Chet Holzbauer can't remember any other gift from that mad Christmas Day scramble 20 years ago. As far as he knows, the cacophony of torn paper came to a stop, like the needle coming off a record, when he and his brother unwrapped Tecmo Super Bowl.
"As soon as we got it out from under the tree," says Holzbauer, now a 32-year-old attorney in Madison, Wisc., and the organiser of the world's largest Tecmo Bowl tournament, "we played it the entire day. My mother, I can still hear her saying, 'Gary [their father] the boys aren't doing anything except playing this stupid video game.'"
Twenty years later, sports video gamers can't stop playing this stupid video game, the one borne of endzone-to-endzone on-the-fly touchdown passes from "QB Browns", Christian Okoye stunning and flinging off defenders like kernels of popcorn, of course, the immortal Bo Jackson doing the "Tecmo Weave" for a 90m touchdown.
Tecmo Super Bowl turned 20 on December 13. For all of its quirks, exploits and cartooned shortcomings, Tecmo Super Bowl is the progenitor of modern simulation sports video gaming. The original John Madden Football featured 11 players on each side. The original Tecmo Bowl, from 1989, had only nine, but they were still players from the real-world league. Not until Tecmo Super Bowl did a gridiron game, or any sports video game, feature a complete league with fully accurate names and rosters, licensed by the league and players it sought to emulate.
That means the Dallas Cowboys that Chet played with on December 25, 1991 reflected the team, in names, colours and symbology, that went out and beat the Chicago Bears 17-13 four days later in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Today, we take this for granted. In that time, it was unprecedented.
By today's standards, a game of Tecmo Super Bowl wouldn't seem to be much more engaging. Played today on PC emulators, it has nowhere near the strategic depth or presentational quality of its spiritual descendants, such as the Madden NFL series on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
What Tecmo Super Bowl does retain, however, is not only a simplicity of design but simplicity of play. Or at least its illusion. "Everybody who played this game as a kid thought they were the best at it," Holzbauer said. "Everyone has a group of friends that, if they were the best in that group, they thought there was no way anyone else could be better than them."
That's partly why Holzbauer's Tecmo Bowl tournament, scheduled for its eighth meeting on March 3, 2012 in Madison, draws a 128-man field with dozens of alternates from around the United States. Even if the entrants are NFL apostates or paunchy dads who haven't owned a gaming console since they left home, there's still a burning feeling, that has glowed ever since their dorm room or frathouse days, that they know all of the teams and all of the players in Tecmo Super Bowl better than the ones from this year.
"My buddies and I were playing last night and we all commented that we were more familiar with the 1991 rosters of the NFL than the current ones," Holzbauer said.
That knowledge of Tecmo Super Bowl's hidden superstars is the mark of a true devotee. "Oh yes, Wayne Haddix," Knobbe, the Tecmo Super Bowl modder, says almost reverentially."No one knows who he is unless he played Tecmo Super Bowl."
Haddix's video game persona is one of the vestiges of video game design when sports titles were run by people who knew very little about the leagues they simulated. Tecmo Super Bowl, remember, was coded in Japan before the days of the internet. Haddix played for Tampa Bay, a terrible team in 1991, but by the record books available to Tecmo's programmers, had an outstanding 1990. He intercepted seven passes, returned three for touchdowns and went to the Pro Bowl. That was enough for Tecmo make him one of the best defensive backs in the game.
If you're playing Tecmo Super Bowl for bragging rights and your adversary picks the Wayne Haddix Buccaneers, an awful 3-13 team that year, you had better not select the 12-4 Denver Broncos with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. Why?
"Pass accuracy does absolutely nothing in this game," Knobbe said, though the rating appears to boost a quarterback's overall score, making Elway one of the three best quarterbacks in the league. Modders have figured out that "pass accuracy" is a total phantom stat in Tecmo Super Bowl. Passing control — and how that differs from "accuracy" who the hell knows — is the operative statistic, and there Elway is a Favretacular 44 overall.
Holzbauer has another secret weapon lurking. "Sam Graddy," he says, of the Raiders wide receiver. Even on a team with Hall of Famer Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson — the undisputed greatest video game athlete of all time — Sam Graddy was actually the fastest Raider in Tecmo Super Bowl. Knowledgeable players go into the game and swap him for either of the starting running backs. He is so fast that competitions, such as the one Holzbauer organises, must make "No Graddy" stipulations.
Even at 20 years old Tecmo Super Bowl remains current. Knobbe and his community at TecmoBowl.Org have annually published an updated modified Tecmo Bowl ROM, accounting for all of the current teams in the league (even the four added in the two decades since), their players and updated helmet colours and graphics. Knobbe himself and others, pump out smile-inducing Tecmo Super Bowl videos that recreate great plays from the real world league.
This summer, Knobbe and his community's mad genuises will assuredly put out more highlight videos. This March, Holzbauer's tournament will crown a champion. In a field hailing from more than 22 states, he will at least the American Tecmo Super Bowl champion, if not the World Champion.
But the key to Tecmo Super Bowl's enduring relevance and playability is not the fact it can be adapted to the modern league or to sports bar competitions. It is till the same score-settling, arm-punching, gift-wrap rending, dorm-room fighting foofaraw it was 20 years ago.
"It has the hallmark of any great game," Knobbe says. "It's very simple to play and learn, but hard to master. Even if you play a thousand games, you might see something completely different in game 1001."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.