When I was in college during the Halcyon days of 2010, I fell into a group of friends who were considerably (in collegiate terms) older than myself. I was but a wide-eyed 18-year old boy in Chicago at the time and through my part-time gig in my school’s admission office, I met Jake, a 21-year old Junior who was kind enough to take me under his wing… and to buy me beer. His friends and roommates were all over 21, several were in grad school already. They smuggled me into my first bar, they introduced me to the best Nicolas cage movies, and to the best punk bands. But the best thing they ever did for me was sit me down on a drunken Saturday afternoon, plug in an old Nintendo NES, and introduce me to Tecmo Bowl.
Never heard of it? Congratulations on being under 30.
Originally launched as an arcade machine four years before my existence, Tecmo Bowl was a Japanese import that, by 1989, brought the thrills of NFL football (filtered through the let’s say… thirsty lens of Japan) to American living rooms. Likely best remembered for making Bo Jackson into Superman, Tecmo Bowl comes from a time without the need for proper NFLPA licensing, or understanding of the actual rules of football.
I was a child of the first Madden wave, full of uniform options, Franchise mode, and pages of plays at my disposal. Tecmo Bowl was an 8-bit throwback.
So, you want to play as the Bears? Great, you’re the dark blue pixels. I hope you like Jim Harbaugh because that’s the only quarterback you’re getting. Looking for an RPO play in that playbook? Sorry, you get 8 total plays, evenly split between offense and defense. Techmo Bowl wasn’t complex, but it was charming as hell. It became a staple of my time with my friends.
Had writer’s block on that paper?
Needed to decide who was cleaning the bathroom tomorrow?
Bored by the Iowa – Illinois game on tv and still too drunk to safely leave the apartment?
After a couple of semesters though, the stewards of my new life had either graduated or moved out of campus housing. There were fewer nights filled with Andrew Jackson Jihad songs and Dan Marino – Warren Moon matchups. That group of friends moved to the next phase of their lives, leaving me Tecmo Bowl-less and adrift. Until now.
My friends, I have found Tecmo Bowl’s true successor and long may he reign. Allow me to introduce you to my new obsession: Retro Bowl.
Available on your phone in any Appstore in glorious 8-bit, Retro Bowl cloaks itself in the aesthetic of Tecmo Bowl while updating the framework and gameplay experience. And before I begin to gush about how much I love this dumb phone game, no, they are not paying me. Yet. (Accepting offers anytime, New Star Games.)
The premise is simple. You are the GM/Coach of one of 32 totally-not-NFL-teams, and you must balance your team’s roster, coaching staff, and owner relationship. Do you want to be your favorite team to begin? Go for it! Do you want to work your way up from the lowly Jacksonville’s or “New York J’s”? The game will randomly assign you to a tire-fire of a franchise. Eat your bootstrap pulling heart out. Retro Bowl does an excellent job of challenging you with its front office balance while still making the actual games entirely too much fun.
Players only control the offense, leaving it up to the strength of your defensive coordinator (who can be fired and replaced at any time) to keep you in ball games. The offensive controls are simple and intuitive. To pass, just slide your finger behind the quarterback and aim the dotted line in the direction of your receiver’s routes. Then release. To run, tap the running back to snap the ball and swipe in all directions to juke, stutter-step, and dive forward. Madden 21 may have realistic visuals and beautiful renderings of stadiums reflected in shiny helmets, but it can’t hold a candle to the playing experience of Retro Bowl. Even the physics make more sense when your pixelated tight end dives for a deep throw over his head than they do in EA’s juggernaut. Plus, the game slowly gets tougher the more you play, adapting to how you play so it can continue to challenge you just when you think you’ve exposed a flaw.
The gameplay is top-notch, but my favorite aspect of Retro Bowl is how customizable it is. The default mode is your modern NFL. 32 cities, with similar rosters as real life, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent and keep the NFL from suing. Each team gets 8-bit versions of each home and away uniform. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Do you, like me, believe the current Bucs – Falcons uniform matchup is pure garbage? No worries, you can bring both teams back to their 80’s fashion peak with easy edits. Retro Bowl gives you full control over the teams, from their name, to how often it snows on gameday. You even have control over the color of their endzones. You can take this as far as your imagination will go.
I dearly miss the NCAA Football games. The only reason I still have my 20-year old Playstation2 is so I can play my copy of NCAA 2005. So during this past weekend, I had an idea…
Yes, yes I did spend an entire Saturday creating 32 college teams complete with accurate jerseys and team-specific environments. Am I proud of this fact? Honestly, a little!
When I really think about it, the best thing about Tecmo Bowl, and now Retro Bowl, is the innocence of it all. Yes, in this modern iteration there are annoying in-game purchases available (full disclosure, I paid the 99 cents for the unlimited edition) but apart from that, Retro Bowl is refreshingly straightforward.
Retro Bowl’s lack of realism truly is a feature, not a bug. No one gets CTE in Retro Bowl. No one's career is threatened by a compound fracture. No one is risking their lives or their family’s lives by playing through a pandemic. Owners are not giving dark money to candidates who will insulate their vast wealth and finance their stadiums. It is just multicolored blocks moving back and forth across my phone screen, causing guilt-free drama. And in this godforsaken year, that is exactly what we all need. The good kind of drama.