Remember how electric football games used to be?
There was an aluminum field with a wire that ran underneath. There were little football figures frozen in positions that no player had struck before or has since.
You positioned the offense and defense, shooing away your little brother, hoping you could get started before his whining convinced your parents that you had to play together. Then you took the tiny felt football (about the size of a good chunk of belly-button lint) and tucked it under the arm of a running back.
Then you flicked a switch, and the field started to vibrate. The players went every which way, eventually congregating in a clump at midfield. Except for the running back, that is. He invariably spun around and headed for the wrong end zone.
You'd do this two or three times, get bored, then put the game away. By the time you were interested again in a month or two, several players were missing, claimed on waivers by Mom while vacuuming.
But, as the song goes, that was then, this is now.
Now is TV Sports Football, a game for use in NEC's TurboGrafx-16 home video game system. The players are off the aluminum and on the television screen. They move in ways more closely related to human beings. There are music, sound effects, a scoreboard, strategy, league standings, a sportscaster . . . and a place-kicker named Ira Lieberman.
The invitation to TV Sports Football arrived via fax. "As a sports journalist," the letter read, "you've probably pulled your hair out watching the execution of a coaching decision that you knew was wrong. And like every true sports fan, you've wished you could step into the TV set and take control of the game as the star player."
Though there were a couple of faulty assumptions there (my hair has yet to leave my scalp during a sportscast, and I like being outside the television) and two gratuitous appeals to my vanity ("sports journalist," "true sports fan"), this seemed a good opportunity to check out the home video game phenomenon that had yet to invade my home. And perhaps this can be instructive for last-minute Christmas shoppers who are considering buying the TV Sports Football cartridge ($49.99 at the Glen Burnie Toys R Us) and the TurboGrafx-16 system ($159.99).
The system is fairly easy to set up, even for someone whose technological expertise ends slightly south of replacing light bulbs. The game itself is more complicated.
The basic game works like this: Before each play, you can select an offensive or defensive set, then choose options. Once the ball is snapped, you control the movements of the player with the ball or of one linebacker. All other player movements are dictated by the game.
(TV Sports Football also can be played by more than one person at a time, but we'll concentrate just on the one-player version for clarity's sake -- and because I couldn't get anybody to play with me.)
But this game is far from basic. There are eight teams to choose from, with nearly complete rosters graded in a manner that would make draft expert Mel Kiper proud.
By choosing the "clipboard" option, a game player can examine the
rosters of each team. Players are rated for speed, strength, hands and agility, and perform in games as the scouting report indicates. Each player has a name, some quite fanciful, which is where Ira Lieberman, kicker for the Rhinos, comes in.
Some names play off team nicknames -- Hounds linebackers Bowser Bennett and Pitbull Patterson, Rhinos safety Thick Hyde McBride, Blizzards quarterback Frosty Johnson. Others are off-the-wall -- Molasses Morris, Hollywood Goldstein. Then there's my favorite -- Tidal Waves punter Whale Melville (maybe we just should call him Ishmael).
So you choose a team and your team's opponent, and you're set to go. Then, before the kickoff, a sportscaster sitting in a studio appears, mouthing words as they appear on the screen.
The player who's blinking on the screen is the one that can be controlled by the "TurboPad."
Offense and defense offer variations on each play, depending on the formation. From the I, pro set or shotgun, you can pass or run, deciding which it'll be by pushing one button or the other on the TurboPad. Defense can be a 3-4, 5-2 or 6-1, set up to guard against inside or outside runs, passes or to go into a blitz.
I didn't fare too well against the microchips, though I did win one game in the week I had the system. The figures are fairly easy to move once you get the hang of it, but running to daylight is a lot more complicated than it was in Lombardi's day.
TV Sports Football lets you be the passer by manipulating the TurboPad. I chose the easier option of letting the game pass for me, with mixed results.
Actually, there are all sorts of options I didn't get into. The "league" mode, according to the instruction booklet, "allows you to play a full season with continuously updated standings and statistics!" (I think it was the exclamation point that scared me off.)
Also, there are "simulated games." This, I assume, is as opposed to the "real games" you play with the animated figures. "You can simulate games your team is not playing. . . . The announcer will give you the score of the game," the booklet says.
Therefore, you buy a video game and set it up to play without you. The logic escapes me. Of course, I never figured out how to get the ball to Blizzards wide receiver Goose Loshinsky either.
If there is a fault with the game, it's that, to be played properly, TV Sports Football requires a major investment of time. Which may be just what the pre-adolescent in your home is ready to give it. But that doesn't leave much time for homework.