Posts Tagged ‘sports video games’

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about baseball games these last couple of months. It’s only natural. Baseball is my favorite sport after all. I don’t feel like I’m doing anyone a disservice by writing solely about baseball, but a little variety now and then can’t hurt.

Basketball is not my game. I tried playing it when I was a kid and found that my two main skills, free throw shooting and fouling other players, weren’t a recipe for a star hoopster. Subsequently, I only enjoyed it when winning or losing didn’t matter to anyone involved. I loved playing 21 and horse during PE in both elementary and high school and to this day still love the idea of just shooting a ball around, not that I ever do. At the end of the day basketball is just a fun game that I can’t take seriously. At least I can’t take it seriously enough to watch others play.

That’s why I love NBA Jam.

It’s a basketball game that doesn’t take the sport seriously. While winning and losing may be a personal matter within the game, there’s no season riding on it. There are no teammates to ridicule or be ridiculed in the locker room after a blowout loss. There isn’t a shred of remorse or hurt feelings when a game is over. Just another couple of coins dumped into the slot. There have been several games released with the NBA Jam name, and many more similar games of varying quality under different titles. All hipster douchebaggary aside, the original arcade cabinet is still the best version available if you can find a place that has one. It had balanced teams and it just sounds and feels right. Plus it had Shaq and Barkley so there.

When you play NBA Jam on the original arcade cabinet, you are playing a caricature of one of the most exciting and storied times in basketball history. It was a time when old greats faced off against young new stars, new dynasties were being formed as old standbys crumbled, the NBA was taking chances by drafting new talent from Europe and for the first time sent its top stars up against the increasingly tough talent in the Olympic games. That’s not even mentioning that Micheal Jordan had just forced his name into the world’s collective consciousness, whether they liked it or not, by winning his third consecutive championship ring and five MVP awards in the process. (Two regular season, three finals.)

So why is NBA Jam still such a popular game? How has it endeared itself to so many fans? What’s the magic? What’s the trick? The gimmick? What’s the secret?

For one, it’s fast. The 3 minute quarters blink past without a care. It’s really a testament to how great a game is when people don’t even realize they are being duped into dumping extra coins in a game due to a fast counting clock. Then there’s the gameplay. Through all the shoving, turbo passes, flaming dunks, and shattered glass you don’t even realize how much time really goes by or how many games you’ve played. You put in your first quarter, you play, you look up and your pockets no longer jingle and its been three hours. What the hell?

Another reason people like NBA Jam is the flamboyantly comical art style and presentation. Between the static player photographs put on what seems to be a single body that is repeatedly pallet swapped and re-sized, and commentary provided by Tim Kitzrow it’s hard not to smile while you watch and listen to the game. Everything is so over the top that there’s no room for rational basketball rules. I mean, how do you call a foul in a game where you can set the net on fire with a dunk? How could you allow the game to stop just because the ball goes out of bounds when any given player jumps higher than the rim? You just can’t. It’s an arcade sports game at its core and NBA Jam does it so right, there’s no way to really improve it. Even the newest version on the Wii, PSN, and Xbox Live is just the same game with updated rosters and visuals.

There is, however, an underlying theory as to why people love NBA Jam. One that is buried within the confines of sports history and the evaluation of what was happening in basketball between 1991 and 1993. The 1980’s were a period of rising popularity for professional basketball. Starting in 1979 when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league, star player after star player emerged culminating in a virtual renaissance in the NBA. The 80’s saw the retirement of some of the game’s most storied players including Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Julius Irving, and Walt Frazier. But while these greats were taking a seat players like James Worthy, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullen, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Micheal Jordan were easily making names for themselves in a sport that was fast becoming a contender for the worlds most popular sport. Basketball was clearly evolving and it would take a loss on the world’s stage for America to understand just how far the sport had come.

In 1988 the US men’s basketball team finished third in the Olympics. Third. They lost to Russia and Yugoslavia. What was happening? All the time the US was sending college kids to play in the Olympics in basketball the rest of the world was sending its best players to compete and they were getting better every year. The best players from the United States were in the NBA and weren’t allowed to play in the games due to their professional status. In effect, that gave the US a huge disadvantage. Sure nine of the players on the Russian and Yugoslavian teams that beat the American team ended up playing for the NBA at some point and with varying success, you may remember Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, and Drazen Petrovic, but that was no excuse. So in 1989 when the worlds governing body over international basketball, the FIBA, decided it was cool to allow professional players to compete the stage was set for something crazy to happen.

The 1992 US men’s basketball team featured eleven NBA players and one guy from Duke (pfft they couldn’t get one more?). Not only did they tear up the world qualifying tournaments, beating the six teams they played by an average of 52 points, but they flew through the Olympics with ease. They averaged 117 points per game and beat the opposition by an average of 44 points per game to win the gold medal that year. It was a great moment in sports history and The Dream Team is one of only eight complete teams to be elected to the basketball hall of fame. Combine that with basketball’s general rising popularity and you have a country ready to eat up anything basketball related. NBA Jam couldn’t possibly fail in at atmosphere like that.

NBA Jam represents a time in sports history where everything was on an upswing and a time in video game history when new avenues of game development were being explored. These two elements combined to bring about a classic game that painted a bombastic and flashy picture of American culture. One that I dearly miss and has yet to be matched.

Stay tuned for part two, The ghosts of Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic.

Boomshakalaka.

MLB 12 The Show is once again the best sports game available. Period. It’s better than every other game for every other sport again. Period. I don’t know how they keep doing this. It’s almost supernatural how great this series is. The play mechanics are flawless. Ball physics are as realistic as they come and you won’t see a 30 foot leap to rob a home-run anywhere. You can learn from this, MLB 2kwhatever. Though you probably won’t. Most likely, when your cross platform contract with the MLB runs out after this year, EA will get it next and we won’t have to see you sitting there being mediocre anymore, wishing you could play in the big leagues.

I can’t say enough about how well the game plays. It’s just as good, if not better than it ever was. If I were to give a review score on gameplay alone, it would be a super high 9. Like a 9.9999999999. I don’t think there are enough extra credit points available to give it an accurate letter grade and the northern hemisphere would be pretty devoid of stars if I gave MLB 12 The Show as many as it deserves. A tad bit over-dramatic I know, but it’s just that good. I couldn’t come up with anything related to thumbs up, but you get the picture.

So what do you do when your review score is a forgone conclusion? When it’s almost impossible to quantify the level of smile inducement? When all you can say is, “Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude, you have to fucking play this game!” there is only one course of action. You tell people how you personally feel about the game instead. You relate your emotions and impressions. Your experiences and thoughts. You don’t review it. You merely express it.

It was a little nerve wracking. Throwing for my first time in a professional team’s uniform, even if it was just a AA club. I couldn’t hit my spots in practice, but my arm felt as good as it ever has. I couldn’t quite locate my fastball, though it was quick and lively. My sinker was dropping like a bomb, but mostly in the dirt in front of the plate. I don’t even want to get into what my slider was trying to do. My first start as a professional ball player was looking to be a terrible day.

You always see yourself succeeding if you just get the chance to prove yourself. Even though you may be thinking about the possibility of failure, you see a win in your head. You know what never even crosses your mind? You never once think about just doing OK and walking away without a loss or a win. I pitched well enough, but I allowed 3 runs over 4 and a third and got yanked. Luckily the guys gave us some runs after I left and we pulled out the win, but the “W” isn’t attached to my name. It’s not what I wanted as my first professional start, but I’ll take what I can get.

My second game? My God that was a different story. I started out slow. I couldn’t hit my locations again. I got a little wild, but made it through the first two innings without letting a run by, something I couldn’t even do through the first inning of my last start. When I came into the third, something clicked. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt like I couldn’t lose all of a sudden. I struck out the side and just kept going from there. It started getting hectic around the sixth, I really just had no steam left, but I was throwing a gem and I was getting no sign that they were gonna pull me out. So I just kept throwing. I kept the ball low and outside, throwing at their hands every once in a while to keep the batters honest. I kept throwing different pitches and, miraculously, when a hitter made contact with one of my meatballs it stayed on the ground. I finally thought I would be sitting down when our closer started warming up in the eighth, but no dice there. I got sent back in to finish. Complete game shutout is the most beautiful phrase to a new pitcher, probably to any pitcher. To have it spoken about my last start is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

Honestly though, I’m not sure what possessed me to take on a contract right out of high school. Though what’s done is done and I’m here now. With two starts under my belt and a third coming on only three days rest after a full nine, barring some form of lineup change, I’m worried about how I’ll perform. I just had two drastically different games. I still don’t know what I’m capable of, or incapable of for that matter, but I’m going to throw at everyone. That’s always been my style. Throw strikes and pray.

Exactly what baseball’s supposed to be.

My first two games as a starting pitcher in Road To The Show mode in MLB 12 The Show are pretty indicative of the series as a whole. The game, while being the best sports simulation available for any sport, is often erratic, random, unpredictable…

I picked up a no decision in my first start, allowing 3 runs and 5 hits over 4 and a third innings with 2 strikeouts. Then 4 days later I threw a complete game shutout, allowing 7 hits with no walks and 7 strikeouts in my second start. That is the essence of baseball. It’s erratic. It’s random. It’s unpredictable.

Sure it’s a video game, and there are ways to win or do decent pretty much all the time. Though The Show has always done well to minimize this by throwing in that bit of chance. Even if you have perfect timing on the meter, or the new “Pulse Pitching,” there’s a chance that curve ball will, well, not curve. Even whether a batter capitalizes on that bad curve is totally up in the air. That’s what baseball is all about. It’s tension and release. Every pitch. Every at bat. Every game. All season long.

It feels good to scrape away two seasons worth of pine tar.

I had a rocky seven year relationship with Allstar Baseball 2003. It was the only reason I kept my Xbox connected to my television for a long time. As soon as I played a game in MLB 10 The Show, I felt comfortable throwing the Xbox in the closet. I knew it was my new sports series for good. I tend to skip seasons on sports games, picking the new version up every other year (Madden’s, and EA’s, lack of true updates every year caused this habit to form.) so I’ve never played The Show 11. So much has changed in these two years that it feels like a totally new game to me. It still has the same overall feel and flow, still has the same sounds and visuals (though it’s the prettiest it’s ever been) but still feels new and fresh. The modes, features, and UI all have a fresh coat of paint but there’s enough new included to justify a new game.

This season marks the debut of two new mechanics. For pitching you have the option to use Pulse Pitching. It’s an innovative approach to pitching that I do like, though I feel the meter during the windup from 2010 is still more immersive, since the meter moves during the windup and delivery, synced with the animation. Pulse pitching allows you to select your pitch, then location, and then your release point by using a pulsing circle. The circle gets smaller and larger, rather quickly, and you have to press the pitch button when the circle is smallest to hit your location. The ball can end up anywhere within the circle and anywhere along its outline so timing is far more important than using the old pitching meter, and obviously takes some adjustment. Don’t expect to just start painting the plate corners your first time.

The second new mechanic is complete analog batting. The idea is that you use the left analog stick to locate your swing, and the right stick to time it. Since you have to pull the right stick down to set your front foot and then push forward to swing at the right moment, as well as locate the ball at the same time with the left stick, there is a HUGE learning curve. Even though I admittedly haven’t used it much yet, I’m going to come right out and say that I don’t really like it. It feels cumbersome and slow. The target that shows where your bat will make contact is obtrusive, often obscuring the ball as it comes in at you. It also has a spring return. Meaning that if you let go of the stick, it bounces back to center so you have to hold the left stick steady as you move the right to swing. It’s all just too much too soon.

That’s not to say it won’t feel much better with more practice, but as a new feature it has the feel of something meant for only very skilled players. Some people just want to play baseball.

For those people not interested in being the best at moving analog sticks, you have the option of using the older batting methods from previous versions of the game so you aren’t forced to even look at the new stuff if you just want to play the way you are used to.

Forced into retirement.

I’m a little disappointed that I can’t carry over my RTTS player from 2010. I know it’s a bit much to ask, and maybe you can do it if you have the 2011 game, but there’s still a feeling of loss there. I’m five seasons into my career on that game and in the middle of my first season at the MLB level and I just have to start over. It’s a shame, but I’ll get over it.

Want to hear something else that could fit the above tagline? Muting Eric Karros is almost a requirement. That guy has all the personality of a lobotomized brick in a coma, not to mention he says things that the guy he replaced last season used to say in the 2010 version of the game. What the fuck? Luckily, as I stated, you can mute any of the three commentators if you so choose. Crisis averted.

What do you mean I don’t have to work the bullpen?

I’m pretty sure (maybe 80%) this was included in the 2011 game, but I’m not enamored with the idea that you pitch your first game in AA as a starter. I liked how you had to earn a start in RTTS 2010. Being a starter right out of the gate has the advantage of speeding up your time in the minors, but it also has the disadvantage of taking away the feeling of accomplishment when you’re awarded with a spot in the starting rotation, even if it is just to keep it warm for an injured player. I’ll miss that feeling to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things it makes little difference to the game.

What it allows you to do is build up stats faster since you are seeing more batters and earning more points per game than you would otherwise. Some people don’t attach themselves to their virtual counterparts like I do. I’m sure other people with even less time than I have are big fans of not being stuck in a relief role for half a season before they are given a start.

Still, this is the only area of real contention I have with the game and it’s only because there’s no option to change it.

What it all comes down to is this.

Our resident stat nerd and baseball superfan, Mauricio Rubio, took a shot at the game while a plumber was fixing my kitchen sink. (NOT a euphemism for sex) It’s important to note that ol’ Rube is a fucking savant, I think he may actually be autistic. The man knows every player in baseball, past or present, and perhaps even future. Within moments of picking a team and starting a game, he was able to compete simply based on his knowledge of baseball. He knew where the pitch was going. Every time. Without ever playing any game in The Show series.

Who cares right?

Fucking wrong. That just goes to show you the amount of detail thrown into this game. Mauricio knows how a pitcher is going to throw at Alfonso Soriano, at what count, what number of outs, with runners at whatever bases and so does the game’s AI. That amount of detail wasn’t put together by no slouch. That takes constant and painstaking research from a team that absolutely loves the game of baseball. That’s why The Show is the best sports simulation in existence. You don’t create a game like this with code and QA testing. You give birth to it. It’s the love child of baseball fans and video game fans coming together in an explosion of statistics and gameplay polish. It wasn’t made for me. It was made for the game of baseball itself.

This has been making the rounds a little, but it’s still great. It really fits the feeling of the game as a whole.

Video games and sports have been close partners since their inception. Throughout the turbulent 80′s and the death of the arcade, the grand times and great triumphs of the game industry, sports games have been there. They entertain the wishes of would be NBA stars who can’t play at a professional level. They fill the void for baseball fans during the off-season who itch for the first pitch thrown in April. Most importantly, they offer hours of entertainment for gamers and casual players alike, and every so often change the nature of the industry. There has not been one single home video game console released that did not have at least one sports title in it’s library of games, if not in it’s launch lineup. Sports games have proven time after time that they can both sell systems and destroy them, introduce new heroes to gamers and bring new markets to the gaming industry, and if not for one specific sports title and the man who created it, video games as we know them may never have existed at all…

…but you’ve read all that twice before.

#1 Tennis For Two

All my life, I’ve had and played video games. I’ve “wasted” a good third of my life playing them and I don’t regret a minute of it. I’ll take a great game over the useless sleep I get any day of the week. I think I feel about video games, the way Mauricio, this site’s fine host, feels about baseball. I’m just lucky enough that there is no gaming season and I can have them all year long. So when I write a list of ten games that I feel are the most important sports games in the history of the gaming industry, understand that each entry in the list has a special place in my heart. This is due to the fact that they have improved my hobby of choice and I am thankful for their respective contributions. That’s why “Tennis For Two” is my number one game on the list.

Tennis For Two has the grand distinction of not only being the very first sports related video game ever, but the very first video game ever, by definition. This being (and no it ain’t Webster’s), a game played entirely within the confines of the display screen purely for amusement. There were electronic computer games before Tennis For Two, but most of them were just glorified performance tests for the computers at the time and few of them used any real or purely visual output. TFT (see what I did there?) is the first and there’s no question about it.

William Higinbotham, the game’s inventor, was a physicist who developed electronic components that were used on the first atomic bomb. Although he spent the rest of his life doing the work he wanted to be remembered for, which was speaking about nuclear arms control, he may well be remembered more for his contributions to the video game industry. He had expressed regret before his death that his memory lives on more in Pong than in a peaceful, nuclear free world, but perhaps he can take solace in the fact that his game led to countless millions’ enjoyment and happiness. That is no small feat.

So sure, it’s pretty much the first video game ever. If that’s the only reason it’s number one, video game elitists would probably have me lynched. There is another reason why I’m rating it so high. Higinbothom never bothered to patent the damn thing. He never made any money from it and even went so far as to testify against Magnavox when they went and sued everyone in the late 70’s and early 80’s for patent infringement when they made better game systems than the stupid Odyssey. (Seriously, read about that thing. It’s dumb as all hell.) Since Higinbothom never patented Tennis For Two, stating that he didn’t think it was a big deal and the US government would have owned the patent anyway, it opened to door for anyone to make similar games. Think about that. Just a second. Think of your favorite video game. Think of all the fun you have or had playing it. Now think of its chances of ever existing if the United States government held sway over the patent it was based on.

Are you getting it yet?

Even though Magnavox won all of their lawsuits, except the one against Atari when they settled out of court, it was too late. Video games had already become such big business that companies could afford the miniscule royalties they were ordered to pay Magnavox. So everyone continued to make games and the industry as we know it survived and flourished, then fell apart, then Nintendo came and saved everyone’s ass but you get my point.

Mr. William Higinbotham

it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.” -William Higinbothom

William Higinbothom is probably the first true video game developer as well, creating his game solely for the amusement of others. Tennis For Two was meant to be an interactive display at the 1958 Visitors Day at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Higinbothom realized that some people just aren’t satisfied by looking at stuff. So he grabbed an oscilloscope and an analog computer they had laying around and drew up plans for his game. He said it took about two hours to design and a couple weeks for lab technician Bob Dvorak to put it all together with parts that were available. I was, unfortunately, unable to find any specific pricing for the parts used back in 1958, but considering how popular the game was at the time, it has to be a record for the cheapest successful video game ever made even with the high cost of computers in the 50’s.

It was a simple game. Two players held controllers that consisted of a metal box with a knob to control the angle of the ball and a button that allowed you to hit it. Unlike Pong, which was a top view of ping pong, Tennis For Two was viewed from the side of the tennis court with the net upright in the middle of the screen. Check the video.

So there you have it. This simple little game, created solely to amuse visitors at an otherwise static and uneventful display of scientific gadgetry, that the creator didn’t think was any big deal and never bothered to patent is the most important sports video game ever.

Are you surprised?

Higinbothom sure was.

Next week I promise to have some reviews up. In fact, look for a quick overview of the state of sports gaming on your iPhone.

Video games and sports have been close partners since their inception. Throughout the turbulent 80′s and the death of the arcade, the grand times and great triumphs of the game industry, sports games have been there. They entertain the wishes of would be NBA stars who can’t play at a professional level. They fill the void for baseball fans during the off-season who itch for the first pitch thrown in April. Most importantly, they offer hours of entertainment for gamers and casual players alike, and every so often change the nature of the industry. There has not been one single home video game console released that did not have at least one sports title in it’s library of games, if not in it’s launch lineup. Sports games have proven time after time that they can both sell systems and destroy them, introduce new heroes to gamers and bring new markets to the gaming industry, and if not for one specific sports title and the man who created it, video games as we know them may never have existed at all.

These are the next five in my list of ten sports games that have made a huge impact on the video game world.

# 6 Madden NFL ’94 

From it’s roots, Madden NFL was created to be a realistic sports simulation. Since most sports titles at the time of its first release were of the arcade variety, Madden made an impact for being a true simulation. Once gamers got a taste of that level of detail, every company making sports games had to take notice and compete. Yeah NBA Jam was a break out hit, and NFL Blitz made a splash a few years later, but who plays those games now? Sports gamers want realism these days and there’s no room for an arcade football game in the eyes of the industry thanks to Madden NFL Football.

I know. Madden NFL ’94 is a simple little child’s toy compared to the complexity of current entries in the series but ’94 was the first in the series to bear its current nomenclature as well as several other features that made it stand out from other arcade style football games of the day (I’m talking about you Tecmo Super Bowl!). It was the first in the series to have the NFL teams license. ’94 was the first in the series to include Flip Plays, which let you to mirror your selected play to throw off your opponent, making multi-player games more fun, and the first entry to allow full season play, albeit, through means of a password system. Upwards of 80 teams (including all NFL teams that existed at the time, 30 years of Super Bowl teams, and several all star versions of various teams) gave the title great replay value and even though the players on those teams weren’t included in the game, their stats were accurately recreated. Even with the accidental switching of the entire Jets and Giants rosters (Hey! They’re both New York teams so who cares right?) it shined as a modern example of what a great sports simulation could be. We all know the rest of this story and are more than likely playing Madden NFL 12 right now, but this was the one that paved the way for the extensive simulation we now know and love. Oh yeah, this was also the first EA sports game to have the, now iconic, “It’s in the game” voice at the beginning. Neat huh?

# 5 Gran Turismo

I’m a huge fan of arcade racing games. I would give my nuts and future life savings for a Rad Mobile arcade machine, but there is a place in my heart for games like Gran Turismo. It took a lot of guts for Sony to release this title. At the time, people like me were either drifting through whole tracks in Ridge Racer or pretending that Cruisin’ USA was a good game. There was no place in video games for a true racing simulation. License tests? Who do they think they are? Braking, gear ratios, and proper cornering? What the hell are they talking about? Who are they to tell me how to play my racing game? Fortunately the visual presentation hooked a lot of early adopters and many more fell into the groove of actually driving well in a video game not to mention racking up wins and cash to upgrade their 92 Mitsubishi GTO Twin Turbo. This is another case of one title changing the industry. Before Gran Tourismo, the racing simulation was the oddity. Now, it’s pretty difficult to find a true arcade racing game that isn’t some Mario Kart clone or doesn’t include crashing to score points. Every developer that wanted to get into the video game racing business suddenly had to compete with a deep, engrossing, visual powerhouse that presented a challenge and feeling of victory no other racing title could provide. Without the original Gran Turismo, there would be no Project Gotham Racing, no Need for Speed in it’s current iterations, and probably no Drag Racing on your iPhone. Respect.

#4 NHL ’94

Damn 1993 was a good year for EA sports! (Both Madden NFL ’94 and NHL ’94 were actually released in 1993.) While this entry in the series has been made famous for basically allowing its players to kill Wayne Gretzky (and who wouldn’t have wanted to back then?)there is another reason the ’94 iteration was the one that made hockey games popular. What could EA have added to such a great series to make it better and take it head and shoulders above every other hockey game that existed at that point? The answer is devastatingly simple.

One Timers.

NHL ’94 was the first hockey title to include one timers. Sure, it didn’t have fights, but now you could actually execute plays in a hockey game! Sure, the sprites skated around like crap but now you could actually execute plays in a hockey game! 1993 was, and will remain the year that the simulated hockey experience got real and it never looked back. EA was the first company to take hockey seriously and try to make their game as realistic as possible and  NHL ’94 was their first real success as far as I’m concerned. Hockey fans, be grateful.

Oh Chelios...

#3 MLB ’09: The Show

The Show franchise has been top notch since its early days in ought-6 but 2009 was the year they really got it right. The series’ “Road to the Show” mode is still the best career mode in all of video game history in the eyes of this writer and much of what the past 3 years’ entries have built upon first took shape in ’09. It introduced “Road to the Show 2.0” to the series which included better base running and stealing mechanics as well as more in-depth coach and management interaction with your created star. Fielding mechanics were improved, catcher AI was beefed up to react to each pitcher and hitter’s strengths, and so many other tweaks were implemented that strengthened overall game play that it felt like a new game over 2008’s entry.

I’ve heard people say that year over year improvement in the series since is too minimal for their tastes, and I tend to agree, but the lack of change begs a question. Is there a need to improve such a fine system?

If it ain’t broke…

Seriously, The Show has been the best baseball game available for 7 years running and it shows no sign of breaking that streak. If you haven’t played any of the entries in the series, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend grabbing the ’09 entry simply for the fact that the rosters are old old old and, as far as I know, you can no longer update them. It is, however, important to know where the greatness began and 2009 was the year baseball video games finally got the champion they deserved.

#2 NFL 2K1

This is going to seem like the “game nerd/fanboy” entry on the list but trust me, NFL 2K1 is number 2 for a reason. Allow me to give some detail.

Madden NFL 2001 did not appear on the Dreamcast. This was due to EA’s decision to not support the system, for better or worse. This move ended up being great for EA but absolutely devastating to SEGA as many developers followed suit, siting the Playstation 2 as the better option for monetary gain. So what do you do when one of the largest game publishers in existence pulls support of your console, thus depriving your user base of some of the most robust sports franchises that tend to sell systems? You hire the guys who made Madden NFL ’94 to make some completely new games, that’s what! With its superb football mechanics and a polished presentation, NFL 2K1 was the first real competition the Madden franchise had seen since NFL Gameday ’98. 2K1 took a great step forward from the previous year’s version by tweaking the gameplay and really stuck it to EA. Check out this video comparison of NFL 2K1 and Madden NFL 2001 if you want proof of how close they were in quality.

That’s all fine and good, but the icing on the cake was the inclusion of a feature that changed the nature of console sports forever.

Online Multi-player

That’s right NFL 2K1 was the first console sports game to feature online multi-player capabilities. Can you imagine playing Madden today without the option to school some jerk from New England and hate on Tom Brady while sitting on your couch in Pilsen? Be honest. No! You can’t! It’s become such a huge part of sports games, and so many people have never even played the game that started it all. The wildly successful NBA 2K series being the exception, all of the meaningful 2K Sports titles are either gone or on their way to their respective graves.  At least this one will live on in spirit, even if it’s just because of a brave new feature implemented by a desperate company that was on its way out of the console market.

That wraps up part 2. You know you want to check back next week to see which game is number one. It’s going to be a huge surprise!

Video games and sports have been close partners since their inception. Throughout the turbulent 80’s and the death of the arcade, the grand times and great triumphs of the game industry, sports games have been there. They entertain the wishes of would be NBA stars who can’t play at a professional level. They fill the void for baseball fans during the off-season who itch for the first pitch thrown in April. Most importantly, they offer hours of entertainment for gamers and casual players alike, and every so often change the nature of the industry. There has not been one single home video game console released that did not have at least one sports title in it’s library of games, if not in it’s launch lineup. Sports games have proven time after time that they can both sell systems and destroy them, introduce new heroes to gamers and bring new markets to the gaming industry, and if not for one specific sports title and the man who created it, video games as we know them may never have existed at all.

These are ten sports games that have made a huge impact on the video game world.

#10: NBA 2K11

Finally! Michael Jordan in a game worth playing.

Micheal Jordan. You see that period at the end of “Jordan?” That makes his name a sentence. That’s how important he is as an American icon. It may not seem like a big deal to some people, but ol’ MJ is almost certainly the greatest player the NBA has ever seen. NBA 2K11, while being a great game even without Jordan, goes all out in it’s attempt to place you in his shoes. The Jordan Challenge mode is by far the most accurate and engrossing mode in any video game I’ve played in the last few years and tells a great story even without using any real narrative. In the ten challenges you are tasked to match or beat Jordan’s statistics for a specific game or series. Should you complete them, you are given the opportunity to see how a rookie MJ would stack up against today’s players by taking him into a new career mode. No sports title before has ever placed so much emphasis on the emotion and stories behind the game it is emulating and I doubt a better attempt will come along any time soon. Unless you count NBA 2K12…

#9: Wii Sports

My dad loves this game. He's 63. That makes me happier than I can adequately explain.

What? Wii Sports? Yeah. For serious. Wii Sports sold millions of Wii consoles alone and proved that a small, if gimmicky, innovation like functioning motion controls can bring a whole new perspective to the video game industry. Sure the games included were very simplified versions of their real life counterparts, but they were fun and accessible to pretty much anyone who can move their wrist. If you want a testament to how groundbreaking and important Wii Sports is, just ask anyone who owns a Wii. I bet you they will say they still play it from time to time if not that they play it regularly. For a game going on 6 years old, that’s pretty impressive. Not to mention my Dad loves it. Any video game that gets his endorsement is a winner in my book.

#8: Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!

This was so god damn hard. I've never done it without using the code to get straight to him.

It’s here. On the list. And I’m never going to just call it Punch Out! I like it better with Tyson’s gap toothed grin on the splash screen. Boxing will probably never again be as popular with non-gambling white America as it was when this little arcade gem was released, but 2 million copies were sold, mostly due to Tyson’s name. It was my first experience with boxing at all, and my first time ever seeing Iron Mike in any medium. That’s right. I knew who Mike Tyson was and that he was the “baddest man on the planet” before I ever even knew he was a real professional boxer. I’m sure I’m not alone in this and that’s why this game is on the list. As one of the first quality, mainstream, licensed games, it shows the power that a well developed game can have on a property and the power of a good property to sell a game. This is a mixture and lesson that most game developers still have not learned.

#7: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

Most likely the best level in the entire series. The school.

Skate boarding and board sports in general are sports in the same sense that gymnastics and figure skating are sports. They are a venue for their respective athletes to show off talent and physical skill while, hopefully, looking awesome at the same time. If making video games was a sport in the same sense, THPS2 would be pulling high 9’s all day. The first game in the series set the bar and created a genre of game that had basically never existed before. It’s sequel smashed that bar and made the extreme sports game a major player in not just the sports video game world, but also the gaming world in general. It was the first in the series to have a career mode, which is still a solid and deep attempt by today’s standards. It had a soundtrack that was both accessible and fun to just listen to, a feat that the series pioneered and many other games have tried to emulate since. It made Tony Hawk a household name among those who would never have known him, and much like the previous entry in this list, had an air of credibility with his fans just because his name was on the disk. Still, it’s largest contribution may have been making Activision, the game’s publisher, a very very rich company and Tony Hawk is arguably the reason they are such a large player in the industry today.

With that, I leave you. Check back next week, or sooner if I get off my ass (then back on it in front of my computer), for part two where I’ll rattle off the next 5 games in the list. I know that’s only 9. I got something special planned for number 1.

CLICK ME TO GO TO PART 2. DO IT!

In 1992, when Nolan Ryan’s Baseball was released on the Super Nintendo, there were several other options available for a simulated baseball experience. Extra Innings, Super Bases Loaded, and Super Baseball Simulator 1000 were the top of the heap. Super Bases Loaded is, in my opinion, one of the best baseball video games ever released. So why did I buy Nolan Ryan’s Baseball? Because I was a ten year old with birthday money and I liked Nolan Ryan.

Can you imagine, or perhaps even remember, what being a ten year old baseball fan in that situation was like? I mean, the dude’s picture is on the box! None of the other games had any real players in them. Shit, this one had one of my favorite players! It’s like he’s endorsing it personally right? It can’t be bad. It just can’t.  I had yet to learn the reality of professional sports. That would come two years later when there was no world series and my favorite player at the time, Mr. Tom Glavine, ended up being the media’s scapegoat/players’ union figurehead during the strike against the collective of team ownership. At this time in my life, it was unthinkable that a high caliber player like Nolan Ryan would slap his name on a crappy game.

Kids are stupid.

Nolan Ryan’s Baseball is probably one of the worst pieces of bad game licensing in history. Maybe next to Shaq Fu or Micheal Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City this game stands tall, but at least those weren’t trying to be sports games. Maybe if it had been Nolan Ryan’s Carnival Dunk Tank where you play as the Ryan Express soaking hillbillies with flaming 104 mph fastballs it would have been worth some respect and a few chuckles, but it wasn’t. It tries to be real baseball and that’s why it fails.

You cannot throw from third base to first, without the pitcher cutting off the throw. You cannot throw from center field to the plate without the second baseman AND the pitcher cutting off the throw. The infield doesn’t move and will just allow grounders to roll into the outfield. There is no bunting. There are no pitch types, you just hold up to throw slow and down to throw fast, moving the direction pad around to curve the ball. This can be exploited to an amazing degree. There are no team names. The teams are just letters. If you pick the “T” team, you will have a pitcher with the name “Ryan,” but since all of the players just have single syllable first names, it’s more than likely just some scrub named Ryan and not the guy who’s name is on the fucking box. There is a season mode, but since there is only one league, there are no playoffs and no world series. The team with the best record at the end of the season wins. The list of stupid things about the game is arguably endless.

I hear you saying, “It can’t be that bad. There has to be something good about Nolan Ryan’s Baseball.” You are somewhat correct. If you can get past the glaring problems and exploitable game-play idiosyncrasies, it has a nice editing system that is pretty well featured for a game of its time as well as very good stat tracking. Players never retire so if you like the idea of breaking real major league records in a video game, it’s very very possible here. It was one of the first cartridge game to have actual voices for sound effects, though they are limited to the standard umpire calls. It also has the absolute coolest pixel art picture of Nolan Ryan for a splash screen. If I could get it as a poster I would frame it and display it proudly, although my girlfriend would probably disagree on that matter.

Isn't it beautiful?

Nolan Ryan’s Baseball is going to ruin my life one day. I’ve tried to play it from several points of view.  I’ve tried playing it seriously, ironically, and in the throes of wistful nostalgia. I’ve tried playing it with a friend. I’ve tried playing it drunk and dead tired. In the end, I’m done trying. It’s a terrible piece of sports gaming that would have ruined Nolan Ryan’s reputation if video games had been more mainstream in 1992 and I refuse to grade it. There is no number rating or letter I can give it to really describe how disappointing an experience it is, was, and forever will be. I’ll just leave it at that.

$20 Question:

Why would Nolan Ryan, a player who for all intents and purposes, is well respected and taken utterly seriously as one of baseball’s greatest of all time put his name on such a mediocre title?  My guess is probably for another paycheck. Back in 1992, video games weren’t as mainstream as they are now. It was sort of like American actors doing commercials for television in other countries but not in America. No one is going to see it right? Well I did, and while I’m not mad at Nolan Ryan, I’m very disappointed in him.

Srsly