For those of us who grew up with sports games, it does not seem so long ago when the difference between a "simulation" and "arcade" sports game was about as marginal as the difference between an A and an A+ in gym class.
Back in those late-1980s and early-1990s, rather than thinking about how "sim" or "unsim" a game was, the only thing the majority of sports gamers really thought about was how "fun" or "not fun" the games were.
Granted, some gamers from that era may have been a bit more obsessed with "statistical realism" than others, but in general, the gameplay is something that NES, Genesis and SNES gamers never really looked at with any judgments of "realism" in mind.
It is under those conditions and on those consoles that arcade sports games -- i.e., those that were fast-paced, hard-hitting and governed by simple, "pick-up-and-play" controls –- absolutely flourished:
Blades of Steel, Baseball Stars, Double Dribble, Mutant League Hockey, Tecmo Super Bowl, simply pick a sport and you can name almost a half-dozen franchises from the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles that represented the arcade-style sports game at its absolute best.
Towards the latter half of the 1990s, with the introduction of the 32-bit/64-bit consoles and fancy "3-D" graphics, console gamers gradually began to demand more "realism" from their sports games.
While many console sports games of the previous generations had done just fine without league or player licenses, virtually no major sports games of the 3-D era even bothered to come out without some sort of license -- one notable exception being Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, which probably would not have succeeded in the new era had it not let gamers fill in the blanks left empty by the lack of licenses.
While licenses do allow gamers to play with their favorite players/teams, it also places hindrances on developers in terms of how far they can push their games -- you will never see Kurt Warner getting blown to bits by a land-mine like in Mutant League Football.
And while the controls of older sports games had been limited to two, maybe three buttons, sports games of the 3-D era began using eight to ten buttons. This meant certain games could no longer be picked up and instantly enjoyed. Now gamers needed some prior knowledge of the game franchise, or they had to spend some extra time studying the game manual.
It was in this climate of increasing complexity and "realism" that the arcade games finally began to distinguish themselves from the simulation games.
From Dozens of Developers, All the Way Down To One
From about 1995 to 2001, long-time arcade developer Midway Games was just about the only company keeping the arcade-sports genre going.
Not to say that Midway was moving the genre forward in a creative sense, just that it was the only company consistently putting out games that kept the simple fun of the old titles alive.
Having squeezed just about every ounce of life out of its NBA Jam franchise, with a bevy of ports, sequels and spin-offs since its release in 1993, Midway finally rejuvenated its own arcade-sports department in 1995 by taking its beloved NBA Jam formula and applying it to the sport of hockey. The short-lived 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge was the love child of this experiment. Perhaps due to the niche appeal of hockey in the States, and a home port that only found its way to the then-struggling Playstation console, Open Ice never quite caught hold of the sports world like Midway had hoped.
|It is hard to decide whether Midway's milking of the NBA Jam formula did more good than bad for the arcade-sports genre in the mid-late 1990s.|
The company did, however, find some success the following year with its second attempt at creating an "ice-version" of NBA Jam, Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. The N64 version made excellent use of the system’s four built-in controller ports and quickly found its niche as one of the genre's all-time great party games.
Though Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey remained a multiplayer favorite for as long as people kept their Nintendo 64s plugged into their entertainment centers, it was not until 1997, with the reapplication of the NBA Jam formula to the sport of football, that Midway really won over the body of the sports-gaming crowd. I am of course talking about NFL Blitz. Blitz quickly became the rookie of the year in arcades around the United States, and was rushed onto the PSone and N64 the following year, selling over a million copies for each system in only a few short months and eventually topping Madden NFL 99 in terms of total sales for 1998.
From 1998-2001, Midway continued to wear the NBA Jam formula out with yearly updates to Blitz and its NBA games, the latter of which now seemed to change names every year, attempting to recapture the attention of an audience that had simply grown tired of playing the same basketball game for seven years straight.
It would take a newcomer on the arcade-sports scene, EA Canada and the fledgling NBA Street franchise, to finally push Midway out of its complacency and set into action the arcade-sports renaissance of the early-mid 2000s.
Competition Breeds Creativity
Sporting a fresh look, a new, trick-oriented approach to gameplay and some of the most over-the-top animations ever seen in a sports game, NBA Street fared so well in its 2001 debut that EA Canada ended up pumping out a total of three sequels in the following six years, while also developing three games apiece for two additional spin-off franchises, FIFA Street and NFL Street.
Realizing that EA Canada was up to something big with its Street brand, Midway pushed its developments teams for the first time in years. Midway created its own lineup of "street" franchises, which at its peak, included Red Card, NBA Hoopz, NHL Hitz, NFL Blitz and MLB Slugfest.
Just like the old days on the NES and Genesis, that brief period from 2003-2004 boasted a lineup of games deep enough to touch just about all of the major sports.
The genre was booming so much, in fact, that even action/adventure publishers like Ubisoft were trying to get a slice of the arcade sports pie by licensing its own And 1 Streetball game.
But just as the market seemed to be surging, the Xbox 360 launched, and with the arrival of it and the other new consoles, all the momentum that had been building in the arcade-sports genre quickly collapsed into a small pile of mediocre games from a dwindling number of publishers.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Within two years, EA Canada’s excellent Street brand, once strong enough to release biennial updates across three different sports, had only two bare-bones reskins on the current-generation consoles -- NBA Street and FIFA Street -- both of which were missing many of the modes and features that made the original games so successful.
And following the poor sales of the two Street games, EA decided to put the basketball and soccer versions on "indefinite suspension," while handing over the NFL version to veteran simulation developer EA Tiburon. NFL Street became NFL Tour, but it fared no better when attempting to create an arcade-style hit. Like the current-gen versions of FIFA Street and NBA Street, NFL Tour suffered from a severe lack of content and customization.
Midway, too, has seen its arcade sports portfolio dwindle on the current-generation consoles -- it is also dwindling as a company -- with little more to show for itself than a bad sequel to an already struggling NBA Ballers series in 2008 and a pair of NFL Blitz games in 2006 and 2008.
Which brings us to the present year, 2009, where EA Canada’s 3-on-3 NHL Arcade -- the company's second attempt at an arcade sports game since the Street brand became the Freestyle brand -- is now available on the Playstation Network and the Xbox Live Marketplace.
Unfortunately, 3-on-3 NHL Arcade is another current-gen arcade game with solid gameplay, but a complete lack of content, options and customization.
So what can developers do to get us out of this rut?
In part two, I will discuss directions in which the arcade-sports genre should be going if it wants to recapture the magic that once had it at the top of the sports-gaming totem pole.