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Remember when a few pixels could represent your sports heroes, and your imagination did the rest? Re-live that. Here are some 8- and 16-bit sports classics still worth playing today.

American Football: Tecmo Bowl (1989, NES)

Madden games come out every year, but there’s only one Tecmo Bowl. This game strips down a famously complex sport to only four offensive plays. The defensive strategy: guessing which of those four your opponent picked.

Then it’s time to mash buttons.

Sure, Tecmo Bowl can quickly become a wildly unrealistic game of keep-away. But simplifying football down to the basic rules has another effect: fun. Anyone can pick this game up today and figure it out in minutes, making it perfect for any Big Game parties you might be planning.

You can find this game for sale on the Wii and the 3DS’ online stores, so check it out (but note that the player’s names have been removed from this version – you’ll need to find an original NES cart to play as John Elway).

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Hockey: NHL 94 (1993, Sega Genesis/Super Nintendo)

Hockey’s the best sport when it comes to video games (full disclosure: I’m Canadian). There’s something about the speed, the number of players and the clear objective that makes for a fun game – and the fights don’t hurt, either.

When it comes to retro hockey games, one title comes to mind: NHL ’94. It’s a classic, and still a blast to play today.

It’s a simple game, executed well. Anyone can pick this up and realize the objective: skate to the other team’s net and score. And it doesn’t take long to learn the best way to score: the one timer.

Sure, there’s some weirdness – Jeremy Roenick is a hockey god if this game can be believed, a fact he’s apparently reminded of daily. But the game’s following is so strong today that there’s a fan site dedicated to playing it, and EA itself included a retro-inspired “94 Mode” in NHL 2014, their latest offering. EA screws up badly sometimes SimCity 2013 - The Tale Of a Terrible Launch & a Terrific Game [MUO Gaming] SimCity 2013 - The Tale Of a Terrible Launch & a Terrific Game [MUO Gaming] SimCity was one of the first PC games I ever played when it was first released in 1989 - I was just 7 at the time. You'll understand then why this game holds a particularly... Read More , but they know players love their 20-year-old game.

Outside of that special mode, the game was never officially re-released – unless you include the emulated version bundled with NHL ’06. You’ll have to find an original cartridge and system to play this one.

Basketball: NBA Jam (1994, Sega Genesis/Super Nintendo)

A familiar voice showed up on Twitter recently:

Anyone who recognizes that sentence doubtlessly heard it thousands of times playing NBA Jam. This game just oozed character, and the announcer was only part of that. The literal flames when a player is figuratively “on fire,” the ability to jump higher than a typical super hero, and the flexible rules meant this basketball game was beloved by basketball fans and non-fans alike.

This game ditched the realism of 5-on-5 in favor of faster, 2-on-2 gameplay, and man: it worked. Every matchup feels like it’s being played on the streets, not in a stadium, and your objective is simple: run toward the net and dunk it. Spectacularly.

The original game is yet to see a re-release, but there are updated versions out there for most major consoles – and they stay true to the gameplay. There’s even an iOS version. Still, it’s worth digging up an old cartridge, if you can.

Boxing: PunchOut (1984, NES)

How many boxing games can you think of? Exactly. PunchOut was an early example of what sports simulations could be, and players loved the challenge. It’s so hard you’ll probably end up throwing your controller 7 Video Games So Hard They Will Make You Want To Throw Your Controller 7 Video Games So Hard They Will Make You Want To Throw Your Controller One of the major staples of old school video games is the incredible difficulty. I've talked about the level of challenge in older games before in an article about the things I miss most from... Read More .

The controls are simple, the fights get progressively harder, and the boss is Mike Freakin’ Tyson (at least, in the original version: Nintendo lost the rights for re-releases). Oh, and Mario makes a cameo as the referee. What’s not to love about that?

Wii and WiiU users can find this game on Virtual Console (sans Mike Tyson, sadly: licensing means revisionism).

Just A Few

Of course, these are just a few classic sports titles still worth playing: I’m sure there are more. FIFA comes to mind, as does RBI Baseball. Let’s discuss your favorites below, okay? Or you can just call me dumb for my list, whatever you like best. It’s pretty easy to pick up most classics on the used market – there are only a few sports video games that sell for big money Who Says Sports Games Aren't Collectable? These Are Worth Big Bucks Who Says Sports Games Aren't Collectable? These Are Worth Big Bucks For most game collectors, sports games are shunned as being cheap and invaluable. However, there are some exceptions. Read More .

And before you call me out: I’m aware a few of these games were in arcades before they were on consoles, but be honest: you’re probably not going to buy an arcade machine just to play them. Let me know if you do, though, because I’d like to come hang out.

Image Credits: Brandon King Via Flickr

  1. rich tonge
    February 8, 2014 at 12:20 am

    baseball stars on NES was awesome, what with being able to upgrade players and customizing names to your favorite players.

  2. Graeme
    February 7, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    Links - any version of the golf game. Still am playing the last version which had Microsoft labelling it. 2003

  3. don
    February 7, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Intellivision Baseball was a killer. The tolerances for hits to on base, pitches to strikeouts was amzazingly close to the real thing. Anyone remember it?

  4. Nathaniel
    February 7, 2014 at 8:46 am

    And for the 5th selection.... Wayne Gretzky's Hockey... 8)

  5. Christopher V
    February 7, 2014 at 1:24 am

    NES Blades of Steel, still a great hockey game!

    • Justin P
      February 7, 2014 at 4:00 pm

      Had this one as a kid too. Almost made the list, but didn't want 2 hockey games on it.

  6. Tim B
    February 6, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    Love this list. Great job Justin. Cool thing...I've been able to play all these over the last few years thanks to emulators. Still as fun as always.

  7. Joe P
    February 6, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Baseball Simulator 1000 for the NES

  8. Ken.E
    February 6, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Justin nailed this list! Might have added Super Baseball 2020..

    • Justin P
      February 6, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      Again, Canadian bias. Baseball games bore me.

  9. darth
    February 6, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    for your international audience:

    Sensible World of Soccer

    • Justin P
      February 6, 2014 at 6:13 pm

      I contemplated Sensible Soccer, and FIFA, but ultimately I find soccer video games to be like hockey games, but slower. And with too many players. I will not give up my Canadian bias on that.

    • darth
      February 7, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      thats exactly what i would expect somebody from america thinking. except from the goal/box, they have nothing else in common.

      its a personal list, whatever

    • Justin P
      February 7, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      I love watching and playing soccer, I really do. But I'm talking about video games here – specifically, retro ones. For modern games, soccer and hockey are completely different. In the 8-bit era, you have to admit, the gameplay is similar. Get the pixel representing the puck/ball to the net, and shoot. One timers/headers work best.

  10. Bob
    February 6, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    The Genesis version of NBA Jam is way easier than the SNES version.

    • Justin P
      February 6, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      Oh man, the Genesis version is all I played! What's different?

    • Bob
      February 7, 2014 at 4:32 pm

      It is my belief that the Genesis version had a lenient goaltending policy.
      Although I have nothing to back that up.

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