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A Game Six Guide to the Greatest Sports Video Games

In Uncategorized on August 6, 2009 at 5:20 pm

In honor of Jeremy Roenick’s impending retirement after a storied 20-year career, Game Six has decided to pay homage to one of the all-time greatest electronic athletes by compiling a list of the single best sports video games ever.

This was NOT an easy task, mind you. I mean, we’re talking about widdling the roughly 20-year history of sports videogames down to the 10 best ever. Quite the tall order. When I say that I agonized over this list, I mean I agonized. It physically hurt me to leave some games out. Games like Triple Play 98, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Blades of Steel, the Fight Night series, PGA Tour Golf 3 – these are absolute classics, yet they found themselves on the outside looking in. That’s the kind of operation we run here at Game Six. Cold-blooded.

We were ruthless in compiling this list; we had to be. There were going to be casualties along the way – I knew that going in. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Ultimately, the following ten games represent those we simply couldn’t leave on the cutting room floor. Quite frankly, it’s a dominant list.

Before we get to the top-10, let me first go over the qualifications each game had to meet in order to make this list:

1. Overall excellence:

We’re talking across-the-board excellence – gameplay, features, difficulty, controls, etc. Keep in mind, however, that excellence here refers to excellence at the time. Sure, today’s video games have better graphics, more features, and smoother gameplay overall. But are they classics? The number of vintage games on our list suggests the answer is, “No.”

2. Replayability:

This is a key category here,  because if a game can’t offer a high level of enjoyment over an extended period of time – hours, days, months, years – then it doesn’t belong on this list. I don’t want to know how many beautiful sunny days I missed out on because of these games. I’ve logged serious hours on each of these, and I’m not done yet. Suffice it to say that I could pop in any of these games right now and have a great time, and that includes the one from 1992.

3. Authenticity:

This is a distinction I wish I didn’t have to make, because it means the sacrifice of several of my all-time favorite sports-related games from the list. When I say “Authenticity” I’m talking about serious, realistic, card-carrying sports games. Not arcade-games that happen to be sports-based, like NBA Jam , Super Baseball 2020, or NFL Blitz. Not nichey, pushing-the-envelope sports games like Tony HawkSega Marine Fishing or Winter Olympic Games Lillhammer ’94. I realize that this category is controversial, believe me. The games I just listed are some of my favorites. Unfortunately, in order to trim the list to 10, there had to be some rules. This isn’t Nam.

Anyway, without Frederick Adu, I present to you the official Game Six list of the Ten Greatest Sports Video Games Ever, in reverse-order.

10. NBA Live 2000

Finally, Video Game MJ was back!

Finally, Video Game MJ was back!

This one made the list largely because it was the first video game to feature my main man, Michael Jordan, since the ill-fated though strangely enjoyable Jordan Vs. Bird, released in 1988. This might not seem like a big deal, but I beg you to consider the situation from the point-of-view of a young diehard MJ fan who grew up tortured by Jordan-less electronic Bulls teams. It got to the point where I barely even played NBA games anymore because competing in a league without Jordan just seemed like a waste (sort of how the real NBA felt after MJ’s 2nd retirement…) Then NBA Live 2000 came out with the tagline “Jordan is back!” and all was right with the world. Not only was Jordan in the game, but – in one of the coolest video game features ever – in order to play with him, you had to beat him one-on-one. For my money, there was no better feeling than beating MJ that first time and unlocking him as a free agent. I had literally been waiting years to sink my first shot with Video Game MJ and at last I could – and I did, for hours on end. Curiously, when I wasn’t gleefully draining video game jumpers with MJ, I spent much of my time wondering why girls weren’t more interested in me. Go figure.

9. Virtua Tennis

The mighty Jim Courier

Jimmy "Courage" Courier

Ah, Virtua Tennis. Best when played on the little-known Sega Dreamcast system, Virtua Tennis remains the greatest tennis video game ever made (Are there any others? I’m actually not sure). The gameplay is smooth and realistic and it takes legitimate skill and strategy to defeat an opponent. My guy was always Tommy Haas and it got to the point where it wasn’t even fair to play against my friends. Haas was that dominant. The heart and soul of the game, however, was American Jim Courier. Let me tell you, this guy had some serious guts. Just when you thought he was all but done, Old Jimmy would come limping after an impossible crosscourt forehand and deliver, time and time again. Courier rarely won, but when he did you couldn’t help but feel a surge of patriotic pride.

8. FIFA 07

Apparently, FIFA is quite the powerful game

Apparently, FIFA is quite the powerful game

It wasn’t easy for me to put FIFA 07 on this list because, frankly, I’ve never even played it. I have a lot of friends who swear by it, but my personal experience with the game doesn’t extend past that of a curious spectator so, I have to admit, I’m not totally comfortable with this decision. But I was swayed by one indisputable fact: FIFA is perhaps the only video game ever with the power to hook people on a sport they had a) previously hated, b) didn’t fully understand, and c) cared nothing about. I mean, I’ve seen soccer-bashing friends of mine – I’m talking about lifelong soccer-haters – completely converted after a week of FIFA play. I’ve seen people sit and play FIFA for five, six hours at a time, and these are 22-23 year old guys, not 10-year old Sega Genesis addicts with nothing better to do. I’ve literally seen people’s lives fundamentally altered by this video game, to the point where their interest in soccer actually transcended the game and they began to follow the real thing. Diligently. I can’t overstate how completely unthinkable this type of turnaround was for some of these people, and all the credit goes to FIFA 07. I don’t understand it. I just can’t figure it out. The game can’t be that good, can it? Maybe it’s time I found out for myself.

7. NCAA Football 2003

You wouldn't guess that Joey Harrington was the cover guy for the greatest college football game ever

Joey Harrington huh? Bet you didn't see that one coming

NCAA Football 2003 is not unlike the other entries in the NCAA Football series, but it included a couple updates – 2oo licensed fight songs, an official trophy room, and cheerleaders – that really put it over the top. It is a great offensive game, with complex schemes and the ability to really air it out from the quarterback position. The Create-A-School mode is also awesome, though who needs it with the 144 schools already offered? There are few things quite as satisfying as taking a tiny Division 1-AA school to the Rose Bowl and toppling one of the Big Boys in Pasadena.

6. RBI Baseball ’93

RBI ’93 is arguably the sports video game I’ve logged the most hours playing over the years. I used to play it constantly with my buddy and it never got old. It perfectly combines realistic difficulty with the ability to hit 600 foot bombs. The Home Run Derby mode is phenomenal and the MLBPA licensing with player names and authentic stadiums gives it a HUGE advantage over other 16-bit favorites likes Super Bases Loaded. For my money, there’s really nothing better than settling in for a game of RBI ’93 and playing as an A’s team that features Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, and Goose Gossage. Seriously, what could possibly be more fun than that?

5. Coach K College Basketball

Coach K Basketball - so good, even a UNC fan could love it

Coach K Basketball - so good, even a UNC fan could love it

I love this game, and that is a big-time statement coming from a diehard Tar Heels fan. It’s easily my favorite basketball game ever. The priceless features are completely classic (vintage March Madness TV graphics, backboard-shattering dunks, slow motion 360 lay-ups, the ability to call plays on the fly) and the gameplay is surprisingly realistic for a 16-bit system. The best part of the game, however, is playing with the 1996 Umass Minutemen – possibly the most dominant video game team of all time. With Marcus Camby ripping down backboards at will and Carmelo Travieso burying jumpers, the Coach K Minutemen are absolutely unbeatable regardless of opponent. And I mean, any opponent – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, whoever. UMass even tops the classic past championship teams the game offers. It’s not even close.

4. Madden ’99

Jamal Anderson had plenty of chances to do the Dirty Bird in Madden '99

Jamal Anderson owned Madden 99

My favorite Madden installment, Madden ’99 was released in the year of Super Bowl XXXIII between the Falcons and the Broncos and it’s noteworthy largely because of two players on those teams – Denver’s John Elway and the Falcon’s Jamal Anderson. It was always fun running an offense with Elway at the helm – I miss Video Game John. But the real breakout star was Anderson, who somehow morphed into a combination of Walter Payton, Jim Brown, and Barry Sanders in Madden ’93. I’m not exaggerating when I say that ’93 Anderson rivaled Video Game Bo Jackson from Tecmo Super Bowl. Jamal was that good, running all over the field and unleashing the Dirty Bird whenever he scored. Unfortunately Jamal’s real-life career couldn’t match his electronic exploits as he suffered a career-ending knee injury in 2001 (and an embarassing drug arrest earlier this year), but his talents will remain forever immortalized in Madden ’93 for future generations of gamers to discover.

3. MVP Baseball 2005

Manny on the cover. What's not to love?

Manny on the cover. What's not to love?

MVP ’05 is, simply put, the greatest baseball game ever. It has the best graphics, the best gameplay and the best sound. It’s easy to learn but filled with subtleties that can only be uncovered with time. One of the game’s best features – Owner Mode, the first of its kind – lets  you take control of a team from the top-down and is so intricate that you could literally lose yourself in the management side of the game for hours before even taking the field. Plus, the game is chock-full of great players and fun teams. Fred McGriff at the tail end of his career. Griffey. Pedro. The defending-champion Red Sox. I’m telling you, it’s the greatest. Unfortunately, MVP 2005 was the last in the MVP series (aside from the MVP 06 & 07 NCAA Baseball games, which were also great) and there hasn’t been a baseball game since that has lived up to its legacy. Good thing, then, that MVP 2005 is still readily available online.

2. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08

Tiger 08, the top of the electronic golf food chain

Tiger 08, the top of the electronic golf food chain

Who knew a golf title would one day sit in the #2 slot on a historical sports video game list? Certainly not me, after struggling through years of PGA Tour Golf releases for Sega that were always several technological advances away from greatness. The 3D graphics era really paved the way for electronic golf, and Tiger Woods and EA Sports have since cornered the market. The Tiger games are immensely fun to play, easy to learn but difficult to master, and offer unmatched realism in gameplay and graphics. But here’s the thing – there’s only so much you can do with video golf. The recipe for the perfect video golf game goes something like this: perfect the essentials – things like shotmaking, course selection, and enjoyable characters – and then sprinkle in specialized features like crowd noise, good announcers, online play and customizable players/modes and bingo, there’s your game. Endless tinkering – adding/subtracting features, changing the controls, tweaking gameplay – only confuses people. This theory applies to other sports video games as well. Less is always more. The simpler the better. This is why so many people still love to play vintage games – they were easy. The controller only had three buttons and a directional pad and the most complex moves involved no more than a couple directional taps here and a button press there. Today, in order to execute any kind of combination move, you need a minimum of three hands and Rain Man’s memory. It is, in fact, possible to over-saturate a game with features and various complexities (see: MLB The Show). Tiger 08 represents, for me, the peak of the series because it is the point at which the game-makers achieved their entertainment goals without crossing that thin line of playability. Unfortunately, EA Sports still has to crank out a new Tiger game every year and each release neccessitates the addition – and hyping – of “awesome new features!” Fortunately, the guys in charge of Tiger tend to err on the side of aesthetics, such as crowd noise and player celebrations rather than trying to improve, say, the putting mechanism. Still, as far as I’m concerned, they could have stopped in 2008 and everything would have been fine.

1. NHL ’94

NHL 94 is the best sports video game ever

NHL 94 - the best sports video game ever

I realize I’m not breaking any new ground here – NHL ’94 is often cited by hardcore gamers and hardcore sports fans alike as the single greatest sports video game ever. It is quick, it is easy, and it is endlessly entertaining. Even the absence of fighting (“I think kids were hittin’ each other or somethin’…”) couldn’t knock it out of the top spot on this list. It is, without question, the funnest game ever to just pick up and play (funnest being, really, the appropriate term here considering my lexicon at the time). Don’t even get me started on NHL 94‘s individual features, like breaking the glass, Best of Seven Playoffs Mode, and the magical one-timer.  I mean, we’re talking about the first game where you could actually save your record! Do you have any idea how innovative that was at the time? Before NHL ’94, you had to constantly keep a notebook close by in order to record all your statistics (or…was that just me?) Hell, NHL ’94 is even responsible for the greatest Hollywood video game moment of all time, when Trent made Little Wayne’s head bleed in Swingers after scoring yet again with Jeremy Roenick.

Video Game Roenick might be the G.O.A.T.

In the words of Double-Down Trent: "Y'know, it's not so much me as Roenick; he's good."

And here’s where we bring it back full circle – Roenick was nothing less than a beast in this NHL ’94. With the puck on his stick, the pride of Boston was simply unstoppable, and I mean that literally. You physically could not stop him from scoring. It got to the point with my friends and I where the Blackhawks had to be outlawed from official play in order to preserve the competitive spirit. Roenick was just that good. So, here’s to you Mr. Roenick – thanks for all your years of service and for all your beautiful NHL ’94 one-timers. I couldn’t have been the gamer I was without you.

(I’d go home and fire up the Sega right now for an all-night session in your honor, but I still want to have a girlfriend in the morning. You understand.)

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