The NFL being back on TV can mean only two things for my video game habits. First of all, I basically no longer have time to play games on a Sunday, as my focus is always on the weekly slate of games and how well I’m doing in fantasy football. Second, I begin to think… is there a good NFL game I can kill some time in?
Usually, you know, the answer is singular. Madden NFL. This isn’t to say that Madden is bad – it’s fine – but it has all the foibles you’d expect from these yearly efforts from EA Sports. They’re a constant treadmill of gradual improvements, developed in what is clearly a highly cost-efficient factory-like environment. And that’s fine – but it means I don’t really want to play Madden every single year. Not enough changes, and the yearly cost is significant for relatively incremental additions and roster updates.
While we do have a ‘non simulation’ licensed NFL game coming from 2K Sports at some point in the future that I’m praying channels NFL Blitz (the best sports game of all time), over the last few years I’ve been experimenting with independent American Football games – and there’s quite a few tidy ones on PC.
Last year I was all about Pro Strategy Football, which is a yearly franchise that basically aims to be the Football Manager of hand-egg. It’s not licensed by the NFL, and looks extremely cheap and basic, but there’s a shocking amount of depth and a dedicated fan community that quietly uploads mods to add the official teams and rosters.
Given the NFL is such a deeply tactical sport moment-to-moment, it’s an ideal choice for a management game, and I’ve always been surprised that a bigger company has never taken a run at an NFL management game given how prominent a component of the sport fantasy football is.
I also got into and even wrote about the mobile game Retro Bowl while briefly trapped in a Polish airport by coronavirus travel restrictions. It’s a fabulous mobile offering that sort of resembles an NES football game like Tecmo Bowl or whatever, but again offers a surprising amount of nuance and depth, especially given it’s on the mobile platform. It hooked me for many hours, but wasn’t quite complicated enough to sink its claws into me long-term.
Here’s where the game mentioned in the title enters the fray. Legend Bowl is a new PC American Football game available on Steam that is basically a 16-bit throwback, but with modern-day levels of complexity and nuance. It has a lo-fi look, but in terms of features and its dedication to recreating the sport is equivalent to Madden. I’ve seen people compare it to back-in-the-day classics like Sensible Soccer, and though it’s more focused on realism, there’s also some of that flair that made over-the-top nineties classics like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz so popular.
It’s got everything you’d want. There’s tournaments, training, and exhibition matches – all great to have – but I quickly focused myself on Season Mode. Season Mode lets you play matches, spectate matches, or simulate them – meaning that you can use the latter options to make this a light-touch management sim if you so wish. You’re not just managing the team, but also your facilities and training. You’ll have to deal with things like weather and injuries, and even craft your own custom coach in your journey to building a team that can be Super Bowl-ready.
Of course, the big game isn’t called the Super Bowl because of licensing. Indeed, the NFL isn’t presented in this game in any way – but there’s cute little legally distinct facsimiles of the franchises, plus downloadable mods that add in the real-life teams and players if you really can’t do without. You can also go in and make some pretty deep customization on your own thanks to a multitude of options.
It’s worth noting that even with these mods, the game is limited at ‘season’ level – there’s no ‘franchise’ equivalent yet where you begin to manage and play as a team over multiple years, dealing with things like the draft, trading, and contract negotiations. This gives a natural path for a sequel to take – and I think other areas of expansion for this game are clear.
What’s in this first game, however, is more than adequate. What really pushes it over the top is the sense of authenticity. Legend Bowl exists in a universe, and there’s a consistency across its universe. Everything from the on-field advertisements to the way weather works and the little newspaper reports you get with league news during a season feels right, and fitting. You get colour commentary on player performance and stats including how players’ performance is translating to fantasy football. The referees are active participants in the game, and players animate all of the in-between-play movement and action (though this is skippable). I let out an audible cheer of delight that startled the dog when in one game the referees actually got out the chains to measure if a very close play had actually made a new set of downs or not.
This sort of thing is what you expect from a po-faced hyper-hardcore simulation game where every pore on the dead-eyed face of the starring quarterback has been exquisitely 3D modelled, not a fun pixel art football game. Little things, like the muffled sound of the stadium announcer reminding what down it is and the snippets of flavor music played to the stadium between plays, make it feel like you’re really at a game. Games like this usually don’t have ‘proper’ clock management, but this does, and it makes the whole process of setting up for a play feel even more important. It all feels remarkably authentic, and captures the ‘feel’ of American Football brilliantly.
Legend Bowl straddles a similar line in how it actually plays, too. The steam page describes it best, as a “mix between simulation and arcade-based mechanics”. I think that tracks. It’s not quite as arcadey as the NES and SNES classics or Blitz, but also isn’t as painstaking a simulation as Madden. Exactly where it is on that graph doesn’t really matter, though – what matters is how it feels. It feels great. There’s a weight to the movements you make, but not so much that it becomes boring.
On the simulation side, I was quite surprised at how legitimate the throwing mechanic feels – though it, and kicking, are quite difficult to master at first.
Like the lack of a franchise mode, the criticisms I do have seem like the sort of thing to address in a sequel or large update, not the sort of thing I can use to explicitly drag the game down. The AI is sometimes a bit dubious in its decision-making, and it feels like there’s some Blitz-style aggressive rubber-banding going on to keep games competitive. It can be hard to see your downfield receivers on deep attempts. Passing is a nightmare at first, even when contextualized by the tutorial, and though it eventually clicks the game should do more to teach players how it works.
With all these and other small complaints logged, one has to step back and say: regardless, wow, what a first attempt. Especially by a solo developer. For pure fun and thrills, I actually think this might be the best American Football game on the market right now, the natural heir to the likes of Tecmo Bowl and NFL Blitz. EA, 2K, consider this challenger worthy.