL2K series. In its heyday, the game provided a fun Quarterback challenge mode and a few retro gameplay options that allowed players a chance to glimpse at the NFL’s past. On the downside, the gameplay was notoriously atrocious and ironically, passing proved to be incredibly difficult. For some reason, I kept giving this game a chance on the N64 and I kept hating myself for it.

It’s a bit stunning to me now how fervently I resisted giving in to Madden football back in the day, always choosing the alternative until I had no other choice.

NFL Gameday

From the blocky to the chunky, GameDay’s key design sin (besides the unfortunate cheerleader load screens) was the wide shouldered player models of the early 3D polygon era (1998-2002). When your place kicker looks like a middle linebacker, something is amiss, but again, we need to crawl before we can walk, walk before we can run, etc.

GameDay deserves ample credit for its role in the evolution of 3D player models and for its gameplay, which blew away lesser games like the above mentioned Quarterback Club. It also deserves some credit for its longevity. At a decade, GameDay stood in the longest against Madden and it arguably had the most success, riding the coattails of the very popular Sony PlayStation.

There isn’t a lot of flash to recall with GameDay, it’s just a solid football game that was a good, but not great, alternative. It was meat and potatoes like a really good fullback.

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NFL Blitz

NFL2K is up next, of course, but it felt right to take a break from the parade of football sims to talk about the marvel that was Midway’s NFL Blitz.

We know now the hazards that real football players were and are exposed to and the awful cost that some of them have paid long after they left the game. With these games, injuries are nothing more than a nuisance in the midst of your franchise mode, but in reality, head injuries can rob someone of their sanity and/or their ability to function as an adult. It’s serious stuff, but in a time before we all knew how bad it could be, we laughed and sang while savagely destroying the pixelated representations of our favorite NFL players with inhuman tackles and other moves that would get you banned from the NFL.

Like NBA Jam, its sister series, Blitz started as an arcade sensation before migrating to consoles where it found a wider audience as a fun game to play on your own or with friends. The game was just faster and more explosive than sims and with 7 on 7 matchups that were filled with taunting, wrestling-style takedowns, impossible plays, crazy celebrations and a shortage of penalties, Blitz felt more like a backyard football game that didn’t have to respect human limitations. That is until the NFL started clamping down. The series seemingly ended in 2003 with the watered down NFL Blitz Pro, but in 2005, right at the start of the post Madden Exclusivity era, Midway released Blitz: The League, a no holds barred version of the game without an NFL or NFLPA license and their accompanying restraints.

It’s just so fitting that EA, the king of the NFL license, snapped up the Blitz name following Midway’s crash — this after they had tried to somewhat replicate the success of NFL Blitz with their NFL Street series — but while the move injected new life into the franchise with a PSN/XBLA release, the end result was lacking when compared with the the Midway days.


Shit’s about to get a little emotional: NFL2K was my jam.

Let’s talk about the Dreamcast and how it was handed down from the sky by future angels. Graphics that looked like the great leap forward that we had all been hoping for? The ability to call plays or play minigames on the VMU memory card? Yes, please! A modem that would allow me to trash-type my opponents on a full-sized keyboard as I played them from anywhere in the world(!)? You know that nothing cuts a dude as deep as a well-written missive about his momma two minutes after you scored on him. Oh, and you got a game where a fish has a dude’s face? C’mon son! You better stop!

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Sega was back in a big way with the Dreamcast and, despite the scars left on my heart from the quick death of the Sega Saturn, I was ready to love again and the NFL2K series solidified that love.

It looked and sounded better than the competition with detailed stadiums, smoother 3D player models/physics, and great play-by-play from the fictional team of Dan Stevens and Peter O’Keefe, but the gameplay and AI were otherworldly. This wasn’t a football game, this was a FOOTBALL game. You had to know your team and the tendencies of the real-world players to truly excel.

With each succeeding year, the NFL2K franchise improved. I can personally attest to the addictive qualities of the franchise mode in NFL2K2. I spent untold hours playing through 10 seasons, breaking sack records with a blitz-happy attack that was anchored by Julian Peterson and John Engleberger while winning trophy after trophy on the golden arms of Jeff Garcia and then Tim Rattay.

In later years, the game’s presentation moved to the forefront thanks to a deal with ESPN and consistently top-of-the-line graphics. Players also had near total control of their franchises from a business end, which added another immersive level to the game.

NFL2K5 is widely regarded as one of the most perfect football video games in the history of the form, but its aggressive $19.99 price point forced Madden to cut its cost to $29.99 and seemingly pushed Electronic Arts into their exclusive deal with the NFL. A move that leaves one with the impression that EA was willing to tolerate direct competition. But when Take Two (the 2K series’ publisher) blew up their economic model, EA reasoned that they could better absorb the cost of the $400 million exclusivity deal than the cost of constantly releasing their product at nearly half of what they had grown accustomed to.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention All Pro Football 2K8, which came out sans NFL/NFLPA license in 2008 with a bushel of former NFLers. It’s a nice game, but it doesn’t offer a glimpse of what the NFL2K series would have grown into three years after the last NFL licensed game.

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Sadly, we may never know what a modern day 2K Football game would look like, thanks to EA’s continuing exclusivity deal, which is set to last at least a “couple more years” according to Pro Football Talk.

Again, I don’t want to paint EA and Madden as a cartoonish villain that has a gun to the head of consumers, they made a calculated business decision and Visual Concepts turned around and entered into a similar deal with Major League Baseball just 45 days later that crushed EA’s MVP Baseball series. What’s more, Visual Concepts’ 2K Baseball series barely felt like a competitive entry in recent years before it was shuttered, absolutely earning the “roster update” label in a way that Madden never really has.

We don’t just need Madden, we love it, but I can’t pretend that going through this list didn’t make me long for a time when GameDay, 2K, and Madden were all fighting each other for the same slice of pie. Is it still economically viable? I don’t know, but for the sake of gamers and myself, I hope that we see more competition and the innovation that it can spur in the near future.

Did we miss any football sims you love? Tell us in the comments below!