The Death of the Arcade Sports Game

blades-of-steel-01Growing up, I got an NES when I was about four or five years old. I had that console all the way until I was 11. Naturally, I logged a lot of hours on the dozen or so games that I did have for that system. Perhaps no game got put through its paces like Blades of Steel. I wasn’t the only one who did, though. Hockey fans all know about the classic game that had hitting everywhere, slap shots ricocheting off the boards and more than a few fights.

If you’re a child of the 90s, it might not have been Blades of Steel but there was certainly a classic sports game that was simple yet fun that you poured hours into. Football fans had Tecmo Super Bowl. Basketball fans spent their time on fire playing NBA Jam.

But look at the sports games released now. How many noteworthy sports game releases are what could be described as arcade-y? Not since 2010’s remake/updated NBA Jam released on the Wii have we had a new arcade-style sports game that wasn’t kart racer. It certainly seems as though a genre that has spawned quite a few cult hits is now all but dead.

Whether the arcadey elements of Tecmo Super Bowl or Blades of Steel were a design choice or a limitation of the home consoles is likely lost to the ages. However, it was these less-than-real elements of the game that gave them cult status.

For Blades, it was the fast-pace action which saw end-to-end rushes, players slammed to the ice and the famous fighting mechanic. Bump into a player three times without hitting another and you start a fight. Unlike the NHL, there wasn’t five minutes in the sin bin for both combatants. The winner got a power play while the loser had his unconscious body dragged into the penalty box by the ref where they’d sit for two minutes or less.

Blades of Steel presented itself as a recreation of the action that you’d watch on a Saturday night in winter. While the spirit of the game was still there in that it wasn’t too over the top (we still had icings, after all), there were still moments of survival of the fittest battles that would fit on any Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Hockey tape.

tecmo-bowl-34Tecmo Super Bowl was executed in a very similar way. It had the 11-on-11 battles that we expect out of football but like Blades of Steel, the speed of the game was turned up to 11. The d-line always seemed fast on the pass rush but your ball carriers seemed to have great speed and tackle-breaking capabilities. Penalties were also turned off which meant that things could get more violent. (Hypothetically, anyway. The violence was limited to big hits.)

As great as it was, maybe NBA Jam was the beginning of the end of arcade-action in sports games. We all loved the over the top action and legendary announcer. However, we saw that permeate just about every game that didn’t aspire to be a sports sim, especially those produced by Midway. That reality/physics-defying style of play became the norm rather than the exception for so money games like Midway’s NFL Blitz, NHL Hitz and the like, and EA’s Street arcade games for football and soccer.

What NBA Jam led to was a formula for the likes of Midway and EA Sports to develop arcade sports games. Rather than innovate and try something fresh, the status quo was maintained and we are left without anything from the big studios for arcade sports action.

The closest we’ve come to innovation from the big guns in the industry was EA Sports’ 3-on-3 NHL Arcade game which shamelessly borrowed the small, average and large player types from the NES classic Ice Hockey. If they had left it at that, included some decent online multiplayer modes like in full EA Sports releases and bundled copies of 3-on-3 with their $60 NHL series, it might have gained a cult following.

Instead, they added power-ups, gave the game terrible sound effects, made the game default to first to a number of goals systems and released only a demo with their full NHL games. What could have been a modern version of Ice Hockey instead became a game that didn’t know what it was trying to be and who it was trying to be that for. If the game was stripped down to a barebones experience, like hockey games of days gone by, it would have been fine. Sometimes less really is more.

nba-jam-2010-24And that brings us to today. The last time we had a proper fully-licensed arcade sports game was the re-release of NBA Jam. Either the well has been so poisoned that no one can hope to live if they go back to it or publishers are so scared of failure that they won’t risk a return to a classic genre.

But all they have to do is look at the current gaming landscape. Smaller releases and retro games are making a comeback. With the more simplistic looking and playing games being just as well received as the triple-A releases, what’s to say that a modern take on Tecmo Bowl or Blades of Steel wouldn’t thrive.

The formula isn’t too hard. Recreate the action we see on TV without getting bogged down in the nuance. I don’t want to use “casual gamer” in a derogatory manner but if I haven’t played an NHL or Madden game since the early 2000s, could I or another casual gamer pick up a controller and know what the hell I’m doing without studying the manual for hours?

That’s the biggest problem with sports sims. They take their faithful recreation of the sport so seriously that it’s almost impossible for them to pick up and play for anyone to have fun. If I have friends over to play Madden, it’s either give them a crash course in how to use two thumb sticks, four face buttons and four shoulder buttons simultaneously or have them use dummy mode EAsy Play.

My advice to the developers who want to recapture the fun sports games of the NES generation: Recreate the game but don’t cram every last detail into it. Don’t worry about the using thumb sticks or the shoulder buttons. Keep the game that we know (five-on-five hockey, 11-on-11 football) but drop a few details like penalties and other things that slow the game down. We want fast-paced, hard-hitting action that happens when we play pick-up sports with our friends. I don’t need to feel like I’m watching it on TV. I just want my fun back.

Cross-posted from et geekera.

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