Greatest 'Cheat Code' Players in NFL Video Game History

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 2, 2019

Greatest 'Cheat Code' Players in NFL Video Game History

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    PAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

    You may think you know who tops this countdown of the most legendary "broken" football players in video game history.

    But are you sure?

    Bo Jackson's Tecmo Super Bowl legacy has endured for nearly 30 years. But the 2004 Madden version of Michael Vick stands beside Mario in the annals of gaming history.

    There have been plenty of other imbalanced, overpowered or just plain awesome football video game characters to choose from since the days when we blew into our NES cartridges or dropped our allowance money into arcade cabinets. Perhaps some sleeper jumped, juked or glitched his way to the top of the list.

    Whether they come from Madden or elsewhere, all of these players had the power to make your opponents throw their controllers across the room in disgust, and some of them are more memorable than their real-life counterparts.

    They may not have been properly balanced or realistic, but that's what made them so much fun.


10. Mike Alstott, Madden 2000

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    Alstott's bruising rushing style was perfect for the NFL of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    He was a fullback in the days when fullbacks were still cool. He inspired goofy Chris Berman sound effects during highlight montages in the era before those became corny. And he also earned a 100 overall rating in Madden in 2000, back when video game broken tackles still looked like one pixelated blob slowly shoving the other one out of its way.

    Alstott had a break tackle rating of 86 and a carry rating of 80 that year. He was unstoppable as a goal-line battering ram, and as this (long) video illustrates, he was also devastating as an every-down rusher and receiver. 

    In the primitive days before highlight sticks and other innovations, running in Madden meant hitting the speed burst button and hoping your player plowed through everything in his path. Few were better at that than Alstott.

9. Devin Hester, Madden 08

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    Hester famously earned the Madden series' first-ever 100 speed rating, but there was more to his game than that. His acceleration, agility and elusiveness ratings were 99, his juke rating was 98, and his spin rating was 96. Playing as Hester felt like playing a Spider-Man game, or taking the stick in a flight simulator with the physics set to "unrealistic."

    Madden programmers kept Hester from breaking the game by keeping his route running, catch in traffic and other ratings low.

    Madden Hester, like the real Hester, could be frustrating if you tried to use him as a conventional wide receiver. But stick him in the slot, toss him every screen, reverse and quick hitch in the playbook, and work the highlight stick until your right thumb was numb and you were sure to get your opponent to rage-quit after a few touchdowns.

    And if that opponent actually tried to punt in Madden with Hester on the field, well, that was on them.

8. Donovan McNabb: NFL Street 2004

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    2004 may have been the Year of Michael Vick in Madden, but Donovan McNabb was a far better quarterback on the field in that era.

    He was also far better in NFL Street, a largely forgotten arcade-style football game published as part of the  "EA Big" series.

    NFL Street featured seven-on-seven football in which NFL players were forced to play on both offense and defense: If you played as the Colts, you had to figure out where to hide Peyton Manning on defense. That made the game the perfect showcase for McNabb, then at the peak of his career. Vick may have been faster, but McNabb was both a better passer and big enough to be useful on defense as a safety or linebacker.

    Playing as McNabb was like playing as both Vick and Ray Lewis in a wacky game where players could hurdle opponents, run along the (stone) sideline walls or enter "gamebreaker" mode and basically become Thor for a few downs.

    If Street ever makes a comeback, it will give us a chance to see what Cam Newton or Josh Allen might look like at free safety. Until then, we'll always have McNabb. 

7. Ray Lewis, Madden 2002-2006

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    Lewis earned a 99 overall rating every year for five solid years from 2002-2006. This included the early days of the "hit stick," and as you might imagine, Lewis could knock a ball-carrier smack into the middle of Tony Hawk's Underground with a well-timed flick of the right thumb.

    But Lewis was the one player on this list you did not even want to control thanks to his awareness ratings, which hovered somewhere between 99 and "he's Professor X, and he has already read your mind."

    At higher difficulty levels, Lewis knew the play call and could leap to intercept a deep pass from a shallow zone. He wasn't fun to play (I would just rush the passer as Peter Boulware and wait for Lewis to give me the ball back) and was even less fun to play against, and he stayed that way for five solid years.

6. Tyreek Hill, Madden 19

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    Madden games have become so sophisticated that "broken" players aren't as broken as they used to be. With dozens of dynamic ratings and hundreds of strategic options, button-mashing with a money player just doesn't work like it did in the old days. 

    Still, a player with 99 speed causes the same headaches for gamers that the NFL's fastest players cause for real-life defensive coordinators.

    Hill is faster than every cornerback in Madden 19. He also usually lines up in the slot or the inside of a trips formation, where he's often matched up against a nickelback, safety or (shudder) linebacker. Opposing defenses absolutely must commit both a quality cornerback and a deep safety to cover him, though a) he could still breeze past both of them; and b) that just opens things up for Travis Kelce and other teammates.

    The previous paragraph is completely accurate for both real football and Madden. Clever, right?

    Hill will probably be even more of a cheat code in Madden 20 thanks to the guy throwing him the ball. Patrick Mahomes' ratings crept up as last year went along, so Hill might have been paired with a relatively ordinary quarterback if you played a lot of Chiefs games before the later updates. Mahomes will start Madden 20 with most of his passing ratings in the mid-to-high 90s. And Hill still has that 99 speed.

    Better start figuring out how to stop them now. 

5. Jamal Lewis, ESPN NFL 2K5

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    The 2K football game series of the early 2000s was a more-than-worthy competitor to Madden before EA Sports won exclusive NFL licensing rights. But while 2K5 was beautiful and groundbreaking, it took Bill Walsh-level offensive knowledge to master the precision timing needed for the passing game. Throw a pass at the wrong time or trajectory, and it would bounce frustratingly off the hands of Randy Moss or cover athlete Terrell Owens.

    Thanks to realistic blocking mechanics and a lineup of great running backs, however, establishing the run has never been as much fun as it was in 2K5. And while backs like LaDainian Tomlinson and Ahman Green felt a little broken when they rumbled through tackles, Lewis was downright fractured.

    Player ratings in 2K5 were based on 2003 stats, just as Madden 20 ratings are based on what happened in 2018. Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards and 5.3 yards per carry for a Ravens team that went 10-6 with Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright at quarterback in 2003. So game designers must have made Lewis a runaway freight train just to make the Ravens offense playable.

    That's why if you faced the CPU-controlled Ravens, Lewis was sure to drop 200 yards on you. And if you played as the Ravens, you probably ran a few I-formation sweeps on 3rd-and-10 and loved it.

4. QB Eagles, Tecmo Super Bowl

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    "QB Eagles" was really Randall Cunningham, but Tecmo didn't secure the rights to his name; the rules for licensing names and likenesses were different back then.

    QB Eagles had a maximum speed rating of 56, faster than most of the running backs in that game, and he had a bootleg run as part of his eight-play playbook in an era before the read-option was even invented. His passing ratings were also excellent, so he could pick you apart if you just kept blitzing him and diving with your fastest defenders.

    What made QB Eagles so dominant wasn't just his speed, however: It was the primitive artificial intelligence of the era. Defenders rushed in a straight line or glued themselves to their receivers. The computing power to make them smart enough to cover zones or react to a scrambling quarterback didn't really exist yet.

    Forget that designed rollout. The experienced gamer sent the receivers deep and then made QB Eagles sprint around the edge of the defense and into wide-open territory.

    It looks ridiculous in videos like this one. Then again, the real Cunningham made defenders look just as ridiculous in videos like this one.

3. Randy Moss, NFL Blitz 2000 (Arcade Edition)

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    It's hard to pick just one "cheat code" video game version of Randy Moss. His early career spans a golden age when Madden, NFL 2K, NFL Quarterback Club and wild arcade-style games like NFL Street all battled for our dollars. Moss' late career found him paired with Tom Brady in Madden games simulating the glory of the 2007 Patriots, who were a real-life cheat code of a team. 

    It's also hard to pick just one overpowered player from the NFL Blitz series. Everyone in the game was a metahuman, especially if the CPU trailed by two touchdowns and began cheating by giving 300-pound linemen Usain Bolt speed. 

    But when I stumbled into an NFL Blitz 2000 cabinet in a corner of an arcade down the shore recently, I knew there was only one team to choose: the Moss-Cris Carter-Randall Cunningham Vikings. Call "Da' Bomb," toss it to whomever is open (usually Moss), and watch the anti-gravity leaps, thunderous collisions and cartoonish antics ensue. It's late-era arcade gaming at its finest.

    Shannon Sharpe, Marshall Faulk and others stood out in the many iterations of this quarter-sucking demolition derby of a game. But Moss was the biggest, fastest, leaping-one-handed-catchiest dude of them all…until you took the lead and suddenly Warren Sapp could run him down from behind.

2. Michael Vick, Madden 04

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    DARREN HAUCK/Associated Press

    Madden 04 Vick was more like Sonic the Hedgehog or Master Chief than a representation of a real-life human being. If you saw Madden 04 Vick duking it out with Toon Link and Ice Climbers in a Super Smash Bros. video game, you would think, "Yeah, this feels right." Madden 04 Vick is a towering character in video game history.

    But Madden 04 Vick is not the biggest "cheat code" player in football video game history. Here's why:

    With speed and agility ratings of 95 and acceleration of 94, Vick was indeed overpowered. But his rushing ability encouraged many gamers to adopt a ludicrous strategy of running around the backfield for several seconds, heaving bombs to a spot on the field and using playmaker control to guide a receiver into position to catch it. 

    A patient opponent could spy Vick with a safety like Brian Dawkins, sink into a deep zone and pick off those not-so-accurate deep throws, especially if the opponent was trying to maneuver Alge Crumpler under the throw from 55 yards away.

    Sure, Vick could counter with some 20-yard scrambles. He was Vick, after all, and it's a video game (wild plays are gonna happen). And yes, lots of people played Madden "arcade style" back then, with 20-yard dropbacks and loopy scrambles. That didn't make it the best way to enjoy the game—or win. 

    So Vick "broke the game" in the sense of destroying the sense of realism, but he wasn't quite as unstoppable as he is often made out to be. 

    On the other hand, only one video game character in history can top him. And even 30 years later, you know exactly who that character is.

1. Bo Jackson, Tecmo Super Bowl

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    Neither gamers nor game designers were really striving for "realism" when Tecmo Super Bowl was released in 1991.

    Back then, the gaming culture was still emerging from the arcade, where quarters were exchanged for fast thrills, as well as the Atari 2600 era of home consoles, where three flickering blobs moving in unison was about as realistic as football could get. 

    Tecmo Super Bowl featured real player names (a novelty at the time), eight-play playbooks (sophisticated!) and other quantum leaps in both technology and verisimilitude. But individualized player ratings are what put Tecmo Super Bowl over the top: It was one of the first football games that made you feel like choosing a team meant more than choosing uniform colors. 

    And if a running back had a maximum speed rating as high or higher than every defender, higher than all the receivers, so high that he's comically impossible to catch in the open field? That was all part of the fun back before everyday gamers fretted about concepts like "gameplay balance."

    Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl has been featured in Kia commercials and Family Guy homages, not to mention countless memes. The character is so ubiquitous that it's hard to describe the thrill of discovering him for the first time during an all-night dormitory gaming marathon: selecting the Raiders out of curiosity, noting the novelty of having both Jackson and Marcus Allen to choose from, handing off to Jackson and (like Al Davis in real life) almost immediately forgetting about his Hall of Fame counterpart as your opponent hopelessly mashed the dive button in your wake.

    Forget football or sports games: Jackson may be the biggest cheat code player in video game history, period. If a character like Jackson were released in a modern game, a patch and an apology would soon follow. We get better games as a result, but we also lose experiences that can still make us laugh after 30 years.