Pageantry. Fans. Parties. Violence. Strength. Anger. Broken controllers. Impossible plays that could never happen in real life.
These are just a few of the critical things a truly great football video game needs.
When the idea to write an article for each sport’s best video game came up at RB, football was basically the top discussion. While some of the guys hadn’t played Mario Tennis or Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey, everyone played several different titles in the American football realm.
Football video games have been dominated by the Madden franchise since John Madden Football began on MS-DOS in 1988. Madden is so dominant that in the weeks leading up to Madden ’16 it was reported that the 2015 version of the game sold approximately six million copies, meaning that there was virtually no competition.
But this article isn’t about sales, baby. It’s about greatness. The greatest football video game of all time can’t just be Madden – we’d have to pick a year, and that would be pretty tough because the franchise exists on incremental changes. In fact, Madden isn’t even the best football series that has existed: the NCAA football franchise was the exact same gameplay but featured more teams, more mascots, more cheerleaders, and most importantly, more Dynasty mode, which is the single greatest game mode of any game ever.
So which version of NCAA is the best football video game of all time? None of them.
NFL Blitz is.
Blitz was a short-lived series that began in the late ‘90s as an arcade game, but if you’re reading this, you knew that. Blitz was insane. It was seven-on-seven football that featured just some of the following things: Leg drops after the whistle, thunderous late-hit tackles, clotheslines that nearly decapitated players, 80-yard passes, 12-foot-high leaps, punches, constant sacks, suplex tackles, the inability to go offside, spin moves that work as tackle-breaking moves, punching stiff-arms, and so much more.
How do I know this was the best football video game of all time? An informal poll among Robot Butt staffers allowed six writers to not just tell their favorite part of the game, but also their favorite play on offense. For most of us, Da Bomb was the big one (it was the late ‘90s, you might recall) because it was just the best way to send dudes deep. I loved X Cross, because usually one of the crossing wideouts would get open for a nice gain. Oh, right, it’s also 30 yards for a first down.
Everything about this game was memorable. You want to do three spin moves on one possession? Everyone who played Blitz knows that you’re gonna fumble.
The incredible thing I realized while researching for this article is that Midway Games produced this monster of a game in what was the greatest run of any video game company of all time: They were responsible for Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, MLB Slugfest, Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey, and NFL Blitz in a matter of like eight years. Outstanding.
Unfortunately, for as violent and insane as Blitz was, we were robbed of an even crazier version. Shortly before launch, NFL executives said they couldn’t put their names on such a violent game, so Midway producers scaled down the madness a bit for the final product. The final product is not as crazy as Midway wanted it. Think about that for a minute. Yikes.
Did you like winning at football games? Enjoy getting ahead by 21 points and really putting your foot on the throttle? Too bad, tough guy, because Midway’s gonna get you. Blitz was the crown jewel in games that didn’t let you get away with running up the score. The bigger your lead, the more likely you were to throw an interception, fumble the ball, or get scored on while your opponent breaks a tackle from all seven of your defenders. There was nothing you could do about it. It felt like a 50/50 shot that any game would go to overtime, even if you were dominating early…or late. This phenomenon is so prevalent that the term “getting Midwayed” meant that you were just getting screwed so that an inanimate object/video game could make things more interesting.
NFL Blitz took things a step further in 2005 when they unveiled Blitz: The League. This iteration of the game was a direct shot at the NFL; it featured a fake league with fake team names and rampant drug use. You could bet on your own games and got performance boosts or bonus money for dirty play. The game was famously banned in Australia for steroid usage being used as a stamina booster.
It was a little too close to home for the NFL (sort of like that show on ESPN, Playmakers). In a sad turn of events, Midway went bankrupt in 2009 and sold the rights to NFL Blitz to EA Sports, the group that effectively put them out of business. They released a downloadable version of the game in 2012 to generally positive reviews.
Even with the not-so-happy ending, the original run was juts too good to ignore.
NCAA Football 2005 (ish): The Dynasty mode was still great and it was the last season before in-season recruiting. While the early stages of in-season recruiting were actually pretty cool, by the final version (’14) you were spending ten minutes per week on recruiting and then still had to do it in the off-season. It was just a lot of time.
I was a fan of several pieces of different versions of the NCAA franchise that I’d like to call out right now: Making promises to recruits, the hard juke with the L/R buttons on PS2, user picks, players getting rattled by loud crowds, custom conferences (what’s up BYU in the Big East?), truck stick, Ell Roberson and Darren Sproles running the speed option at Kansas State, Sports Illustrated covers, the animation where the defender tries to loop under the ball instead of jump and swat it and allowing a huge touchdown for the opponent, the “Play Like a Champion” sign at Notre Dame in about ’04 (and Miami’s smoke machine entrance), mascot games, the trophy room, setting up plays and burning dudes deep, hitting a great corner route in any version of the game, rolling right and throwing 12-yard outs, running the triple option with Navy, the record books, and finally, sending emails/texts/calls (before I had texting) to my friends about what insane stuff just happened in my game.
Of those, the record books, man. Those were the best. I know that’s not exclusive to NCAA, but holy crap were those fun to try to dominate. And then once you set some records and bumped the difficulty up to Heisman, it became a whole new challenge to try to get close again. NCAA would have been my vote for best sports video game ever if there were one specific season that clearly beat the rest, and if my colleagues didn’t unanimously say that Blitz wins.
NFL Quarterback Club ’98: I owned this one and swore that it was as good, if not better, than any other late ’90s football game. This was a bold point of view. The series died out shortly thereafter.
NFL 2K1: NFL 2K was the original and it was great but 2K1 allowed them to work out a few kinks from the original.
NFL Football ’94 Starring Joe Montana.: This game was awesome on Sega until I replayed it last year and it was…not great.
Tecmo Super Bowl: Bo Jackson. Nothing more needs to be said about this game but I’ll say more anyway: In 2002 I learned that people could take Nintendo-era games and make them playable on computers. Someone had taken Tecmo Super Bowl and re-identified everyone in it to mirror the 2001 college football season. Miami’s Dorsey/McGahee team was in there, Ohio State was brutal to beat, etc. It was awesome. This changed high school for me because it made me think this was why girls didn’t like me instead of just being unlikable in general.
For real though, Tecmo Super Bowl surpassed original Tecmo Bowl because TSB kept stats. Keeping stats was the great separator. Once games came around that kept stats, the ones pre-stats became instantly irrelevant. Thank the good folks at Tecmo for that.