I’ve never been one for sports, at least not mainstream ones. After playing every sport under the sun as a kid I migrated towards individual sports like swimming in high school and fencing in college. I’m not much of a sports “watcher” either. I watch the occasional football game, go to a basketball game every once in awhile and have been watching the World Cup off and on like many, but keeping up with the sports world has never been a priority.
You can imagine then that modern sport video games don’t do much for me. I love more arcadey titles like NBA Jam or Mario Tennis, but games like Madden or Fifa have never appealed to me. They lack the physical aspect of actually playing sports, and combine it with the visuals and audio of watching a sports broadcast. I just find it…boring.
It’s amazing then that a sports video game has quickly become one of my favorite arcade titles. When I went to my local arcade a few weeks back with a friend, I found a strange new cabinet that wasn’t around during my previous visit. It looked like a table with a screen in the middle. Two stools sat on the ends, right in front of a trackball and two buttons, alongside some scribbling I didn’t immediately understand. Older readers may know the game I’m talking about, but I was completely unaware.
Curious, me and my friend took a seat on each side of the table and started to play. It is football, plain and simple. Players are identified with Xs and Os, and each player gets four offensive and four defensive plays to choose from. Though it took a little figuring out, the game is basically glorified rock, paper, scissors. You try to get first downs and score touchdowns. Like I said, it’s football.
Atari Football to be exact, and there isn’t anything fancy or flashy about it, especially in 2014. There isn’t any color. No character models. Yet what I found was that this game from 1978 more perfectly captured the physicality and excitement of a real sport far better than Madden ever has.
It all boils down to great, simple gameplay. If you are on offense and your opponent can correctly guess your play, they can easily counter it by picking the corresponding defensive play. It all becomes mind games, trying to think like your opponent in order to succeed. While this could be fun by itself, it would be nothing with Atari Football’s main attraction — the trackball.
Thanks to the trackball, playing this game is physically exhausting. You always control the player with the ball, and rather than using a joystick you use the trackball to run and juke your way to the end zone. That means using your palm to rotate the ball as fast as you can to make your character run, rolling it rapidly to the left to sidestep, then rolling it back to the right and then forward as you make a mad dash for the touchdown. Your opponent is doing the same on defense, making their ball spin as fast as it can as they try to chase you down and tackle you. After just a few minutes of playing your arm is aching and your palms are sore, but it is so much fun you don’t want to quit. You know a game has done something right when I am in physical pain but want to keep playing.
That physicality is really the secret ingredient to why I think Atari Football is so great. Actually “running”, so to speak, gives the game a rush of excitement that modern sport titles really lack. The smaller number of plays and the simplicity of it all boils football down to its essence and allows for even non-football fans like me to really enjoy what the sport is all about. Maybe that is part of the reason Wii Sports found so much success — there is just something about actually being active in a sports game that makes it more enjoyable.
Whatever the reason, for 20 minutes me and my friend were cheering and yelling as we furiously spun that trackball as fast as we could. In the end our hands couldn’t take any more. Me and my friend stepped away from the table and returned to our old favorites like Gauntlet, Smash TV, and Galaga, exhausted but happily surprised that a game so old, and a sports game no less, could capture and hold our attention like few games can. It’s for that reason that Atari Football, a 36-year-old video game from a long gone era, is my new favorite sports game. Unless Madden 2016 comes with a trackball, I expect it will stay that way.