Modern sports games get a lot of flak. Most of the criticism is valid, especially when the biggest changes to titles often just seem to be the year on an annual big budget games franchise.
Uniqueness is not sports video gaming’s strong suit today. But if you’re looking for fun, wacky, and competitive sports games, you only need to dial back a few decades. Below are some of the most popular and iconic sports games to come out of the arcade gaming era.
Before the NBA 2K franchise became the cash cow it is today, there was NBA Jam. Midway’s sports title was a resounding slam dunk, making over $1USD billion in quarters just a year after its release. Shaquille O'Neal loved it so much he bought two arcade cabinets–one for home use, and the other flown around on his team’s plane.
Free play at an arcade: As good of an incentive as a championship ring
Developers had to weave through a fair share of challenges before the game ever dribbled onto a single arcade. Before NBA Jam, there had never been a licensed NBA game. “They immediately said no,” recalls Mark Turmell, the game’s lead designer and programmer. Eventually, the league said yes, but only after developers showed them bustling and bright entertainment centres instead of seedy, dimly lit arcades.
Part of the game’s arcade success is because of its co-op mode. Arcade cabinets let you play ball with up to 4 people. That’s four of your friends in real-time, not you against a faceless stranger on the Internet. Co-op, frantic pacing, and explosive in-game commentary made for an intense and addictive experience, creating an energy that’s not too far from the rougher physicality of basketball in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Cybernetically enhanced athletes, robots, a field that looks more like a part of The Grid from Tron than an actual stadium–SNK’s 2020 SUPER BASEBALL might have been off the mark when it comes to predicting what baseball would look like in 2020, but it was a home run when it released in 1991.
Set in 2020 as imagined in the ‘90s, 2020 SUPER BASEBALL follows the basic rules of play, but with a few futuristic tweaks. You can play as a man, woman, or a robot–biological differences don’t matter when you can make up the difference through upgrades. Players can earn money through certain actions, like throwing a strike. You can use the money to “reinforce” your player’s abilities.
The home run zone is also several times further afield and only restrained to a narrow strip, because when you’ve got bots and tech-jacked humans batting, balls go far. Any ball that doesn’t fly straight bounces off glass domes protecting the crowd and bounces back, leaving players to frantically run around for it.
A lot of arcade sports games revolve around popular sports. You don’t have to chuck the ball very far to hit a golf, baseball, or football title from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
All smiles after pelting the enemy team to the afterlife
Coming out of left field, 1987’s Super Dodge Ball is the first dodgeball video game. It puts you in charge of a team of seven fighting opponents from different regions. Play is fast-paced and requires a little magic and a lot of skill at the controls, as buttons execute different moves depending on which court the ball is in. Eliminated players turn into a sprite of an angel that flies away–a bit morbid until you consider the fact that the first dodgeball games used rocks.
The game was a commercial success, selling 500,000 copies by 1989. Critics praised it for its quirky characters and graphics. Rounds are localised by country. A huge portrait of who one can only assume to be Mao Zedong hangs over the match in China. The UK match is played on a cobblestone court with a pixelated Tower Bridge and the Palace of Westminster in the background.
Super Punch Out! is a boxing arcade game developed by Nintendo. Released in 1984, it puts you in the laces of a green-haired boxer punching and dodging his way to the top of the World Video Boxing Association.
An uppercut: The only way to actually hurt this big beast
This isn’t your boxer’s first time in the ring. The title is actually a sequel to Punch Out, which was released only a year earlier. Super Punch Out! introduces a whole new cast of fighters to the roster, including the overall-clad Bear Hugger from Canada and Hong Kong’s rope-jumping Dragon Chan.
That’s right, some of your opponents can uppercut the rules of boxing out the window with illegal moves. Aside from Dragon Chan’s flying kicks, Bear Hugger can instantly put you away with a two-handed smash move. You can only avoid these moves by ducking, a new mechanic introduced in Super Punch Out! that you execute by pulling the cabinet’s special joystick straight up.
What do you get when you combine Street Fighter-esque pomp, air hockey, and frisbee? Data East’s wildy fun Windjammers, that’s what. Released in 1994, Windjammers quickly racked in the quarters with its gritty graphics and novel premise.
Gamers are given the choice to control one of six characters. Every character has a specific balance between speed and power. Beginners are faster, but lack power, while Expert characters trade speed for sheer strength. Rules of play are fundamentally the same as air hockey, but made more extreme by special moves. Discs rarely fly straight in the world of Windjammers, either bouncing off barriers or propelled through the court using a super spin or a hammer throw. Mini games between matches serve as a nice little break from the competition.
Choose your fighter
The years have only proven that Windjammer’s ingenious design and brand of fun is timeless. The game is still popular in some circuits, even appearing in the 2018 Evolution Championship Series, an annual eSports event for fighting games.
If Pong had a baby with Metal Slug, it would be Bang Bead. But instead of white paddles, you get characters with their own quirky backstories. Hiromu Go’s “intimate friend” died so he decided to become a cowboy. Pop Simon is a dancer who can no longer join dance competitions. Bloody Wolf really wants to move to New York.
…and to work out his despair by violently flinging balls at people?
How exactly that’s all related to the block-breaking tournament is anyone’s guess. But the objective for the game is simple enough: shoot the ball–called the bead–into the opponent’s goal to win.
Except unlike Windjammers, you have to break through all the targets protecting the goal first. Characters have special power shots that can’t be blocked. The bead picks up speed as it’s bounced around, much like the original ball in Pong, meaning the game gets more intense as the match progresses.
Released in 1996, Nazca’s Neo Turf Masters was as immersive as golf simulators got during the ‘90s. Players can switch clubs between strokes, control the strength and height of their shot, and change their stance. You can also toggle how far left or right you sliced or hooked. All the while, accounting for how wind speed will influence the trajectory of your shot.
The video gamification of golf
That’s a lot of golfing calculus for your average gamer. While you wouldn’t expect the arcade crowd to be fans of a sport as sedate as golf, Neo Turf Masters was fast-paced and competitive enough to keep the quarters rolling.
Nazca, who also developed Metal Slug, really knows their addictive and satisfying gameplay loops. Neo Turf Masters introduces just enough mechanics to appeal to true enthusiasts, but it remains easy enough to start swinging even if you’ve never picked up a club in your life before.
Konami’s Hyper Sports Special can be considered a series of games in itself. Based on the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea, the game runs the player through a gauntlet of different sports.
Sprinting towards victory! Or at least, the next event
There are nine events in total, including popular games like relay races and more obscure sports like skeet shooting and javelin throwing. However, unlike the real Olympic games, players don’t have to compete in just one sport. In order to qualify for the next event, you’ll need to defeat your opponent and nab a gold medal at every round.
Hyper Sports Special actually isn’t the first Olympic game out of Konami. It’s the third in the franchise after Track & Field and Hyper Sports. Special vaults over its predecessors with snazzier graphics and better controls.
With their cheerful graphics, strange characters, and cabinets made for intense competitive play, arcade sports games were just built differently. Even if you’re not a big sports fan, these retro games can give anyone the love of the game.