As I come up on my ninth in-game season with Retro Bowl, I realise this might be the longest I've ever played a mobile game for. The era of the commute might be on hold for now, but I'm still grabbing my phone to play this lo-fi American Football gem. And while I've had some dalliances with others (Stick Cricket Super League, a variety of brain training apps that wanted way too much money from me), Retro Bowl has found a sweet spot between management and action that so few of its bigger brethren have managed in recent years.
As you've probably guessed from the name Retro Bowl is an American Football game where you try and take your team to the titular trophy. You take control of a squad, hire a certain number of Star Players and Coaches who will give you buffs on the field, and then head to the gridiron. Once you're in the game itself, you hurl the ball by dragging back with your finger and then try to outrun the opposition by swiping across the screen. Oh, it also looks like it's been ripped right out of the SNES era, with its blocky players and simple menus.
And that's pretty much it. Which, yeah, doesn't sound like the sort of thing that would hold anyone's attention for too long, but here I am, trying to touchdown my way to a 7th Retro Bowl title. That's because the game has a near-flawless understanding of what is essential and what can be left out. So instead of controlling every player on the team and switching between them at will, you only control the ones you have to, when you have to. That puts a tight focus on the action and makes every play in the game feel important.
Of course, that would mean little if the actual matches weren't fun to play, but the elegant touch controls and focused action is always a joy. Dragging your finger to create a trajectory for a pass is easy to do, and as your QB's get better, incredibly satisfying as you learn how to ping passes overheads and into the hands of your team. Retro Bowl might not offer a complete simulation of American Football - your team's defense is automatically handled by the computer, for instance - but the flow of games feels true to the sport as well being engagingly snappy.
Coaching on the couch
This focus also means you can forget about micro-management to focus on actual management. You hire the players in the areas you want to focus on - either in offense or defense - and you can feel the change on the field when you snag a quarterback with a strong arm or a speedy running back. On top of that, you can improve the team's abilities by hiring better coaches or improving training facilitates so they recover more stamina after games. By stripping away the inessential menus and presentation that can sometimes clutter sports games, Retro Bowl creates a loop of progression that is compelling even if you know little about American Football.
The game's sparsely effective design also manages to conjure what all great sports games do; letting you build your own narrative as you try to put together an all-conquering team. Whether it's you taking a bunch of no-hopers under your wing and dragging them to glory or building up a star player who becomes the focus of your entire team, it's hard not to imagine the drama unfold in your mind's eye, especially as real-life sports are currently on pause.
While the likes of FIFA, Madden, and NBA do this year in, year out, adding more bells, whistles, and (annoyingly in some cases) micro-transactions, Retro Bowl is a perfect reminder of the things that made us fall in love with sports games in the first place, even if you don't know a touchdown from touchscreen.
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