Ranking 11 Old-School Sports Video Games

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistNovember 8, 2016

Ranking 11 Old-School Sports Video Games

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    Evan Agostini/Associated Press

    Even when video games become more realistic than life itself, players will fondly remember the old-school classics that paved the way.

    Sure, the stalwart sports franchises (Madden, NBA 2K, FIFA, MLB The Show, EA Sports' NHL) offer gamers authentic experiences. The smooth gameplay and graphics are so good that a friend will walk in on a Madden contest and wonder why there's an NFL game on Wednesday afternoon. The aesthetics will only improve until we're living in a Westworld episode.

    That doesn't stop many gamers from waxing poetic about the glory days when they blew dust out of their Nintendo 64 consoles. 

    Maybe it's just nostalgia. Everyone doesn't love the games as much as the childhood delights of enjoying them on carefree Saturday afternoons. They recall the laughs with friends more fondly than the sore-losing stranger who quit an online game last week.

    Or perhaps there's something to their simplicity. As games race to include as many intricate details as possible, it's sometimes more fun to dunk from the three-point line or turn gravity off at the skating park.

    Let's take some Member Berries and salute the best classic sports video games.

11. Backyard Sports

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    This season, Gary Sanchez debuted with numbers that would make Babe Ruth blush. The New York Yankees catcher unbelievably hit 20 home runs over 53 games, churning out a seismic .657 slugging percentage.

    Even if he somehow sustained that historic start for two decades, he still wouldn't come close to matching Pablo Sanchez's indelible legacy. 

    Although the Backyard Sports series featured amateurish versions of professional athletes, none of them ever held a candle to Sanchez, the multi-sport superstar who dominated every game.

    When picturing a cool, five-tool slugger donning a backward baseball cap, those who played Backyard Baseball may recall Sanchez before Ken Griffey Jr. Although not The Kid, the actual kid proved far more ferocious than his size.

    As a result, he grew into the face of Backyard Sports, a franchise styled on playing pickup games in a park—if Alex Rodriguez happened to show up to take some cuts. Backyard Sports implemented a schoolyard-style selection process with young commentators. It appealed to children and tapped into nostalgia even before enough time passed to cement it as an old classic.

10. NFL Blitz

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    There's no way NFL Blitz would see the light of day now.

    With everyone waking up to football's barbarically violent nature, the league wouldn't take kindly to a football arcade game that doubled as a wrestling brawl. Defenders—certainly not sensitive to avoiding head shots—tackled runners with clotheslines.

    They then continued their attack after the whistle, if gamers were so inclined to body splash a helpless player on the ground. According to Vice Sports' Aaron Gordon (Warning: Article contains NSFW language), Midway's original model contained more brutality before toning it down at the NFL's demand:

    Ultimately, the NFL accepted compromises on many of the contentious animations. To wit: in the prototype version of the game, several seconds would pass between the end of a play and the appearance of the playcalling menu, allowing a gang of defenders to congregate and dogpile on the poor, helpless victim, creating a cacophony of anguished howls. The NFL Blitz guys reduced the time window of the one-way brawl to three seconds.

    The final product remained far too violent for the NFL to approve in 2016, but concussions and player safety were not yet major public concerns. So everyone enjoyed the arcade football simulation that celebrated unnecessary roughness.

    It feels dirty to admit upon now understanding the health risks football players face, but NFL Blitz offered mindless fun for those uninterested in learning a detailed Madden playbook.

9. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!

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    Even while fighting as Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao in a far more advanced boxing game today, some old-school gamers will secretly miss throwing basic jabs with Little Mac.

    The small protagonist serves as the player's surrogate against Bald Bull and Glass Joe among other massive adversaries in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! The titular boxing star, of course, reigned supreme as the big boss.

    In his 2013 rankings of the best sports video games ever, ESPN.com's Jon Robinson ranked the NES classic No. 3. It doesn't hold up in the graphic department, and there are no intricate haymaker combos to uncover for maximum damage. 

    It's just simple, arcade-style boxing, which remains a prominent forefather of the gaming zeitgeist nearly 30 years later.

8. NHL '94

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    How much does everyone love NHL '94? A dozen years later, EA Sports attempted to boost sales of NHL 06 by including the older classic.

    Whether on Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, NHL '94's graphics and gameplay proved ahead of its time. It also benefited from becoming the first hockey game to receive NHL licensing.

    Per NHL.com's Tal Pinchevsky, retired star Jeremy Roenick said his supremacy in the game receives more recognition than his 596 career points.

    "It's the No. 1 comment that is made to me over the course of every day, whether it's over Twitter or meeting on the street," Roenick said in 2013. "Whatever the case may be, I would say one out of three people I meet mention '94 Sega."

    Nothing from the virtual ice has drawn as much praise as this vintage relic.

7. Tecmo Super Bowl

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    Twenty-five years after Tecmo Super Bowl's release, Kia released a commercial with Bo Jackson dominating the game once more. How many other video games would conjure memories strong enough for a car company to exploit?

    Jackson, a two-sport star who averaged 5.4 yards per curry in four NFL seasons, is arguably known more for his unfair elusiveness in the classic arcade simulator. Gamers could run the opposite way and dart side to side like Pac-Man before finally breaking free for a touchdown.

    Per Polygon's Owen S. Good, it was the first console game that a professional sports league and player union combined to license. That allowed the 1991 NES game to use the likeness of Jackson and other athletes rather than nameless caricatures.

    Licenses now make or break franchises, leading the way to monopolies when nobody bothers to compete without one. Would a fictional Bob Johnson's agility have led Tecmo Bowl to universal adoration? Perhaps, but Jackson has helped it remain a cult classic. 

6. NFL 2K5

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    For over a decade, Madden has ruled the NFL gaming world. Yet a worthy adversary once threatened its stronghold.

    To this day, some holdouts maintain that the Madden franchise has failed to match NFL 2K5, an underdog competitor for PlayStation 2 and XBox that sold for $19.99. Despite the far cheaper price, it matched and maybe even exceeded the currently reigning NFL monarch.

    Ahead of its time, the bargain game featured ESPN personalities, including a Chris Berman-hosted halftime show hosted. Players could also face off against teams under the supervision of Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Steve-O, Funkmaster Flex and Carmen Electra. (In 2004, they all qualified as celebrities.)

    Fearing its rival's rising momentum, EA Sports purchased an exclusive NFL gaming license to put NFL 2K out of commission. Take-Two Interactive's retaliation wiped out another missed gem, which will appear later in the rankings.

    As a result of its premature demise, NFL 2K5 now stands as a cult hero taken too soon. Think of it as the gaming version of Freaks and Geeks, Firefly, Terriers or any other TV show that gained popularity after its unjust early termination.

5. WWF No Mercy

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    Rivaling the Monday Night Wars spanning the late '90s, the WCW and WWF fought for Nintentdo 64 supremacy with dueling treasures. While WCW/nWo Revenge put the former on top in 1998, the latter promotion gained the upper hand by releasing WWF No Mercy in 2000. 

    The game can partially thank good timing. At the heart of the Attitude Era, superstars including The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H and The Undertaker headlined a stacked roster. If they weren't enough, an extensive Create-a-Wrestler tool set the bar for all ensuing wrestling platforms.

    Gamers also enjoyed an improved story mode that reacted to match outcomes rather than making the player simply start over until winning. The in-match controls were simple enough for anyone to figure out but not dull enough to bore wrestling fanatics.

    More match options spiced things up, and blood-thirsty gamers could utilize ringside weapons to reflect the era's violent style. Clear fatigue levels and a gradual build to earning a finishing maneuver produced a straightforward flow.

    Sixteen years later, many WWE fans still can't see 2K Games perfecting everything the way THQ did to start the millennium.

4. Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3

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    Most gamers put the second installment of Tony Hawk Pro Skater atop the pantheon. The game revolutionized skating and probably introduced Tony Hawk to an entire generation.

    But this writer circled through all the levels of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 enough times to remember the Foundry and Tokyo competition 15 years later. And don't forgot about stopping the Airport's pickpockets before airwalking over the escalator.

    The first game of the series released on PlayStation2 featured incredible detail on every stage. It caused an uncoordinated nerd who has never picked up a skateboard to visualize all of his surroundings as ramps and rails to rack up points.

    Throw in an awesome soundtrack to make hours of ollies fly by, and it never got old through multiple playings. 

3. NBA Street Vol. 2

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    Enjoy the fundamentals of basketball? Enamored with creating open looks through pacing and spacing? NBA Street is not for you.

    A modern take on arcade classics, this EA Sports franchise put NBA stars and legends on famous park courts to play three-on-three pickup ball. The games were full of ornate crossover combos and trick moves. Alley-oops, even if someone needs to lob his own pass off the backboard, were a more conventional method of scoring than jumpers in this neck of the woods.

    Extending on an already engaging debut, NBA Street Vol. 2 upped the ante with its NBA Challenge and Be A Legend modes. If going around the world before posterizing Bill Russell or Yao Ming wasn't enough fun, gamers now had options to create a player and/or square off against the Association.

    Even the commentator and courtside fans never took themselves too seriously, adding humor to a sports series meant for harmless fun. 

    This art proved tougher to master on the gridiron, but NFL Street also proved a worthy diversion. Yet it was no match for its NBA predecessor. NBA Street comes close but doesn't quite surpass the basketball video-game gold standard.

2. NBA Jam

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    Even a poor sap who has never played NBA Jam has undoubtedly heard "He's on fire" and "boom shakalaka" recited with glee.

    For that, Tim Kitzrow deserves credit for lending the arcade game iconic catchphrases. Then again, these sayings remain in basketball fans' lexicon because of how fondly they remember spending handfuls of quarters on the two-on-two game.

    What it lacked in realism, NBA Jam made up for in fun. It's hard to envision it working without rainbow three-pointers literally catching fire or players majestically soaring through the air on rim-shattering dunks. But that wasn't part of the original plan.

    As creator Mark Turmell told ESPN.com's Paul Lukas, the over-exaggerated dunking was the result of a fortunate mistake.

    It's funny, though—the big thing I still remember about that time was when I put the first dunk in the game. I didn't even intend to do anything over the top. I put in the velocity and the height, and it looked cool. Then I kept going higher until it was clearly unrealistic but still entertaining. Once that happened, we completely shifted the focus of the game.

    That razzle-dazzle cemented NBA Jam as an epic video game that will never grow old.

1. MVP Baseball 2005

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    Caught in the line of battle from EA Sports' NFL 2K takedown, MVP Baseball paid the price. Take-Two Interactive responded with an MLB agreement, removing the beloved baseball game from the picture.

    Unfortunately, 2K never cracked the baseball code. MLB The Show now stands tall as the only major player in town, which especially proves problematic for anyone without a PlayStation. In a perfect universe, MVP Baseball would remain a viable alternative.

    Formerly Triple Play, MVP peaked in its final 2005 installment. The clean, crisp interface streamlined both the gameplay and front-office experience for baseball junkies, who especially enjoyed the inclusion of minor league rosters. 

    Brent Nielsen, producer of the MVP franchise, told Ben Lindbergh of the also gone-too-soon Grantland that EA Sports created its best baseball offering right before losing its MLB licensing:

    From a gameplay standpoint, from a tuning standpoint, from really getting rid of any critical bugs and then really rounding out the game in terms of depth and breadth of modes, 2005 was the perfect storm for us. It’s a culmination of many, many years of trying to deliver the perfect baseball game that balances elements of sim, but [is] also a fun, engaging, challenging game to play.

    There's grace in leaving on top, but MVP Baseball may have continued to get even better if given the opportunity. It's a shame that gamers will now never know.