An Unusual Journey: Part I (1986-1993)
Every journey has a beginning... and this is how my love of sports video games began.
I’m not an athlete. I never have been.
In fact, through much of my pre-teen childhood… I hated sports. I was an awkward kid who couldn’t catch a ball, who couldn’t climb that rope, who always got hit with the dodgeball first, and who set a record for strikeouts in kickball. I got hit in the head by a pitch in Little League in 4th grade (1981). I was the 7th and 8th grader who, during recess in 1985 and 1986, always got told to just go long during NERF football games.
Bowling was one sport I could kind of play. Not the ten-pin variety, mind you, but candlepin bowling— a mostly New England variation on the concept, with skinnier pins, much smaller balls, and two rolls per frame instead of three. That didn’t happen until 9th grade in late 1986, though, and it was more a social activity for me every Saturday morning for teenage leagues. My mind often wandered to the video games and pinball machines in the bowling alley’s arcade, though, so I was happy to finish bowling so that I could drop $1 worth of quarters into those machines.
I did try out for volleyball in 10th grade, 1987. I wasn’t good enough for varsity, as you might expect based on what I’ve shared so far. Our team finished below .500— meaning we lost more games than we won— but, for a few months, I could say that I was “kind of an athlete”. In a separate reality, though, I would find ways to become the athlete I never was and often wanted to be, thanks to sports video games. I could hit home runs. I could score goals. I could throw for 350 yards. I could sink a game-winning three-point basket. For these moments in time, I could be the star I dreamed of becoming.
This is the first part of my journey into and through sports video games over the years, as I recall the important consoles, games, and events that shaped me into the fan of the genre that I have become.
Starting in my high school years, I began to take a gradual interest in sports video games. It wasn’t an intense interest, but that’s when it all started. In arcades, I was already playing Track & Field, but other sports games like Leland’s Quarterback, Bally/Sente’s Hat Trick, and World Series: The Season from Cinematronics were getting my attention— and a token or three. Hat Trick was my favorite of these, as it was basically a one-on-one hockey game with controllable goaltenders. Getting good enough to beat the computer every time (which, admittedly, wasn’t that hard) was a plus.
At home, thanks to my Commodore 64, my interest in sports video games grew more quickly from 1986 through 1990. Epyx’s series of Olympics-influenced releases— Summer Games, Winter Games, World Games, and California Games, for example— were natural fits for someone like me who enjoyed Track & Field in arcades. Superstar Ice Hockey is a game that I would play with my younger brother, who was also getting into the real-life sport at the time. Indoor Sports is a collection of, well, indoor sports: darts, air hockey, bowling, and table tennis; given my interest in bowling, this one was an easy game to love.
While I enjoyed these games, there were two others in particular that really planted the seed for my future love of sports video games— and sports in general: 4th and Inches and Hardball!, both from Accolade.
4th and Inches is a football game that strips out many of the rules and skews more toward the arcade side of the sport. Like the more influential football video games that would come later, 4th and Inches has players choose plays to run on offense or defense before executing on the field. It’s a side-scrolling game (think Tecmo Bowl for visual similarity). The camera is a bit closer to the action though, showing only 20 yards of the field at a time, and will quickly transition to follow the player with ball if he gets beyond that 20-yard view. The play control is simple and the game is not difficult to learn. As I got better at the game, I started to take an interest in “real” football. My brother and I began to watch NFL games every Sunday in our bedroom, which is something I never cared to do before. That interest has grown over the years, and I’ve been watching NFL games every Sunday ever since.
Hardball! is to baseball what 4th and Inches is to football. As with any baseball video game, the lion’s share of the focus is on the pitcher versus batter matchup. Here, pitchers can select from up to five pitches to throw and where to aim them. Batters, meanwhile, can choose a zone to swing through (high, low, inside, or outside) and then time swings to try and make the best contact. Commands are simple to execute, using joystick directions and a simple button press. This game taught me about the ins and outs of pitching strategy. I learned to change speeds, to aim for the corners, to go for strikeouts with pitches out of the strike zone, and more. I was so into this game that I taught myself how to write out line scores and track my own statistics. I wrote out results of every game, tracking accumulated batting averages, slugging percentages, earned run averages, and more. I played at least one game per day for weeks, and used to have quite the notebook of stats; sadly, it’s long since vanished into the dustbin of history.
When friends got Nintendo Entertainment Systems, it helped to further fuel my interest in sports video games. I had a rivalry with a good friend playing RBI Baseball during the summers of 1989 and 1990. I rarely won any of these matchups— likely some deserved karma after shutting down my little brother so much in Superstar Ice Hockey at home— but enjoyed the challenge. I was often victimized by my offense, swinging at too many pitches outside of the strike zone. (I am still guilty of this, 30+ years later.) My pitching was fine, but RBI Baseball has this penchant for tiring out pitchers very quickly… so I sometimes made the mistake of trying to leave a pitcher out there for one batter too many. Outside of RBI Baseball, we played Blades of Steel and Double Dribble— two Konami games that immediately got my interest because of how they looked, sounded, and played.
I finally got my own NES for Christmas of 1990. The first game I bought for it was Arch Rivals, a conversion of Midway’s arcade game. The concept of punching players in the face to steal the ball never ceased to make me laugh. The game itself is pretty easy once players get the hang of where rebounds will go and how to preemptively attack opposing players for steals. Playing this at home led me to playing the arcade game, too, though it was expensive to play a full four quarters. I had no idea at the time, but Arch Rivals would be an inspiration for the game that would become my favorite sports video game of all time. (It’s worth noting that the Game Grumps did a playthrough of this in 2021 that’s hilarious.)
Less than a year later, in the fall of 1991, I bought myself a Super Nintendo. John Madden Football was one of the first games I bought for the console. I knew who John Madden was— which is a big reason why I bought the game— but I was not prepared for the shift from arcade-like football that I’d been used to. Madden was tough for someone like me who was still learning the intermediate and advanced things about the sport. I didn’t yet understand how formations and certain plays worked. Penalties were still a new thing, like figuring out what pass interference and holding were. Despite my lack of skill, I gradually learned how to play. It was a rough game then, but it began a yearly tradition of buying Madden football games that would carry on for the next 19 years.
Baseball is well-represented on the Super NES, and Super Bases Loaded was my first baseball experience on the console in 1991. I didn’t have much exposure to the series on the NES, but I didn’t really need it because Super Bases Loaded is a different kind of game. Unlike just playing to win, Super Bases Loaded judges players on performance and penalizes for making mistakes. Errors, strikeouts, baserunning blunders, and allowing too many runs can all lead to earning low evaluation scores at the end of each contest. It’s not enough just to win; players need to win with as few flaws as possible. It’s a unique challenge. Other baseball games, including Extra Innings, Super Baseball Simulator 1.000, and Super Batter Up, would find their way into my gameplay rotation alongside this one.
I wasn’t big into golf, but HAL’s Hole-in-One Golf changed that in 1991. It’s got just one course, but it’s a challenging course to play. The game looked fantastic for the time, with neat camera zooms on shots that come close to the hole. Its three-click golf swing system— one to start the swing, one to set power, and the last to set accuracy— is a system that other golf games for the Super NES (and other consoles) would also use, prior to the arrival of controllers with analog sticks. This game, along with PGA Tour Golf, has always held significant nostalgic value… even if I’ve never been great at them.
Then came hockey. NHLPA Hockey 93 was my first hockey purchase for the SNES in 1992, and I had a blast with it. This was the game that my then-girlfriend’s brother and I would play almost every day for months on end. We had so much fun with it that, like Hardball! and 4th and Inches before it, NHLPA Hockey 93 helped to turn me into a hockey fan outside of video games. The game hasn’t aged particularly well for the SNES, but you never forget your first… and you tend to be a bit more lenient, despite its flaws. As Madden had done for football, NHLPA Hockey 93 began my yearly tradition of buying NHL games, which ran from 1992 through 2020.
My interest in college basketball— notably the popular NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament— began with NCAA Basketball on the SNES in 1992. The scaling and rotation used in the game, thanks to the console’s Mode 7 technology, was eye-popping at the time. The use of real NCAA colleges added to the authenticity, even if crowds were non-existent and real player names and likenesses couldn’t be used. The game’s battery backup kept stats and standings, eliminating any need for me to write things down again. Not only did I start watching college basketball on TV after playing this game, but I also finally started taking an interest in basketball simulation video games.
I can almost hear some of you asking, “What about Tecmo Bowl?”
The truth is that I really didn’t play the original NES version until many years after its release. My first real experience with Tecmo Super Bowl was with the SNES version, which I got in 1993. I fell in love with it right away. Unlike the Madden games, which I was still struggling with at the time, Tecmo Super Bowl was far more accessible for me. Like 4th and Inches, Tecmo Super Bowl is more of an arcade-style, purposefully simplified version of the sport. Playing with the real players and teams was something that Madden games hadn’t yet been able to do, so the authenticity was great in that regard. As a fan of stats and data, Tecmo Super Bowl’s stat tracking also hooked me… even though the stats themselves were a bit ridiculous. The game’s cutscenes were (and still are) neat, and the fact that players who hit certain milestones, such as 100 yards rushing or 300 yards passing, get acknowledgements is notable. I would go on to buy all three Tecmo Super Bowl games for the SNES, and would later go back to picking up the original NES game… as well as other Tecmo sports games for baseball, basketball, and hockey.
Next time, my journey continues through the 90s with looks back at the Genesis, the PlayStation, and an arcade sports video game experience that would change everything.