The NFL is a lot of fun to watch, but unfortunately there are a few days that we as fans go without the game. In this absence, one of the best alternatives is grabbing the nearest controller and playing out great pro matchups in video game form.
Football video games serve as an easy way to introduce the non-interested parties into football, and they can be used as an early reference to educate future fans of strategy in the game (and no I'm not talking about you, online player who goes for it on fourth down every time).
With that in mind, a question remains: What is the best representation of the NFL game through a video game? The list has been whittled down to 10 entries.
Three quick notes before we begin:
1) To avoid getting bogged down in year-to-year minutiae, games in a series (like Madden) will be judged as a package deal, with more weight placed on their more recent entries. I'll take arguments on why Madden '08 is garbage compared to Madden '05 in the comment section below.
2) All games in the list must be NFL-licensed. Unfortunately, this takes away several great options, including Backbreaker, Mutant Football League, 10-Yard Fight, Two Minute 3D football (one of my personal favorites) and, most notably, the original Tecmo Bowl.
3) Since eight-year-old me didn't have access to unlimited video game funds, I have not played every game on this list. Games I haven't played will be noted.
With that out of the way, here's the list of the top NFL video games.
If this game promised users that it had taken quarterback Troy Aikman's brain, then I'd be terrified to be Aikman. To be honest, the music is bizarre and the presentation is a little confusing.
However, once the action hits the field, things appear to take off. The graphics are alright, but the gameplay does little to get past the initial woes.
This game may not be the best for fans of any teams of the Cowboys. With Aikman apparently evaluating each team and player personally, many opposing teams had several players with one to two-star rankings (out of four).
(Note: I have not played this game.)
The gameplay may have been totally ridiculous and unbalanced (I found in the 2001 version of this series that using a goal-line blitz was a guaranteed quarterback sack every play...no matter what the opposing team's play was).
However, I can't think of a video game intro video that could get me more pumped up for football than this one.
Nothing says prime time quite like Deion Sanders, so it's no surprise Prime Time NFL Starring Deion Sanders would have plenty of (relatively) high-flying action. Released for the Sega Genesis in 1995, the game featured a (for the time) pretty expansive free-agency mode and solid graphics, although there were some complaints that the controls were difficult.
One of many player tie-in games Sega would come out with, it was a good precursor for the kind of games they would come out with to challenge for video game football supremacy.
(Note: I have not played this game.)
Gamers today may have the luxury of listening to commentators like Gus Johnson during gameplay, but that would not have been a possibility without the introduction of Joe Montana SportsTalk Football. The game was the first to offer somewhat lifelike play-by-play corresponding with action on the field.
For a genre that had previously offered more text than many traditional RPGs, the game was a major step forward.
(Note: I have not played this game.)
Determined to compete with EA Sports' popular Madden football series, Sony (and its subsidiary, 989 Sports) came out with the NFL Gameday series.
While its arcade style initially won over fans, it ran out of steam as it attempted to take a more realistic tone to compete with the more popular Madden NFL Football series from EA Sports.
Fading in popularity in the mid-2000s, the series was put out of its misery as EA Sports bought the exclusive rights to the NFL (which will be discussed more in a little bit).
(Note: I have not played a game from this series.)
I can understand there's a little favoritism here, as I played arguably the best iteration of the NFL Quarterback Club video game series (1999 for the N64).
The game had a great attention to detail (with overall accurate player models), accurate weather conditions and great commentating. There were even some great arcade-like modes (the all-fumbles mode was a great one to spring unsuspectingly on friends). The historic game scenario mode was also a blast (as was the inclusion of teams from NFL Europe).
However, the series just could not keep up with the more popular Madden and NFL2K series, and it was phased out after NFL Quarterback Club 2002.
Unlike it's cover athlete Brett Favre, developer Acclaim Sports knew when it was time to throw in the towel.
The ultimate in arcade NFL gameplay, the NFL Blitz series is about as much fun as one could have in a sports video game. The graphics may have been a little off, the play-calling may be a little goofy, but the experience has no comparison.
However, the game did bring some questions about its violence, particularly the big hits after plays were over (one of the most fun parts of the game).
The game was halted after EA Sports absorbed the exclusive NFL license, but developer Midway attempted to continue the series using fictional teams in its games NFL Blitz: The League and NFL Blitz: The League II. Both games were received with overall positive reviews, albeit poor sales.
Recently, fans of the series received some very positive news. EA Sports, which absorbed many of Midway's properties after the company's bankruptcy, will be releasing a version of the game in the near future. However, per the NFL's request, late hits will be taken out of the game (boo!).
The best (not to mention) only licensed NFL game currently on the market, Madden NFL Football is one of the most popular sporting titles around.
In addition to its extensive Franchise mode, its gameplay innovations (like the hitstick) have kept it in the favorite of many gamers.
The biggest gripe I have is that EA Sports has locked the market from competitors since taking the exclusive NFL license until 2013. Since taking the license, EA has been accused of only implementing limited improvements in select years. With no competition, they can do as much or as little as they like.
With that said, Madden is still an overall fun football experience (I just played Madden '12 yesterday and really enjoyed it), and that's a good thing considering it'll be the only option for the foreseeable future.
The game that proved the ability of licensed football games to be viable, Tecmo Super Bowl for the NES took advantage of the NFL license its predecessor, Tecmo Bowl, lacked and created a classic.
Creating a field that not only looked convincing but could age well, the game solidified the legacies of many NFL pros, some who are still cited for how dominant they were in the game (Bo Jackson in particular).
While the game launched several sequels for the Super Nintendo and future systems, it's amazing that the original NES game has remained the top dog in terms of classic sports games.
I admit I was late to the series, only getting the game in its last year (NFL 2K5 for the Xbox), but there's no doubt the series was a visionary. In addition to its VIP system, which broke down player play-calling tendencies (something EA Sports would later charge players for), its later games had an in-game presentation (through its partnership with ESPN) that its rivals could not match.
Even areas where the game didn't live up to expectations (mainly its first-person gameplay) were unique for the time.
It's clear that the series could have been a challenger for EA Sports and its Madden NFL series, but the loss of the license killed all momentum.
Though 2K Sports made a final attempt to create a successor series (All-Pro Football), it never caught on with fans due to the lack of NFL players. It also created a confusing controversy after it placed running back O.J. Simpson on its fictional New Jersey Assassins team.
As a fan of good gaming, one can only hope that 2K Sports can get another shot at the license after the league's current deal with EA Sports expires in 2013.