50 For 50, #1: Capcom Bowling

Introduction: Since I’m turning 50 years old in April, I am choosing 50 sports video games that I’ve enjoyed playing over the years and spotlighting one every weekday on Twitter. When time allows, I’ll be posting more thoughts on them here. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them and the memories that come with them.

In 1988, I was 16 years old. I was not an athlete, having basic skill in only two sports: volleyball and bowling. Bowling was a fun pastime on the weekends for me, mostly of the candlepin variety. At the bowling alley I used to go to, there were a few arcade games… but when I saw this one, it called out for a few quarters that I had left over from a trip to the snack bar:

Capcom Bowling is a simple game. Players use the track ball controller to roll the bowling ball down toward the pins, hoping to knock them all down. Hook, or ball curve, can be added if desired via a simple button press… but I never bothered with that. As in real bowling, players get 10 frames to score as close to 300– a perfect game of 12 consecutive strikes– as they can. I’ve never done this, in 30+ years of play. It’s simple, it’s addicting, and it can be frustrating to misroll or aim poorly… but that’s the same as playing the actual sport. You can be on a run of strike after strike, only to lose that run by not using the right ball speed or delivery point.

25 cents per game was– and still is– a lot cheaper than renting a lane and paying multiple dollars per game. While players can’t set up Capcom Bowling leagues or anything that complex, it’s a blast to play and will challenge players in 2022 like it did back in 1988.

One of the amusing features of the game lies in the selection of post-frame cutscenes. There’s a nice variety of these for strikes, spares, split leaves, and gutter balls. These animations are fun to look at and will get a chuckle or smile out of most players. Seeing an inebriated bowling ball holding a pin like a beverage and hearing a bit of How Dry I Am after watching your ball roll down the gutter is pretty funny.

This game eventually made it to my local mall arcade, and was good for a token or two in order to try and get a high enough score to land on the high score board. The only drawback was that the game was a pretty quick play. No matter how skilled you are, the game ends after 10 frames. There aren’t any extra levels or free games to earn, so the whole thing was often over in a few minutes. This was great for arcade operators, but not so much for poor kids like me who had to be pretty selective when it came to which games to spend a sparse number of tokens on.

Capcom’s name is on the game, but it wasn’t developed internally. Instead, Incredible Technologies did the work. If that name sounds familiar, it should, as this development house would go on to create an eventual sports game dynasty called Golden Tee Golf… which I’ll be talking about in a future 50 For 50 entry. Incredible Technologies would return to the lanes starting in 2004 with Silver Strike Bowling, as well as taking on other sports like hunting and bag toss (or Cornhole) in later years.

One last fun note about this game is that a lesser-known, more adult version was released in 1989, rebranded as Coors Light Bowling. This is similar to what Bally Midway originally did with Tapper, releasing it as a Budweiser-sponsored game. Coors Light Bowling is, essentially, Capcom Bowling with Coors Light objects added to the interface and in the game’s cutscenes. This cabinet was seen more in bars and bowling alleys instead of arcades, which makes sense given its advertising purpose– but it’s a curiosity that’s fun to look back on today. I never saw one of these cabinets myself.

Capcom Bowling isn’t complicated. It’s not over the top. It’s not loud. It doesn’t demand your attention. That said, it appealed to me as a young bowling fan all the same, who saw this as a big leap from Atari’s Bowling for the 2600– which had been my only bowling video game experience before this one. Looking back on it now, I can almost smell the French Fries and taste the Sprite from my bowling alley’s snack bar that were waiting for me to finish up my last few frames. There have been better bowling video games over the years, but this is the one that will always stick with me… and it more than deserves this mention on my 50 For 50 list.

The Ref is Coming Back!

Yes, it’s been too long since the website has been updated. Offline life has been crazy, between moving to a new place late last summer and being a first-time middle school teacher this school year… but it’s time to get back to having some fun talking sports games here.

While not all of the updates will be as in-depth as seen last summer– at least, until summer vacation, when I have some more free time– there’s still plenty to talk about, including some new games that were added to The Ref’s library over the last few months during hiatus.

We’ve got baseball season ready to start soon, golf is in full swing, and playoffs for the NHL and NBA on the horizon… so there’s a lot of games to talk about representing those sports.

I’m looking forward to getting back on the field. In the meantime, you can check out some quick-hitting thoughts on sports video games on The Ref’s Twitter feed!

Film Room: Unsealed – NCAA College Football 2K3 (PlayStation 2)

After a week off, it’s time to open another sealed retro sports game! This time, I take a look at the forgotten 2K sports franchise: NCAA College Football 2K.

It’s unfortunate that SEGA Sports didn’t (or couldn’t?) run with more of these games. While EA Sports was doing a decent job with its NCAA Football series, I would’ve loved to have seen how these games could have been improved.

Every other 2K franchise– NFL 2K, NBA 2K, NHL 2K, NCAA College Basketball/Hoops 2K, and MLB 2K— all lasted longer than this series did. Do you remember it?

Midway Monday: NBA Jam Memories

NBA JAM Day was March 4th, 1994. It was the day that the console versions of NBA JAM were to debut on store shelves, after months of waiting for fans like me.

I had been hooked on NBA JAM ever since playing the arcade game for the first time back in June of 1993 and winning on a last-second desperation three-pointer. The crazy dunks, the over-the-top commentary from Tim Kitzrow, the effect of getting to “on fire” status, and the elation from shattering the backboard glass on a dunk just blew my mind from that time on.

The game was also a big outlet for me to get away from some tough personal times that would begin later that summer. I got laid off from my job as a long-distance operator after 2 years. I was forced to move in with my paternal grandmother as my living situation crumbled and my former roommates moved away. My long-term relationship ended after we couldn’t make the long-distance thing work. Finding a new job with my limited skill set was tough, and I took a lot of rejection. I even wrecked my car. Through it all, visits to my local Just Fun arcade at the Fairfield Mall in Chicopee, Massachusetts and games of NBA JAM gave me much-needed breaks from it all. I eventually beat all of the NBA teams and my PJS initials flashed on the cabinet’s leaderboards.

When word hit that console versions were coming, I was more excited than I had been in a long time. I preordered the game from a video game store called Fantasy Realms, which had a small setup in the mall. I paid it off well before the launch date, which made the anticipation all the more intense. I had chosen the Genesis version because it had a battery backup, as opposed to the password feature that the SNES version was disappointingly using.

JAM Day at my house in Chicopee was complicated by a snowstorm that had rolled in overnight and lingered into the daylight hours. Waking up that morning to see all of the snow on the ground, and still falling, made me nervous that the mall might close. Once I got word that the mall and the store were both open, I made the 2+ mile trip on foot back and forth to go and pick up my game. It was a soggy, sloppy experience… but well worth it, as I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening playing the game and making my way through the teams to get my initials on the leaderboards– just like the arcade.

So… how does NBA JAM on the Genesis hold up today?

The core of the JAM arcade experience is here, and that’s the most important thing. There are high-flying dunks, wild shots, vicious steals, shattering backboards, and more that make the transition home. “On fire” modes are also here, and can still turn any game around– or perhaps put it out of reach. The battery backup means that progress through the teams and a few key stats for each registered player are stored even when the power is off, and that is huge.

Unlike the arcade game, this version (and others) of JAM allows players to make some key changes. Time can be sped up or slowed down, AI player difficulty can be increased or decreased, as well. The most notable option for players is the ability to toggle Computer Assistance on and off. Computer Assistance is, basically, Midway‘s “rubber band” feature from the arcade game that keeps scores close. This can be a positive when players are new or when players want games to come down to the wire, but playing with the feature off decides more games by skill than by interference. Having the option lets players tailor the kind of experience that they want, and that’s always a plus.

The play controls are very responsive. The game defaults to a button configuration on the Genesis controller that nestles the Turbo button (B button) between the Shoot button (A button) and the Pass button (C button). It takes a bit of getting used to, especially for players familiar with the bumper buttons on the SNES or PlayStation controllers. Turbo feels more natural on these bumpers, instead of rocking your thumb on the B button over to A or C. It’s not the game’s problem, of course, but a bit of a learning curve is needed to get accustomed to the button layout here. Once you do, shots, passes, dunks, steals, and blocks quickly become instinctive actions.

In terms of visuals, there’s more to like than not. The game performs well technically, with no slowdown to speak of, except for dramatic effect when the backboard is shattered. The players animate nicely, with the same kinds of acrobatic dunks from the arcade original. There are score overlays after baskets are made, and a sweet animated Halftime Report sequence that’s pulled right from the coin-op. On the downside, player models are a bit smaller than their arcade counterparts. They also lack a bit of detail. The most glaring issue is the relatively washed out color that the Genesis version has, compared to the SNES version. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but it’s hard not to notice.

The sound is fine, though the quality of that sound is a bit lacking. There’s a fair amount of commentary to be had for a cartridge-based game. While it can get a bit repetitive or even seem rather off, it’s still at least somewhat reminiscent of the arcade original. The sound effects for dunks, steals, and other actions are fine. It’s noteworthy that the Genesis version of JAM has in-game music, while the SNES version does not. This alone doesn’t give the Genesis version a huge advantage, but it adds to the curious differences between the versions for the two 16-bit titans. The quality of the sound is worse for the Genesis version, though. The instrumentation for the music is shallow and the voice quality is a bit muffled.

When weighing the home console versions of NBA JAM now, I still give the nod to the Genesis version… as I did back on JAM Day. There’s no denying that the SNES version looks more vibrant, has better sound quality, and benefits from a more suitable controller. That said, the Genesis version wins out with its battery backup feature. Passwords for sports games have always been tedious at best, often not allowing for stat tracking and making for some frustration if a letter or number was copied down wrong, so battery saves have always been the preferred way to go. The Genesis version also has in-game music, instead of the sound effects-only approach that the SNES version takes.

No matter which way I JAM— whether it’s on the Genesis, the SNES, in an arcade, or even on one of the new Arcade 1Up cabinets that I hope to afford some day– the game still holds up incredibly well more than a quarter of a century later. I still get into JAM as much today as I ever have. It gets my pulse racing, it still stimulates my love of competition, and it still gets me through those rough times life often throws at me. It’s the game that really got me into sports video games as a fan, and I’ll always be grateful to Mark Turmell, Sal DiVita, Tim Kitzrow, and the rest of the talented people that made NBA JAM happen.

For further information on NBA JAM, I strongly recommend reading NBA JAM, written and researched by the awesome Reyan Ali. The stories and information shared in the book are well worth reading. The book only costs $5 for a digital version and $15 for the printed paperback. Also, keep an eye out for the upcoming documentary, Insert Coin, helmed by Josh Tsui, which not only features NBA JAM— but many other things Midway.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to get one more game in.

Buyer’s Guide: At the time of this writing, NBA JAM for the SEGA Genesis is valued at about $10USD for just the cartridge, and between $15-$20USD for a complete in box (CIB) copy. The SNES cartridge is more expensive, closer to $15USD, while a complete in box copy is closer to $30USD. An instruction manual is not necessary to play the game, as experience will generally allow players to learn the play controls. The Genesis version does have a battery backup, so be sure to check that the battery still saves and have it replaced, if necessary.

Tale of the Tape: 10-Yard Fight (Arcade vs. NES)

In one corner, we have Irem‘s 10-Yard Fight arcade game from 1983. Players generally assume the role of the offense, and the objective is to score a touchdown in order to advance to the next half, or game. Only the ball-handler is under the player’s control. Aside from the defense that tries to stop players from scoring, the clock is the biggest enemy. Once time runs out, the game is over.

In the other corner, we have Nintendo‘s conversion of 10-Yard Fight from 1985 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s merely based on the arcade game, instead of more closely copying the source material. Here, players assume the roles of offense and defense. The clock is no longer the source of tension that it is in the coin-op, and play continues through two halves of 30 “minutes”.

Which competitor wins this Tale of the Tape? Let’s take a closer look:

The 10-Yard Fight coin-op does not want players to win and stacks the deck against them before long. Passing is not always the best course of action; a good running game can chew up yards, either through the use of a lateral to the running back or through quarterback sweep plays to the left or right side. Since ball-carriers don’t fumble, it’s only a matter of feeding to the ball to either the running back or the receiver if the player thinks that there’s an opening in the defense to exploit. As players move up from level to level, defenses get faster, more easily penetrate the offensive line, and become better tacklers. Defenses can and do intercept passes; while this doesn’t necessarily mean Game Over, it does set the offense back 20 yards with less time to drive to the end zone.

As mentioned earlier, the clock is a big deal in the arcade game. Not only is there less time to score a touchdown in each level, but time runs off faster as well. Thankfully, the game does reward players for making first downs– hence the 10-Yard Fight name– by awarding extra time. The amount of extra time varies, however, depending on how many downs it takes to drive 10 yards. Doing so on first down awards the most time. Requiring extra downs to do so means earning less time. This can be crucial in later levels, as making that first down on a play where the clock runs to zero basically means an extra life… but that usually guarantees only one additional play to make 10 more yards or score a touchdown.

This battle against the clock is really what makes 10-Yard Fight stand out as an arcade game. There’s always a sense of tension, where every play counts– and even one bad play can add tremendous pressure moving forward. It also challenges players to take risks, as completed passes downfield can chew up yards faster… but can also lead to costly interceptions if the defense is misread. The goal is to get at least 10 yards per play, and that’s not easy to do. The game also relies on a point total, rather than the score of the football game. Scoring a touchdown nets players big points, plus bonus points for any time left on the clock when crossing the goal line.

It’s worth noting that there is a two-player option in the Vs. version of the coin op. One player controls the offense, like usual, while the other controls a defensive player predetermined by the game. It’s not a traditional football game in the sense of scoring six points per touchdown; points are awarded for yards gained, downfield passes completed, first downs made, touchdowns, and extra points. The player at the end of the quarter (or full game, at four credits each player) with the most points “wins”.

The NES conversion takes a much different approach by doing away with the importance of time and removing the points, leaving an odd arcade/sim hybrid. The camera is situated higher up, so on-field players are small and rather poorly animated. The offensive concept from the coin-op remains intact, but the approach to defense in this version is barely serviceable. On defense, an option of selecting one of two different defenders is presented to players before the snap. These defender choices change from down to down; sometimes players can choose a linebacker, other times a cornerback or a safety. The former allows players to charge toward the offensive line and pressure the quarterback or running back, while the latter forces players to assume more coverage and react to what’s unfolding from the secondary.

While the NES version does let players choose a difficulty before each game, there aren’t any options to change the amount of time for each half– and the 30 in-game “minutes” per half are too much, as time ticks by more slowly than the arcade game. Blowouts, which are all too common against CPU opponents, make the time seem to drag on more slowly. Unlike the arcade game, there’s no sense of progression here, either, limiting the replay value of the home version.

The two-player simultaneous mode in the NES version slightly differs from the coin-op in that, while on defense, the game allows players to select one of two potential defenders to control for each play. Sometimes it’s a linebacker, who can disrupt the running game or pressure the quarterback. Other times, it’s a cornerback or safety, and the players is forced to react to what’s happening than forcing the action at the line. This is marginally better than the arcade game, but we’ll get to that comparison below.

Here are the matchup results:

Graphics: The arcade original wins. The player models are bigger, the ref is more demonstrative, and there are some nice cutscenes in between levels. The NES version tries, but with the pulled back camera angle, the players are smaller and have fewer animations. The cutscenes are gone, though this has less to do with the tech and more to do with the removal of progression that the arcade game has.

Sound: The arcade original wins here, too. There are some digitized voice samples for ref calls, plus the sound effects have pop to them. The NES conversion is watered down and bland by comparison. The difference in sound quality factors in very little when it comes to a general side-by-side comparison… but the difference is notable.

Gameplay: This one’s a draw. On offense, both the arcade original and the NES version play almost identically. Steady diets of lateral passes for runs to the outside or optional passes downfield work in either game. On defense, while the NES version gives players a choice of two defenders to select instead of being stuck with whichever one that the arcade version assigns, the act of playing defense just isn’t that engaging and oftentimes a computer-controlled defender ends up making a play before a human-controlled one does. Play controls for both versions are easy to learn, only consisting of a pair of buttons and either an eight-way joystick or a D-pad.

Fun Factor and Replay Value: The arcade version wins, easily. The concept of playing against the clock and extending playing time via first downs or scoring touchdowns is addictive and tense. There’s more of a sense of urgency in the arcade original, as well as a defined path of progression for players. The move to more traditional football in the NES conversion falls rather flat by comparison, despite largely being the same game in many ways. It can be fun for a game or two, but lacks the replay value of the arcade game.

The overall winner here is the arcade version– which is, thankfully, now available to buy and play on the PlayStation 4 and Switch. Even with the understanding that the NES version was a quick and easy conversion and that the NES was still a new piece of hardware at the time, the changes to the home game don’t make sense. It’s not dissimilar to the approach that Nintendo used when porting Vs. Baseball to the NES from the arcade; the removal of the declining points system from the coin-op left the home version feeling neutered and rather bare by comparison.

If you do decide to check out the arcade version, feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments here– or jump on Twitter to share. My Tale of the Tape results here might be different than yours!

Buyer’s Guide: The arcade version of 10-Yard Fight is available now via the PlayStation Store for PlayStation 4 or on the eShop for the Nintendo Switch, and the price is $8USD. These versions have both the original and the Vs. variant of the coin-op. The 10 Yard-Fight cartridge for the NES is valued at around $5USD, but a complete in box (CIB) copy can run for $50USD or more. Scores are saved on the PS4 and Switch, but the NES cartridge does not have battery save or password save functionality. Instructions aren’t necessary to play, as a few games of experience should teach most players the controls. The PS4 and Switch versions do have online manuals, if needed.

Midway Monday: Super High Impact

Midway‘s arcade sports hits of the 1990s weren’t entirely original.

NBA JAM, Midway’s biggest game in this category, took a fair amount of inspiration from 1989’s Arch Rivals. It adopted a similar two-on-two format, stuck with the idea of forcibly stealing the ball from offensive players through physical contact, and even incorporated the idea of shattering the backboard glass. NHL 2-on-2 Open Ice Challenge from 1995 was inspired in concept by NBA JAM, sharing the “on fire” concept and combining the Turbo and Shoot buttons to execute over-the-top scoring moves. NBA HangTime was a re-imagining of the basic NBA JAM concept, but with improvements and additions. Then NFL Blitz came along in 1997, and it also drew inspiration from another older Midway arcade game: High Impact Football.

High Impact Football was produced by Williams Entertainment in 1990, and a kind-of-sequel, Super High Impact, debuted in 1991 from Midway Games– which is what Williams Entertainment became. Eugene Jarvis, the game design mastermind behind Defender, Robotron 2084, and other games, had a hand in this game. So did Ed Boon, who would eventually go on to co-create Mortal Kombat. With such Firepower (pun intended– Jarvis is credited for the sound and software in the Firepower pinball machine from Williams in 1980), it was a little shocking at High Impact and Super High Impact didn’t have a lot of impact in arcades. Like Arch Rivals, it got traffic and tokens, but never really was a standout arcade sports games at the time. High Impact Football was essentially replaced by Super High Impact, and then home console conversions of Super High Impact came out in 1993. The SNES version was published by Acclaim and developed by Beam Software, while the Genesis version was published by Acclaim’s Arena subsidiary and developed internally by Iguana.

It’s an arcade-style version of football. Like Arch Rivals before it, most of the rules go out the window– there aren’t any penalty flags, so pass interference is encouraged, personal fouls are welcome, and procedure calls like offsides and false starts are gone. There are some basic football rules that still apply, though; first downs are still here, and punts or field goals remain options if offensive drives stall. More casual fans of the sport will find the lack of rules inviting here, as this game flows faster and it easier to understand.

Super High Impact also pushes the envelope by encouraging on-field violence. Injuries are shown as players writhe on the field in agony and scream in pain. Fights can break out after too many big hits. Certain big hits also get graded by the game’s “announcer” through the use of a Hit-O-Meter segment. It’s a big difference from the simple punching in Arch Rivals and is a great example of the harsher attitude of the 1990s. Many players liked this harder edge, and it often led to more intense trash talking or gloating when playing with other people.

Where new players may tend to falter a little bit is in the playcalling system. Super High Impact has a number of offensive and defensive plays to pick from, but it’s not always clear what each play does. The game is notably pass-heavy, which makes offensive sets easier to pick from, but it can be hard to follow what the design of each play is. It’s best not to overthink it, though, as the CPU does a nice job of executing each play and leaving the player to handle one athlete at a time. Passing is easy, since receivers run toward the ball on their own and make catches when they can. Running plays require some quick maneuvering to get past the mass of bodies at the line of scrimmage… and then it’s a foot race for those who do break free. Defense is similarly easy and affords players flexibility to either rush the quarterback or drop back into coverage if a passing play is in progress. Some of the defensive plays have admittedly funny names, like Yo’ Mama and Yer Toast. Yo’ Mama is also intimidating to offenses as it has defensive players constantly moving and shifting around until the snap.

The home versions of Super High Impact do a nice job of bringing the arcade home, but they don’t add a great deal. They look good, with well-animated digitized sprite player models and a colorful presentation overall. They also offer some basic customization for difficulty settings and time per quarter. (NOTE: It’s strongly recommended to use two-minute quarters, as these are more competitive and don’t drag on too long.) The digitized speech samples are a bit compressed, but the rest of the sound is very good. Hard hits are accompanied by a shaking screen and a bassy thump, which make them more impactful. (Another pun!) Unfortunately, without a season mode, a playoff mode, or even a battery backup for saving stats, scores, and leaderboard data… the home versions are best played in short bursts only and not as a more marathon experience.

So… what are the connections between Super High Impact and NFL Blitz? The playcalling screen is a big one. NFL Blitz adopted a very similar playcalling system, right down displaying nine plays on screen to pick from at one time to the occasionally funny play names. NFL Blitz also adopted some of Super High Impact‘s rough on-field antics. While fighting and rating hard hits didn’t make it in, things like late hits and knocking the helmet off of a player demonstrate some of that Super High Impact attitude. Blitz is still very different in many ways, from moving to a vertical scrolling mode, using polygonal player models instead of digitized sprites, and getting licenses from the NFL and NFLPA… but some of the core concepts from the past remain.

While it’s hard to find High Impact Football or Super High Impact coin-ops to play these days, the SNES and Genesis versions are plentifully available and are fun to pick up and play for a game or two in a sitting. It’s even more interesting to play Super High Impact today, knowing that it was an influence for NFL Blitz, and pointing out the similarities and differences or improvements. Unlike Blitz: The League, which tried to be almost too gritty and even topical after NFL exclusivity went to Electronic Arts, Super High Impact is less about the message and more about the enjoyment and even a bit of the spectacle.

At the end of the day, how can you not get a kick out of hitting a guy so hard that you separate him from his pads and watch them fly in eight different directions? At worst, it’s a guilty pleasure. At best, it’s a HOLY S***! moment. That requires High Impact to make happen.

Super High Impact, in fact.

Buyer’s Guide: At the time of this writing, Super High Impact cartridges were averaging about $5USD for either the Genesis or the Super Nintendo versions. Those looking for complete in box (CIB) copies are looking at paying a bit over $10USD on average for the Genesis and a bit higher than that for the SNES. Instructions aren’t necessary, but it may take a couple of games to get the play controls down. The game does not have a battery backup or a password feature. I prefer the SNES version due to its more colorful visuals and clearer sound, but both versions are fun to play.

After Further Review: Super Spike V’Ball (NES)

There aren’t very many volleyball video games. Granted, volleyball isn’t as popular a sport as football, basketball, baseball, or hockey– but it’s played a lot on beaches, in backyards, and in physical education classes. The game being covered this time, After Further Review, is the best of the volleyball games available– and has been for more than three decades now.

Super Spike V’Ball is based on a little-known Technos coin-op called V’Ball (also known as Championship V’Ball), which was released in the West by Taito in 1988– similar to how Taito picked up Mat Mania for release back in 1985. The NES conversion, which was also developed by Technos, adds a few wrinkles to the home game to add replay value and make it stand out from its coin-op counterpart.

For the uninitiated, volleyball matches are played to 15 points. There must also be a two-point gap between the winner and the loser– so, if a game is 15-14, the teams play on. There are boundaries of play, and if the ball lands out of bounds, a point is awarded to the team that didn’t touch it last. Most importantly, each team can touch the ball only three times before it clears the net for the other team to play it. The bump-set-spike strategy is usually employed; the player who receives the serve “bumps” the ball into the air toward a teammate, who then “sets” up the receiving player by lofting the ball in the air high enough for that player to “spike” the ball by driving it into a non-covered zone on the other side of the net or at a defender who may be unable to handle it. It sounds complicated, but it only takes a few matches to understand the flow of the game.

Super Spike V’Ball can be played alone or with up to a total of four players, provided that a Four Score or an NES Satellite accessory is available for the third and fourth players. There are four teams of two athletes for players to pic from. George and Murphy are the most balanced pair. Al and John are slower but have stronger spiking power. Ed and Michael are speedsters, but have less power. Finally, the Double Dragon twins, Billy (not Bimmy) and Jimmy are great at blocking spike attempts at the net or handling strong spikes without the ball flying out of play. After selecting teams, there are several modes of play to choose from including single-match exhibitions and two short tournaments. Exhibitions can be played with up to four players. The American Circuit and World Cup tournament events play at five different locations that features gradually more difficult computer-controlled opponents. Consider the American Circuit as easy-to-standard difficulty, while the World Cup starts out on medium difficulty and ramps up considerably by the final match.

The basic play controls are simple to get the hang of. The A button hits the ball, whether it’s in a bump, set, or spike situation. The B button jumps, which is used for more advanced jump serves or to try and block spikes right at the net. A cursor shows where the ball is heading, so players can move accordingly with the D-pad. Powering up a spike shot is imperative, especially against tough opponents. Hammering on the B button while the spiking player is airborne turns a spike shot into a titular Super Spike, which usually ends up sending the defending player flying while KABOOM!! displays on the screen. Connecting with these Super Spike shots is quite satisfying, especially if the ball careens off of the defending player way up into the air and out of bounds. Conversely, Super Blocks at the net can be attempted by defending players by rapidly pressing the B button while in the air during a jump to try and block. The advanced controls require a bit of timing and rapid button presses to pull off, but once they’re learned, they make any team formidable on the hot sand.

Super Spike V’Ball looks very good, by NES standards. The players are fairly large sprites and animate well. Serves, sets, spikes, and dives for the ball look fairly convincing. The beach settings vary, based on the city they’re taking place in. Chicago, for example, takes place at night and the stands are decked out to show love for pizza and football. Las Vegas also goes on at night, basking in the glow of neon lights from Gold Castle casinos. Each venue has its own music track, and many are very good. The music dominates in the sound department, as effects are relatively minimal– save for the POW! that players hear when a Super Spike hits home.

As far as retro sports games go, Super Spike V’Ball falls a bit under the radar– but mostly because it’s a sport that is overshadowed by the many other popular ones. At its core, the game makes volleyball accessible for players of many interest and skill levels. Like many other arcade sports games, Super Spike V’Ball distills the sport it represents into a more pure, playable form by doing away with many of the minor rules of the game. It provides challenge for solo players and makes for a good time as a multiplayer experience.

Give this one a try. You’ll… “dig” it. (Yes, I dropped a volleyball pun.)

Buyer’s Guide: As of this writing, a Super Spike V’Ball cartridge runs between $5-$10USD, and between $20-$25 for a complete-in-box (CIB) copy. The game is also included on a cartridge that also has Nintendo World Cup on it; that double-pack cartridge costs around $5 on average– and you get two fun arcade sports games for the price of one. The game doesn’t have a save feature, and most players won’t need an instruction manual to play.

Film Room: #Unsealed – Pawsitively Peculiar

This week’s #Unsealed episode is a special one. It features a game that’s… well.. a football game unlike any other that you’ve probably played. Jerry Rice himself endorses it, so it *has* to be good, right?

Right?

Check out my opening of a sealed copy of 2011’s Jerry Rice & Nitus’ Dog Football for the Nintendo Wii. It’s definitely different. It’s not the second coming of ESPN NFL 2K5 or NFL Blitz, but it’s not the buttfumble that Konami’s NFL Football for SNES is, either.

Midway Monday: Arch Rivals

Four years before NBA JAM debuted, there was another arcade basketball game from Midway. Like JAM, this game is in a two-on-two format. It features a no-rules, no fouls format. Steals can change the game, along with clutch three-pointers. Players can dunk from the foul line– and sometimes even shatter the backboard glass.

The game is called Arch Rivals.

Released in arcades in 1989, Acclaim licensed the home version for the Nintendo Entertainment System from Midway a year later and turned conversion duties over to RARE Coin-It, the wizard development studio from England that had quite a history of NES game development for Acclaim and other publishers. Arcade conversions were not new for RARE, having already brought coin-op hits like Marble Madness and John Elway’s Quarterback (I’ll get to that one!) over to Nintendo’s 8-bit platform. RARE’s effort here is solid… but before looking at the quality, it makes sense to take a deeper look at the base arcade game.

Upon starting the game, players are asked to choose the team matchup. The teams are a mix of city names, along with a couple of “attitude”-powered names in Natural High and Brawl State. It doesn’t matter which team is selected, as the players are the same for every team. Next, a basketball player must be chosen to play as. There are eight to pick from, each with his own trait. Lewis is branded as a “top shooter”, while Mohawk is “tough and mean” and Tyrone is a “defensive giant”. These traits don’t seem to apply to the court, though; Lewis, for example, doesn’t hit as many threes as one might expect from a “top shooter”. It’s basically picking a team and an avatar, and then hitting the court– where skill and a bit of luck will determine the victors… and that’s not a bad thing.

On the court, games are played in four-minute quarters. In the arcade version, tokens must be inserted occasionally to keep playing… but the NES conversion is, of course, free of that distraction. The game scrolls horizontally, with arrows signifying where players are if they’ve fallen behind the camera. Baskets are worth two points or three points, just like fans of the sports are familiar with. The A button jumps and shoots, while the B button passes. There doesn’t seem to be a trick to getting better accuracy by holding the Shoot button down until the top of the jump shot.

As mentioned above, there aren’t any foul calls here; in fact, players are encouraged to punch opponents by pressing the B button in order to steal the ball or to knock them to the floor and out of position for rebounds or before they can shoot. Punched players get back up rather quickly, and games will see a lot of blows landed before they’re done. It’s pretty satisfying to land a punch, steal the ball, and fast-break down the court for an easy dunk or jumper. Conversely, it’s not always possible to escape from the backcourt if a defender is closely guarding, so there can be quite a few turnovers that might frustrate especially new players. Punching is perhaps the signature trait of Arch Rivals; in fact, the act of punching is prominent in the title screen sequence. It’s violent, sure, but cartoonish violence– and, admittedly, it makes the game more fun.

Opponents’ fists aren’t the only things out to get players on the court. After each intermission, scattered debris litters the floor. Any player who runs into these objects goes down like a sack of flour and gives up the ball. Even the referee is an obstacle, as he patrols the top of the court near the half-court line. Running into the ref is the same as slipping on popcorn or soda, so it’s best to watch where players are going– especially early in each period.

There’s a halftime show in both the arcade and NES versions of the game. Interestingly, the halftime show and each of the intermissions is sponsored by British Knights footwear in the NES version. Acclaim capitalized on an advertising deal with the sneaker company, and players will see the BK logo– not to be confused with Burger King— everywhere. The first and third quarter intermissions each feature a game tip, introduced by a TV sports anchor from WIDB. These are all nice presentation touches, and add some more personality.

At the end of each game, if the player’s stats are good enough, there’s an opportunity to enter initials for the Top 5 leaderboard. Unlike the arcade version, the NES conversion does not have the ability to save data– so turning off the NES wipes the leaderboard back to its default. Most NES arcade conversions are guilty of this. Back in the 1990s, I personally logged all of my high scores into a notebook. These days, if players are that interested, they can take photos of their achievements. That said, it is a little disappointing when you have a huge game and know that your stat line is gone once you turn off your console… but it’s not a big enough knock to keep affect its quality.

So how does the NES conversion hold up against the arcade original? Pretty well. The visuals are slightly downgraded, but most of the arcade experience is here. There are short cutscenes after each basket, just like in the coin-op. The player models are decent and animate well. The intermissions and halftime show look very good. There isn’t any digitized voice in the NES version, but that’s not a major omission given the hardware differences. The music sounds similar to the arcade, and master composer David Wise knocks it out of the park again with his arrangement of some of the tunes.

On the court, computer-controlled opponents can be a bit too predictable. Sometimes, they’ll run right into a player’s closed fist for no reason, leading to an inexplicable turnover. Shooting is perhaps less accurate than the arcade version, with quite a few blown dunks and short jumpers that clang off the iron– even if the shooter is wide open. Rebounds only seem to travel in one of a few predetermined directions, so it can be easy after a few games to memorize them and take advantage of positioning… especially against the computer. The good news is that, while playing against the computer may be too easy at times, playing against a friend on the NES is just as fun as it is in the arcade. The only drawback may be that four-minute quarters sometimes feel like they’re overstaying their welcome, especially in blowout situations.

In 1992, a Genesis conversion of Arch Rivals would be published by Acclaim’s Flying Edge subsidiary. While it more closely resembled the coin-op in terms of graphics and sound, shot accuracy was over-corrected, leading to baskets from almost anywhere. within half-court. Then, in 2004, an emulated version of the coin-op original was included as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 compilation for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube. This emulation is as close to the arcade original as a player can get, outside of owning the actual cabinet.

I open up a new copy of Midway Arcade Treasures 2 in this #Unsealed episode.

As for the NES version? It compares favorably to the coin-op original, in my view. It was one of the first NES games that I bought after getting the console for Christmas in 1990, and I never regretted that decision. I played it a lot on my own, and always shot for 100 points in a game. It was cheaper than dropping tokens into it at my local arcade, plus I actually got better at the arcade version when I did spend money on it by practicing at home. I still go back to it every now and again, and I still find it fun.

I had no idea back then that Arch Rivals would at least indirectly lead to my favorite arcade game of all time… but that’s a story for a different Midway Monday.

Have you played either of the console conversions? What do you think of them? Feel free to leave a comment to share your thoughts here, or jump on Twitter and talk to me there about it!

Starting Five: Favorite 8-Bit and 16-Bit Baseball Video Games

It’s been a fun week of talking baseball, and now it’s time to deliver my first Starting Five. I’m going to list five of my favorite baseball video games, with a few sentences for each to explain why they make the lineup. This isn’t in any particular order. I have narrowed the list to a few consoles, mostly because there are so many baseball games out there that it’s almost impossible for me to include only five if I delve into more recent platforms. It also leaves open the possibility of another one of these for those later on.

Now that you know the rules, let’s look at my starters:

Bad News Baseball (Tecmo for NES, 1989): I’ve made my love for this game known on social media for some time. It’s not because it broke any major ground when it came to baseball games, but rather because I really enjoy playing it. The cutscenes that play after home runs or after close baserunning plays really add to the experience for me, and it’s got an almost Little League kind of atmosphere going on. Cutscenes mean nothing, though, if the gameplay isn’t any good– and that’s certainly not the case here. Pitching and fielding are responsive, and batting is easy. There’s some strategy in play for those who are looking to “beat” the game by defeating all of the teams. Pitcher stamina must be monitored… and, if the starter tires too quickly, tough decisions about bringing in another starter or hoping to be stingy on pitch counts with a reliever come into play. If you haven’t played Bad News Baseball yet, and you’re a fan of the of the sport– or just a fan of sports games in general, you need to put this one into your own starting lineup.

World Series Baseball (Blue Sky/SEGA for Genesis, 1994): If you watched this week’s #Unsealed episode in the Film Room, you already know why this game is here. Simply put, in my view, this is the best 16-bit baseball game ever made. With its full MLB and MLBPA licenses, its presentation, its strong (for the time) commentary and line delivery, its accessibility and easy-to-learn play controls, its sharp graphics, and its battery backup to play out any season scenario… World Series Baseball is still one of the finest versions of America’s Pastime out there. Yearly updates for this game came out later on, but the original was the trendsetter. This would be definitely be on a Top 10 list for sports video games for the Genesis, and potentially on a list with the best sports games of all time. It’s that good.

RBI Baseball 3 (Tengen for NES, 1991): The last of the “traditional” RBI games, this one is the most refined of the NES trilogy. Yes, there’s a version of this for the Genesis, but it’s not as well-executed. While some would argue that the visual shift from the first game’s cutesy super-deformed player models to the more realistic ones seen in the sequels, I think it looks better. The use of automatic replays to show home runs and highlight plays is a nice touch. Finally, the inclusion of 28 past division-winning team rosters– in addition to the regular 1990 rosters for each team– is a nice historical touch. Perhaps it’s not as visually charming as the original, and its lack of MLB team licensing may irk some modern gaming fans, but RBI 3 is my go-to when I feel like revisiting the series during some downtime.

Super Baseball Simulator 1.000 (Culture Brain for SNES, 1991): This one was a tossup with Base Wars as the “different” kind of baseball game. In the end, Super Baseball Simulator 1.000 won out because it’s a deeper experience and can either be played traditionally or with unique “Ultra” powers that give it an arcade-like feel. Like Base Wars, this game has a Season mode and a battery backup to save everything– but seasons can last for as many as 165 games here! Add deeper stat tracking in all areas, setting base stats for player abilities, faster simulation of CPU-controlled games, and the option to customize game length and game type in a season… and it’s hard not to pick this one over Konami’s effort. Ultra plays are completely optional, but can be fun to use. Fastballs that can saw bats in two, batted balls that land as mines in the outfield, pitches that stop and resume on the way to the plate, and more await– but strategy is needed, because each Ultra play draws from a team’s pool of Ultra points. Once those are gone, it can create a severe disadvantage. Maybe this one needs an After Further Review of its own!

Super Bases Loaded (TOSE/Jaleco for SNES, 1991): The premise here is unique. It’s not just about winning a game, but instead winning while making as few mistakes as possible. This adds more pressure than you might think to each game. It makes you more defensive on two-strike pitches, because striking out costs you when the final evaluation score is tabulated. Even if you’re blowing out the computer, one mistake can be all the separates you from a perfect score of 100, so every out counts. This is my favorite Bases Loaded game and lands on this list because of the concept. It’s not easy, even though the game gives you the chance to create your own teams and make them as powerful as you want… and “beating the game” here requires you to beat the toughest difficulty setting to do so. It took me 26 years to do that, and I did it when I was reviewing the game for a certain SNES guidebook back in 2017. I haven’t been able to duplicate the feat since, but I still try from time to time. It’s quite the challenge.

Of course, every Starting Five is complemented by a group of bench players– so here are some baseball games didn’t make this list, but still deserve a few words:

  • Base Wars (Konami for NES, 1991): Robots playing baseball, and it’s from Konami? I’m in. Check out my After Further Review feature on it!
  • Super Batter Up (Namco for SNES, 1992): The spiritual successor to RBI Baseball, taking advantage of the more powerful SNES for better visuals and sound.
  • Little League Championship Series (SNK for NES, 1990): Yeah, it’s weird, but I’ll take this over Baseball Stars. I like its more straightforward approach and fun personality.
  • Hardball ’95 (Mindspan/Accolade for Genesis, 1995): The Hardball series spanned four games on the Genesis, and this final one is the best of the lot. Al Michaels rules!
  • Relief Pitcher (Left Field/Atari for SNES): This is a conversion of a little-known arcade game, and it gets right to the point. No full games, but tough situations to pitch (or hit) out of. It’s uncommon to find, but a game worth checking out if you find it.

What’s your Starting Five for baseball video games? Feel free to leave yours in the comments, or you can reach out to me on Twitter and tell me there!