Sports games aren’t popular with collectors because everyone thinks they suck. But there are some hidden gems out there to enjoy — and their lack of popularity means you can pick ’em up pretty cheap, too! Let’s explore this unloved genre!
Super Football for Atari 2600 solves a problem that I had never really thought of as a problem: the fact that I don’t like American football games.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say I don’t understand American football games. I don’t think this is a particularly unusual position for someone outside of America to take, either, because, as the name suggests, American football is only really an active concern for people in territories where it’s a popular sport.
Unfortunately, the fact that this has been the case for a while has meant that most American football games over the years haven’t exactly been welcoming to new players. Pretty much everyone I’ve played — from the earliest ones on the Atari 2600 right up to more recent games for modern platforms — works on the assumption that you know how the sport works and, particularly, what a “play” is.
In “normal” football, or soccer if you prefer, “plays” aren’t a thing. The team will likely talk strategy before each half of the game and will configure themselves in a formation to get things going, but aside from that, the game is a continuous process. The only time that action stops is when something especially noteworthy happens: usually the ball going out of play, a player committing a foul or a goal being scored.
In American football, by contrast, play stops each and every time the person with the ball is tackled. And the process of “selecting plays” begins. From what I’ve managed to glean over the years, this involves selecting a formation for the team to start off with, then a series of movements for them to perform once the ball is “snapped” into play. Usually it boils down to a choice of three things: will the quarterback (who receives the ball) hold onto the ball and attempt to run as far as possible, will he attempt to pass it to someone further up the field, or will he kick it as far as possible to make life inconvenient for the other team?
Now, if “selecting plays” meant choosing between those three things, I could probably handle it. But it’s never that simple. Inevitably there are at least five formations to choose from, each with their own selection of plays based on the starting positions. And none of them have intuitive names when they are displayed; I have no idea whether a Deep-Fried Pompadour or a No. 7 with Cheese is the appropriate way to go at any given point in a match.
What’s worse, no American football game I’ve ever played has ever made an attempt to explain what any of these plays are “for”, meaning that the action becomes little more than selecting things at random and hoping something interesting happens. Not exactly thrilling stuff.
This lengthy preamble is important with regard to the game I want to bring up today, because in Super Football for Atari 2600, you never have to select plays if you don’t want to. And the result is an American football game that is considerably more enjoyable and fun for those who aren’t especially familiar with the sport — along with being one of the most technically impressive sports games on the humble 2600.
Super Football is the work of one Doug Neubauer, a man best known for bringing the world the incredible Star Raiders for Atari 8-bit computers in the late ’70s. Late in the 2600’s life, he put out a number of excellent games for the platform, including Super Football; his others included Star Raiders’ spiritual successor Solaris, and the After Burner-inspired Radar Lock, both of which push the limits of the 2600 to the absolute maximum.
Interestingly, it’s clear that Neubauer used a lot of the techniques he developed for both Solaris and Radar Lock in Super Football, too, since the simulated 3D pitch bears an uncanny resemblance to the planetside sequences of the former and the launch sequences of the latter. It really works, though — and some people credit Super Football as being the game that caused the American football video game genre as a whole to switch from a side-scrolling viewpoint to a 3D perspective from behind the offensive team. Quite a claim, since this convention is still used in American football games to this day.
Super Football has four different levels of play, with harder levels also featuring longer quarters. Of particular note here, though, is the default Novice difficulty; here, quarters are three minutes long and all play selections are taken care of completely automatically by the computer. This means that all you have to do is chuck the ball to the quarterback and then decide if you’re going to run or pass when you’re on offense, and try to piledriver whoever has the ball if you’re on defence.
Turns out that eliminating the completely baffling factor from the equation makes American football games much, much, much more fun to play. The game still suffers a little from the sport’s inherent stop-start structure, but it’s much less jarring — and much more forgivable — when the moment-to-moment gameplay is a lot more satisfying and interesting than any other American football game I’ve ever played.
So if you like the idea of American football but the indecipherable strategic side of things has always put you off, I encourage you to check out Super Football. Don’t let the primitive visuals put you off; this game is still fresh and interesting to play even today, whether you’re playing against the computer or a friend. Definitely one of the most pleasant gaming surprises I’ve had of late.
Super Football is available as part of the Atari Flashback Classics collection for various modern platforms, including Nintendo Switch.