Thursday, November 26, 2009

Closer Look Thanksgiving Special

A Closer Look Thanksgiving Special

What's Thanksgiving without a little Turkey?
Ah, Thanksgiving: a time for giving thanks, by definition.  Thanksgiving: a time for gathering with family and feasting on the bountiful harvest of the past year.  Thanksgiving: a time for tryptophan-induced comas and Aunt Edna’s mini-crumb cakes that nobody likes, but everybody pretends to eat by the dozens.  Maybe this Thanksgiving for you, but for me “turkey day” means only one thing: an entire day of uninterrupted football.  That’s right, no work, no worries, just football.  The reason Thanksgiving was invented: football.  Football is a Thanksgiving Day tradition since the first pig gave up its precious hide that it might be carried 100 yards for six glorious points.
As of late, however, the traditional teams that play on Thanksgiving Day have been a little less than spectacular (particularly you Detroit Lions).  Yet there is good news!  If the games fail to be as enthralling as maybe they should be, the realm of video games provides a bounty of great football games to fill the gap.  Obviously in the time in which we live the absurdly successful line of Madden NFL games is the go-to in the event of a complete Dallas Cowboy collapse.  But don’t be so hasty to grab that XBOX360 controller!  Classic systems have a lot to offer in the way of football fun.  Sure, they lack the depth of modern games. You can’t own a franchise and trade players, you can’t run a hot route if you see a Cover 2 defense (chances are good a Cover 2 defense is going to be out of the question anyway), heck the players may not even have names or be recognizable as humans, but old school football games still have a lot of charm and can be a lot of fun.

That is the focus of this Closer Look Thanksgiving Special: Classic football games from my favorite system, the Atari 2600.  Yes the ol’ VCS features a veritable host of tackle football* games, from the simple, and succinctly named Football, to more thrilling titles like Super Challenge Football, and even the recently released BLiP Football!  But can football games for the 2600 be any fun at all?  Heck, can they even really capture the essence of the sport with a system that has such limited capabilities?  Let’s find out.

*Please do not confuse tackle football with that sport that little girls and Europeans play called “soccer.”  While some call this sport “football” from time to time, it should not be confused with the American sport that men play.  (also note that I am pretty much kidding about this. Soccer, “futbol,” is just fine if you like sports where the games last like eight hours and the final score is 1-0 if you are lucky. Riveting.)

We start our Thanksgiving adventure at the beginning: Atari’s Football.  This is 4-on-4 football at its finest.  And I mean every word of that sentence.  Having said that, this game is actually pretty impressive for what it is and when it came out.  Sure there are only 4 players per team and those players possess all the mobility of a wet brick, but you do get 5 plays to call for each side of the ball, you can pass on any play that isn’t a punt (a nice nod to the “option” play for you college football fans), and the basic rules of tackle football remain intact.  The game must be at least a little good because we played it non-stop back in the day.  We would have actual tournaments and marathon session of Football.  And somehow, through sheer determination and lack of better options, we got good at it.  Passes were routinely intercepted, tackles behind the line of scrimmage would occasionally turn to real-life fisticuffs, and a win meant bragging rights, at least until the next game started five minutes later.  Sure, this was all we had in the way of video game football back then, but if it had been unplayable, we would have just gone outside or God forbid made a stab at setting up that incomprehensible Electric Football game…shudder…
I think the real charm of Football is its pure simplicity.  There is nothing complicated here and if you only play it for a couple of minutes and allow the sluggish controls and absolute flicker fest to jade you, chances are good this game is going into the pile.  But, if you get a friend and sit down with Football for four or five games, pretty soon its appeal will become obvious.  The fun of this game lies in seeing just how much you can do with what little you are given.  Touchdowns do not come easily.  Passes are tricky to execute and a smart defender will almost always come away with an interception.  Rushing yards are earned, not given, and the wrong defense can open up an entire side of the field for a goal line sprint.  And there is punting! Like I said, all the basic elements of real football are here.  Give the game some time and you’ll find out why it still gets pretty high marks from reviewers.  Besides, that small green field and pink and white players is a classic screenshot that is forever a part of Atari history!

But we can’t be expected to play 4-on-4 football all day, not when the VCS is capable of so much more, like, oh say, 5-on-5 football!  Yes, kids, that’s right, real 5-on-5 football is possible for the 2600 and it is coming your way from your good friends at M-Network in the form of Super Challenge Football!  Real pigskin action where you create and call the plays!  Unlike Football, Super Challenge Football allows you to design your own offensive and defensive plays.  At the start of each play you give each player on your team (they call them linemen, but in football logic nothing about that makes sense) an assignment.  You can send them out to receive, stay in to block, run a fake pass route, etc.  On defense you can assign pass coverage or send defenders in to rush the quarterback.  SCFootball also features a side-scrolling playfield, a fairly impressive feat for the time.  However, there is some trade-off.  There is no kicking or punts of any kind.  You have four downs, fail to get a first down and you turn the ball over on the spot.  The scrolling isn’t silky smooth and there is some stutter if you really get a run going. 
The upsides of Super Challenge Football greatly outweigh any of the above drawbacks.  Designing your own plays lends a customization to the game that the five static plays in Football sorely lack.  “Programming” your plays is simple and quick.  The action is fast-paced and smooth (except maybe when you are running and the field is scrolling to keep up).  Your players actually move with some agility and speed although the defenders do move faster than your receivers (I recommend a zigzag strategy).  Defensively, you have more strategy options and getting your players into position to make a play is easier.  The passing game is simple, but requires smart decision making. Perhaps the most impressive features of SCFootball are the graphics.  Of all the VCS football games, SCFootball may look the best.  The field is bright green with clean markings including yard numbers.  Down and distance markers are also present on screen and the score displays are large and sharp.  Despite having ten players active on the field, there is no flicker and while the players are of the typical hunchy, lumpy M-Network stock they are solidly rendered.

Super Challenge Football is a winner and definite fun for two-players, but what if you don’t have two players?  So far, both of our VCS football games have been excellent two-player affairs, but having a friend to play with sometimes isn’t an option.  Fortunately, our friends at Atari were also aware of this and created a second football game as a part of their RealSports game line.  RealSports Football is a complete departure from their original Football offering and like SCFootball, RSFootball is a side-scrolling tackle football game that also features 5-on-5 action.  But that is where the similarities end.

Continued after the jump!

On the positive side: the play calling is by design once again, but this time you’ll have a few more varieties of plays to call including short and long passes and on defense you’ll actually get control over your Safety coverage!  Player control is greatly improved and the smaller sprites and side-scrolling field open up more mobility options.  Your linemen actually block this time around and you’ll need them if you chose to run the ball or call a long pass.  Player speed is also increased making defensive play much smoother and giving you a real chance to break it for a long run on offense.  The biggest upside, however is also the most obvious, RSFootball features a ONE PLAYER mode!  No more calling plays for the defense and then running your offense down the field for a score every single time.  Now, the computer will actually try to take you out.  And while blindly ball-hungry, the AI will actually beat you pretty soundly if you don’t take it seriously.  Finally a big victory for only-children everywhere!  The kicking game is also back, featuring both punts and field goal attempts!
On the down side, the lush graphics of SCFootball are absent and instead a sparse green playfield is what we get.  Down markers and yard numbers are still there if a bit more minimalistic than in SCFootball.  The players are a little leaner and there is a nice animation for players engaged in block, but the flicker fest is back and as we all know that can be a real distraction.  The passing game is much more difficult in this game and paying attention to whether you have a long or short pass called will often mean the difference between a completion and a loss of down.   While this adds a new level of challenge to the game, it also becomes frustrating and tedious rather quickly.  Play calling can also be an adventure since some plays require the joystick to be pressed along a diagonal and with the imprecision of the VCS controller you might think you’ve called a long pass when you’re actually running the ball to the right.  The only salvation is that pushing up or down does not call a play of any kind, so you can kind of start up or down and roll yourself into the play call you want.  It isn’t perfect, but it works.
The down side notwithstanding, RealSports Football is a lot of fun to play.  The fundamentals of football are all here and better than ever.  The action is fast and smooth, despite the flicker, and you’ll have to scheme, scramble and get lucky if you are to outwit the AI or a human opponent.  Defensively you stand a better chance since the computer holds the ball way too long and you can usually cut off their running routes, but don’t get cocky, because all it takes is one good pass and you’ll be watching as the little computer player dances in the endzone. (and they do dance, finally, endzone celebrations!!!)  Chances are good it will be a toss-up whether you play Super Challenge or RealSports Football as both provide solid entertainment.
But you won’t have to decide if you have Super Football.  Once you have Super Football, other football games may only see the inside of a VCS as a trip down memory lane.  Super Football is Atari’s third and final tackle football game for the 2600 and may be the best possible football game for the system.  Super Football is a significant leap forward in terms of complexity of design, gameplay and graphics.  From the opening title screen (!) you can tell this is going to be unlike any football game for the VCS you have played before. 
Super Football returns us to the head-on perspective that I think they were maybe trying for in Football, but makes it really, truly work.  The playfield scrolls vertically much like the horizontal scrolling in Super Challenge or RealSports Football, but somehow looks much cooler!  It feels like you are actually marching down the field, as expressed in common football parlance.  Of course, this new perspective does limit your view of the total field, but it does so in a realistic fashion that would later become the staple of modern football games on contemporary consoles.  The player sprites are also more dynamic featuring multiple colors and a look that borrows heavily from the space cadets in Solaris.  The flicker is still present, but it is a shadow of its former glory and no longer the game debilitating beast it was in Football.   This is also the first, and only, VCS football game to feature goal posts!
In addition to looking great, Super Football also delivers the most complete football experience available on the 2600.  Safeties have been sacrificed, but in exchange you are now able to both punt and attempt field goals.  The new visual perspective enhances the kicking game greatly.  Penalties, time-outs, and other clock stoppage are still missing, but other than that Super Football captures all of the aspects of real football. In the interest of creating a complete experience, the play calling has also been stepped up a considerable notch.  Previous games either allowed you to pick a set play, or build a play by assigning particular duties to each player.  Super Football features play calling more like what is actually done on the field in real football.  First you select a formation (this determines which skill position players you will use and where they will line up) and then you select the routes your receivers will run.  You can even select specific punt/kick formations. Defensively you will select between blitz packages and pass or run coverage.  For some this more complex play calling scheme will probably overcomplicate what is otherwise a pick-up-and-play experience, but for diehard football fans this is a dream come true.  The play calling of previous games has extremely limited the variety of plays you were capable of running and required a ton of improvisation to make fantastic plays happen.  But with Super Football, you can out-scheme your opponent before the ball is even snapped! Just keep the game manual handy until you are familiar with how to call the play you want.
With all of these new changes, Super Football provides the ultimate VCS football experience for the avid football fan.  To be perfectly honest, as an avid football fan, I can find little wrong with this game.  There is a bit of a learning curve with the play calling, but outside of that this is pure football fun.  Sure, it’s still 5-on-5, but we won’t get real 11-on-11 football for over a decade when John Madden puts his foot down. 

Recently, the VCS homebrewing scene has added another great football title to the 2600’s stable of games.  Fans of the classic Mattel handheld football game can say hello to an old friend as programmers David Galloway, Bob Montgomery, and Tommy Montgomery have brought that very same game to the VCS.  BLiP Football is a direct port of the classic handheld for the Atari 2600.  The red dashes are there, even the button displays are there, everything you remember has been successfully translated onto a 2600 cart. There is an option to spice things up a little and improve the color palette, but seriously who would want to?  BLiP Football is an exceptional trip down memory lane, no enhancements necessary. 
The gameplay in BLiP Football is just as you remember: runs only, kicks and punts when necessary (and sometimes by accident when you hit the K button before checking your down and distance!), one lone runner vs. five defenders, and a football field three players wide.  It is a game of strategic movements and run like hell opportunities.  Even the computer AI behaves the same (so it will learn what you do and make changes to stop you!).  If you sold/threw away (blasphemy!) your original handheld, BLiP Football is your chance to recapture the magic!

So there you have it!  Another Thanksgiving is in the books, the Detroit Lions have lost again, and we have taken a Closer Look at all of the tackle football games for the Atari 2600.  Despite its severe limitations, the VCS manages to deliver five solid football titles that provide something for everyone.  For the diehard fan, Super Football is the way to go.  For nostalgia, pick up a copy of Football or BLiP Football.  And for those looking for just enough football to feel like you’ve done something, but not so much that you have to know what an Under Man Blitz is, Super Challenge or RealSports Football is for you.  Hope you had a great holiday, loaded up on the food, and best of all enjoyed a full day of football, either real or virtual!

Join me in three short weeks when I’ll take a Closer Look at going home again in the video game world.  You’ll see what I mean…

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