OK, first thing we have to get out of the way is the difference between “Tecmo Bowl” and “Tecmo Super Bowl.” The focus of this piece is Tecmo Super Bowl, the greatest football video game ever made, the second greatest sports video game ever made*. I’m going to hold firm to this opinion even though it’s incredibly stupid considering I have not played a sports video game in probably 15 years. I’m going to hold on to this opinion even though I realize it’s much like saying, “The greatest hip hop song ever is ‘Fight the Power’ and I have not heard a single hip-hop song in the last 22 years.
*Behind Sega hockey.
But see here’s the thing -- I was talking about this with my pal Chardon Jimmy. We are the same age and dexterity and because of that, Tecmo Super Bowl and Sega hockey HAVE to be the greatest sports games for us. We have no choice in the matter. Those games literally stretched our technological limits as gamers. Our parents could not program a VCR. Their parents could not quite grasp this rock and roll music. We were limited by the A and B buttons. That was as much as we could handle.* Two buttons. A. B. When video games started introducing X and Y buttons, then various other ways to input, then added a million different features, we asked for the check and left an 18% tip. We had gone as far as we could go.
*I am speaking, here, only of Jim and myself. You may be older than either of us and perfectly facile with 25 different buttons all at once. To this we both say: Congratulations. All of which is a way of saying that if you love more recent games, you are right and I’ll read about them on your blog.
Tecmo Bowl for Nintendo -- that’s the first version of the game -- came out in 1989. It was pretty great. It was like the first couple of seasons of Seinfeld. The premise was in place, and it was a great one. I won’t go into too much detail here -- I would hope if you’ve read this far you have played the game or are familiar with it -- but basically there were 12 NFL teams. You would choose one. If you were playing against someone, then your opponent would also choose a team. For simplicity, this whole piece will assume you are a single player against the computer.
So, game play: You got to choose one of four plays on offense and defense (if the defensive coach chose the same play as the offensive coach, the defense would then swarm like crazy, blowing up almost every kind of play). Most teams had two running plays and two passing plays (I seem to recall that Miami had three pass plays, but don’t quote me on it). On offense you would have actual control of whoever had the ball. On defense, you could choose which player you controlled (editor's note: I originally thought you could switch during play; that was hockey).
That was it. Simple. Play football. Tecmo Bowl also had some wonderful quirks. For instance, there were a couple of offensive plays that were impossible to stop no matter what the defense did. They were like blips in the game.. One of the blips was a quick pass from Dan Marino to Mark Duper (unless it was Mark Clayton -- I get them confused). It worked every time, even if the defense called the right play. This made some sense because in real like Marino to Duper (or Clayton) was all but unstoppable. But the other blip was this little bloopy pass play to Cap Boso, a tight end for the Bears. There was no reason for this play to be unbeatable, but it was. If you type “Cap Boso” into Google, it will offer as a search suggestion “Tecmo.” His Tecmo greatness, I can only assume, had something to do with the awe-inspiring name “Cap Boso.” In real life, Cap Boso caught 54 passes in his career. You could get him that in two or three games in Tecmo Bowl.
So that’s Tecmo, the original version.
Here, though, we are talking about Tecmo Super Bowl. That was the second version. And this game was a brave new world. Rosters were expanded. Playbooks were expanded. You could set up a gameplan. Now you could play an entire season. Now players on offense could be injured. For every game -- and this was genius -- players would have different health “conditions.” Take a typical running back -- say Tampa Bay’s Gary Anderson. In “good condition” Gary Anderson was a serious threat. In “bad condition” he ran more or less like Ray Nitschke in that famous video of him limping home after an interception.
There were many different features to the game that would be fun to discuss but ... we need to get to the player rankings. That’s the point here. So: Here are in my view five best Tecmo Super Bowl players at each position.
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Position: Deity 1. Bo Jackson, Los Angeles Raiders 2. No one.
Comment: Bo Jackson was not only the best player in Tecmo Super Bowl, he was the best player in any sport in any time in every single fictional and non-fictional dimension. Bo Jackson was to Tecmo Super Bowl as Shakespeare was to literature, but only if you combined Shakespeare with Tolstoy, Dickens, Alice Munro, and the author of the Book of Job. Bo Jackson was to Tecmo Super Bowl as Mozart was to music if you combined him with Springsteen, the Beatles, B.B. King and Ray Charles. If you gave the ball to Bo Jackson (in good condition) and you DID NOT score, it was a comment on your own imperfections as a human being.
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Position: Quarterback 1. QB Eagles, Philadelphia 2. Joe Montana, San Francisco 3. Dan Marino, Miami 4. QB Bills, Buffalo 5. Warren Moon, Houston
Comment: Certain players -- like Randall Cunningham -- apparently refused to allow their name to be used in Tecmo Super Bowl. I never really looked into it, and it didn’t matter because QB Eagles was SO MUCH BETTER than seeing Randall Cunningham anyway. QB Eagles was a super-human. He was like one of The Avengers. He was the fastest guy on the field, he had this ridiculously strong arm, and he you could make these preposterous moves with him. He was a one-man show which was good because the Eagles best running back was, I think, Keith Byars and he was terrible.
Montana never missed a pass. Marino too. Warren Moon had a ridiculously high rating but for some reason I could never get him to live up to his potential. QB Bills was, of course, Jim Kelly.
Over the years, I played full seasons with Jay Schroeder (Raiders), Billy Joe Tolliver (San Diego) and Steve De Berg (Kansas City) and let me just say, that taught me all about the frustration coaches must feel when they have a limited quarterback. Those guys will get you screaming like Steve Spurrier pretty fast. I remember once having a perfect season going with the Chargers -- I had worked with Tolliver, calmed down his inconsistencies, built a nice conservative Marion Butts based offense where all Tolliver had to do was just not make mistakes. Late in the year, he basically fell apart. For a while, I would literally have nightmares -- actual nightmares -- about Billy Joe Tolliver.
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Position: Running back 1. Barry Sanders, Detroit 2. Thurman Thomas, Buffalo 3. Marion Butts, San Diego 4. Neal Anderson, Chicago 5. Christian Okoye, Kansas City Special mention: Dave Meggett, New York Giants
Comment: Obviously, nobody was like Bo. But Sanders was awfully fun to play with too. Marion Butts was my favorite -- he was the guy I kept hammering at defenses as I tried to turn Billy Joe Tolliver into a winner. Okoye was in his Nigerian Nightmare phase as a player, and his character just seemed bigger than all the other. He would just “BOOM” and “BOOM” and “BOOM” -- the house would shake when little Okoye ran on Tecmo Super Bowl.
I must make special mention of Meggett because when you were playing against the computer as the Giants, Meggett would sometimes, without any warning, turn into this, dare-I-say-it Bo Jackson like force. He wasn’t really that good most of the time. I mean he was good, but on third down, when the computer needed 12 yards or something, Meggett would suddenly be way faster than anyone you had on defense, and he would snap through tackles, and you would think: “Wait a minute, Dave Meggett’s not that good.” I think someone at the Tecmo Corporation just liked the guy.
By the way, his fellow Giants running back -- Ottis Anderson -- had the distinction of being the most realistic player in the game. Ottis Anderson in real life (in the Giants portion of his career) would never gain more than 8 yards, never gain less than three. That was the video game version as well. Smash. Smash. Smash. He’d never gain any yards and yet you could never quite stop him either.
Did I happen to mention how much I loved Tecmo Super Bowl?
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Position: Wide receiver 1. Jerry Rice, San Francisco 2. Doesn’t even matter.
Comment: There were some good wide receivers in the game -- Drew Hill was fantastic for Houston, Anthony Carter was good, Andre Reed and Andre Rison were good -- but receivers always felt kind of interchangeable in the game. The one who was not interchangeable was Rice, and this was because you could actually put him at running back where he would become a supreme being while running the ball, catching screen passes, going long. The only trouble with this was that Rice’s condition would go bad pretty quickly if you put him at running back. Which, in retrospect, is probably how it should be.
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Position: Defensive line 1. Reggie White, Philadelphia 2. Bruce Smith, Buffalo 3. Howie Long, Los Angeles Raiders 4. Jerry Ball, Detroit 5. Chris Doleman, Minnesota
Comment: Howie Long was a special player in Tecmo because the Raiders defense was TERRIBLE. I mean awful. Basically, when you played with the Raiders -- and I did often, obviously, because of Bo -- you would need to take control of Howie Long and then have him play every single position on the field. I would drop him to linebacker. I would put him in coverage. I would whip him around to sack the quarterback. If, say, Ernest Givens or Ricky Sanders happened to catch a deep ball, I would need Howie Long to run them down. White and Smith were probably a little better, but they had defensive help all around them. Howie Long was on his own.
Jerry Ball, if you used him right, could get eight to 10 sacks a game. He would just overpower centers.
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Position: Linebacker 1. Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants 2. Mike Singletary, Chicago 3. Derrick Thomas, Kansas City 4. Kevin Greene, Los Angeles rams 5. Greg Lloyd, Pittsburgh
Comment: If you were having a draft of players -- just players, not teams -- you would obviously take Bo Jackson No. 1. Then, I think, you would have a difficult call to make: You could take QB Eagles or Lawrence Taylor. It’s not enough to say that Taylor could not be blocked. He was the one guy fast enough to run down any non-Bo player on the field.
Singletary was a lot like the real player -- he did not miss tackles.
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Position: Defensive back 1. Rod Woodson, corner, Pittsburgh 2. David Fulcher, safety, Cincinnati 3. Joey Browner, safety, Minnesota 4. Mark Carrier, safety, Chicago 5. Deion Sanders, corner, Atlanta Special mention: Wayne Haddix, corner, Tampa Bay
Comment: My buddy Chardon Jimmy would always play with the Bengals, and David Fulcher would basically make every single tackle. It was a lot like Howie Long with the Raiders except Fulcher was a safety so it actually made more sense to move him around the field.
Woodson was a freak. Deion Sanders was really, really fast and so you could do a lot of things with him defensively.
Wayne Haddix gets a special mention because, honestly, I had never heard of him. He kind of came out of nowhere in 1990 for Tampa Bay -- for the first and only time in his career, he started 16 games, and he made the Pro Bowl. He had seven interceptions, three of them he returned for touchdowns. Yeah. Three returns for touchdowns.
He was out of football two years later, but he happened to have his one Mark Fidrych season just when Tecmo Super Bowl came out. And his Tecmo character was fantastic and a complete surprise. One day we were just playing the with Bucs for no apparent reason -- that team was both terrible and thoroughly uninteresting -- and suddenly we’re watching Haddix running entirely across the field while the ball is in the air and make interceptions. It was like discovering gold in the local river.
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Position: Returners 1. Leo Lewis, Minnesota 2. Dwight Stone, Pittsburgh
One day our buddy Andy decided to put Leo Lewis back to return kicks for the Vikings. Lewis was something like 59 years old at the time. I cannot remember if he was the default kick returner or if this was Andy’s genius as a coach. Whatever the case, Lewis returned like three kicks for touchdowns. From that point on, we realized Leo Lewis was one of the game’s great unknown weapons.
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It is both possible and likely that I got some of these rankings wrong. I am working, after all, off a long ago memory -- and I’m at the age where sometimes I will go on an errand, arrive at the store, get one of those little baskets and then realize I have absolutely no idea why I came.
But the memories from Tecmo Super Bowl are different, stronger. The kids today have a huge advantage when it comes to their deftness, their connection to technology, their acumen with the most complicated games. But there was an advantage to our time too -- we were not only free to use our imagines, we were basically forced to use them. Tecmo Bo Jackson didn’t look anything like Bo Jackson. QB Eagles didn’t even have the real name. These were cartoon blips of light, laughably crude when you look back. But we connected them to life.
I remember playing a season with the Cleveland Browns. They were the most frustrating of teams. First of all, they were terrible. They had some decent players -- QB Browns was fairly accurate (Bernie Kosar) and Kevin Mack could bowl over defenders as a runner and Mike Johnson wasn’t a dreadful linebacker. But, in general, they were absurdly limited. And even if you could coach them up, it took them FOREVER to score. There wasn’t a big play anywhere to be found on that team. To win game, you needed to just control the clock, control the clock, control the clock. It was less video game and more rock hammering.
But I did take them to the Super Bowl against the computer somehow. And we won it. I’m not going to tell you that it made any dent on my cursed life as a Cleveland Browns fan. But I will say it’s the closest my Browns have ever come to a championship. Hey. It’s something.