(Some of my best writing has been done for free. Art for art’s sake, I suppose. In December 2006, I wrote this love note to a long-lost video game.)

 

The NFL scheduled a boring game tonight. That’s not how Vikings!-Packers! was promoted, to be sure, but reality trumps advertising and I can’t imagine many people watched Green Bay 9, Minnesota 7 all the way through. (Not that the pool of potential watchers was that large to begin; after all, it was carried by the NFL Network, which cable providers air only at gunpoint.) And if you switched channels, you still were out of luck. This final just in from the Las Vegas Bowl: BYU 38, Oregon 8.
When the real world disappoints, there’s always fantasies. Or, in this world of the microchip wafer, computer simulations. Playing a football video game, that’ll do.
But I don’t have a PS3, or an Xbox. Not even one of those window-shattering Wiis.
I’ve got my Mac, though.
But Madden hasn’t been ported to Macs since 2000!
Who said I was playing Madden?

The Madden franchise, on EA Sports, is the current gold standard for video games. The visuals are stunning, but… so what? More important, this football game looks and feels like football, if those italics make any sense. When the H-back goes in motion, the linebackers shift. If the safeties are denying my wide receivers the deep ball, that’ll leave the middle underneath open for my dump-off man out of the backfield. That’s what I mean. When this game – officially approved by the NFL, a thumbs-up which must be tougher to snag than a papal dispensation – is released every year, it’s practically a national holiday. Not only has America embraced the game, but an even more crucial fan base has developed – the players themselves. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the EA Sports party is always, and I mean always, a tough ticket.
(It was six years ago that I, playing reporter, hit the party. With notebook in hand, I wedged my way through the crowd of a Ybor City bar. Two highlights: Then-49ers QB Jeff Garcia steps outside for a moment. Immediately, the autograph hounds shout; “It’s Jeff Garcia!” then descend upon him with 8X10s and Sharpies; and, as I’m weaving through the party-goers from the bar to the VIP room, a big dude – obviously a player – falls in behind me. He’s freestyling raps, I can hear. To keep close to me as I blaze the trail, he places a hand on my shoulder, on my Spanish leather jacket. I hear a sing-song of, “I got a black leather jacket…”)

I don’t play Madden. Don’t have a console, be it an Xbox or the PS2/3 or whatever. In fact, not once have I played that game.
On my computer is NFL Challenge.
What?



Simply put, NFL Challenge was decades ahead of its time upon its initial release in 1985 – a football simulation that didn’t waste computer cycles on drawing blocky blobs running unrealistic plays. Yes, that means you, Tecmo Bowl. No, I don’t care how damn good was Tecmo-Bo Jackson. Bo didn’t know reality.
NFL Challenge succeeded on the two most important details for a computer sim: 1. It featured actual players on actual teams; 2. The in-game details were kosher. NFL Challenge provided playbooks, with real offensive formations (I, double-TE and single back, offset I, shotgun) against real defenses (3-4, 4-3, nickel, dime, even some 4-4 for goal-line stands).

Some asides about those formations:

  1. I often praise football for being the biggest sport with the most innovation in tactics. 11-man experiments take place at all levels of the game, and new formations, plays, philosophies filter up and down between high schools, colleges, and the pros. NFL Challenge first was produced in the mid-80s, and as so is a wonderful time capsule of how the game once was player. Far less passing then than now, with an emphasis on the power run game.
  2. Yes, the shotgun was novel enough back then to warrant its own plays; calling a shotgun set also was the only way to get a slot (third) receiver on the field. Primitive compared to now? Absolutely. But, really, hasn’t America lost something dependable and reassuring when today’s offensive coordinators refuse to put the QB under center, then line up directly behind him a fullback and tailback?

 

“There’s a formation you could set your watch to!”

 

To credit for NFL Challenge’s existence was a Minnesota company named XOR, which was proud enough to boast in the game manual’s forward that coding such realism – in C, no less – took 30,000 lines and “more than 10 man-years.” Well, good for you! XOR also charged $100 for NFL Challenge, an exorbitant sum then (and now), which helps explain why the company vanished overnight in 1992, following seven years of work.

When first introduced to NFL Challenge, I must’ve been 15. A long-ago friend, who is no longer a friend, had the game, as his dad made enough money to own a computer and buy the game for his son. (I’m not sure what Dad did for a living – he always be home on weekday afternoons, reading on the couch and listening to NPR.) I’d bike the two miles to my friend’s house, and we’d have at it.
BEEP-BEEP-BEEP Here’s the kick, and we are underway….
Looking at NFL Challenge now, the graphics are laughable, pitiable. The game didn’t bother trying to re-create players. Instead, the look was straight off a coach’s blackboard: Os for the offense and Xs on defense. You’d call a play, your opponent would call a play, and the Os and Xs would butt heads.

 

PHOTO: GRAPHICS

Like coaches’ whiteboards had come to life.


But the graphics weren’t the point. As said before, it was the details. Back then, try to find another football sim where the AI knew enough, when leading by 13 points late in the game, to sit in a prevent defense, content to sell small chunks of yardage for large chunks of time. Did Tecmo Bowl have an option to run a two-minute drill? Could you stop the clock by calling time-out OR spiking the ball? No, you couldn’t.

 

PHOTO: MARINO

 

Beyond that, the game could test your roster’s depth through injuries, call penalties to snuff out your promising drives, and unfeelingly run the clock down while you trailed late and couldn’t get a defensive stop.


I played NFL Challenge a lot, first against my friend then at home with my own copy. I remember one time, a game played against the computer, where I was trailing the Washington Redskins late. Needing to catch up quick, I kept calling for long passes. But the computer would bring the house at just the right time for a sack. And when I’d run a draw or screen, hoping to cross up the AI, it would bring a vanilla four-man rush. As a friend watched me, I would see the defense called as the play ran, and react with a dismayed “Eh.” Eventually, my friend said, “It keeps running the ‘Eh’ blitz.”

Years passed…

No, more years than that…

A few nights ago, I started thinking of NFL Challenge, and the fun I had. Now, I knew there is a cottage industry for emulators and “abandonware.” The first are programs that can make your computer act like a totally different computer. That shiny Dell ya got, wanna run old C-64 or Atari 2600 games? Giddy-up! Abandonware is exactly as it sounds – software that isn’t just old but obsolete, with its programmers no longer caring about the code to which they so once lovingly devoted 10 man-years.
With not much effort (thanks Google!), I found both the game and a solid DOS emulator. And I started playing…

 

PHOTO: START-UP SCREEN

The Mac version’s look far outstripped that on PCs.


As a kid, we only had one season to re-create: 1984. That year ended at Stanford Stadium(!), with San Francisco beating Miami in Super Bowl XIX. The Los Angeles Rams were worthy opponents, as were the LA Raiders. The Chicago Bears were on the verge of being good, as were the New York Giants. The worst team in the league was Buffalo.
But the version I downloaded, it had the teams from 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991, as well as ’84. Picking a year at random, more or less, I decided to replay Super Bowl XXIV. Final score: San Francisco 55, Denver 10 – a result mocked by The Simpsons:

FBI Agent: “Don’t worry, Mrs. Simpson, we’ve helped hundreds of people in danger. We’ll give you a new name, a new job, new identity.”
Homer: (Raising hand) “Oooh, I want to be John Elway!”
(Homer starts daydreaming about being John Elway. The ball is snapped to Homer and he dives over the pile into the end zone.)
Announcer: “Elway takes the snap and runs it in for a touchdown! Thanks to Elway’s patented last-second magic, the final score of Super Bowl XXX is Denver 7, San Francisco 56.”
Homer: (Back to reality) “Woo-hoo!”

With me standing in for Niners coach Bill Walsh, the game didn’t quite go that smoothly as history had me hoping.
As I struggled to remember the plays and keyboard commands, the Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead. My first possession ended when running back Roger Craig fumbled, and when I got the ball back after a Denver field goal Joe Montana was intercepted. But as I became more familiar with the game, my confidence grew – as did the Niners’ prowess.

 


On a blitz, I briefly knocked Elway out of the game. Montana threw touchdowns to John Taylor (who I just now nearly called James Taylor) and Jerry Rice. Early in the fourth quarter, I went ahead 20-10. And that was after a cocky stretch where I went ahead by three on a field goal, unsuccessfully tried an onside kick, forced a three-and-out, then scored following the ensuing punt. All the while, I was having enormous fun watching names from the past pop up on the monitor: Steve Atwater, Vance Johnson, Matt Millen, Karl Mecklenberg. It was like NFL Films was in my head, showing old tape.
Even more, I realized how little I, as a boy, understood football. When to blitz and when to lay back. Why the pass sets up the run. Play it safe early and go for it late. And never, ever take points off the board.
Back in the game, Montana kept getting picked off. There was another fumble, and the yellow flags were flying. I went for it on fourth-and-inches, and Montana’s dive got stuffed.
The worst came at the end of regulation. I missed a field goal that would’ve put me up by 13. The Broncos scored a touchdown. I couldn’t kill the clock. The Broncos drove to kick the tying field goal. With 1:41 to go, I tried to conjure up some Montana magic – but he threw another interception. Denver couldn’t do anything, and after I got the ball back on my 35 with 20 ticks on the clock I decided to take my chances in overtime.
I won the toss, but that relief was short lived because Montana was picked off for the fifth time, deep in SF territory. Barely pondering whether the game would be over in a few seconds, I imagined ordering Steve Young to warm up.

 

Has any other team ever had two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks simultaneously on the roster for YEARS?

 


And here’s where matters got weird. We’re in sudden death, and Denver has the ball on my 21. The figgie is an automatic call, right? Well, no. The AI Dan Reeves must’ve been suffering a cybercoronary, because the Broncos set out to drive for the winning touchdown. Really.
My thinking was, I’ve got to push them back at all costs. On first-and-10, I called for 4-4 Inside Charge – a near-unstoppable goal-line defense. No gain, and it’s second and long. I call for an all-out blitz, and I plant Denver’s backup QB, Gary Kubiak, for my seventh sack. (Elway left for good sometime during the fourth quarter.) Third-and-long. Another blitz. And another sack! The Broncos now have a 48-yard field goal instead of a 38-yarder. The kick is up… Wide right! (Reeves got to share the goat horns with kicker David Treadwell, who missed four of seven kicks.)
Although the hangman forgot to tie the noose’s knot, I couldn’t capitalize and had to punt after three plays. (It was during this possession Young got into the stat sheet, via a 4-yard pass on a TE screen. Montana, by the way, completed 25 of 39 passes for 282 yards with two TDs against those five picks.)
The end came quickly. I punted to pin Denver back, and two plays later Kubiak threw an interception of his own. A long return gave me possession on the Broncos 21, and I wasted no time calling for my field goal unit.
Snap, hold, kick… Good!
San Francisco 26, Denver 23, OT.

 

“I’m going to Disney World!”


That was two nights ago, and it’s hard to get the game out of my imagination. Why did Montana have such an awful game? Perhaps this was the flip side to his legendary Cotton Bowl victory, and despite bowls of chicken soup he just couldn’t shake his illness. What was Reeves’ postgame press conference like? Was Treadwell run out of Denver on the proverbial rail? Who was named MVP? Perhaps the honor was shared by SF defensive lineman Pierce Holt and linebacker Keena Turner, who each had three sacks. Perhaps the sportswriters couldn’t overlook Denver cornerback Wymon Henderson, with his three interceptions in a losing effort. Finally, I saw this game fading into Super Bowl lore as an entertaining mess.

That was just one game, and there are countless more to be played. And, unlike tonight’s real contest, I can’t imagine they’ll be boring in the slightest.