After suffering a veritable crash in the mid-late 00s, arcade-style sports games found themselves crushed under the might of the big-bucks licenced sims. Most notable of all the casualties were arcade sports stalwart Midway Games, who filed for bankruptcy in 2009. With their demise, the gaming world was robbed of sports games that eschewed rules and tactics for big head modes and players literally on fire.
That’s not to say that simulation sports games aren’t fun – there’s a reason that games like Madden, NBA 2k and FIFA frequently sell tens of millions of units every year. Sport is inherently fun, but team sport is an extremely tactical endeavour – a foundation on which the video games medium was not built. It’s almost hard to fathom just why games that embodied, almost exclusively, the most exciting aspects of sport were left out in the cold in the HD era; the main schools of thought being rising development costs, moves towards realism as graphics drastically improved, and sport governing bodies wanting to distance themselves from the more over-the-top, often violent, games that don’t paint their sport in the corporate-friendly light in which they do business in the 2010s.
Change, however, may be underway, and it all started with rocket-powered cars driving into a giant soccer ball. Rocket League appears to have been the catalyst for an arcade sport game renaissance, and we’ve subsequently seen the genre start to rise from the ashes with new titles like NBA Playgrounds and HD remasters like Windjammers. It seems now is the time to capitalise on a renewed acceptance of, dare we say it, the video game side of sports video games, and here are five classic arcade titles that really need to come back.
Series Highlight: NHL Hitz 2003
Developer: Black Box Games
Most Recent Game: 2002
Ice hockey is a sport that has a reputation for big hits, fast skaters, lots of goals, and fights. It’s a sport that almost sounds like it’s a video game already, and there’s no denying that while EA’s NHL series can cater for those aspects of the sport, it definitely doesn’t thrive on them in the way that NHL Hitz does.
Midway had already dipped their toes in the arcade hockey scene with the also excellent Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey back on the N64 and PlayStation, and NHL Hitz brought fast-paced intimate 3-on-3 hockey into the sixth generation with lifelike player models, sharp lighting, a silky smooth frame rate, and one of the best-looking crowds in sports games.
NHL Hitz is far from just a pretty game. The smaller rinks and team sizes allowed for a breathless experience. Like NHL in fast-forward, Hitz boasted blistering speed, and the lack of rules ensured that every time players took to the ice, carnage ensued. This was further enhanced with the game’s ‘fire meters,’ where two separate meters would fill up as a player performed dekes, shots, and hits – one meter for the player currently under control, one meter for the entire team. Once this meter was full and activated, players skate faster, hit harder and shoot better, and this could easily turn a game on its head in seconds.
Bucking the trend of arcade games being threadbare, NHL Hitz was an impressively deep experience. To complement the standard season mode, there was a franchise mode that let players create a team completely from scratch – logos, jerseys, players and more. Rounding off a pretty beefy package was Hockey School and a host of crazy mini-games, like tic-tac-toe and keep away. It all came together in perfect harmony to provide a rip-roaring gameplay experience backed up by the levels of depth seen in a ‘serious’ sports game.
EA tried their hand at an arcade take on ice hockey with 3 on 3 NHL Arcade back in 2009 on 360 and PS3, but the game seriously lacked depth and became a real throwaway experience that simply didn’t try to add the level of longevity that Hitz boasted. Developer Black Box Games were absolved by EA (naturally) in 2012 and the original team can now be found spread around the industry. It’s a shame to think one of the tightest and most intense sports games around may never return, but there has to be a market for the simultaneous mix of depth and chaos that this superb game series provided, even if EA can’t provide it.
Series Highlight: NFL Blitz 2002
Developer: EA Tiburon, Midway
Publisher: EA Sports, Midway
Most Recent Game: 2012
American football is a Hollywood sport. The insane hang time of a perfectly spiraled 50-yard pass, the masculine grace of a slaloming punt return, and the heart-stopping brutality of a big hit – the NFL is pure box office. Of course, behind the guts and glory is a mind-boggling level of tactics, strategy, and preparation. Much like film buffs are the only people interested in ‘making of’ special features, it takes a serious football fanatic to understand the formations, plays, and nuances of how the pigskin sausage is made. Casual fans enticed by the glamour can quickly be overwhelmed by the ergonomics – they just came here for the action. For those people, NFL Blitz is just the ticket.
Inspired by Midway’s own NBA Jam, NFL Blitz removes the need to understand complex systems outside of simply running, passing, smashing, and scoring. It’s straight up razzle-dazzle football – each game concentrating on the highlight plays of mammoth throws, bone-crunching hits, and mazy runs, and it’s wonderful. Like any good arcade sports game, the game may be easy to pick up, but still, gives plenty of opportunity for some mastery in amidst the mayhem.
Much like Midway’s other titles, Blitz wasn’t too bothered about rules and regulations and followed their traditional formula of shorter games, smaller team sizes, simplified plays, and a requirement to inflict now legal violence on opponents to succeed. Obviously, plays still needed to be selected, but the crazy action meant that rigidity of strategy was gone, and mayhem was king.
The Blitz series dropped off for the Blitz: The League variants, suffering especially without the official NFL license helping to ground the game, at least in terms of players and teams, in some semblance of reality. Likewise, NFL Blitz 2012 was hampered a little by the NFL’s insistence that late hits were removed from the game, though this didn’t stop the game being well received by critics.
Surprisingly, EA Tiburon’s 2012 edition was never released outside of North America despite it being the type of football game tailor-made for those territories less familiar with America’s most popular sport. Perhaps the NFL was worried that the sport’s growing global appeal could be tarnished if it was exported in such a violent and maverick package, regardless of how fun and exciting NFL Blitz truly is. Here’s hoping the Kickstarter-funded Mutant Football League releases in 2018 to enough commercial and critical acclaim to make EA rethink their decision to shelve American football’s most exciting game series one more time.
Series Highlight: The Bigs 2
Developer: Blue Castle Games
Publisher: 2K Sports
Most Recent Game: 2009
A popular episode of South Park depicts the boys’ attempts to lose the last game of the baseball season to avoid having to play more baseball during the summer playoffs. It may upset some people, but baseball does have a reputation of being… well, just a bit boring.
Blue Castle Games’ The Bigs is definitely not boring. While it’s hard to deny that batting is the most exciting part of the sport – certainly in video game form – The Bigs adds in a number of arcade elements that make every part of baseball potentially thrilling. Chief among these is the ridiculous QTE set pieces on the fielding side that can reward successful completion of tense and intricate button presses with superhuman leaps and dives to catch even the most impossible of line drives.
Most impressively is that, even with the sport being gamified to the gills, it wasn’t at the expense of strategy. Pitching to a batter’s wheelhouse would earn turbo bars which could be used to throw lightning-fast pitches and strike out big hitters, or could be saved for the batting unit to ensure ground balls stay inbounds and power shots got a bit more oomph on their way out of the park. Multiplayer scenarios of turbo pitcher vs. turbo batter really ratcheted up the tension.
Additionally, highlight plays would fill another meter to eventually offer a ‘big blast’ or ‘big slam’ for the batting team that would significantly up the chances of a home run or a grand slam respectively, meaning the score could be flipped in an instant. Again, pitchers could counteract this with their very own ‘big heat’ that would make every pitch almost a blur.
As should be quite clear, The Bigs basically super-powered every single aspect of baseball, and made every match exhilarating. Much like NHL Hitz, The Bigs didn’t shirk the responsibilities of adding depth to great game mechanics, and there were minigames, seasons and the excellent Become A Legend mode to satisfy players over long periods. Another great mix of addictive gameplay and lasting replayability, it would be great to see The Bigs come back to challenge MLB The Show’s dominance of a rather stale baseball game market.
Series Highlight: Mario Strikers Charged
Developer: Next Level Games
Most Recent Game: 2007
It’s an absolute crime that Mario’s soccer series didn’t make an appearance on Wii U, and has not been announced yet for Switch. Unlike a lot of titles in this list, Mario Strikers doesn’t require big licenses or even any semblance of realism to exist – it simply needs some attention.
Last appearing on Wii back in 2007, Mario Strikers Charged is an absolute riot. Multiplayer games are a whirlwind of electrified walls, giant green shells, fireballs, 6-goal ‘Mega Strikes,’ and cows being blown across the pitch by tornados. Developed by Next Level Games, Charged is one of Mario’s most underrated spinoffs and one that is crying out for an update in this post-Rocket League landscape.
Strikers is the game in this list that least resembles its real world counterpart, and that’s absolutely fine. FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer have been going tooth and nail in the simulation market for decades, and Mario is wise to keep himself well away from them both. Nintendo have a great legacy of offering second party developers the chance to take Mario on a sporting sojourn, often resulting in fun casual games bristling with Nintendo charm. Strikers has the Nintendo charm, for sure, but it laughs in the face of casuals. This game is intense.
The biggest issue with Mario Strikers is the lack of modes to cater for single players, and it would certainly need beefing up as a package were it to appear on Switch as anything other than a budget title. As always, Nintendo hung their hat on great gameplay hooks, but it would be nice to see some kind of story mode be included if we see this game again. Hopefully, soccer’s insipid inclusion in 3DS title Mario Sports Superstars doesn’t rule out another instalment of Mario’s wacky take on the beautiful game.
Series Highlight: Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe
Platform(s): Amiga/Atari ST/Commodore 64/Game Boy/GBA/ Genesis/Master System/Mega Drive/NES/PC
Developer: The Bitmap Brothers
Publisher: Image Works
Most Recent Game: 2013
Speedball, and most notably Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, probably needs a remake more than any other game in this list. 2013’s Speedball 2 HD was nothing special, and it’s time this addictive title got a proper fleshing out with a third instalment.
Like current darlings Rocket League and Windjammers, Speedball isn’t a real sport and is therefore not beholden to follow any sporting conventions whatsoever. The original title has two teams of futuristic steampunk warriors battering each other while attempting to score points by throwing a metal ball off of obstacles, pinball style, or into the opposing team’s goal. So simple, yet so enjoyable. A game of Speedball is a violent twitch-fest that requires quick reactions and a penchant for punching to succeed.
The best thing that Speedball offers is that, because everything in it is fictionalized, it can be given as much world and character building as desired. Not only could a newer version be as thrilling to play as back in the 90s, it could be given a career mode set in a dystopian future, with political machinations behind every match, and this would perfectly supplement the pre-game purchasing of player stat increases seen in the original. Similar to how fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Injustice intertwine tight gameplay with just enough story to keep players motivated, Speedball could easily do the same.
Even without potential futuristic narrative, Speedball is the quintessential arcade sports game – short, simple and set up for hilarity with a friend in multiplayer. It’s the only title in this list that hasn’t been fleshed out on anything close to modern consoles, or given any semblance of an update outside of sharpening the graphics. The core gameplay ingredients and cult legacy are there, it just needs to come back in from the cold to stoke a fire of adrenaline in modern audiences.