I must begin this review with a bit of history, nostalgia, and a confession. As I write this, I’m reeling from the news that the Kansas City Royals, long the proverbial butt of many a baseball joke, have won the World Series against the New York Mets. Though I don’t consider myself a sports fan, I got a little bit of whiplash with that announcement, and had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn’t 1985 again. I was a fan of baseball for many years, as a kid, until the player strike brought the ugly realization that athletes can often be petty, whining oafs that are just money hungry. Granted, they’re not all like that, but the strike certainly gave me a new perspective on things. So while my love for baseball lasted a number of years, my interest in professional football was relatively short-lived. In 1985 and 1986, I fancied myself a pro football fan, if only to impress my classmates and the neighbor kids, who all thought I was a giant dork (spoiler alert: I was). I told people I was into the Dolphins and the Bengals, and that Dan Marino was pretty much the best quarterback on the planet. Of course, I never really watched any football games, because we had 1 TV in the house, my parents weren’t into pro football, and none of my friends invited me over to watch with them. Subsequently, my neighborhood kids (and kids at school) saw through my petty charade. Yes, I was destined to be a nerd.
I’m not totally devoid of football knowledge, however. I watched college football with my parents; specifically, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Yes, the Huskers are (in 2015) having what is possibly the worst season in the history of the football program, but in the mid-late 80’s and early 90’s, the Huskers were a staple of Saturday college football games, and I watched intently with my parents, despite not having a deep understanding of the game, the plays, or the rules. I don’t catch every game now, though I still try to do so when I can, and root for the Huskers when I do get to watch or listen to a game. I even casually live-Tweet during games. Having said that, my knowledge of the game of football is still very limited, and I’m saying that to help set up this review, and perhaps give some perspective as to my feelings on this game.
The other thing I’ll say is that, as most gamers of my generation know, while Tecmo Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System was a pretty good football game for its time, the ball didn’t really get rolling (pun intended) with video football games until the 16-bit era, when you had Joe Montana Football, and of course, the kingpin itself, John Madden Football. That didn’t stop every game console from receiving some sort of football title, and the Game Boy certainly saw a handful of pigskin games. By my count, there are 11 total football titles on the venerable handheld, though 2 of those are combination baseball/football titles. Part of me is dreading having to review those carts. Cramming 2 fully realized sports games into a single Game Boy cartridge (in the early 1990’s) would have been a feat unto itself, but also require real thought and design. I guess I just don’t have much faith in licensed titles from that era, which can be attributed to the low number of them that actually turned out to be good games.
Play Action Football, the first pigskin game for the venerable handheld, is a pretty simple affair. There are 8 teams in the game, all from major cities across the US, though, conspicuously, devoid of actual NFL names, due to the game’s lack of NFL license. The manual makes no mention of differences between the teams, and I was not able to really gauge any kind of discernible difference in team or player stats and abilities (more on that later). There are 4 modes to play: a 1-player against the CPU mode, which is a single game, a 1-player against the CPU “championship” mode, where you play 7 games against the other teams (with a password system for saving progress), a 2-player mode where you play against one another in a single game, and a 2-player against the CPU mode (also a single game, from what I gleaned from the game’s menu). There are 4 difficulty levels to play against the CPU, and, like the 2 Nintendo sports launch games, they range from moderately difficult to insanely hard. I will readily admit, as a sports video game beginner, I stayed at the “Level 1” difficulty the whole time, as my experience with that proved to be challenging enough for my rather weak skills.
Play calling is relatively simple. At the play screen, you press one of 4 directions on the D-pad to select a play, depending on which directional arrow you see next to the play you want to run. If you press the A button, you can move to a 2nd, or sometimes even a 3rd screen of available plays. If you want to call a Timeout, press Select at the play selection screen. Once you’re on the field, you’ll “hut” until you press A to hike the ball. Then, depending on your play, you can either run the ball, or press the B button in conjunction with a direction (left or right), to throw the ball. One thing to keep in mind is, as soon as you throw the ball, the player selection switches immediately to the receiver, so don’t forget to move them into position based on the arrows that display on screen, indicating where the pass is being thrown. Also, you can press A several times per play to either break a tackle, or get a speed boost. While running the ball, you can press B to dive, and usually pick up another 2-3 yards on a play. On defense, you also have the speed boost available for each player, and you can press the Select button to switch to whichever teammate is closest to the ball. Again, you can dive to try and tackle the runner, by pressing the B button. When you’re kicking the ball, you have an arrow that moves left and right, and that determines the direction of the ball when you press A. Then a 2nd meter will go up and down, and when you press A again, that determines how hard you kick, and thus, the distance the ball travels.
The game doesn’t have a lot of visual appeal, and is somewhat simplistic. The overhead view works well for basic play execution, though sometimes, when you or your opponent are running the ball, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, and have no idea where the ball is. There’s not much detail on the field, but that’s a blessing, given the business of the two teams clashing, especially during running plays. When performing a long pass, or a kickoff, the screen will switch to an even less detailed overhead view that shows more of the field, and players represented by little dots, and then will zoom in again to the standard view, once the ball is close to the receiver. If you score a touchdown, or make a successful P.A.T. or Field Goal, you’re treated to a 2 or 3 frame animation, and you get a basic, 2-frame animation of a referee signaling when you’ve achieved a first down, scored a touchdown, and either made, or missed, a kick attempt. You also see an easy to read stat and score breakdown at halftime, and after each game, complete with each team’s “logo”. Oh, and one nice touch is when you get close to a first down, the referees will come out with the poles and chain, to “measure” the distance, and you can see the animation of the chain going by the ball to show if you made the first down or not.
There’s very little in the way of music in the game. You have the title screen theme, and music that plays once the ball is in motion, as well as a different music track that will play when your opponent gets into the red zone and is threatening to score. Aside from that, there’s a short ditty that plays when you score, and another short theme on the score breakdown screen. Otherwise, it’s mostly sound effects. You have basic sound effects for the “hut”, hike, and pitch/throw sounds, and the “alley-oop” sort of sound to denote the ball going up in the air, and coming back down. The tackle sound is pretty basic, as are most of the other effects. The game has a bit of rudimentary voice sampling as well, though it’s awful scratchy. There’s a voice for “first down” and one for “touchdown”, but as you can imagine, they sound so much alike that they’re almost indistinguishable.
Playing through a single game, you can almost immediately see the games flaws take center stage. First and foremost, despite each team having no discernible difference in stats, the CPU team ALWAYS runs the ball faster than you. If they throw a pass and catch it, your best bet is to switch to the closest player and try to tackle or dive to get them. Be careful, however, because if you miss, the CPU team will take that ball all the way to the end zone. Countless times during my experience with this game, I kicked the ball for either a post-TD kickoff, or a punt after a 3-and-out drive, and the opposing team would score a touchdown, simply because I couldn’t catch up. This happens regardless of which team you play against. I realize the game is trying to offer a challenge, but I would have hoped that whomever was responsible for play-testing the game would have brought this to the design team’s attention. It’s terribly unfair when you, as the player, have to waste all your speed boosts to break tackles and fight for 20-25 yards, while the opposing side can score a TD on nearly any kick return if you miss a couple tackles. Call me crazy, but that sounds like poor design. Working in your favor sometimes is the goofy detection for P.A.T. and field goal kicks – sometimes, it looks like you missed the space between the goal posts, but the CPU will say your kick was good, while the CPU team kicks the point after attempt, and it looks like it will be called good, only to see that it’s no good.
The passing also seems weird to me, but maybe I haven’t played enough football video games to know any better. It seems as though I can’t land a pass more than 40-50 percent of the time, when performing a Play Action Pass. With that, I seemed to have way more accuracy passing to my left than to my right, for some strange reason. I was never once able to land a long pass, and I found short pass plays to be utterly useless, because the opposing team was always able to find a way to get to the receiver before I could gain yardage. Once I reached the red zone, I found both the “Sweep” and “Dive” plays useful, because I could sometimes muscle my way into the end zone, but just as frequently, I ended up throwing a Play Action Pass to seal the deal. Maybe it’s just because I figured out how to run that play successfully the most, but I thought it was strange that the play the game is named after seemed to be the best way to move the ball downfield.
At the end of the day, I understand that, because of my limited knowledge of sports, any recommendation (or lack thereof) of a sports game will need to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. Having said that, I think the major flaws in this game speak for themselves, and it’s hard to give the game a thumbs up. I think I paid $3 for my copy, and while I got enough enjoyment out of it to warrant that, I can’t imagine what poor kids got this as their birthday present, and ended up spending far more time on it than the game’s design truly warranted, because mom and dad paid $30, and they were going to like it, if it killed them. I learned enough about how to play the game that I was able to win about 30% of the time, and for a non-sports fan, that’s good enough for me. If you’re thinking about spending more than $3 or $4 on this game, take a knee, call a time out, and give it some serious thought.
As an aside, I wanted to mention that I played through the entire 7-game “championship” mode, and purposefully did so, utilizing every means I have to play Game Boy games. I played game 1 on my Game Boy Advance SP, game 2 on my original Game Boy DMG, game 3 on the Game Boy Pocket, game 4 on the Game Boy Color, game 5 on the Game Boy Player, and Game 6 on the Super Game Boy. I finished up with game 7 via an emulator on my PC, so I could grab screenshots for this review. I found it interesting to go back and forth between the different systems, to see how it played, but also get a feel for how good the D-pad is on each of those systems. Turns out, my Game Boy Color D-pad could use a little TLC, and my SNES controller is in dire need of a cleaning and alcohol bath. Also, it’s really awkward to play with a Game Cube controller (in my case, a WaveBird), because the “Y” button acts as the “Select” button, and it doesn’t feel natural to hit that while you’re running downfield, trying to catch the other team’s runner.
This review was originally written and published on the official Game Boy Guru blog site, November 25th, 2015: