Tecmo Super Bowl: An appreciation

Posted: August 23, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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Sad news for children of the 1980 and early ’90s, or at least for those who enjoyed reading about video games from that era. Nintendo Power magazine is apparently shutting down. Now where will players learn how to defeat the impossible game P.O.W.?

I don’t play video games today, even as the industry has exploded in popularity. It’s not that I necessarily lost interest in them — I lost my playing ability. My skills degenerated with each new, more advanced game system, until eventually I became the equivalent of a 98-year-old rural shut-in handling an iPad for the first time.

But as a teen Nintendo ruled, and while other guys chased girls or went to parties on Saturday night, I played Nintendo in the basement, usually with my friends Matt, Mike and Brandon, apparently oblivious to the fact you could actually balance all of those things in your life. Faxanadu, Captain Skyhawk, Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf, Baseball Simulator 1.000 — all classics and personal favorites.

The grandest game of them all? Tecmo Super Bowl.

Released in 1991, the game remains a cult classic. Anyone who ever played can spin tales about Bo Jackson’s greatness and Bob Golic’s dominance and quarterbacks capable of throwing 120-yard passes. Twenty years after its heyday, it remains my favorite video game. When I make the occasional trip to my cousin Matt’s home in the Wisconsin woods, it’s like we’re 16 again. No girls, just games, although alcohol does play a role these days. We attempt to finish seasons in a single night, an absurd quest fueled by beer, caffeine, Pringles and pride. Yes, Madden rules football video games and has for many years, its graphics and details light years ahead of Tecmo. But Tecmo still rules in the Fury family. Part of it’s surely nostalgia. Still, the game itself is what I remember. The players, the odd names, the quirks, the insane stats, the injuries, the titles and the defeats. What do I remember? Everything. So bang that outdated game cartridge on your thigh, blow into the console to remove the dust, put the game in and slap the contraption on the side. There, the game should power up. Good. Now let’s go back in time.

One season, which, as always, took place in the basement of our house, cousin Matt took the lowly New England Patriots through a campaign. A few years later Matt made history — of some type, not the kind you’d read in any legitimate history books — when he led the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory, a triumph that capped a two-day-long Tecmo bender we went on in the apartment I lived in freshman year. That came later.

On this day, Matt found himself in the AFC Championship against the powerful Houston Oilers, one of the most dominant teams on the game. The Patriots were truly terrible, in human and pixel form. They had Steve Grogan and Marc Wilson as quarterbacks, a slow John Stephens at running back, nonthreatening pink uniforms and a defense that made up for its lack of speed with no strength. Yet Matt bullied, prodded, soothed and motivated his team to the AFC title game. With Matt settled onto the floor, I watched the game while perched on our coach, cheering against his squad. I might have even coordinated my cheers or rhymed them, patterning my chants after girl’s softball teams. Despite this environment — and aided by the copious amounts of soda and Kit-Kats we pilfered from Mom and Pa Fury’s fridge — Matt persevered. Somehow the Patriots took it into overtime and pinned the Oilers on their own 1-yard-line.

It was then that Matt stepped over to the dark side.

There’s a move in Tecmo where a defensive player takes the nose tackle and does a little shift that results in a sack nearly every time. No one uses the move, not anyone with dignity or a sense of honor. It’s this move that allows players like Bob Golic and Bob Nelson, a Packers lineman who was as forgettable as his name, to morph into wrecking balls. But only if you use that move. We never did. No one drew up binding written contracts to enforce this rule, but a gentleman’s agreement existed. Like the Soviet Union and USA, we understood it meant mutual assured destruction the second someone used it. But now, against the computer — the faceless, brainless, dumb computer — Matt took control of his nose tackle. I yelled at him. His plan? To do the move and get a safety, ending the game and possibly our friendship. It would send the Patriots to the Super Bowl, but at what cost?

He was desperate. He knew it was a miracle to even be in OT and he wanted to go in for the kill when he had the chance.  I watched helplessly as Warren Moon prepared to snap the ball.

The great Oilers QB took the snap — and a miracle occurred. The center blocked the nose tackle, which never happened. And he only did it because the Oilers had called a QB sneak. Now, no one ran that play in the game. It was especially ridiculous for Houston to have it in the playbook because they were a pass happy club that ruled the air. But a genius lived in the computer that day. With his nose tackle blocked, Matt sat helplessly as Moon – who I’m not sure ever ran a QB sneak in his real life outside of an end zone dive — snuck up the gut and broke off a 50-yard run. Justice had been served. A few players later, Moon hit a receiver for the winning TD.

I didn’t play in the game. So why is it my favorite? I enjoy it when the wicked are punished.

Browns vs. Steelers. Classic rivalry. Hatred. In Tecmo? Two average teams with boring offenses filled with workmanlike men who fit in perfectly in these blue-collar towns. The Browns employed an over-the-hill Bernie Kosar at quarterback — or as he was known on the game, QB Browns — while the Steelers had Bubby Brister taking snaps. One game I had the Browns and Matt the Steelers. I tried wearing him down with the running attack of Eric Metcalf and Kevin Mack. It succeeded, as I took a 10-0 lead. On the final play of the first half, Brister drifted back from his own 20 into his own end zone, a classic move that allows receivers time to get downfield with time running out. He lofted a pass that floated away like a child’s balloon at a parade. It hung in the sky, traveled 100 yards — and landed in the hands of a leaping Eric Green, the Steelers’ standout tight end. Christ. 10-7 at half. It was the first pass Brister completed.

Then, with time ticking in the fourth quarter, this time from his own 15, still trailing 10-7, Brister again fled to his own end zone, lofted a pass that hung in the air, traveled 100 yards — and landed in a leaping Eric Green’s hands. The screams could be heard 10 miles away. Those were Brister’s only two completions of the game.

There’s a YouTube tradition of making videos of actual plays using Tecmo. You can even put in the current players’ names with the right software. The users then upload the real announcing calls and, presto, football magic. Here’s one that relives the famous game when the Cardinals knocked the Vikings out of the 2003 playoffs on the final play of the final game.

Speaking of those two franchises… In 1991, the Vikings — the real Vikings of Jerry Burns, Joey Browner and Wade Wilson — played the Phoenix Cardinals twice, even though they were obviously in opposite divisions. In fact they played twice in three weeks. And since Tecmo used the same schedule, these two teams clash twice, in games that turn into battles of the reverses. Both squads had convoluted reverses and reverse passes in their eight-play playbook. You can change a team’s plays but if you keep them, which was always fun, these are two of the worst playbooks, because no one is fooled by slow-developing reverses that have receivers running 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage while occasionally tossing it back to the QB for a pass. Hated their playbooks.

Dave Waymer, who died in 1993 at the age of 34, played defensive back for the 49ers in Tecmo Super Bowl. He had a good career in real life, picking off 48 passes. On the fake field of Tecmo, though, he became a combination of Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, Willie Mays and Jerry Rice. Each year, as we’d scroll through the stats during a season, Waymer always led in interceptions. If you played with the Niners he was a good player but not as dominant as guys like David Fulcher. But there was his name, always at the top of the list of interceptions. Waymer with 10. Waymer with 12. Waymer with 15.

Dave Waymer.

Barry Sanders might be the greatest pure running back in history. I know, Jim Brown for the old-timers, Walter Payton for the traditionalists, Emmitt Smith for the pure numbers, Gale Sayers for the magic. But Sanders dominated, all the while playing on average or terrible teams. If not for his early retirement he would have passed Payton’s rushing record before Emmitt got there.

And yet…

On Tecmo Barry Sanders is really, really good. But he’s not the best running back. The reason, I believe, is that Tecmo couldn’t quantify what made Sanders great: Otherworldly elusiveness and moves you might see on an elementary school playground during recess but never on an actual field. In Tecmo running backs can be fast or strong or fast and strong, but they won’t be that shifty. Bo Jackson is famously the dominant running back in Tecmo, but I’d also take Thurman Thomas and possibly Neal Anderson. Again, Sanders is very good on Tecmo but not a legend.

The other underachiever, relatively speaking? John Elway. Some rank him the best quarterback of all-time (not a lot, but some). Like Sanders he carried average teams for years and when he finally had talent, won Super Bowls. But in Tecmo give me Joe Montana and Warren Moon and Randall “QB Eagles” Cunningham and Dan Marino over him. You could make an argument for Boomer Esiason. Elway delivered line drives, but often didn’t have the touch in Tecmo.

120-yard passes? Yes. Running backs who, when they’re in excellent condition, run as if a force field has gone up around them, causing defenders to literally bounce off them and go rolling back 20 feet, often times up into the stands? Yes. Fumbles that bounce on the ground for 30 seconds, a minute, while the players fail to pick it up? Yes.  Wide receivers who can seemingly leap six feet off the ground to snare passes? Yes.

All ridiculous. But nothing was as exciting — or impossible in real-life — as what occasionally happened after a blocked field goal. If the kicking team picked the loose ball up off the turf, the player suddenly developed Usain Bolt-like speed and sprinted to the end zone while the defenders were still busy celebrating the fact one of the fat guys up front got a big paw on the original kick. I’ve seen people lose games because someone like Fuad Reveiz collected a blocked field goal and outran everyone to the end zone. Tecmo, you went too far.

Cousin Matt always struggled with kicking Tecmo field goals. He was all nerves and thumbs. He embodied real-life kickers — you could see the confidence drain if he missed one early in the game. His shoulders slumped. All he needed was an ill-fitting helmet with a ridiculous facebar and the picture would have been complete. You have to line up a fast-moving cursor that bounced around and center it when you want to boot the fake ball. He always envied my ability. Nick Lowery, ageless Chiefs great, was my personal favorite, although I could take any of the kickers, famous or otherwise, from Lohmiller and Anderson and Andersen to Jerry Kauric, and have them converting nearly 100 percent of the time. I took pride in this ability. All the girls found that attractive.

Check out this detailed breakdown put together by a Tecmo fan. It’s one of the most thorough scouting reports you’ll ever see. It has all the actual numbers, plus breakdowns of each team’s strengths and weaknesses. Belichick doesn’t put together reports like this. Another fun site is tecmosuperbowl.com.

Men’s tennis has its big three plus Andy Murray. Same players dominating every week. Tecmo has its big four. These four teams are so much better than everyone else that it’s like there are two different leagues.

San Francisco, Buffalo, New York Giants, Houston. I’d put San Francisco at the top of the list… although the next day I might put the Bills. Or give me the Giants. Actually put the Oilers. Houston is the weakest all-around team of those four, but its passing game makes up for a lot. Controlling them is a joy, as Warren Moon dissects defenses and you pretend that Buddy Ryan is punching people out on the sidelines in fits of rage.

The other three all have great balance. The 49ers actually run the West Coast offense — basically — on the video game, with a playbook that’s perfectly designed. Montana routinely hits Rice and Taylor in stride on crossing patterns, just as he did time and time at Candlestick. Roger Craig and Tom Rathman can roll up big yards on the ground and if all else fails, throw it up in the air to Rice, who controls jump balls like a sophomore playing 500 against a group of first-graders.

Buffalo employs a dominant defense to go with the offense while the Giants — who won the Super Bowl in real life the year Tecmo is based on — batter foes just like the Parcells-era teams did in the early ’90s.

In the end I go with the Niners, simply because I’ve been beaten by them as the computer more than any other team.

But I would listen to arguments for the others — and probably be won over by them.

Here’s Joe Montana returning an onside kick for a touchdown. Yes, this happened in Tecmo, where million dollar quarterbacks were part of the hands team.

And here’s Jerry Rice getting 95 rushing yards and 95 receiving yards — on one drive.

Time for some sacrilege: I don’t think Bo Jackson’s the greatest player in Tecmo. Over the years the legend of Bo the video game player has kept pace with the legend around Bo the man, the defender-shedding running back invading our minds with memories of the wall-climbing outfielder. Bo the Tecmo player is a combination of Paul Bunyan and 1950s Mickey Mantle. He’s a cultural icon — and it’s completely deserving.

The man dominated Tecmo and it was fun. He was fast and powerful. But so was someone like Christian Okoye.

Here we’re talking Most Valuable, the type of phrasing that always vexes NBA writers each season. Would you rather have Bo or a great receiver, who can strike from 90 yards in an instant? Yes, Bo can do that as well, but mostly against the computer. When Jerry Rice leaps into space — or when Sterling Sharpe does it or any of the great receivers — it doesn’t matter if you’re playing against another competitor. They’ll be as helpless as the computer. To me that’s more valuable than Bo.

So who’s even more valuable than those guys? A defender who can shut them down, or at least contain them. And the greatest of those guys is Lawrence Taylor. LT flies around the field on Tecmo, almost as if he’s under the influence of some type of substance, something like three cups of coffee or maybe a Red Bull. Something. If a player controls him, he can sprint up to any running back or fall back in to coverage to shadow those great receivers. Even when the computer has the Giants, he rules. One season he ended my playoff run by picking off two passes and returning them for touchdowns, a performance that ended with me throwing my controller to the ground while demanding strict drug testing for all Tecmo performers. Yeah, give LT the MVP trophy.

LT’s glory days are long since gone, just like Tecmo Super Bowl’s. No one weeps for Tecmo. But as long as people have memories of Bo running for 300 yards in a game or remember scoring 90 points with the Niners or recall zig-zagging up the field with Lorenzo White, only to have him fumble on the 1 or dream about David Fulcher planting tight ends at the 50-yard-line, Tecmo will survive. Even as Nintendo dies.

  1. Jerry says:

    Bob Golic domanant??? Really??? That statement alone should disqualify Tecmo from being placed in the Electronics Hall of Fame. That and his attempt at acting on Saved by the Bell…

  2. shawnfury says:

    He was. Jerry Ball as well at that position. Vikings’ Doleman and Millard could occasionally cause havoc (insert Hardee’s drive-through joke).

  3. Mike B. says:

    So what is the secret to field goal kicking on Tecmo or are you going to take that to your grave?

  4. shawnfury says:

    Yeah that’s not being handed out anytime soon, not when I just read an old email about Jim Breech missing a crucial 35-yard field goal against the Saints in a Super Bowl matchup a few years ago (also you gave up a TD that game on a blocked field goal, scooped up and taken in. Ouch).

  5. […] precision, to approximate the 2013 Vikings season during a marathon season of Tecmo Super Bowl. I’ve written about Tecmo before. It’s my favorite video game ever and one I could write 5,000 words about at anytime. This […]

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