The Top 5 Retro Sports Games of All Time

Most of my earliest childhood memories involve sports in some way, specifically the Minnesota Twins, which I obsessively followed even in my youngest days. Every day I’d wake up, run to end of the driveway, grab the morning newspaper, and analyze every stat the box score could offer me before heading out to school. It would only be natural then, that my affinity for athletics would translate into a love for games based on the sporting events I spent so much time meticulously analyzing.

Thus, I will be counting down the top five greatest retro sports titles of all time.

There were plenty of great titles to pick from, and picking just a handful to feature in this article was nothing short of a struggle. So let the countdown begin: Here are Retrovolve’s five picks for greatest retro sports games ever.

Ice Hockey

I’ve always believed that hockey translates to gaming better than any other sport. The fast-paced, aggressive nature of hockey makes for incredibly competitive gameplay and endless hours of fun.

While Mattel’s NHL Hockey for the Intellivision attempted to replicate its real-life NHL counterpart, Activision’s Ice Hockey for the Atari 2600 won over gamers with arcade-style 2-on-2 gameplay. Its presentation conjures up childhood memories of cold winter days spent out on the closest  frozen pond, passing the puck around with whomever was willing.

Ice Hockey‘s mechanics are pretty simple, but that’s what allows the game to still maintain its playability today.

The most impressive aspect of Ice Hockey, however, is its AI. Most sports games of the era required a second human player due to limited cartridge memory, but not only does Ice Hockey support single-player gameplay, it’s actually extremely fun and challenging.

Although later hockey titles would surpass this classic in terms of style and depth, Ice Hockey is still a phenomenal achievement and perhaps the greatest sports title of its generation.

Baseball Advance

Before the modern era of handheld consoles, quality portable baseball simulations were few and far between. One could argue that there really wasn’t one until Baseball Advance was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2002. Much of the game is built upon Sega’s World Series Baseball II for the Sega Saturn, which I believe is one of the absolute finest baseball titles of the 90’s.

There isn’t much in the way of extras in Baseball Advance (Exhibition, Season, All-Star Game modes are all you get), but what it lacks in variety is more than made up for with some of the best baseball gameplay ever. Hitting consistently will take time and skill, but once you have it mastered, its extremely satisfying. Base-running, pitching, and fielding are flawlessly cultivated, making Baseball Advance one of the best simulations of the game of its time, handheld or otherwise.

The game is also graphically astonishing, and four of baseball’s most iconic stadiums are beautifully recreated to perfection.

Baseball fans should go out and obtain a copy of this one immediately, as, outside of MVP Baseball 2005, it might just be the best baseball game ever released.

NBA Jam TE

Sports fan or not, almost everyone has probably played NBA Jam in some capacity. It was arguably the face of the early 90’s arcade resurgence, and has transcended its video game roots to become a cherished part of the decade’s pop culture legacy.

While it wasn’t the first arcade-style basketball title, it set itself apart from the rest because of how utterly ridiculous it was. Big-headed players burst into flames, jumped fifty feet in the air, and shattered backboards. Tim Kitzrow became a household name with his bombastic and hilarious commentary. Thus, a legend was born.

The game was quickly ported to consoles and its follow up, NBA Jam Tournament Edition updated rosters and added a few new features and game modes. There is simply no better sports game to have at a party than NBA Jam T.E., as incredibly intense multi-overtime games are the norm.

The game has nothing on NBA Live‘s stellar brand of 16-bit simulation, but even the most stubborn of basketball purists will admit that NBA Jam is infinitely more fun. And what other games give you the ability to dunk over the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing with Bill Clinton?

Boomskakalaka! NBA Jam T.E. is still the king of arcade-style sports games.

NHL 96

After EA Sports’ massive misstep that was NHL ’95, they went back to the formula that made 1994’s edition such a massive critical hit. Most lists of this type would include the seminal NHL ’94 over the one I’ve chosen — and that’s completely justified — but the minor tweaks and slightly more current rosters make this the go-to 16-bit hockey title in my eyes.

The gameplay in NHL ’96 is fluid and engaging; every body check, glove save, and slapshot provides a level of gratification that most sports games, even today’s current-gen titles, simply can’t match. The minor presentation additions such as the licensed theme music and players convulsing on the ice after being defeated in a fight (completely hilarious) really make this the most complete 16-bit hockey title there is.

Play through a full season, and you’ll get a really cool on-ice Stanley Cup celebration for your efforts.

The game really shines in multi-player modes; nothing beats the feeling of putting in an overtime game-winner against a friend sitting right next to you, shocked in disbelief.

NHL ’96 is quite simply one of the best sports titles ever created, and is just as enjoyable today as it was 15 years ago.

Tecmo Super Bowl

Although I absolutely love the other games listed above, none compare to the greatness that is Tecmo Super Bowl for the NES.

Its predecessor, Tecmo Bowl, introduced the world to the company’s unique brand of arcade/simulation hybrid football gameplay, and this sequel tuned it to absolute perfection. This time around, every NFL team and player was included, but with a few exceptions (I’m looking at you “QB Eagles”). The gameplay of Tecmo Super Bowl was so much better than anything else available at the time; it truly is amazing how Tecmo was able to capture the feel of American football so well on an 8-bit system.

Within the title also resides gaming’s most dominant athlete of all-time, Bo Jackson, who gave opposing players fits as he ran up and down the field, pushing aside every defensive back that dared to stand in his way.

Aside from gameplay, TSB‘s presentation also astounds. Awesome animations follow scoring plays and turnovers, with catchy 8-bit jingles to triumphantly accentuate each victorious moment.

The game was also the first to feature a full half-time show, which featured marching bands, parachuting stuntmen, and scantily clad cheerleaders. Each game of Tecmo Super Bowl is an incredible and unique experience all its own, and the game still boasts a huge following to this day.

While the Madden series has cranked up the realism and presentation each year for the past two decades, it has yet to surpass Tecmo Super Bowl in terms of pure, unadulterated fun. It’s not just one of the best sports games ever. It’s not just one of the best retro games ever. Tecmo Super Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System is simply one of the best games ever. Period.

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