Professional football players may be grown men with families, houses and full-time jobs, but they have a remarkable knack for making you feel ancient.
Linebacker Anthony Barr, staring at an iPhone clip of Tecmo Super Bowl, squinted at the tiny players and remarked that maybe Harrison Smith, 29, might be old enough to remember the game. Barr was more of a Madden fan growing up. He laughed at how kickers were the same size as linebackers (even non-Seabass kickers) on Madden 2002, the one with Daunte Culpepper on the cover.
Adam Thielen’s parents wouldn’t let him play video games when he was young enough to have bumped into Tecmo Bowl. He had to wait until his early teens when he fell in love with NFL Blitz.
Stefon Diggs is more of an NBA 2K guy. He plays with the Warriors — not because he’s that guy, but because Kevin Durant grew up in the D.C. area like him.
John DeFilippo played Tecmo Bowl when he was 10, but has mostly been spending his life dedicated to making it in the real NFL, so he hasn’t played video games in “a long, long time.”
And Mike Zimmer, well, he was once quoted as saying he “has never played video games like Game of Thrones.”
But whether they are a Generation Z member, an avocado-eating millennial or a Baby Boomer, every member of the Minnesota Vikings is currently either calling, running or defending one of the most unstoppable plays on Tecmo Super Bowl.
The first version of Tecmo Bowl was released in 1987 as an arcade game. It blew up when it came out for the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. It was only the second football game on the NES, the first being 10-yard Fight, and previous systems like Atari offered little to football fans in the way of a realistic experience.
“Those games really left a lot up to your imagination to convince yourself you were playing football,” said Chris Alaimo, who runs the website Classic Gaming Quarterly and has nearly 100,000 subscribers on his YouTube page.
While the game didn’t have official team names, and only had 12 teams — Indianapolis, Miami, Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles (Raiders), Washington, San Francisco, Dallas, New York (Giants), Chicago, and Minnesota — it was the first to include actual player names an attributes, allowing users to play as superstars like, say, Bo Jackson.
“One of the things you can’t emphasize enough is that it had all the players in it,” Alaimo said. “There had never been a game on home consoles — maybe on computer — but not on home consoles that had all the real players…it didn’t have an NFL license, so it didn’t have team names but in those days it was good enough.”
Having access to real players was cool. Christian Okoye ran over people and Lawrence Taylor was unblockable. But the key to Tecmo Bowl’s success was its entertainment value to the masses.
“More than anything else what Tecmo Bowl had going for it was the playability and the approachability that it had,” Alaimo said. “If you go back and play something like a 10-yard Fight, you have to be a real football fan to sink time into something like that, but with Tecmo Bowl, it’s almost something like NBA Jam or NFL Blitz where you can be a very casual fan and play that game and have a great time.”
Because of the playability factor, you can check any all-time video game list and you will find Tecmo Bowl.
Its 1991 follow-up, Tecmo Super Bowl, took the game to legendary status. ESPN named Tecmo Super Bowl, which included all 28 teams, the best sports video game of all time. Some of the glitches were weeded out and the playbook was expanded.
For the youngsters in the Vikings’ locker room, it came as a shock that both games still have tournaments that pay homage to the great game, but that doesn’t surprise Alaimo in the least.
“I still play Tecmo Bowl all the time just because it was a great game when I was a kid but it’s also a great game now,” he said. “It developed this following when it was out and it still manages to enjoy that now.”
One of the ways Tecmo Bowl has remained relevant — or at least at the peak of plausible relevancy for a 1989 game — is by offering gamers a chance to play with the current NFL rosters. TecmoBowl.org creates a version with updated rosters, which has opened the door to things like the Minneapolis Miracle being recreated on Tecmo Bowl by the website TecmoBowlers.
— Tecmo Bowlers (@TecmoBowlers) January 15, 2018
Keith Good of Tecmo Bowlers explains how the Miracle recreation was done:
“Basically you start with an updated Tecmo Super Bowl game file (a ‘rom’), you load it into NES emulator software,” Good said. “Then you play Tecmo with the emulator’s screen recording function on, take the resultant clips and cobble them together in a video editor to make it sync with the audio. Not too hard if you have the right software. Just a matter of choosing the right plays and repeating it until the computer players do just the right things.”
So if you know what those words mean, you can do it at home.
These are the joys that youngster players or busy football men are missing. But in a way, they aren’t, because one of the coolest parts of the game is that it included a playbook. In Tecmo Super Bowl, the game expanded its playbook to eight plays which were designed to be reflective of the teams. For example, the 49ers didn’t have as many running plays because Joe Montana threw the ball all the time.
One of those plays in particular could be used over and over with nearly no effective defense aside from the defense sacking the quarterback. That play is called All Curls.
If you have watched the Vikings this year, you have seen this play right there on your 60-inch new-age, internet-connected, HD television.
Deep inside the Hubbard Broadcasting studios, Tecmo Super Bowl is still being played regularly — for NFL research purposes only, of course. Here is an example of All Curls being used by Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins.
Below is the Vikings using All Curls against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1.
From USA Football author Bobby Peters, who also wrote the Philadelphia Eagles 2017 Third Down Manual, here is the design of the NFL version of the play when used by San Francisco:
Why does it still work?
Aren’t offenses supposed to be more innovative than ever? Aren’t today’s coordinators making 1991 playbooks look like children’s books?
“I think it works for certain coverages, you have to have the perfect coverage for it to be a good play,” Adam Thielen said. “I guess, it’s just one of those things where you have to the right people to do it. Rudy is really good at finding space and getting open. It’s not just run to a spot and stop. It’s find an open zone, if it’s zone coverage, find the open zone and then win. I think it’s more of the players than the play on that specific play.”
In the real life version, it turns out, there are variations.
On the Week 1 version, Rudolph breaks inside, drawing the 49ers’ linebacker in his direction to create a throwing lane for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“Those two inside routes adjust a little bit depending on the coverage and how you run those routes,” DeFilippo explained, after watching Dan Marino throw his Tecmo touchdown. “Obviously, if you feel the linebacker running with you you can bend it inside slightly and then snap away from the leverage of the backer.”
On the Tecmo Super Bowl version, well, they run the same pattern every time. Here’s the similarity though: Executing the play in the game is a matter of finding which player the defense didn’t cover. Same goes for the real-life version.
“You find the open space, you can go straight, you can find the hole, you can man, you gotta just win,” Thielen said.
The No. 1 receiver in the NFL in receptions and yards noted that the obvious nature of the play makes it into a call that can only been used when the defense doesn’t see it coming or when they’ve been set up to think they are getting something else. Otherwise it would be an easy play to stop.
“I don’t know why it works every time in Tecmo Bowl, but I think it goes to the coaches making other play calls in that same situation,” Thielen said. “You know, maybe it’s a once in a blue moon call rather than every time or a majority of the time. So you try and make it look like the other calls that you’ve done and that’s usually the only way you can sell it. Otherwise, if that’s a call that you call a lot in that certain situation then they’ll really have a key on it and you’re not going to be able to sell it.”
While he can’t call it all the time, DeFilippo likes that he can call All Curls — which has different names like “sticks” or something involving hitch routes — against all types of different coverages. ”
“I think it’s an all coverage beater, I think if it’s man [coverage] you’re probably working your outside routes or your best matchup, however you format that so it’s one-on-one against the opponent,” DeFilippo said. “If you have a physical receiver he can kind of muscle his way to the stick and will his way open…if it’s zone, if it’s Cover-2 zone, at least with that play, normally you’d have to back out or we do it out of empty [formation] as well. You have 2-on-1 with the hook player in Cover-2. You get 2-on-1 with flat player in Cover 3. So it’s kind of all just across the board that it’s an all coverage beater which makes it really easy for the quarterback.”
The hook and flat player are linebackers in zone coverage, generally.
The Week 1 play was against zone. Here’s an example of All Curls with Rudolph running a different route underneath against man coverage:
All Curls is particularly great when you have top-notch route runners like Mark Duper or Thielen or Diggs.
“They’re precise, they get to the landmarks and they can threaten people off the football,” DeFilippo said. “It’s a good route for us.”
Diggs agrees that it can’t be a sloppy route.
“If it’s third-and-9 then you have to go to, like, 12 or 13 because you have to come back to the ball,” Diggs said. “DBs are a lot better than Tecmo Bowl…Your quarterback has to get the ball out. He can’t be late on it. That’s it. Make a play.”
Diggs also has a theory on why the play is even more effective now than it was when Tecmo Bowl took it from the Dolphins.
“Better players,” he said. “More time. Athletic QBs. The quarterback play is getting impeccable, these days. I’m not saying quarterbacks were bad back then but I know nowadays QBs are pretty good. The fact that they can excel. Receivers being faster. The game being faster. It’s a combination of things.”
You might be able to guess who doesn’t like All Curls: Anthony Barr.
Similarly to the offensive perspective on the play, the type of coverage matters toward the execution by the linebacker.
“If it’s man it’s a little easier because your eyes are on him,” Barr said. “If it’s zone once he passes you, sometimes, you can get your eyes off of him and he can kinda play off of your leverage. He’s behind you and he can choose one way or the other and you just have to basketball him a little bit. That’s the hardest part. Once he gets to a certain yard, distance, you kinda drop him to the safety and you kind feel where he is, even though you can’t see it.”
Barr isn’t taken aback at all by the fact a play from a ’91 video game is still racking up yards in the NFL today. The Pro Bowl linebacker said that the offensive creativity we hear so much about is mostly adaptations to similar concepts rather than wholesale changes.
“Everybody runs the same stuff really, for the most part all offenses are similar at the core of it, at the essence,” he said. “Then they’ll have their own wrinkles and adjustments that they feel comfortable with and that they gameplan. It’s a copycat league. If one team has success doing it the next team going to do it, the next team going to do it. That’s kind of how it is. Something that hurt you three/four weeks ago will probably pop up in the next coming weeks because offensive coordinators see that and are like ‘OK this worked against them so let’s try that.’”
So in reality, if you look at the eight plays Tecmo Super Bowl has for most teams, there is some variation of all of them. Go back and look at the Dolphins’ playbook and you will see an outside zone run, four verticals, a play-action rollout with only two receivers going out — all things you’re likely to see run by the Vikings every Sunday.
But there’s a few things that make the All Curls play so memorable to fans of Tecmo Bowl: Its simplicity.
“It’s kind of like a play in the backyard,” Barr said. “Run to the sticks and then find a window and I’ll get you the ball. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. It’s not like a strict yard mark they have to get to or a strict ‘hey you have to get two yards outside the hash and come back.’ It’s like find a hole in the defense and sit in it and I’ll get you the ball.”
There was a study about people’s musical tastes that found they don’t usually change after a certain age. The same thing goes for sports and video games. And the two intersect at Tecmo Bowl.
Or depending on your age group, it you might better connect to Madden or ESPN 2K5, a game often called the most underrated football game in history. Thielen remembers the create-a-player mode where you could be inside the player’s helmet and had to play running back because receiver was too difficult.
Whichever game we’re talking about, Vikings players and your untalented-at-sports buddies all had the same experience in the post-Tecmo world of going head-to-head in far-too-competitive battles at football video games.
“We had those in college,” Thielen said. “We were all so competitive that we’d have, like, two weeks where we wouldn’t talk to each other after. We’d do seasons. So we’d all pick a team in the same division so we’d play each other twice.”
Though Thielen reminds us that, while teams are putting up video game offensive numbers, it isn’t always as easy as Tecmo and Madden make it look.
“I think it’s pretty realistic… other than the fact that in real life you can’t see the entire field and find the open guy that easy,” he said.