Winter Olympic Games

Just like the real Olympics: lots of hard work, very little reward.

Sega Genesis
Released in 1993 by U.S. Gold
Grade: C

You may recall that the 1994 Winter Olympics, held in Lillehammer, Norway, were most notable for the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan women’s figure skating controversy. Unfortunately, this game has no figure skating, nor can you club someone on the knee with a baton. Both would be more fun than the biathlon, I can tell you that.

This game is a batch of mini games, and only the ski races are potentially fun. You can choose to repeat a single event or play through them all while painstakingly watching results of your imaginary competitors flash across the screen. Let’s go one by one, best to worst.

Skiing: There are actually four variations: Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom. Like a real Olympic skier, your only path to victory is relentless training. You’ll need to memorize the tracks, especially because the camera looks up the hill, not down it. One wrong move, and you’re zooming way off the track, into the bushes. But I must say, if you’re up to the challenge, it’s gotta be pretty satisfying to finish a smooth race down the mountain.

Bobsled/Luge: One race has your dude or chick laying down on a gurney, the other has two dudes or two chicks sitting upright, but they’re both the same. You whiz down a tubular track, riding the turns at just the right angle and trying not to scrape the sides. The races have a great feeling of speed, but it’s a pretty repetitive endeavor trying to shave milliseconds off your time over and over again.

Moguls: If you don’t know, moguls is the skiing competition where your dude or chick traverses one little bump after another and occasionally leaps in the air to do tricks. It’s tough to learn even the basics of this one, but at least it looks kinda cool. The instruction manual doesn’t help nearly enough.

Short track speed skating: Using a diagonal view and tricky controls similar to the ski races, you and three other skaters zoom around an oval a few times while mashing all the buttons. It’s pretty stupid and pointless. Can you believe there are two things worse than this?

Ski jump: Keep a cursor steady in the middle of a meter as you zoom down a ramp, time the jump, straighten out in the air, and time the landing … it actually sounds more fun when you read it than when you do it.

Biathlon: One of the weirdest sports I’ve ever seen, you ski across flat snow, stopping occasionally to shoot a rifle at targets. The problem is that the skiing mechanism involves moving a cursor across a meter over and over, and the shooting is incredibly frustrating, like trying to pull a tiny crumb out of a glass of water while drunk as a skunk.

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NFL 98

Sega Genesis
Released in 1997 by Sega
Grade: C

This game is a real mixed bag of gameplay elements. If it did the stuff it doesn’t do well as well as it does the stuff it does do well, well, it would do just fine.

Where it falls in the series

With this series I just write it all out. Here it is:

There are also two college games by Sega, College Football’s National Championship and College Football’s National Championship II, which both reuse the NFL ’94 gameplay.

The last three editions use the same tilting camera and makeshift 3D graphics I’ll explain below. NFL ’95 plays noticeably slower than the last two. Prime Time and NFL 98 have identical gameplay, but NFL 98 adds difficulty sliders for several elements of the game. Jeez, I think I’ve already written too much about a game I don’t like much.

Praises and gripes

Let’s get this camera nonsense out of the way. You see, Sega’s earlier football games used a very wide view of the action, and when the ball was handed off or was about to be caught, the view zoomed way in until the play’s end. I think what Sega wanted here was some middle ground, where the view was wide enough for you to see the field, but close enough for there to be good graphical detail once someone was running with the ball.

Their solution was a fairly close view, except that on passing plays, the camera would tilt back and down so you could see far down the field. The problem is that, as you might recall from your Video Games 101 class, Sega Genesis games never had true 3D graphics, so developers who wanted a 3D effect would have to stitch together sprites and backgrounds that represented their subjects at slightly different angles.

In short, what I’m telling you is that passing plays look like shit. The players all get big and small, small and big, it’s hard to tell how fast or slow they’re moving, all within the few seconds that the QB is dropping back and getting ready to throw. Once the ball is released, you’re back to the comfortable view you started with, which works fine.

Okay, boy, that took too long. It’s okay if you stopped reading. You shouldn’t buy this game anyway. Buy Madden 95 and Tecmo Super Bowl III.

There are parts of this game that aren’t so bad. There’s a decent number of plays and they unfurl like real football plays. Running with the ball can be exciting. The control is responsive. The speed burst seems unrealistic but is fun to use. AI defenders swarm to the ballcarrier realistically. Tackling and defending passes are intuitive, although it’s pretty annoying that it seems easy to get to the quarterback, but sometimes you miss because, that’s right, that damn tilting camera has everything distorted.

The passing game is hit and miss. This game uses the Tecmo Bowl system, where you press a button to highlight receivers and press a button to throw. The camera even pans to the receiver you’re highlighting, recreating how a real-life QB may “go through his options” as he drops back. You usually don’t have a lot of time to throw, as your AI offensive linemen rarely do their job right. Adding to the challenge, your passes are often off the mark, even when your QB is set before throwing. Aaaanndd, on top of that, the pass command isn’t exactly super responsive, so you’ll often press the button and it’s too late, you’re either sacked or the pass is tipped. If you do get the pass off cleanly, it’ll likely arrive to your receiver as he’s standing in place waiting for it, instead of hitting him in stride.

Want more complaints? On kick returns, the camera doesn’t flip around, so you’re running down the screen, not up it. The playcall interface is needlessly difficult to use. You can flip through formations with up and down … or A and B? And when you pick a formation, you press down to see more plays, but if you press up, you go back to picking a formation? What the hell, Sega?

This series evolved in the wrong ways. In my review of its first edition, Joe Montana Football, my main takeaway was that the running and tackling mechanics were good but that the passing interface and camera view needed work. And that’s basically still the case, after seven editions.

Wayne Gretzky and the NHLPA All-Stars

Sega Genesis
Released in 1995 by Time Warner Interactive
Grade: C+

This game may have some jerky control and nonsense scoring logic, but it attempts to make up for it with raw chaos and speed. It doesn’t come close to even the worst installments of EA’s NHL series, but it’s probably better than every other 16-bit hockey game.

Where it falls in the series

This is a one-off, released on Genesis and SNES.

Praises and gripes

The game moves fast and has a hockey-like chaos to it. The skating control is in a middle ground between tight arcade style control and the loose “feels like skating” control from EA’s games. The speed burst is quite effective, but you usually don’t move far in this game without running into defenders, who can plow you over pretty easily. The puck pops loose pretty often.

Passing and shooting are both nicely responsive, although one-timers are needlessly tricky to pull off. The big problem is that it seems pretty random which shots are stopped by the goalies and which ones aren’t. There are two play settings, arcade and simulation, and there are more soft goals on the arcade setting.

The low-angle side view distorts your sense of spacing on the rink, but more important, the AI keeps players in a similar setup for most of the game. You’ll end up using a few of the same patterns of passes and rushes to move the puck up ice.

The game looks really nice by Genesis standards, with large, smooth, detailed player sprites, and a nice rink environment. The sound is also up to snuff, with plenty of skate sounds, a natural-sounding crowd, and a loud crack on slapshots.

This game has three difficulty settings, three in-game strategy settings, a fun fighting engine, pointless gifs that appear after goals, and the option to turn “real skate” on or off (you’ll want to keep it on). Oh, and it’s got the real players but with generic teams representing the NHL cities with off-the-wall color combinations. Luckily, you can tediously change all the colors to your heart’s content.

Tommy Lasorda Baseball

Sega Genesis
Released in 1989 by Sega
Grade: D

It’s just like so many other old-school baseball games, but worse.

Where it falls in the series

This is one of six Genesis launch titles and has the distinction of being the first 16-bit baseball game. Sega improved their baseball offering with Sports Talk Baseball in 1992, then changed their approach completely for four World Series Baseball titles.

Praises and gripes

These graphics must have seemed downright dapper in 1989. The batting view shows off some nice detail and animation. Once the ball is hit, you’ve got a bird’s eye view that’s a bit limiting, but if you’re charmed by retro nonsense you’ll like it.

In classic old-school fashion, pitchers steer the ball in any physics-defying way they want. Left, right, fast, slow, left then right, fast then slow, left then fast then right then slow… whatever you want, which is reason #1 that I don’t like this game.

Batting can seem impossible against an opponent who won’t just throw you a strike every now and then. When pitchers can manipulate the ball with unlimited freedom, it really takes its toll on the fun.

After this test of patience, the ball is almost always difficult to field. It’s hard to react and there’s no CPU assistance. You’ll even miss routine fly balls because it’s not clear where you need to stand to be under the ball.

On top of that, fielders don’t throw nearly fast enough in relation to the runners’ speed. Groundouts become singles, singles become doubles, and doubles become triples.

The presentation is cute, I’ll give this game that. There are city names and colors but no MLB license. The gentle, peaceful music during gameplay is hilariously out of place, making me think a gaggle of elves will suddenly march out of the dugout.

I’m hard on retro baseball games, especially the far-fetched pitching mechanics that are commonly used in them. For an arcade baseball game on Genesis, Sports Talk Baseball is probably your best bet. If you have an SNES, that’s much better because Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is friggin’ awesome.

NBA Live 98

Sega Genesis
Released in 1997 by EA Sports
Grade: B

It may not resemble real basketball a whole lot, but this game is certainly fun and lighthearted.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the last of four NBA Live games on Genesis. All four games basically use the same engine with some of the dials tweaked and a few new animations each year. I think NBA Live 96 is the best, most balanced game in the series, but most other people seem to prefer NBA Live 95.

Praises and gripes

This game has quick action that doesn’t try to emulate how basketball players actually move around on a court, but rather in a way that makes for fun video game basketball. The court feels large and the diagonal view helps make passing intuitive. You don’t often pass to the wrong guy.

The controls are simple (pass, shoot, and turbo), and you may as well ignore the convoluted playcalling system, because your teammates just move around randomly anyway.

The same old NBA Live problems are back: rebounds and loose balls are tough to track down, and AI defenders constantly get switched up and leave someone wide open. Fouls are random, but this game can be enjoyed with fouls turned off. On the bright side, the old trick of steering the other player out of bounds is fixed somewhat here, and the constant steals that ruin NBA Live 97 are dialed back.

There are some new animations for layups and dunks, but you’ll still see some awkward shots and accidentally shoot from behind the backboard.

The big difference in this version is that the game logic favors fast breaks and driving to the hoop. Deep shots don’t fall often enough (partly due to tricky timing on the shot animation) to be worth it.

The frequency of fast breaks is very unrealistic. Even after your opponent scores, you can sometimes rush upcourt for an uncontested dunk. This reminds me of youth basketball, where players work hard to score but are lazy about running back on defense. It works nicely for this game though, since playing patient half-court offense isn’t much fun with this simplistic basketball engine.

The end result is that it’s a fun, fast, silly game. I still think I prefer NBA Live 96, or at least I’d recommend it if you were only going to buy one of the NBA Live games.

NBA Live 97

Sega Genesis
Released in 1996
Grade: B-

This retweaking of the NBA Live engine only changes things for the worse.

Where it falls in the series

It’s EA’s eighth basketball game on Genesis, but just the third with the NBA Live name and trademark gameplay.

Praises and gripes

At a glance, it’s hard to tell the difference between this and NBA Live 96. The familiar diagonal view, quick players, and responsive controls are back again. That’s all good.

On the downside, the impossible rebounding, braindead defenders, random fouls, and limited offensive strategies also make their return. That’s not all good.

And what’s worse? The players now have butterfingers. They lose the ball constantly. Whenever players come in contact, they slide around together, and it’s either a foul or a loose ball. And what’s even worse about that? Loose balls can be really hard to pick up in this game. The players are so quick they’re tough to control in small spaces, and you’re bound to run right by the ball more than a few times.

I suppose this change could be meant to inspire more passing, and one strength of the Live series is that passing works well. But nobody told the CPU players, who stupidly dribble in place until you knock the ball away, even on the “all-star” difficulty setting.

Other new additions include shadows on the uniforms and new layup animations; in other words, nothing is substantially improved upon from the previous version. There’s a three-point contest, which inexplicably requires you to learn a new shooting system, and a “shootout” mini game, where you can actually practice shooting and practice picking up the ball, which, as luck would have it, will actually be useful if you plan to play this game seriously.

It’s a bummer because it’s obvious what they could have changed to make a better game: better defensive AI, easier rebounding, less sliding, an offensive play that actually works, something resembling a screen … any of these things.

In EA’s defense, they were busy making NBA Live games on PS1 and Saturn around this time, and 32-bit basketball presents its own challenges.

This game is good enough that if I was dropped on a remote island with a Genesis and only this game, I’d play it a lot (after adjusting a few settings). But since I own NBA Live 96, I probably won’t play it again.

Madden NFL 98

Sega Genesis
Released in 1997 by EA Sports
Grade: B

This game is like a carbon copy of Madden 97, which isn’t necessarily bad because Madden 97 is pretty good.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the last Madden on Genesis. The series was already on PS1 and Sega Saturn for the 97 edition, so no wonder we’ve got a basic “roster update” game here. My favorite version on Genesis is Madden 95.

Praises and gripes

I’m tempted to do something snarky like copy/paste my Madden 97 review, but I won’t…

The strengths of this game are simple controls, fluid running, a nice playcall interface, and active AI creating lots of action. Making 22 guys collide in a somewhat natural way wasn’t a task other game developers could accomplish back in the 16-bit days, so you gotta give it to EA for that.

For Madden 97 and 98, EA fixed up its offensive line play, which was previously a mess. Even so, you’ll probably need to drop way back or roll out before passing.

Your receivers often go off their routes and QBs regularly throw behind them, so you have to adjust the receiver’s position while the ball is in the air. Often times, you have better luck passing 30 yards into a crowd of guys than you do passing 5 yards to a wide open man, which is stupid. The exception is when you’ve got a top-notch QB/WR tandem, like Steve Young/Jerry Rice, and suddenly short passes are no problem, which makes this even more aggravating.

The running game is fairly balanced. It’s worth using, but you’ll have more overall success with the passing game.

Defense is, as usual, simple fun. The players move well in this version, and it’s intuitive to tackle and block passes.

The graphics are simple and cute. The sound is inconsistent and crackly.

Overall, this is pretty good for 16-bit football, but I prefer Madden 95 for its more fluid passing game. The thing Madden 97 and 98 has is multiple difficulty settings, so if you’re looking for a challenge against the CPU, they’re the go-to choices.