Who needs brand loyalty?
Games can be a welcome escape, one where we steal cars, fly through space, or become anime lawyers. Yet so many licensed sports games force you to play football, baseball, and soccer the way the NFL, MLB, and FIFA want. Those simulations have their place, but there are too few alternatives if you want to color outside the lines of pro sports. That's what makes the too-rare alternatives so appealing.
Without world famous brands, unlicensed sports games have to get creative to entice fans, and so they use the classic rules as more of a guideline than a blueprint. They let you kill the referee, play alongside orcs and elves, or ingest every banned substance you can. These games are truly fantasy sports, embracing the possibilities that fiction opens up. So, which titles best took advantage of that open playing field? Read on...
And if any of these games interest you, then you might be able to grab them cheap here.
Sega Soccer Slam
Despite having Sega in the title, this wild three-on-three soccer game doesn't feature any of the publisher's famous mascots. Developed by folks whod later work on Need for Speed, Sega Soccer Slam has similar intensity and speed on display. Its also a bit like Punch Out!! on a football pitch, as friendly international stereotypes battle it out for soccer supremacy. The teams have representatives from each continent, and while their appearances border on caricature, the hard-hitting action is anything but a joke.
What makes it different? The international flavor covers as diverse a group of nations as FIFA, but World Cup commercials won't feature the level of violence seen in Soccer Slam. Punches and kicks are allowed, while boring rules like onsides and corner kicks are left out to focus on the uncomplicated fun. Who wants to bother with penalty cards when they could see a Mexican wrestler bodyslam a British soccer hooligan?
Blitz: The League
The original NFL Blitz games feel like an anomaly now. John Madden would never approve of the late hits, excessive roughness, and showboating that are all integral to making the classic Blitz games so fun. After Midway no longer had the NFL license, Blitzs mean streak only grew without the 'No Fun League' overseeing every play.
What makes it different? Blitz: The League not only amps up the violence that series like Madden prefer to tone down, it also makes time for other seedier elements in the campaign. Drugs, prostitution, and graphic, career-ending injuries are all part of a story mode that's fittingly presented by NFL bad boy, Lawrence Taylor. It isnt for the squeamish, but Blitz and its sequel offer an alternative to the buttoned down action of EA Sports. The series has since gone out to pasture, but it'll always be remembered as perhaps the first game to ever feature a visibly ruptured testicle. Wear that honor with pride, Blitz.
Fire Pro Wrestling
For wrestling fans, its obvious when other lovers of sports entertainment worked on a game. You can see a care for detail and history that other titles don't have, and the Fire Pro Wrestling series has that more than most. Whether on Game Boy Advance or the PS2, the isometric in-ring action is always on point, featuring a highly balanced rock-paper-scissor grappling system. Fire Pro Wrestling's graphics might not always impress, but it makes up for it by including a deceptively dense roster and close to every wrestling move known to man.
What makes it different? Some wrestling games depend too much on the star power of groups like WWE or WCW, but Fire Pro didn't bother limiting itself like that. Most entries' rosters are full of folks who are one step removed from the most famous wrestlers ever. Characters fight like Steve Austin and Ric Flair, but dont look like them - unless you choose the alternate costumes that bear an uncanny resemblance to the headliners signature looks. Who knows how they got away with it at the time, but those creative inclusions make each new entry feel like a wrestling crossover thatd otherwise be impossible.
Whether it's football or hockey, the Mutant League games still mean a lot to those who grew up with the humorously morbid games. These Genesis/Mega Drive classics have you play as horror show creatures like skeletons, aliens, and trolls on fields that are strewn with corpses by the end of the game. Though only two of this cheekily violent titles were released, Mutant League spawned its own Saturday morning cartoon, which no doubt helped extend the series' legacy through constant replays in the mid-'90s.
What makes it different? Though EA, the king of official sports, may be the publisher, Mutant League gleefully breaks every rule of sportsmanship. Fighting, bribery, landmines, killing the referee - it's all legal in Mutant League, making it a great outlet for kids sick of the NFL and NHL rules. Plus, Mutant League has the edge on scary puns. Who wants to play as Bo Jackson and Jerry Rice when you could be Bones Jackson and Scary Ice?
Based on a tabletop game of the same name, Blood Bowl repurposes gridiron gameplay for fantasy geeks who may be missing out on the fun. Made by the same folks as Warhammer, Blood Bowl features orcs and goblins engaging in turn-based combat, but the bigger focus is on running a ball from one side of the map to the other, just like in American football. The only difference is this version of the sport has more apothecaries, virtual dice, and parody teams like the Orcland Raiders.
What makes it different? Aside from the NFL lacking in magic and lizardmen (not counting Jerry Jones), Blood Bowl earns its grisly name by being a tad more violent than the mainstream. You can win by scoring the most touchdowns, or you could take the more direct route by killing all 11 players on the opposing team. Much like in XCOM, death sticks in a Blood Bowl match, so you've got to be careful when putting an injured player on the field. This next down could be their last.
Saturday Night Slam Masters
Also going by the more intriguing Muscle Bomber: The Body Explosion in Japan, this is an exciting recreation of pro wrestling no matter the title. The game's characters and attacks are as raucous as anything you'd see in WWE, thanks in part to the colorful designs of manga legend Tetsuo (Fist of the North Star) Hara. His marquee style gets time time in the spotlight, be it the grapplers theatrical entrances, how they stand on the top turnbuckle, or posing for the crowd after a hard fought pinfall.
What makes it different? Back in the early '90s, WWE was trying its best with arcade games like Royal Rumble, but it could never match titans like Capcom. Street Fighter 2s DNA is definitely within Saturday Night Slam Masters one-on-one brawls, but it adapts to the rules and legacy of wrestling. Instead of throwing fireballs, fighters routinely toss opponents ten feet in the air to catch them in a finishing maneuver, which is pretty rare in real life. The game also has its share of star power thanks to everyone's favorite politician, Mike Haggar from Final Fight, fitting right in with the rest of the squad.
Super Baseball 2020
NEO GEO rightfully earned its reputation for fighting game excellence, but the arcade/console hybrid has more in its library beyond King of Fighters. Take Super Baseball 2020, one of SNK's more creative approaches to sports. This sci-fi reinterpretation of America's favorite pastime turns the diamond into a battle of man versus machine, when teams of robots take on humans for batting supremacy. I think this is how The Matrix begins.
What makes it different? Major League Baseball prefers to take place in the here and now, not the far-off future of upgradable robots (well get there someday). Unlike similar arcade sports games of the era, 2020 has a leveling and experience system similar to the RPG elements now commonplace in MLB games. Speaking of unexpected progressiveness, Super Baseball 2020 is also one of very few baseball titles to feature women playing the game. MLB is going to have to move fast to implement all this in the next five years.
Rusty's Real Deal Baseball
Some baseball titles have light minigames for training your team in pitching, catching, and the like, but most feel like afterthoughts. Rustys Real Deal Baseball has the clever idea of never taking players to a nine inning game, instead focusing all its creativity on how to practice with every piece of baseball equipment there is. And the action gets as varied as carving your own bat from scratch, playing catch with people who have pitching machines for heads, and hitting a series of balls at UFOs.
What makes it different? While Rusty's Real Deal Baseball may be reminiscent of childhood summers spent playing catch in the park, the game has more in common with WarioWare and Rhythm Heaven. Many of Rusty's best minigames involve tapping buttons along to the music, ultimately teaching players more about keeping tempo than catching fly balls. Also, no MLB game has as humorous a sad sack as Rusty himself, the over-the-hill baseball great who sells you equipment while telling you all about his most recent misadventures.
Those are the most out there sports games for now, but are there any others that took organized recreation to the next level? Surely you have your own favorites you want to tell us all about in the comments.
And if you're looking for more athletics, check out the 13 must-know happenings you missed over WrestleMania weekend and the 11 amazing sports that really need a video game.