Tecmo Super Bowl, which was originally released in 1991 and is arguably the greatest sports video game produced, has maintained a strong cult following of nostalgic, dedicated players who grew up on the game.
There are moments in life that make you feel old. When a teenager addresses you as “sir”; when a favorite TV show appears on Nick at Nite; when your favorite team signs a superstar who’s a decade younger than you.
In my case, it’s when I try to play a game of Tecmo online.
David Murray, appropriately known on Twitter as @tecmobowlers, is telling me about how he used to belong to an online Tecmo Super Bowl league that included such things as a “franchise mode” with a draft, a salary cap and even retro rosters from the 1970s.
Here’s the thing: You cannot do any of that in Tecmo Super Bowl…or at least, not in the original 1991 Nintendo version, arguably the greatest sports video game ever produced. That version was advanced enough for its time with a full-season mode and customizeable playbooks, but it also required you to, you know, blow into the cartridge to get it to load, as per Nintendo tradition.
Times have changed. This is no longer your father’s Tecmo Super Bowl. (And by “your father,” I guess I am directly addressing my own toddler there, because this was one of my go-to games throughout childhood and even into college.)
Tecmo Super Bowl (which was followed by Tecmo Super Bowl II and III) has maintained a strong cult following of nostalgic, dedicated players who grew up on the game. The original title has been rereleased several times over a variety of platforms: Super Nintendo, XBox, Playstation, Nintendo DS, Sega Genesis. Those like Murray, who still trek to tournaments around the country and take time to cultivate the occasional league, still prefer the old to the new.
“They always go back to the wrong version,” Murray laments, when discussing how they redesign the game. “The Super Nintendo version. It looks better but it’s slower and doesn’t have the same feel. I don’t want to say people hate it but it’s not the same thing.”
A few years ago I downloaded a Nintendo emulator, which, if you’re not familiar with the term, essentially allows the user to recreate the platform on a computer. And I’ve played Tecmo Super Bowl (with roster updates!) on there plenty of times, always against the computer. So a couple of weeks ago, when I reached out to Eric O’Dell, who runs the annual Detroit Tecmo tournament, about facing off against me online, I assumed the process would be rather painless.
This is what he wrote back:
“Be sure you’ve got a folder set up with the Brudtopia emulator, and also the rom we’ll play on. Go to the downloads section of www.tecmoplayers.com. Grab the tapmeter rom, which is the original Tecmo Super Bowl rom, but with a hack that allows us to see the amount of taps (during grapples). I believe you likely have the right emulator, but you can get Brudtopia from the download section there as well. We’ll need to have all of the exact same files, so these are important steps.
Also, we’ll need a chat agent.
Discord is the gaming chat agent used in the community and is pretty sweet, but set up could take a few extra steps to get you going.”
Just like that, I was the grandpa you try to teach Snapchat to.
Among the “extra steps” involved in the Discord portion was receiving an invite to the Tecmo Super Bowl room, where players go to find opponents online. (If you’ve ever used Slack, it looks almost exactly like that, except almost all discussion is devoted to a 25-year-old video game, as opposed to the usual Giphy exchanges.) There, players can find pick-up games, should they so desire. TecmoWorld.com even keeps track of the results and tallies the resulting rankings, weighted according to which teams were used—the 49ers, with Joe Montana, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice, are heavy favorites in most games; the Colts, quarterbacked by a young Jeff George, are the lowest-rated, least-used team on the site.
“It probably will be a little quiet on there until the Cincinnati tournament,” O’Dell cautions of Tecmo World.
The Midwest Tecmo Super Bowl Tournament will be held this year on July 31 at Rick’s Tavern & Grille in Fairfield, Ohio, about 17 miles north of Cincinnati. It is one of the many tournaments included on the calendar at TecmoBowl.org, an active community maintained by Murray and site founder Matt Knobbe (@tecmogodfather).
Before the Cincinnati-area tournament comes an event known as “Burning Mort,” named after a legendary Tecmo player, real name Francis Buennagel. “Burning Mort” is described on the TecmoBowl.org site as “a Tecmo experience like no other—a completely outdoor extravaganza—the first of its kind.” The weekend begins with a Friday welcome party in downtown Fargo, then continues on through Saturday’s tournament. “[The] experience extends until dawn and ends only when you want it to,” promises the message-board write-up.
Lest you still not buy the seriousness of it, try this: via aerial view, the site for the competition, in the wilderness of Leonard, North Dakota, looks almost identical to the play design for one of Tecmo Super Bowl’s sweep plays.
“That one’s going to be intense,” Knobbe says with a laugh.
A different sort of intensity comes out at Tecmo Madison, the de facto national championship for the game. Two hundred and fifty-six players participated in that event this past March, the last one to be held by organizers Chet and Josh Holzbauer.
Murray promises that the tournament will live on, with different folks running the show, if only because it’s too big to close down entirely. On top of the massive entry list this year, hundreds more people converged on Madison’s Badger Bowl to watch, while several thousand viewed the proceedings—including postgame interviews—on Twitch, a leading video platform for gamers.
“I’ve worked with Josh and Chet on the tournament and their story is so cool,” Murray says. “It started in a bar, basically, with a quick email between them: ‘We love playing this, a bunch of our friends love playing this, we should have a city-wide tournament.’
“Each year, it kind of grew and grew. To have five or six hundred people show up throughout the day, for a 25-year-old video game, that’s a big deal.”
Murray is among those who could take on a bigger role at the Madison showcase now that the brothers Holzbauer are stepping aside. O’Dell hopes that the changing guard could open the door for other events, like his Detroit Tecmo Kumite tournament, to pick up a few more participants. The Detroit event was held this past January at Hoops in Auburn Hills, just down the road from The Palace, the Pistons’ home venue. When the Madison tournament sets up shop, it envelopes an entire bar. O’Dell found his scheduling a little more problematic in 2016.
“We had it on the same night that the Pistons played the Warriors and retired Ben Wallace’s jersey,” O’Dell says. “By the end of the night we had just one little spot at the bar.”
Last Friday, after O’Dell walked me through the last couple of steps—the first few took longer than I am proud of—we were ready to play. I had two goals going in: 1. Score. 2. Don’t do anything stupid.
I failed with the latter almost immediately. O’Dell took his Steelers (whose lineup he adjusted to get Merrill Hoge more carries) down the field on a lengthy scoring drive to open the game before my Dan Marino-led Dolphins had their first possession. On my third play from scrimmage, I committed a cardinal sin of Tecmo Super Bowl, backpedaling Marino in the pocket while I scrolled through my receivers. By the time I looked back to Marino, I was in my own end zone, getting sacked. 9–0.
The game evened out from there, and I did even manage to accomplish goal No. 1 via a Marino-to-Mark Clayton touchdown pass (after I recovered my own fumble and ran for a first down). Final score: 22–7.
“I gotta admit I’m impressed,” O’Dell typed to me in the game’s chat, either because he expected me to be horrible at the game or he was buttering up yours truly. Perhaps both.
Kickoff for our matchup had been delayed a bit because O’Dell had to get his daughter down for a nap first. Therein lies one explanation for how Tecmo Super Bowl, despite its obvious popularity, has remained on the fringes of the gaming world. The people who grew up playing it are now in their 30s, many of them with families. Video games in general are not often the priority.
“I used to play a lot more,” O’Dell says. “It’s harder to find time now.”
The game is still addictive as hell, though. O’Dell and I spent about 12 seconds deciding to dial up a rematch.
I took the Lions, mainly because of Barry Sanders. He nabbed the Browns, led by “QB Browns,” a stand-in for Bernie Kosar, one of a handful of players (Randall Cunningham aka “QB Eagles” and Jim Kelly aka “QB Bills”) who were not members of the NFLPA when Tecmo Super Bowl was able to license official rosters.
Sadly, Sanders never found much open space—running against a player who knows what he’s doing, it turns out, is far more difficult than zig-zagging away from the computer en route to the end zone. He rushed for 28 yards on 12 attempts in a 17–7 Detroit loss. But again ... points! Heck, even a lead in that game, courtesy of an early Rodney Peete touchdown pass.
“Keep practicing and you’ll be able to compete,” O’Dell told me when it was over.
It’s easy to see how one could get sucked into this world again. There have been some outstanding football-related video-game titles in the past 25 years—Bill Walsh College Football (which morphed into the popular NCAA Football franchise), NFL 2K5 and, of course, the Madden series.But the simplistic wonder of Tecmo Super Bowl, even when it includes upgrades like the current version does with in-game player fatigue, puts it in a different class.
“There are a couple other games with that sort of following,” Murray says. “NHL ’94 for Sega ... it’s not as rabid as Tecmo Super Bowl but it’s still a big deal. There’s a championship every year—the King of ’94 series—and they’re shooting a documentary on the whole process right now.
“And one that’s super serious is Tetris. The Nintendo Tetris competitive scene is, like, crazy wild. There’s not as much of a media scene, but they have a national championship. ... They have like 10 times the entrants that a Tecmo tournament will, because it’s just a one-player thing, a high score. They had a qualifying tournament in Dallas last month with a ton of people lining up to play.”
As for the Tecmo groundswell, it didn’t just happen. It needed borderline fanatics to spearhead the movement, keep the competitions open and convince others to get on board.
“We all got to a certain age,” says Murray, who like this author is 34, “when our interest peaked and we had some disposable income. When that happened the whole tournament things started to grow.”
It continues as a labor of love. There is no money to be made here, at least not yet. Murray and Knobbe have been working on a desktop application that would make it easier to connect online to play Tecmo Super Bowl. That development could be of interest to the Tecmo company, for which the game is named (there also are titles like Tecmo World Cup and Tecmo Baseball), and to Konami, a corporation popular for its video-game development. “We’re always on their radar because they’ve seen how rabid it is,” Murray says.
The hacks, like the aforementioned historical rosters and two-point conversions—one of many tweaks made by Dave Brude, whose "anti-cheat measures" are integral to the required NES emulator—help keep Tecmo Super Bowl somewhat up to date. "I've developed or help develop a number of hacks over the years," Brude says, via email. "Some of the tweaks/hacks I've put into the game are things many people in the community wanted to see. Others ... [were] purely my own idea."
Could the fan base grow? Could gamers who did not grow up mashing the A and B buttons on their old-school controllers learn to love 8-bit graphics when Madden: Virtual Reality could be not all that far down the line?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Those who loved Tecmo Super Bowl 25 years ago are still out there and playing, though. They are not that hard to find, either, even if—speaking from experience here—the experience is a little more complex now.