Play Action Football

I can’t believe I spent as much time with this title as I did as a kid. I suppose that’s the price you paid for limited technology on the go in the early 90’s…

Play Action Football is the portable little brother of NES Play Action Football, but lacks, and not sure how I say this kindly, pretty much any of the features or charm that made the Nintendo version a classic.

The first omission is obvious: unlike on the NES, there are no real football players in the Game Boy version. Like it’s bigger brother, it lacks the NFL license and the eight teams to choose from are loosely based on real franchises at the time. Yet, with no player union license, there isn’t even a reference to fake names let alone jersey numbers or any stats whatsoever.

I lauded the NES version for fitting a true 11-on-11 football simulation on the screen. However, the severely underpowered Game Boy could only get us 9-on-9 with a view much like Sega’s NFL Sports Talk Football’s (horrible) blimp view. Even with only nine per side and the dots on screen barely representing players, the game moves at a snail’s pace with the occasional framerate stutter.

Again, how did I play this as a kid?

Well you start with choosing if you’re playing against the computer or a friend, or with a friend on the same team against the CPU (all possible via the game link cable). There’s a “playoff mode” which gives you some semblance of each game meaning something but not a full season – and also continuing via a password input system that wasn’t all too uncommon at the time.

The next screen has you choose between four levels of computer difficulty. Don’t worry, the easiest (Level 1) will suffice the hell you are about to witness attempting to play “football”.

Pick your team and your off to kickoff, which makes the tiny overhead view even smaller (if you can imagine that!)

On offense and defense you have a total of eight plays which include obvious special teams situations with a field goal or punt option. Like the NES version, I think that you blitz on defense if you choose the offense’s play correctly. (i.e. your play choice of “up arrow” is the same as the opponent.)

Playing the game beyond this point presents a challenge. While the NES somehow made things work with only a B and A button (often using select or a combo of keys in coordination to play calling, etc.) the Game Boy version makes it tough to simply switch players and you’ll often find yourself diving on defense, taking your player out of the play and losing key yards.

On offense, pass plays develop in super slow motion as you control the quarterback, then switch to the receiver who must be on the exact spot necessary to make the “catch” from a thrown football that sounds like a dive bomb.

The result?

Nothing that represents football.

Be prepared for lots of 3-and-outs, the same repetitive soundtrack loop (like 5-6s loop) and some static hiss as your “crowd noise” effect. Oh, and a very monotone referee whistle.

Unlike most of the football games I’ve reviewed, this is a true pass for even diehard retro gamers and/or football fans.

NES Play Action Football

Hot on the heels of reviewing Madden NFL ’94, which introduced many of the staples of the Madden series still in use to this day (and the first to use an NFL license) I wanted to rewind to simpler times when another football game was groundbreaking with a lot of the things you’d see in that Madden title.

NES Play Action Football was one of the top sports games on the 8-bit platform, releasing around the time that the 16-bit consoles were just making waves. Japan would see the SNES in the same year that PAF was released (1990) while US gamers had to hold on another year.

In the interim, PAF brought about a lot of concepts that many casual gamers may have thought were Madden-only concepts. The first were crude audio blurbs, such as “hut, hut” from the quarterback or “first down” from the referee who appears on-screen.

The game is awkward, but also fun.

First of all, it was NFLPA licensed – which means, unlike Madden, that it had the real NFL players in the game. However, like early editions of Madden, it didn’t feature the real team names nor all of the league – Play Action Football only had eight teams!

The cool thing, however, is that you could not only play one-on-one against the computer or a friend, but this title was one of the few NES games that supported the “Satellite” add-on, which expanded games to be played by up to four players simultaneously.

Beyond the crude menus the game would kickoff with a catchy but repetitive background soundtrack, with the occasional audio hiss that would simulate fan noise in a stadium.

The angled “isometric” view crammed all 22 football players on the field at the same time, but I believe it is a similar “flicker” hack in much the same way Atari games skipped frames to get more images on-screen (by alternating frames where those characters are actually removed and then alternating them).

The zoomed out viewed shows all 11 players from each team until it zooms in before the play. That’s when the fun begins.

Play calling and execution are both a bit different than what you might be used to. One cool aspect is that PAF allowed you to obscure your play call from an opponent sitting next to you by using a controller combination to choose from one of eight plays – unfortunately that’s fairly limited (as shown in the screencaps below) but can be expanded by flipping the play on the next screen or choosing to run it “as selected”.

Flipping plays didn’t come to the Madden franchise until ’94…

Executing plays is something else when using a two-button controller. You hike the football and then wait an excruciating amount of time for players to move up-field. As you throw the ball, the computer changes you to the nearest receiver – where an arrow shows you where the ball is landing. Even landing on the arrow exactly never meant a sure catch, which is one of the more frustrating aspects of the game.

Besides the lack of running plays, playing defense can be a “thrill” as well. The computer lacks virtually any AI, leaving the dirty work to yourself. The B button is used for diving and the A button is used for a limited number of speed bursts – this is also true on offense. However, on defense, in order to switch defenders you must press B and A simultaneously, which often sleds to hilarious blunders as you dive, miss, and take players out of the play.

Each play is concluded with a photo of the NFL player, their name, attributes, and what the current play yielded. No other stats are tracked other than score, which shows on a scoreboard after each extra point attempt – which can also be a mess if you screw up the control scheme!

However, these games led to a lot of fun and forced players to use their own skills rather than lob a pass and allow the computer to dictate what happens. Interceptions and other turnovers were commonplace, and injuries were also built into the game.

In fact, you could substitute players at any time and they often ran low on “energy” as well: all features that would eventually find their way into the Madden series but were clearly ahead of their time for consoles.

In my review run I had subbed 49ers great Joe Montana for another legend, Steve Young, only to have Young get injured while attempting to leverage his scrambling ability.

I really felt like this game was too crude, but in all honesty, playing it again brought back some fond memories of fierce competition with friends. There’s no doubt this is one of the classic football video games that’s on a lot of childhood lists – and one that any retro gamer should definitely check out to see how far we’ve come (and how unforgiving those 8-bit games were!)