Is there anything more American than sitting back, putting on the game, and watching a bunch of dudes try to give each other CTE?
Actually, yes, yes there is — playing a video game where you pretend like you’re one of those dudes.
Football video games have come a long way. From the handhelds of the ’80s to today’s Madden games that allow you to essentially create your own personal NFL.
But the modern era of football video games truly began with Tecmo Bowl, released in arcades in 1987.
Everything that came after — including the Madden games, Mutant League Football, and uh, well whatever other pro football games tried to make it without an NFL license — owe a huge debt to this game.
And guess what? If you have a Nintendo Switch Online account, you can play this bad boy on the NES Classic Console RIGHT NOW.
Does it stand the test of time? Let’s dig in.
Tecmo Bowl offers a pretty simple premise: get out on the gridiron and play.
You can pick from one of 12 teams, based on who was popular in the late ‘80s. Since Tecmo didn’t cough up the dough for NFL licensing, you simply play as a city. Throw your pads on as Indianapolis, Miami, Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles (Raiders), Washington, San Francisco, Dallas, New York (Giants), Chicago, or Minnesota.
If you played the original NES port, you might remember that there were some real players included, thanks to an NFLPA licensing deal — sadly, that’s not available on the rereleases. You know, because that was over three decades ago.
The teams loosely resemble their real-life counterparts, and you can pick one and see if you can make it through a 12-week season in single-player mode.
BUT, you can also play in a 2-player versus mode, which is ideal for Saturday nights with a case of Mountain Dew and a box of Pop-Tarts. In both modes, there’s also a Coach option — that’s right, we’re talking full-on AI simulation here. Honestly, football sims haven’t really advanced since then
The gameplay of Tecmo Bowl is both deceptively simple and impressively complex given the boundaries we’re working with. I don’t remember the arcade gameplay well (holler in the comments if you do), so I’m speaking to the play of the NES version on Switch.
Once again, simplicity seemingly reigns here: Whether playing as coach or player, each team has four plays to choose from on offense. Usually, two run and two pass. On defense, you try to guess which of the four plays the offense will run.
There’s no way to call an audible or anything, so once you pick your play, you’re locked in. You select a play with a combination of pressing a button and the d-pad at the same time, which makes it easier to keep what you’re picking secret from a nearby opponent, but honestly this is just pure random chance here. You can try to apply normal football logic (e.g., running on early downs), but that is a pointless waste of your precious time being alive.
On offense, running is pretty straightforward. The QB doesn’t really hand the ball off so much as kind of chuck it to the running back.
It’s actually pretty clever how you pass the ball in Tecmo Bowl, if not entirely intuitive. After you hike it, your first read is highlighted with a flashing arrow. Tapping the A button will move the arrow through your receivers, and tapping B will throw it to the selected receiver.
It’s pretty tough to think quickly enough to find the open receiver sometimes, so I just toss it to the first receiver 90% of the time. But, it’s a pretty cool mechanic, again, given a controller with nothing but a d-pad and two buttons.
Then of course there’s the fact that receivers can run off the screen and you have no clue if they’re open or not. But hey, that’s part of Tecmo Bowl. If you want to see the entire field, why would you fire up an NES game?
On defense, you can change your player by tapping A before the snap. After the snap, you play as whoever you ended up highlighting. I’ve been going with linebackers, which seems to allow me to drop back in coverage or attack the runner. Tapping B on defense causes your player to dive, while tapping (or maybe holding? It’s hard to tell, honestly) the A button gives you a little speed boost. That’s helpful when you inevitably have to chase a player for 70 or more yards.
Is Tecmo Bowl still fun?
The gameplay is actually pretty fun and doesn’t take long to get at least a little bit of the hang of it. You can jump into a game and be lobbing bombs in no time.
When you score a touchdown there’s a fun generic animation of players high-fiving, and at half-time, there’s some really fun 8-bit art of cheerleaders and generic celebration graphics. The newspaper (just a generic newspaper of all sports, I guess) also covers your game — win or lose. All these touches are really entertaining, for the most part.
So yeah, it’s still a fun game to pick up and play, regardless of whether Madden or something more up-to-date and “realistic” is an option. Of course, that’s assuming you’re not in a rage.
Does Tecmo Bowl cheat?
God yes. This is one of the original rage games. The computer intercepts you and runs it back for a touchdown on a regular basis no matter what the hell you do. It f***cking cheats and that’s the end. I’ll hear no more of it.
The verdict: To play again or not
Tecmo Bowl absolutely gets the Classic Nerd seal of approval to go back and play.
Playing via Nintendo Switch has an added benefit — you can use suspend points to make it through a season at your own pace, and if the computer cheats in an exceedingly rage-inducing manner, you can simply rewind the play and try again.
So do your part for your country and give Tecmo Bowl a (re)try.