Most of us never had a chance of playing in the NFL, but that didn't stop us from dreaming on a smaller scale by playing football games in our basements. Here are four fun ways generations of fans have played football using little more than their imaginations.
1. Electric Football
How electric football became popular is a bit of a mystery; there's really no skill involved, and most of the time, plays ended with all the players stuck in a corner. Still, the game has been a huge success for decades.
Gameplay is simple—set up your team in an offensive or defensive pattern and hit the switch. The metal "field" vibrates, the players move, and if the quarterback gets hit by a defensive player, he's "tackled." Really, that's all there was to the game when it was introduced by Tudor Metal Products in 1947. But other companies soon made knock-offs, and the need to differentiate products made the addition of new game features a constant show of one-upmanship. Some updates were superficial but fun, like a cardboard stadium full of fans that surrounded the field. Others added a level of skill to the otherwise random game, like a spring-loaded player kids could use to kick field goals and throw passes with a small plastic football.
However, Tudor was always the big innovator. They were the first to switch from flat, metal silhouettes of the players to 3-D, plastic sculpts. With the new game pieces, they soon got the endorsement of the NFL to paint the players with team colors and were able to use team logos on the stadium backdrop. These features made Tudor's games incredibly popular in the NFL-crazy 1970s. Tudor also introduced a groundbreaking feature called "TTC," or "Total Team Control," which gave "coaches" the ability to influence the direction their players moved. The TTC system comprised of small prongs on the base of the figures which could be "tweaked" by bending, shaving, or even chemically treating them to create incredibly fast players that moved with some sense of purpose.
Once video games hit, electric football fell out of vogue with many young players. But fans who grew up in the game's heyday were able to keep it going through the '80s and '90s. Today, Miggle Toys is the primary producer of electric football, and the company has helped nurture regional leagues across the country. For more information, check out the website of the Miniature Football Coaches Association.
2. Mattel Football I
It seems like kids these days always have their noses buried in a Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable. I wish I could say my generation was better, but we had our heads down and thumbs twitching for hours playing Mattel Football, the first mega-successful handheld video game.
Released in June 1977, Mattel Football had a simple concept: get the bright dash—representing the ball carrier—past the five slightly dimmer dashes that represented the defense. Believe it or not, but this was a revolution in video gaming. Not bad for a hacked pocket calculator.
Because it was a based on a calculator, those dashes were really the top, middle, and bottom segments of a digital number eight. According to Mark Lesser, the designer of the game, this also answers one question that has nagged players for years: Why was the field only 90 yards? It was not, as the urban legend says, the fault of a Japanese designer who had never seen a football game. In fact, the reprogrammed calculator chip couldn't process more than nine "numbers" across, meaning Lesser had to make due with fewer yards.
Because early sales were lackluster, the primary distributor, Sears & Roebuck, ran a computer model to determine how well the game would sell over time. Based upon the model's estimates, Sears canceled their initial order of 500,000 units and purchased a conservative 100,000 games instead. Then Christmas came, and Mattel Football sold like gangbusters. By mid-January, Sears wanted 200,000 units every week. By the end of February, that number more than doubled, to 500,000 every week. Of course, with strong sales came a sequel, Football II, with the upgraded ability to run forward and backwards, as well as pass to a phantom teammate downfield. Designers also used a different calculator chip that could display 10 numbers across, giving players the full 100-yard field.
Mattel re-released the game in 2000, complete with the 90-yard field and authentic beeping sounds. However, if you grab your iPhone or iPod Touch, search for "LED Football" in the Apps Store. For 99 cents, you'll find a pretty loyal version that's even more portable than the groundbreaking original.
3. Foto-Electric Football
A great football coach isn't born—he's made. And a lot of play-callers started their gridiron education with Cadaco's Foto-Electric Football. Introduced in 1941, the game consisted of green overlay sheets printed with plays for both sides of the ball. The offensive sheets had O's for players and a white line indicating the path of the runner or pass. The defense was a series of X's laid out across the field. Each player secretly chose which play he wanted to run, and placed the sheets on top of each other on the playing field box. Adversaries couldn't see if their strategies were successful until a small light inside the box was turned on and they slid a piece of cardboard back to reveal the sheets. Based upon where the X's, O's, and the white line intersected, dice were rolled, charts were consulted, and yardage was determined.
The game was a staple until the 1970s when early handheld video games like Mattel Football began taking over the sports toy world. In an effort to make their game as portable as the video games, Cadaco replaced the cumbersome light box that required an electrical outlet to play, with a simple sleeve dubbed the "Play Revelator." But it was too little too late, and sales continued to slide until it was eventually discontinued. Cadaco brought the game back in 1990 with NFL Pro-Foto Football. It, too, was discontinued and has since become a pretty rare find. But if you'd still like to check out Foto-Electric Football, the vintage games are readily available on eBay.
4. Tecmo Super Bowl
If you're playing the latest Madden video game on your Xbox, Wii or PS3, complete with real NFL players, interactive gameplay, and the ability to run through a full season, you can thank 1991's Tecmo Super Bowl for making all of that possible.
Tecmo Super Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System was the much-improved sequel to Tecmo Bowl, a popular game from 1988. While the original was one of the first video games to feature real players' names, TSB upped the ante by getting the full endorsement of the NFL—and the ability to use player names, stats and NFL team logos. Tecmo Super Bowl also featured in-game player statistics tracking, a full season with both Super Bowl and Pro Bowl games, and offered eight offensive plays that you could edit to your liking (the original game only had four that you couldn't tweak). While play calling was important, the fast-paced arcade action made the skill of the virtual player and the human controlling him the most vital part of the final score.
Over the years, many Tecmo football games have been released, but Super Bowl has stood the test of time. It has consistently been ranked by game critics as one of the best games for the Nintendo, most recently by IGN.com, who ranked it #53. And thanks to video game console emulators like Nestopia, dedicated gamers are still playing it today after rewriting the original software to include current players, current teams and current stats. With these modified versions of the game, armchair quarterbacks hold Tecmo league tournaments, and run simulations to see who might win real-world contests, like the upcoming Super Bowl XLIV. If you want to see who's going to win, head over to the "Tecmo Repository" and find out, complete with video highlights of the game.
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This is just a handful of the dozens of football games and toys kids have enjoyed over the years. What were some of your favorites? Or if you have fond memories of playing one from the list, tell us all about it! Special thanks to loyal _flosser chachmo for suggesting this topic. If there's something you'd love to see covered, feel free to tweet in my general direction—@SpaceMonkeyX.