Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff Review (NDS)
At a time when football games are not quite as plentiful as they used to be, Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff had a chance to be a savior of sorts for football fans.
Like All-Pro Football 2K8 before it, Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff's emphasis on player and team customization could have given gamers the opportunity to use their alma maters and hometown teams in a game that was not built by The One Engine To Rule Them All.
Tecmo certainly started this game with the right game plan:
- It promised the classic Tecmo Bowl gameplay, which is so beloved that people still update the game's rosters on a yearly basis.
- It promised the multi-season mode and stat-tracking that all the sim-heads crave.
- It promised the online play that the hardcore head-to-head guys need to keep playing the game when their friends aren't around.
But when Tecmo made all those promises, it forgot one important point:
You cannot just list those features on your press releases and the back of your game case and expect those features to sell the game -- especially when none of them work as promised.
Well, Tecmo, I guess one out of three is not bad; you got the one that required the least amount of work right: the gameplay.
Indeed, very few changes have been made to Tecmo Bowl’s classic Rochambeau style of gameplay, and given how well the Tecmo Bowl engine has aged, Kickoff’s decision to stick close to its roots is conservative but smart -- like taking the sure field goal inside the red-zone instead of gambling on fourth down.
The few additions that Tecmo has made to the gameplay are about as hit-or-miss as trying to pick a fantasy running back in a Mike Shanahan backfield.
The stylus control, for instance, which forces you to drag the flimsy little pointer across the screen to move your player around the field, is horribly ineffective when playing defense or trying to run the ball.
But if the stylus is "bad Rex" in regards to how it handles defense and the running game, it turns into "good Rex" on passing downs because it allows you to sling the ball across all corners of the field by simply tapping on a receiver’s icon to "get him the damn ball."
The stylus control definitely adds a fun new mechanic to the passing game. However, in terms of game-balance, it seems like the stylus control makes it too easy to pass the ball -- at least on the downs where the offense is moving from left to right.
Reason being, when the field is flipped and the offense is moving from right to left, right-handed players will either have to learn to "pass" with their left hand or be forced to deal with their fist obscuring important portions of the screen (see: the pocket) while they try to find and "tap" the receiver who is being blanketed by the player’s thumb.
While you can always go back to the classic method of cycling through your different receivers with a button press, you probably won't want to because Tecmo decided that it would be a good idea to give all your receivers the same color icon, and represent the targeted receiver's icon with a shade of white that is slightly brighter than the others.
Problem is, you really have to look hard at the dimly-lit DS screen to find the "brightest" shade of white, and instead of being able to quickly cycle through your receivers like you could in older Tecmo Bowls, Kickoff often leaves you wondering which one of the five or six white icons on the screen is the "bright one."
So "wondering" leads to errant throws; errant throws lead to interceptions; interceptions lead to anger; and anger is the path to the "dark side," better known on the DS as "stylus controls."
Aside from those new control options, Kickoff’s other big gameplay addition is the small group of special abilities that activate whenever your players "catch fire" during the course of the game.
Some of these abilities work well within the balance of the game, such as the "Rocket Pass," "Sack Evasion," "Vertical Boost," (allows your player to make a high, leaping catch) and "Tug Boat" (allows the ball-carrier to gain a few extra yards while being tackled), all of which give the offense a small bonus for a single play without feeling cheap or overpowering.
Other abilities, like "DB Deception" are not so much cheap as they are annoying. This particular skill triggers its accompanying cut-scene a second after the ball is snapped and completely disrupts the flow of play for the defense by "pausing" the action right in the middle of an attempted pass rush.
Then there are abilities like the "Divine Save," which truly are cheap in the way that they allow players to teleport (literally) 15 and 20 yards across the field to make immaculate, diving receptions. There is also the ridiculous "Lightning Dodge," which takes the running back and teleports him out the back door of the defense, giving him a head start in a footrace for the end zone that he did not even earn.
Suffice to say, Kickoff would have been much more enjoyable if there was some way to go into the options and check off which abilities you want to allow/remove from the game, because frankly, some of them stink worse than Roy L. Williams in pass coverage.
Customization is actually not a new thing for the Tecmo Bowl series. In fact, one of the reasons why the 16-bit Final Edition still gets a lot of playing time in my circle of friends is due to the fact that Final Edition’s player-creation system allows us to build virtual representations of ourselves and our favorite football players who didn’t make it into the game’s default roster.
While the player editor in Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff lets you put those players’ names and numbers into the game -- assuming the name passes the silly "language filter" -- the editor falls short in one key area:
The created players are already superstars the moment they first step onto the field.
The beauty of the CAP system from Final Edition was the way in which it started all your players out as complete scrubs and let you slowly build them up as they made plays for your team every Sunday.
In Kickoff, however, you can have a team full of dominant players who are ready to go on opening day because the game allows you take away points from worthless categories (quickness, running speed) and pool all those points into the categories that matter most (running power, maximum speed).
Final Edition’s player editor also trumps Kickoff’s editor in the way that it rewards created players over the course of their career.
While Final Edition made you earn your attribute points on the field, and evaluated each of your player’s performance on a game-to-game basis, Kickoff uses an Al Davis-style of ownership by saying "to hell with evaluation!" and simply gives away twelve attribute points at the end of the season to every player on the roster -- including the backups who never even saw the field -- regardless of how well those players performed during the season.
For all the poor decisions that Tecmo has made in regards to the player editor, at least its developers can proudly say that it sports one of the best team editors around, handheld or otherwise.
Kickoff’s uniform editor in particular goes above and beyond what I would have expected from a handheld game, as it has enough options to put it only a few points behind All-Pro Football 2K8 in the "uniform editor" power rankings.
The one area where Kickoff’s create-a-team feature falls short is the logo editor, which offers a meager 16 logos to choose from. Since there are 32 teams in the game, this means that some teams end up sharing the same logo.
But hey, 16 logos to choose from is still twice as many as we got in NBA 2K9 on current-gen consoles, so I guess it could have been worse.
Still, what really would have pushed Kickoff’s team editor over the top is if Tecmo had used a decal editor similar to what was used in Mario Kart DS, which lets you create your own pixel art directly in the game.
Tecmo Bowl has never been known for its strong single-player experience, and Kickoff does absolutely nothing to remedy that situation.
While there is a multi-season mode like Final Edition, it lacks some of the finer details that made that game somewhat interesting to play against the computer.
For instance, Kickoff’s fictional TFL (Tecmo Football League) has no free-agent pool, so roster management is limited strictly to player-for-player trades.
Unlike previous editions of the game, Kickoff has no long-standing records to shoot for (like most passing/rushing yards in a season), as Kickoff only tracks your team’s personal records for a maximum of five seasons.
The biggest detriment to the season mode, however, is the fact that the series still has no sort of selectable difficulty levels for the computer, which means that you will be steamrolling the computer teams week after week.
Like in past Tecmo Bowls, the computer offense will become a bit more effective at putting points on the board as the season goes on, but the A.I. defense will remain terrible all season long because it is unable to adjust its strategies to account for human play-calling tendencies.
To prove that point, during several games in my season I deliberately called the same running play all game long to see how many times the computer would "blow the play up" by guessing it correctly before the snap. The computer only blew up the stong-side toss about 2 or 3 times out of the 50-plus times I called it (in succession, no less).
The end result is that, during my first season, my offense averaged a steady 60-80 points all the way to the Tecmo Bowl, and when the ball was in my hands, my offense was able to score at will using just about any of the eight plays in my playbook.
To the computer’s credit, it did up its offensive output in the second half of the season, going from its usual 0-10 points per game to a more respectable 20-30 points by the time I hit the playoffs, even challenging me with an unheard of 40 points in the Tecmo Bowl.
But when I am scoring 80 points a game, 40 points just is not enough to keep the game competitive.
So when season two started, and I had distributed the 12 bonus points to all my created players, my average scoring drive was lasting no more than two plays, and my points per game shot up to 100-110.
And as someone who likes to be challenged by the computer opponent, season two was when I gave up on the single-player portion of Kickoff and decided to try out the game's online component.
With Tecmo Bowl having such a strong history as one of the all-time greats in head-to-head sports gaming, Kickoff’s addition of online play could have easily been the game’s saving feature. Unfortunately, due to some poor netcode, the online play actually ends up being Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff’s biggest disappointment.
I’m sure I was not the only gamer whose excitement about the release of Kickoff was fueled in part by the potential of being able to build online leagues around the game. Sadly, those dreams were interrupted the moment I attempted my first online kickoff and witnessed what should have been a sure touchback transformed into an onside kick -- not because of an error in my timing but because of the game's latency.
Then my defense took the field, and I discovered that the latency was also hurting my ability to switch players before the snap, rush the quarterback, make open field tackles, and basically deal with every other stinking aspect of the game.
For a series that relies so heavily on twitch-reflexes, any degree of lag can cause massive amounts of frustration for the player, and unfortunately for Kickoff, the lag does not ever seem to subside -- even if you go into the game with a full, three-bar "green" connection.
The Little Things
Kickoff’s poor online performance is not the only area that leaves the game feeling unpolished.
Some of the new abilities are a bit glitchy: The "Rocket Pass" seems to cause slowdown anytime the pass travels far enough to move the screen downfield; and the "Lightning Dodge" causes computer-controlled running backs to start running backwards at the conclusion of the cut-scene.
The new celebration cut-scenes also look nice on the DS' dual-screens, but they are missing essential information like how many yards your TD just went for or how many yards the QB just lost after being sacked.
Another disappointing stat-related issue is the absence of the statistical overlays that used to pop-up in between plays of older Tecmo Bowls. These overlays let you know how you were doing without having to pause the game to check the stats yourself.
The authenticity of the experience is further damaged by the barren look of the fields themselves, which do have the chain gangs and down-and-distance markers, but are missing the field logos, end zone logos, banners and grandstands present in older Tecmo Bowl games.
The last issue I have may seem like a point of contention for some, but I am nonetheless bothered by the continued existence of gameplay exploits like “zig-zag running” and “nose-tackle dives” that tend to take you out of the "football" experience.
Those exploits, along with some of Tecmo Bowl's strange rules -- like touchbacks that register as safeties and blocked kicks that cannot be returned -- remain, for better or worse (I would argue "worse").
With a single-player mode that gets old after one season, and an online mode with lag issues that make it more or less unplayable, the only use I can see for Kickoff is as a local head-to-head game. So if you and your friends have DS handhelds and are looking for a way to play Tecmo Bowl on the go, you might get some long-term enjoyment out of the game. All other gamers would be better off sticking with their dusty (but trusty) copy of Tecmo Bowl for the NES/SNES.
On The Field: The added stylus controls seem to hurt the game more than they help it, and the new player abilities annoy more than they excite.
Graphics: The player sprites are small, and the fields are lacking in detail compared to previous Tecmo Bowls (no logos/banners/etc.). However, the new cut-scenes look sharp.
Sound: The tunes rock pretty hard for MIDI songs, but they repeat themselves so much that you will probably be playing in silence after a game or two -- if not by your own doing, then at the request of your friends/family.
Entertainment Value: Season mode becomes a chore about halfway through the first year, and online multiplayer is a complete throwaway due to lag, which leaves local multiplayer as the only real point of interest -- better hope you have some friends with DS handhelds and a copy of the game, or you will not be getting a whole lot of value out of this one.
Learning Curve: Tecmo Bowl's accessibility is what has made the series such a great alternative to complex football titles like Madden and NFL 2K; just about anyone can pick up the controller and have some fun.