As the NFL regular season winds down, I thought it would be the perfect time to revisit the first football game I ever played: the NES version of 10-Yard Fight, released in 1985.
Football games, like most games in general, have grown deeper and more complex as the ever-advancing technology has allowed. Eventually, this depth exceeded my rather limited knowledge of the sport of football and its many intricacies to the point where I simply couldn’t play them anymore. Once offensive play choices evolved beyond Run 1, Run 2, Pass 1, and Pass 2, I knew my days were numbered. Which is too bad, really, because as my fond memories of Tecmo Bowl suggest, and playing 10-Yard Fight again confirmed, I used to really love football video games.
Upon turning on my NES, I was immediately greeted with the 10-Yard Fight title screen. It’s easy to take for granted that this is how games used to be; today, after we hit the power button we have to wade through dashboards, log-ins, firmware updates, software updates, loading times, opening movies, and the endless logo slideshow of the companies and technologies that went into making the game that we have been waiting a half hour (if we’re lucky) to start actually playing. I was probably already at my first halftime before I would’ve even first been in control of my character in a current-gen game. The only extra step between the start screen and the kickoff was choosing my difficulty level: High School, College, Professional, Playoff, or Super Bowl. Clearly this was before the NFL demanded your first born child if you even spoke the words “Super Bowl” in a commercial setting, especially in a game with no NFL or any other licensing to speak of. Naturally, I decided to take things slowly by selecting High School, although I wished there was something more akin to “Pee Wee” for me to ease into.
Like all but a select few of my NES games, this one’s manual is long gone, so I was going to have to figure out how to play this game as I went along. Player 1 automatically gets to receive first, so after the kickoff I was on my way. Upon catching the ball, you are put in control of not only the receiver, but his 8 surrounding blockers, who all move in perfect unison under your control. You also don’t have to worry about actually running forward, as your players automatically do so if you take your thumb off of the d-pad. I ran about 15 yards or so before the defense broke through my guards and took me down. In 10-Yard Fight, there’s no official menus or play calling of any kind; it is all done on the fly. The only pre-snap adjustment you can make is where your sole receiver’s route is going to begin. He starts on the right side of the field and slowly – and I mean slowly – walks to the left, and where ever he is when you hike is where he is going to run…in a perfectly straight line, no matter what. Once the ball is snapped, you actually do have a few options beyond simply running or passing to your one super receiver who is barreling down the field. There is a running back on either side of you – again, moving in exact unison with you – and hitting B and holding left or right tosses the ball to one of them. They can run, or also still pass to your receiver. With no individual player stats or abilities to speak of, the running backs can throw as well as your quarterback, just as your quarterback’s running game is as good as anyone else on your team.
For much of my early video game football career, I was always afraid to pass. I just had trouble with the multitasking that it requires: I’d be watching only my receiver and not notice the guy on defense that I’m about to either throw it directly to or get sacked by. Between that fear and also still not quite knowing what the hell was going on in 10-Yard Fight exactly, the only thing I knew how to do in those first minutes was to hike the ball and run. I had a decent amount of success at that, slowly advancing down the field, shaking off tackles, getting a couple of first downs. Actually, I didn’t get my first turnover until, on a 2nd down and 8, I suddenly found myself punting. I didn’t know why I was punting, but once it’s initiated there’s no going back. So I picked a direction, kicked the ball 30 yards or so, and now I was taking my first crack at defense.
Defense affords you even less setup than offense. One of the guys – it’s totally random which one, as best as I can tell – has an A over their head, and another has a B. Hit the button of the player you want, and he is then the only player you have any control of for the remainder of the down. You have two defensive moves: a dive, and a longer dive. I would assume that the short one is supposed to be a dive and the longer one is actually supposed to be a slide, but who knows? They both turn your character into what looks like Frogger with a football uniform on and sends him hurling wildly across the field. Of course, beyond just trying to get the tackle you can also go for an interception, which simply involves you being in the same path as the ball since there is no “depth” to speak of (i.e., the ball would never fly above anyone’s head, so there’s no need for anything so advanced as jumping). I was able to stop the CPU’s first drive, but again couldn’t get it done on offense. This time I got brave and attempted a pass, which was immediately intercepted. Soon after, the CPU scored, and I was down 7-0. The game doesn’t break for quarters, only halves, after which you have to kick off to the other team – which is completely automatic. No momentum-changing onside kicks here! I forced a turnover on downs on their first drive of the second half, and on my very first down I managed a 60 yard run and, soon after, the tying touchdown. I stopped the CPU from scoring again for the rest of the game, but was unable to score again myself, so we went into overtime. That is, we should’ve went into overtime, but apparently 10-Yard Fight goes by Vegas rules, and a tie goes to the house. The score was 7-7, but I lost!
Despite being annoyed at the lack of an overtime and losing with a tie score, I was slightly proud of my first showing. I can recall games of Tecmo Bowl and early Genesis Madden against the CPU where I was already down by a handful of touchdowns before halftime, so simply keeping up was impressive for me. I was so proud, in fact, that I played the next game at the next-highest difficulty level, College. I looked a lot better this time, successfully completing a few short passes, even getting a few interceptions myself. I had the CPU down 7-0 and was about to make it 14 when, on 1st down and inches, I suddenly found myself kicking a field goal! Why did this keep happening? Oh well, it was now 10-0.
My lead collapsed a bit in the second half, but I was still up by 3 when it happened: a few stray letters and numbers began to pop up around the screen. Sprites flickered. Animations skipped. We all know what that means: the game was glitching and could freeze or go black at any moment. As any old school gamer knows, sometimes this could be saved by a careful, ever-so-slight adjustment of the cartridge within the console, and I have to admit I used to be pretty good at “saving” a glitching game. This time, sadly, I was unsuccessful. I had lost my touch. As soon as I made contact with that cartridge: flashing screen. Dammit. The game, of which I was leading, was now forfeit. In spite of this second setback, I was still feeling pretty full of myself. With that, I went for it: Super Bowl difficulty. And I played like a champion. I took the first game at 17-7, at which point I was informed: “Your are [sic] on your way to the Super Bowl!!!” The next two games were blowouts, 24-0 and 31-3, respectively. I would’ve liked to keep going, especially since I had no idea when or if the game ever “ended” or if you played infinitely as long as you won, but I felt that I had at least gotten a sufficient enough taste of the game to write this piece. So I retired with three wins, a tie, and a forfeit…I’ll take it!
All in all I had a surprisingly good time playing 10-Yard Fight. I expected it to feel more like a job than a game I was playing for fun, but once I hit a groove I was happy to keep playing. Given that I had basically mastered the CPU I couldn’t have seen myself playing it single-player for too much longer, but I would certainly be open for some 2-player contests should anyone ever be interested. And it actually makes me look forward to hitting some more of the many other sports games I already own for future retro reviews.