Sunday, June 21, 2015

Video Game Slush Pile: Super Play Action Football

Believe it or not there was a time when the yearly football release wasn't a numbered roster update with maybe one new and totally unwanted feature plus a slew of terrible new music. The year is 1992 and "You gots dat Madden?" has absolutely no meaning unless the person in question is referring to old Super Eight tapes of Oakland Raider games or something. Instead, the fun and accessible arcade gameplay of the Tecmo Bowl series was giving way to dull attempts to accurately simulate American Egg Ball, eventually paving the way for a dreary illegal monopoly to dominate the computerized gridiron. When Super Play Action Football came out, of course, that was still a distant nightmarish vision, as we all assumed that this Nintendo release, complete with Mario cameos and everything, was clearly the future of playing Joe Montana make-believe. How wrong we were became clear when we actually played this thing.

You are the Center!!!

Let's just come right out with this: the gameplay is worse than getting syphilis from a married woman. Everything moves like you're watching a slow motion replay or perhaps a slightly smoother new generation version of electronic football. The players chug along at a snail's pace, like they're up to their waist in wet mud. A simple running play can stretch on forever. Tackling is bizarre in that there's no sense at all of fighting to bring down the ball carrier. He either immediately goes down as if shot, or casually swats aside three hundred pound defenders with a "stiff arm" that looks like a slow (naturally) version of the windshield wiper dance.

So. Very. Slow.

Then you pass the ball and it rockets down the field to your plodding receiver, who you must awkwardly position on an "X" that marks the spot. The under-inflated pigskin is generally thrown right where the wide-out currently is, without any lead. Suffice it to say, interceptions are common for the computer. When your on defense defending a pass takes excellent timing and jumping at the wrong moment (pretty much the only way to deflect the ball) leads to huge gains.

Football's best rivalry comes to your Mario Box!

It's too bad the play control is so atrocious, since this an ambitious title for it's time. There's three modes, High School, College and Professional, which represent level of complexity rather than difficulty (there's two setting for that). Ironically, High School is probably the hardest, since you can't jump to defend passes and as such are almost completely helpless against them. On the other hand you get to choose your school's name and colors and do the same for your rival, an almost unheard of amount of customization. You don't even have to go online to do it!

College let's you choose from what I'm guessing is nearly ever Division 1A team, although there is no NCAA license. This isn't a problem when you're talking about "Wisconsin," "State of Michigan," or even Texas Lubbock," but becomes more of a problem when you want to play as "Windy Belts," "Moldy Moss," or "Pale." Sadly, Pale's Vine Division rival Starboard is not selectable. After choosing your school and accepting the goofy lawsuit preventing name (if necessary) you can pick an eleven game schedule. If the goal is realism you'll probably want to schedule eight of those games in your unmarked conference, but there's nothing stopping you from loading up on cupcakes (the manual even provides such a sample schedule for your convenience!). 

Speaking of the manual, there's actually two that come with the game. One is your standard "how to play" fare that also includes some nice background on the NCAA and NFL which is a nice feature that should have stuck around. The other is a complete playbook, breaking down all the plays. This rules. Contrast this to today's "online manuals" that are three electronic pages long and basically worthless. But hey, we saved a few trees!  

Better than the creation mode in Madden. Seriously.

Each week in Season Mode comes with a wacky headline and a Top 20 or NFL Standings. It's minimalist, but I kind of like it. Speaking of NFL, it plays a lot like the college game but with more plays, audibles and the ability to substitute players. Sorry, no names, but who isn't excited about the chance to control #9 or #23? The NFL season ends with the Super Bowl, while College lets you choose which Bowl invitation to accept, sure to please anyone who ever dreamed of Violet Bowl glory.

There's a few cut-scenes during the game, most notably replays on a big screen surrounded by human units of varying levels of ridiculousness. There's a ten second half time show, a stats screen and a talking referee  that pushes the non-blast processing to its absolute limits. Overall, it's a slick well-produced package on top of a bad game. Today we've evolved to an ad-ridden, unimpressive production on top of a serviceable game once you mess with sliders for several hours. This is progress.

These football guys are cah-ray-zee!!!

Graphics: We get one nice "mode seven" (it's SNES and therefore mandatory) effect where the ball is thrown right at you and caught at the last moment by disembodied hands. Other than that, not a lot of amazing 16 Bit goodness here. All the players look exactly identical, distinguished only by their uniforms. The ball is a polygonal mess.

Controls: The isometric angle takes a lot of getting use to and it's always a struggle. Your running backs run a twenty second forty. Passing is an exercise in frustration, with no passing icons for your players. A lot of the plays are basically worthless. I ended up relying on the same two or three plays, over and over. I could win like that, but it was a joyless experience.

Depth: The only thing this game got right, but man did it get it right. The full college experience, create your own High School, NFL season, massive playbooks, audibles, a spin move that always fails...it's all here. You've got to wonder what could have been if all this good stuff was attached to a worthy game. Instead this one is the answer to trivia questions.   

 Big opening!!!


Aaron Zehner is the author of "The Foolchild Invention" available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

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