Review: Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff

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Forget Madden. Forget NFL 2K. Forget any other modern videogame football franchise. Tecmo Super Bowl will forever be the undisputed Super Bowl champ of pigskin gaming. Before last week I wouldn’t have remembered that, as the incredible realism and intricate detail of current football games are a blinding force to the pure gameplay quality of sports games past. But early last week, when I received Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff, Tecmo’s new DS remake of its old NES pigskin classic, I was immediately snapped back to reality. This is how football gaming is supposed to be done!

Now, Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff obviously has some technical deficiencies being an expanded but largely faithful port of a game nearing 20 years old. The artificial intelligence, for instance, is incredibly rudimentary in its programming. When you’re calling a play, your AI teammates do exactly what the play calls for and won’t adapt for anything. Even if the opposing quarterback scrambles and you have a defender standing near his escape path, your defender will let him run by and won’t react until the QB is past the line of scrimmage. On the flip side, the CPU AI reacts the same way, so by the end of a full season you’ll have learned certain exploits that make winning a wee bit too easy.

In addition, certain aspects of the game are left wide open to chance. You can have a receiver running wide open down the sideline for a sure touchdown, and he’ll drop the ball. And sometimes you’ll just get into one of those games where your players will suffer from fumble-itis and you have no way to stop it. Of course, that’s the way real football goes sometimes, too, so in that way it is realistic. Frustrating, but realistic.

For Kickoff, Tecmo also introduced new super abilities you can equip your players with. Skills like Rocket Pass, which enables the QB to zip the ball through to a heavily covered receiver or Lightning Dodge, which sees your running back zigzag through a gang of defenders for a big run. Thing is, you can equip these super abilities but you have no control over when to actually use them. At certain points in the game they just kick in. Sometimes things are going to happen no matter what you do, which is good in a way because that’s true to real football, but bad at the same time because elements of chance in videogames can often feel cheap.

The beauty of Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff is that these shortcomings are overshadowed by so many other fantastic features. The 2D side-scrolling football gameplay is simple and straightforward, yet surprisingly deep on strategy and thrilling on almost a cinematic level with the series’ timeless big-play cutscenes and rockin’ background music.

During a game your playbook is limited to eight plays — four runs, four passes — on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, and from there the game takes on sort of a rock-paper-scissors style. If you call a pass play and the defense sets up to stop the run, chances are you’ll have a receiver wide open for a big play. But on the other hand, if the defense gets a jump on your play calling and picks the perfect defense, they’ll all-out blitz and stop your run for a big loss or put one hell of a lick on your QB. With only eight plays to choose from, figuring out ways to mix up your play calling becomes more challenging, and thus more important than ever. If you don’t remain balanced between run and pass, or if you get too predictable with always running a certain play whenever a certain situation arises – say always going with an inside run for short-yard downs, or always dropping back in the shotgun in third-and-long – you won’t do so hot.

Tecmo and Polygon Magic also did a bang-up job stuffing Kickoff with modes and customization options. Since EA still owns the exclusive rights to the NFL license (I will forever hate EA for doing this!!!), Tecmo couldn’t include any NFL teams or player names in the game – the league is setup up with the same team cities and divisions as the NFL, but the actual team and player names are completely made up. To combat this, Tecmo did the next best thing by granting the player full customization control. You can go in and rename every team and player in the game, and even adjust team colors and logos and player stats and jersey numbers. I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers diehard so I went in and changed the default Pittsburgh Poisons to the Steelers and renamed all the players – got Big Ben in there of course, along with other team stars like Hines Ward, Heath Miller, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Willie Parker and so on. I haven’t bothered to organize any other teams, but the fact that I can if I want to is great.

How to control the game is also completely up to you. An intuitive stylus control scheme is available and works remarkably well, but if you’re a purist and want to stick to what you know best, you can play with a conventional D-pad and face button scheme. Or, of course, you can play with a mix of both methods like I did; using quick taps on the touch screen for more precise control over player selection and passing, and then switching to the D-pad for actually moving around the field.

Above all else, though, Kickoff’s most significant new feature is the addition of wireless multiplayer, both online and multi-card local play. Nintendo’s crappy Friend Code system continues to hold back online-enabled titles from functioning as optimally as they should – in this game’s case if you don’t have any friends to exchange codes with and are forced to rely on auto-matching you can often spend more time waiting for a game to connect than actually playing the game – but when you get a live game going it’s so incredibly intense. The AI exploits you can take advantage of playing against the CPU are nullified against another real player, in turn putting emphasis back on gameplay skill where it should be.

Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff is a masterful remake of a classic game and truly delivers everything a football videogame should have. It’s intense and remarkably addictive – I’ve found myself laying in bed playing “just one more game” well into the wee hours of the night almost every day I’ve had it in my possession – and so loaded with customization options that accessibility and replayability are both about as high as they can possibly be. With the most exciting phase of the NFL season now underway, no football gaming enthusiast should be without Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff.

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Pros:
+ Classic 2D gameplay is just as fun and addictive as it was back in the day
+ Good control options; new stylus controls are slick and intuitive
+ Wide variety of customization options
+ Online play makes for virtually infinite replayability
+ Nostalgic music, graphics and action cutscenes

Cons:
– Simplistic CPU AI is fairly easy to take advantage of
– Elements of chance can seem cheap at times
– Nintendo’s Friend Code system makes connecting with others online more of a hassle than it should be

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: Tecmo
Developer: Polygon Magic
Release Date: 11/18/08
Genre: Sports – Football
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!