Sports gamers have had a rough go of it over the past few years. For a while now, we've lived in a world where every sport gets one (or perhaps two) big new games annually, and they usually don't add much to the formula; as 2K fans often complain, you're paying $60 or $70 for a roster update that's stuffed to the gills with microtransactions. But if you're a football fan willing to look past glitzy graphics and butter-smooth animation, there are alternatives.
On first glance, the PC game Legend Bowl seems like a throwback to a simpler era of sports games like Tecmo Super Bowl and NFL Blitz, when arcade fun triumphed over complex simulation. But while it's true that Legend Bowl is unapologetically a fun video game, it's also has a lot more depth than you might expect from its 16-bit facade. The result is an experience that's easy for non-fans to pick up, but with a little practice, experts will soon find themselves dominating the competition.
Throw it back — At first, the game's controls can be a little daunting, especially compared to the three or four-button action of actual 16-bit sports games. On offense, you select your quarterback's preferred receiver with one of the gamepad's many buttons. Proper timing is paramount. If you tap the button, your quarterback will throw a lob pass that's easy for a defender to swat away; hold the button, and you can attempt a bullet pass. However, if you press it too long, you'll end up with an inaccurate throw into the turf, or perhaps even an interception.
Truck and run — When you're running, you can try many different moves to outfox your defenders, including stiff-arms, spins, and shoulder tackles. You can charge your back's power to increase their chance of success with these moves, or hammer on a button to run faster at the expense of their stamina. While this might sound complicated, it means that you always have some sort of option to try to salvage some yards, even when the defense reads your routes or blitzes your QB.
On the defensive side, some knowledge of the actual sport of football is definitely helpful: knowing the difference between zone coverage and man-to-man can really help you disrupt the computer's game plan. (Or you can just turn it to Easy while you learn). Pursuers break through blocks by mashing buttons and tackle with a dedicated button; unlike most classic football games, you can't just walk up to the guy and automatically take him down, as I rudely learned in my first game of Legend Bowl, when my cornerback lightly rubbed against the opposing running back before he broke away for a 70-yard touchdown.
Mods aplenty — While I've mostly stuck to the game's basic exhibition mode - which also supports local multiplayer - the game has a season mode that allows you to play through an entire NFL-style campaign of football, complete with injuries and the like. Right now, the only major element I'd like to see added to the game is a franchise mode that would allow you to play as the same team through multiple seasons, but that's apparently in the works. Online multiplayer would also be a great feature, but considering that the game is a one-man project, it's not clear if that's feasible at this point. (As with many games, there are programs you can use to fool the game into supporting online play, like Parsec, though it might be laggy.)
Overall, Legend Bowl is an approachable but deceptively complex football game that has a lot to offer to both casual players and die-hard fans of the sport. And while it doesn't feature real NFL players right out of the box, there are fan-made mods that let you play as your favorite team if you know where to look. (Google is your friend.)