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The GoodTen years ago I would have been downright embarrassed to admit that NES Play Action Football was one of my all-time favorite NES games (sports or otherwise). I actually went out of my way to find an old copy of this game on eBay a few years ago just to see if I still liked it as much as I did when it came out. Amazingly, the answer is “almost.” No matter how many times I play this cart, and no matter how many flaws become apparent, I still adore it.
I am definitely going against the critical tide on this one; if you look around on the Web, I think you’ll find that most people dislike this game. Most of the criticisms strike me as unfair and even a bit ahistorical. The graphics, for example, are nothing special—but they are clear and colorful, and they more than get the job done. The same goes for the music and sound. I will always have that catchy little action tune running somewhere in my subconscious! Besides…who can’t be impressed with digitized speech in an 8-bit title? (More on that below).
The real draw of the game at the time of release (and maybe today as well) is the presence of real NFL players. Now that may seem like no big whoop now, after umpteen years of Madden games, but when Play Action Football came out, it was brand new. If this wasn’t the very first console game to have real football players in it, then it must have come pretty darn close. These aren’t average joes, either. We’re talking certified Hall of Fame legends here: Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, and Lawrence Taylor, just to name a few. If you couldn’t get excited about that in 1990, then you had no business calling yourself a football fan! The selection of teams was astute as well. Most of the teams are playoff-caliber, with a few exceptions just because they had star players and represented key geographic areas (Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins).
I think what really makes this game so darn lovable to me is all of the nice little touches here and there. There are chain measurements when the spot is close to the first down marker, and whenever you get a first down, the referee calls it out in digitized speech. When you make an interception or score a touchdown, you get an attractive “big screen instant replay” cut scene. Unlike many games of this era, you play full fifteen-minute quarters. Team statistics are displayed at the end of every quarter. Things like this, along with the impressive-looking playbook, make the game feel much more realistic than it really is.
By the way, unlike most console football games of the 20th century, you can actually run the ball effectively in Play Action Football! And did I mention that there is actual _directional_ kicking, which even the vaunted Tecmo Bowl didn’t have?
I should also add that this game is praised (even by detractors) as one of the few games to make good use of the NES 4-player multitap. I haven’t ever played this game against human opponents myself, but if the people who hate this game give it multiplayer props, then I’ll take their word for it.
The BadObviously, the fact that I love this game doesn’t mean it’s flawless. Indeed, some people will say the game is so seriously flawed that they can’t enjoy it, which is a cryin’ shame.
I suppose, for example, that there aren’t really enough teams here. Eight teams is a good mark for the time of release, but Tecmo Super Bowl included every single NFL team just a year or so after this cart came out! There are no official team mascot names or logos either, so you are only getting “Miami,” and not the beloved Dolphins. Also, the great wide receiver Jerry Rice is noticeably absent from the 49ers’ roster.
The game action unfolds quite slowly, especially compared to Tecmo Bowl. If you like running and pulling off complicated plays, then this is your game, since it gives you plenty of time to work with. Also problematic is the weak opponent AI. Frankly, the AI has a tendency to behave insanely at times—faking punts deep in its own territory, not calling timeouts when it obviously should, and attempting long field goals while passing up shorter, almost automatic ones. It’s as if the AI was programmed to consistently snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
This combination of slow action and easy solo mode means that, while NES Play Action Football is a blast to play, it just isn’t a very challenging title. It is certainly possible for the human player to lose to the CPU, but you can’t seriously expect to be beaten when you take the best team (San Francisco) for yourself. The lack of difficulty is especially disappointing considering the absence of a “coach” mode (a la Tecmo Super Bowl) that might have helped to even the odds. Then again, I may be the only person left in the world who enjoys using the coach mode in American football games, so perhaps it doesn’t really matter.
The Bottom LineNot perfect by any means, Play Action Football is still a helluvalotta fun to play. Only the classic Tecmo Super Bowl offers clearly superior gridiron competition on the NES.
Last Update: 9-13-2009
Review System: NES Top-Loader (USA-NTSC)
Star Rating: ***+ (out of five)