Ask anyone who grew up in the 8-bit era of gaming to name the best sports games of the time, and you're almost assured of hearing the words TECMO BOWL (possibly accompanied by multiple exclamation points). Such was the hold that publisher Tecmo's NFL-licensed casual gridiron glory placed on the minds and thumbs of gamers for nearly the entire run of the NES in North America.
Ever since those heady days, fans have yearned for an experience that replicated the nostalgia of pixelated graphics and simple gameplay that modern games like Madden just can't provide. Many have tried to reach for that crown, but now in 2023, Legend Bowl has arrived to grasp it, marrying the traditional look and feel of Tecmo Bowl with most of the modern amenities fans require to stay engaged for more than a few minutes at a time.
The first question people will ask is, undoubtedly, does the game have the official NFL license? Sadly, no it does not, as that particular piece of paper is locked safely in EA's pocket and will be for as long as Madden's yearly release keeps printing money on the scale of Call of Duty. However, and we'll get back to this, developer Super Pixel Games has included a wonderfully complete range of editing features that allow you to make the game's 32 teams into a very close facsimile of the real NFL, or even the SEC and B1G conferences as I imagine some college football fans are doing right now.
With that out of the way, let's get into the gameplay, which I'm happy to report is quite good for the most part. The field is shown not from a sideways view like the classic 2D Tecmo Bowl games, but from an overheard 2/3 perspective just like all modern football games. I've long wondered why the Tecmo Bowl cam wasn't an option in games, but alas, what is here works well, affording players the usual view down the field when controlling the quarterback on offense. Interestingly, the game features a QB Vision setting that impacts how far that view actually goes; set it to Rookie and you won't see much past the offensive line, if you fancy more of a challenge.
Speaking of challenge, the default settings for throwing and kicking can be a bit difficult to get to grips with, and some time on the practice field and in exhibition games is well recommended. On offense, holding down your intended wide receiver's icon will bring up a fast-moving bar that determines the type of throw you'll make (short, lob, deep ball, etc), but wait too long to let go while running for your life and the bar rebounds, decreasing accuracy and power. The same goes for kicking, where a single click will stop the horizontally-moving arrow to determine direction, and how long you hold the button will determine how far the kick goes. Hold too long and the bar again rebounds, ruining your chance at three points or a good kick/punt.
If that's more realism than you want from your causal football experience, the developer has once again come through for you with QB/Kick Assist settings. Turn them on and the rebound penalty disappears, though you're capped at 75% of the maximum power on your throws and kicks. I found that to be a good tradeoff because I could barely complete a pass without the assists on, but given enough skill and practice I'm sure many players will opt to keep the maximum risk/reward available to them. There's always Practice mode to get to grips with things, and a delightfully cheeky tutorial that you may not need but shouldn't miss either way.
Though part of Tecmo Bowl's charm was having just four available plays (two run, two pass) to choose from, Legend Bowl eschews that approach for a full complement of offensive and defensive formations and plays. Want to play out of the Pistol formation, go with the traditional I-Formation, or air it out with an empty backfield? You can do it, and there are a plethora of defensive formations as well, giving the game the high level of strategy and creativity that the modern gamer demands.
The on-field action feels good, a balance between the nostalgic 4-direction movement and the modern analog stick controls. Players have a bit of momentum and weight to them, hits feel appropriately meaty and brain-rattling (you can turn off screen shake if you desire) and the various spin moves, stiff-arms, and jukes are satisfying when you pull them off, though the timing seems a bit too precise for truly casual gamers. Tossing a long touchdown, breaking tackles for a huge run, or making a crushing tackle feels just as good as you'd think it should. I haven't tested whether I could run to my own one-yard line and get credit for a 99-yard touchdown pass (a classic Tecmo Bowl trick) but either way, you won't be bored with the on-field activities.
The only real beef I could find with the offensive gameplay was that it seemed the AI was tuned too much to the defense's advantage. It was hard to break away from the line of scrimmage and even when getting into wide-open grass for what would easily be a touchdown in real life, the running back or wide receiver would get "gassed" after 30 or 40 yards of running and easily tackled. During one franchise run-through (more on that next), simulating an entire 17-week season along with four rounds of playoffs produced a scant 12 games where any team even reached the 20-point mark. Some tweaking would make it a bit more fun, and that may be on the way, but that should in no way discourage anyone from diving in to get their gridiron fix.
Defensive play includes a fun nod to the original Tecmo Bowl games, where the deciding factor of whether you were tackled (or made a tackle on defense) was how fast you could hammer the controller buttons. Here, when you are trying to get to the QB and break through a block, a meter pops up and if you hit the button fast enough, you'll break through and try to take down your target. It's simple and adds an extra bit of strategy and engagement to the gameplay.
Legend Bowl offers the usual assortment of game modes, with a single-game Exhibition, Tournament, Practice, and Franchise modes. As with Madden and (soon enough again) NCAA Football games, many players will spend the bulk of their time in Franchise, and that's where the light-to-medium simulation aspects really increase the game's depth beyond what I expected.
You'll start off by creating your own coach, which is fairly basic but a nice touch. The game displays a newspaper to announce your hiring, then you are thrust into the front office to play the GM/owner role before the season starts and between game weeks. From there, you can look at the Newspaper, which includes the injury report, power rankings, and playoff picture. You can look at your depth chart, but because it is set according to the player's Overall rating, you can't adjust who starts unless you edit the player's skill values outside of Franchise mode. There are a plethora of stats to look for across players, teams, and league leaders as well.
Then you have the Front Office section, which definitely deserves its own paragraph(s). Before the season, you can see any transactions (trades, signings, etc) that have taken place, look at your trophy case, and see your Milestones (achievements like kicking a 60-yard field goal and the like, 101 of them in total). The real fun is in the Facilities tab, however, where you get to put on the Owner hat and manage the team's stadium and other facilities with an eye toward giving your team's stats a boost, or risk ruining it all.
You have Stadium Facilities, Training Facilities, and Rehab Facilities, each with 800 square feet of capacity for improvements. Every improvement takes up a certain amount of space and of course, costs a particular amount of money. You earn money throughout the season by playing and winning games, which you then spend on this screen. There are 17 different stadium upgrades, 22 upgrades for the training facilities, and 8 for the rehab facilities. Each one carries with it the promise of benefits, so say you decide to add a bar in the stadium. The benefit would be a 10% increase in income levels, but the risk is "public intoxication arrest scandal causes decrease to player morale." It's a really fun set of activities and choices that add a great layer to an already appetizing dish.
Speaking of player morale, the game models this with surprising depth for an indie title. Each player has a mood rating shown by a face that goes from yellow and smiling to red and angry. Each player also has stats for Popularity and Greed (among others), which can affect their play as well as their desire to demand a trade, or ask for more money, either during or after the season. Each week the Player Wire is full of such things, and you can choose to let the CPU handle it or take care of each negotiation yourself.
Once the season is through, you'll see who from your team is retiring, then move on to the free agency period. The game handles this most important time in an interesting way, where you are shown three players, their salary demands, and your overall salary. You can choose to keep just one, but sometimes you don't even get that option because one or more teams might offer you a trade, or release one of their own players at the same position as your free agents, giving you the chance to swap your players for theirs. It's an interesting choice given how much control you have in other aspects of Franchise mode and the game as a whole, and one that I didn't totally jive with.
With Free Agency done, you get to see how your players have progressed over the offseason, with stats rising or falling for each player. This is where your training facilities come into play, and the more you invest there, the better progression your players may have each season. Age appears to play a major factor here as well, with young players showing more positive adjustments. Finally, everyone's favorite offseason activity, the draft, is alive and well in Legend Bowl. You can set the draft pool to consist of anywhere from 225 players to 1000, with each player's rankings displayed and searchable to your heart's content. This isn't the deepest or most intense draft simulation in town, but it is fun to see what each team does and who they choose.
You can even play the game as a pseudo-commissioner in Franchise mode, with a setting that lets you control every single team. Make all the personnel choices, sim all the games, run your hated rival into the ground while propping up your favorites, or something in between; it's all up to you, pixelated Roger Goodell. Legend Bowl has a ton of depth and control just waiting for armchair sports execs to enjoy, and it's a wonderful addition that raises the level of the game above what most would expect from an indie football title where the gameplay is largely casual.
As mentioned at the top of the article, Legend Bowl does not have the NFLPA license, meaning they cannot use the names of real-life NFL players. So they did the next best thing, giving players a truly impressive suite of editing options to create their favorite teams and leagues. With just the player options from hairstyles and earrings to beards and facemask styles, one could literally create thousands of design combinations. The real meat of the editing suite, however, comes with the team jerseys and equipment colors. There are 156 color possibilities for each of 13 different equipment components, across three different jerseys (home, away, and alternate). It is doubtless that players will be creating all 32 NFL teams and their favorite college squads down to the most minutely colored details.
Player's names can of course be edited too, so with a bit of time or the hard work of someone on the Internet (up to 8 different rosters can be saved in the game), the real players will eventually be in the game. There are 30 different skill categories that can be edited, as can the main stats like Overall, Speed, Agility, etc. Tweaking the anonymous QB into Peyton Manning is something no true fan will be able to resist.
Even the teams and stadiums can be customized to a large degree. Real team logos aren't available of course, but the editing suite has 87 different ones to choose from, along with 144 different pieces of endzone art and the ability to change field colors and complementary endzone color schemes with more than 250 possibilities. It is truly a playground for those dedicated enough to make the game exactly what they want it to be.
Especially with sports that are always on TV, it's important to make the game's presentation as close to the real thing as possible, even when the game doesn't have realistic graphics. Players will appreciate the attention paid to the small things that make the stadium come alive. The crowd is animated, refs are on the field from the coin flip throughout the game, camera people work the field getting their shots, the chain gang comes out to measure, and even the team mascots prowl the sidelines. There is no voiced commentary but a window appears at the top of the game window after each play detailing what happened and making a quick joke. These jokes aren't always correct for the situation on the field but they are entertaining at least.
The graphics are beautifully pixelized, akin to the 16-bit look of the SNES, with the players showing crisp details and the field and presentation elements looking appropriately detailed. The animations are well done, and the effects like screen shake and flashing during big moments, if you choose to leave them on, are a fun throwback. The game includes weather effects, so you may see rain or snow when you're trying to beat the tar out of your opponents. The action is quick, with smooth scrolling and no graphical hiccups or frame drops that I could see.
The sound is particularly well done, with chiptune music that celebrates its 8-bit heritage perfectly. I am usually way over that kind of music after 10 or so repeats, so I was delighted with the amount of granular control over the sound, with multiple slider bars allowing me to mute the overall music but still keep effects and speech. The voice work is one of my favorite aspects of the game, with quarterbacks calling out "Omaha!" at the line, coaches exhorting their players to keep the clock running, and more. Again, the situational context isn't always perfect here but it's more than I expected from a game like this.
I can't recommend Legend Bowl highly enough. If you were a fan of 8-bit football in general, and the Tecmo Bowl games in particular, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up ASAP. The action is good, the Franchise mode is great, and editing the game to create your favorite teams will keep you up until sunrise. Toss a power sweep to your favorite digital marketplace to get this one today.
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