Are you ready for some football? Tecmo Bowl football?

Head's up! The NFL lockout may be over, but something even better is kicking off: a prototype of Tecmo Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System. So leave the $10 cups of beer and $15 nachos in the stands, and catch Nintendo football fever!

Tecmo Bowl changed sports video games forever. At first glance, the game's offerings may seem basic and stripped down by today's standards, what, with a limit of only 18 players on the field, four plays in the playbook, no official NFL names, and the exclusion of several teams like Philadelphia.

Looks can be deceiving. Tecmo Bowl sacked every football game that came before it, and arguably many that came after. Don't believe me? Go check out 10-Yard Fight and report back to me. More importantly, Tecmo Bowl served as warm-up practice for possibly the most celebrated and long-lasting sports title ever created, Tecmo Super Bowl.

Gene Siskel to Roger Ebert during a round of Tecmo Bowl in 1989: "See, I like him saying 'HUT, HUT, HUT.' I like the fact that I can make a football player annoy you." (Image source:

Tecmo Bowl set the standard for all pick-up-and-play sports games to come, before the genre began being weighed down by heavy simulation. As was the case with Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo took a successful arcade game and converted it for a home console release on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The result was a game that threw out all realism and anted up the stakes with monster 100-yard passes, unstoppable end zone to end zone running plays, and zero fumbles but interceptions as common as completions.

Tecmo Bowl's genuinely naïve, yet unbelievably addicting, little package made even me, the furthest thing from a jock, want to pass the virtual pigskin until my thumbs hurt and I needed a Gatorade and fruit snack break.

Laces out, Marino! Laces always out!

Tecmo Bowl is not necessarily designed for the obsessive sports fan, the kind of person whose entire existence revolves around his or her hometown team. You know, the type of person who only shows passion in life when he or she is phoning into a sports radio program to call someone a stupid idiot.

No, Tecmo Bowl is largely for the rest of us ("the sane") who fondly recall those wonderful Thanksgivings growing up, playing touch football with cousins—for those of us who used to throw a NERF football as high as we could for a crowd of waiting kids to dive for in the schoolyard. Tecmo didn't let rules and penalties interfere with the experience; Tecmo Bowl represents a purity of the game, a digital preservation of seventh grade recess and those weekends of on-the-fly pick-up games, rolling around in a cold wet field of rain-slicked mud until the sun went down and you walked home filthy, exhausted, and happy.

Too scrawny to play football in a league or on my school's team, I played it safe and stayed with sissy European football as a kid. Soccer became my sport of choice because of my cross country running skills. I went for more breakaways than anyone else. If the other team's cover was too much, and I didn't have room to run, I knew I could pass the ball away to get defenders off me. If worse came to worse, I could always kick the ball like hell over on their end to make them scramble for it so I could catch my breath.

In football, though, you're nothing but a running target. You're a foot soldier on the front lines in a strategic game of war—gaining a little ground here, a little ground there. The ball is a ticking time bomb strapped to your person, ensured to take you down to the ground every time. There's no pussyfooting around in football, and that's exactly why I pussied out of playing any real football.

"Note: Certain Tecmo Bowl playing rules may differ slightly from professional football rules."
Tecmo Bowl instruction manual

Tecmo Bowl provided me with hours of sheltered late night scrimmages. It's really no mystery why gamers still talk about Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl, why they hold tournaments around the country to this day, why ROM hackers update the rosters to reflect the current-day NFL, and why Tecmo has recently been reviving the franchise again—at its very core, Tecmo Bowl remains dedicated to the fundamental principles of game-making: easy-to-learn playability and instantly rewarding fun. Nada mas, nada menos.

Having said all of that, it didn't take long until Tecmo Bowl fans found out how to game the system—game the game, so to speak.

If I had a Tecmo Bowl bookie, I'd put my money down on New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles every time. Individually, Lawrence Taylor (LT could block every field goal and extra point attempt), Walter Payton (a speed demon on offense), Joe Montana/Jerry Rice (love and marriage, Joe and Jerry, can't have one without the other), and Bo Jackson (a.k.a. Black Jesus) dominated—Bo, in particular.

Tecmo Bowl is one of only a handful of Nintendo Entertainment System games that incorporates voice samples. You'll never tire of hearing the muffled cry of the announcer proclaiming, "Touchdown!"

Thanks to this game, Mr. Jackson could add one more to the list of things he knows: Tecmo. So-called "Tecmo Bo" has been bestowed with such amazing digital athleticism that he could run down an entire quarter by traveling the length of the field and back, in one play, as the other team crawled on the AstroTurf, trying in desperation to grab hold of the supernatural superstar. The only thing missing when Bo took charge was tinty Benny Hill music.

Warning: Tecmo Bo's in full effect.

In a tragic twist of irony, Tecmo Bowl did not concern itself with injuries, but that's exactly what took Bo out of the real-life game. While Bo's career was cut short due to a hip injury, his legacy lives on every time two friends fight over who gets to pick LA—to this day, the injuries keep coming.

Number 34's godliness has become the stuff of Nintendo legend over the years (The Book of Bo Jackson, if you will, in The Nintendo Player Bible), but it's a little known fact that two editions of Tecmo Bowl exist all because of another skilled player. The earlier edition of the game has Eric Dickerson as running back and Albert Bentley as kick returner on Indianapolis, while a later edition has those spots going to Albert Bentley and Clarence Verdin, respectively.

Although Tecmo had been given permission from the National Football League Players Association ("NFLPA") to use real NFL players' names, an article in The New York Times dated June 11, 1989 reveals that Dickerson's lawyers claimed that their client never authorized the use of his name and likeness to the group-licensing program (link).

The funny thing is, his name was too long to fit in the game, so Tecmo shortened Dickerson to "Dicker." What's more, all of the player sprites look the same, save for color palette swaps (and even some of those are incorrect, as a few Caucasian players appear as African American and vice versa).

In any event, the star running back must have prevailed in his lawsuit because future Tecmo Bowl copies are entirely Dicker-less.

In the NFL, Dickerson would be suspended several times while with the Colts for such things as "insubordination" and "conduct detrimental" (link). He would not make an appearance in Tecmo Super Bowl.

Tecmo Bowl is cool as ice.

Tecmo Bowl has had an immeasurable impact on popular culture, even appearing prominently in the 1991 Vanilla Ice movie Cool As Ice.

Tommy (Victor Dimattia, or Timmy Timmons in The Sandlot) should be at little league practice, but he ditches baseball to take a spin with Johnny (Vanilla Ice) on his neon-yellow motorcycle. Tommy returns from the sweet ride to plop down in front of the TV to play Tecmo Bowl until he discovers two burglars inside the house with him.

While Tommy attempts to get away from the bad guys, the phantom game continues on its own, choosing plays from the playbook and everything. Someone in the crew must have liked Tecmo Bowl, too.

Kathy (Kristen Minter, or Heather from Home Alone) comes home hours later to find the game stuck at the playbook screen. She turns the TV off, unaware of her brother's kidnapping, and heads off to her room to contemplate her love of Ice.

The film had a budget of $6 million and grossed a little over $1 million, just enough to pay Vanilla Ice's $1 million salary (link). How totally uncool.

This, however, is cool. When a Tecmo Bowl prototype cartridge surfaced online from a game store located in Dallas, Texas, I jumped faster than Pacman Jones in a strip club.

The EPROMs housed inside have what appear to be the game's name in Japanese ("") on white program ("PRG") and gridiron-green character (or "CHAR" as it's abbreviated) stickers.

Dated 10/12, this presumably places the prototype four months before the official release in February of 1989. Curiously, both stickers have "P-2" written on them.

The prototype is on an NES-SKEPROM-01 Nintendo development board.

The top portion of the label on the cartridge features a star motif with a background that looks almost like a precursor to the visual style that Tecmo Super Bowl would adopt in 1991.

Look at the back of that cartridge, baring it all for the world to see. This free spirit is missing its patent Caution label, forcing me to take on full responsibility as its new caretaker to warn others of the dangers of immersing the game in water. I'm up to the challenge.

There are no 3.88 MM security screwbits, either, on this guy but rather tiny flat head screws that serve to hold the cartridge together.

Turning now to the in-game goodness, the prototype shows a more primitive, less patriotic-looking title screen logo. Everyone knows there's nothing more American than football. More people watch the Super Bowl than go out to vote in presidential elections. Tecmo, a Japanese company, was wise to exploit this.

In addition to that, the copyright shows the year 1988 instead of 1989.

The title screen logo marks the only graphical variation between the two versions.

Just like the copyright date on the title screen, the prototype's roster during the credits is a year behind the retail game. The players are all the same, however, and correspond to the first edition of the game with Dickerson as running back.

The prototype has a quick little quirk that pops up after a play is finished. Right before the game transitions to the playbook screen, the prototype spews a bunch of jumbled graphics all over the field. This happens so fast that I couldn't even capture the abnormality on an emulator via screenshots. I had to rely on my reptilian reflexes and use the PrntScrn key.

Despite several lines of changes existing in the prototype code, I could not find any other noticeable differences while investigating the actual gameplay. The game still handles the same, Bo still plows through everyone's defenses, and the large-haired cheerleaders still make me proud to be an American.