Spring is arguably the best time for sports. Many an enthralling sporting event begins or culminates during these early months. The NHL and NBA playoffs are just beginning, the MLB season is still young enough to inspire hope in the most suffering fan bases and March Madness has come and gone in one shining moment.
Sports videogames have long been a staple of the medium, with arcade classics like NBA Jam and Tecmo Bowl giving way to photorealistic simulations like the Madden and NBA 2K franchises. Most sports titles have become harder to penetrate as players call for more and more realism, but those desires have caused a forgotten genre of sports games to fall by the wayside: Future sports.
Future sports titles allowed the unique creativity and imagination of game developers to fuse with an exploration of what our traditional sports would morph into as technology and international diplomacy advanced into the unknown. The results weren’t always great (looking at you, Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball), but when the right mix of futurism, cultural evolution and dope-ass robotics came together, plenty of classics were the result.
The genre fell out of popularity for a period of time, but has been reignited with Psyonix’s Rocket League, a game that is so well designed, supported and joy inducing that it topped every other future sports title I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime. Even though Rocket League stands atop the genre, and my hours played counter on Steam, there are numerous other titles from the past and present that deserve recognition as pillars of the concept. Let’s celebrate the ten raddest future sports games that aren’t Rocket League.
Cyberball stands as one of the progenitors of the future sports genre. The game introduces a version of football played exclusively by robots where the traditional pigskin has been replaced with a bomb that will explode, destroying the possessing player, if it is not advanced beyond midfield or the goal line in enough time. It’s a concept that has stood the test of time, as the game still has a competitive community with tournaments being held to this day. The game feels stiff now, and was sadly created before videogames figured out how to effectively implement the ability to complete passes with any consistency, but the concept still resonates, masking its issues for enough time to get in a couple of 6-period games. Just make sure you have time set aside because the game isn’t pausable.
Promoted as a mix of soccer, rugby, Australian rules football and pro wrestling, PowerBall was Namco’s answer to a game that will appear later on this list. The game allows players to control one of eight nations, complete with their own stereotypical nicknames and logos, in a competition where the purpose is to either throw or kick the ball into the opposing team’s goal for one point or run it in for a touchdown for three points by any means necessary. Advancing the ball amidst the slew of players delivering spin kicks, slide tackles and cyclone lariat attacks can prove difficult, but there is plenty of strategy to learn within the chaos. The only thing that could make it better is if the Western release kept the original Japanese title of Wrestleball. It definitely better describes the flying fists.
Soccer is the global game, but the bionic enhancements and Mega Man style blasters equipped by players in Soccer Brawl make the game that much better. This fast-paced soccer title mixes weaponization into a surprisingly accurate soccer title. The artwork harkens to fellow Neo-Geo cult classic Windjammers, with detailed sprites and vibrant stadiums that feel right at home as players fire blazing power shots through the defense. Soccer Brawl is a title that didn’t expand far beyond the arcade scene, but leaves a solid imprint on the mind even if only viewed in passing.
Mutant League Hockey is the only hockey title on the list, sadly, as the sport could cater to the ideal of future sports quite well. While other titles, such as HyperBlade, tried to present an imaginative take on 21st century hockey, they pale in comparison to EA’s 16-bit classic. While not considered futuristic in strictly technological terms, Mutant League Hockey delivers a top-notch hockey experience (built off of EA’s NHL 93 engine) while fielding teams of skeletons, trolls and robots. Toss some well placed mines, traps and pits on the ice and you have all the ingredients for a dystopian day on the rink straight out of a Troma flick. Also, that slug zamboni. Bring back the slug zamboni!
High Horse Entertainment’s love letter to Windjammers stands as one of the best future sports games to come out in recent years. The game pits players in singles or doubles matches where they must throw a flying disc past their opponents to score. The roster of characters caters to different play styles, and the simple game reveals deep strategy among high level players. Disc Jam does add its own wrinkles to the flying disc competition, such as the point total for a given round increasing with every volley between players, that infuses the action with more tension than its inspiration. There are few better feelings that deking your opponent with a well placed wall bounce for a goal, sending them ragdolling across the arena. It’s futuristic presentation and intuitive tweaks land it on the list over its more realistic muse.
America’s pastime gets the technological treatment in this NES favorite from Konami. The second game on this list to feature an entirely robot cast, Base Wars gained its reputation as being a competent baseball game with the added bonus of one-on-one robot brawls along the baselines in lieu of tags. These battles have come to define the game, as each team has multiple types of robots that offer different attacks and approaches, making roster composition a viable tactic. After all, a flybot is super hard to hit when raining down punishing butt bounces from above. Beyond the brawling, the game still feels good to play. Base Wars plays very similar to RBI Baseball, which still stands as the smoothest baseball experience on the NES. This mix of classic mechanics and robot-bopping has helped it stand the test of time.
The most recent game on the list, Echo: Arena stands as the most logical transition of the future sports genre in modern gaming. Taking the “future” in the genre name to heart, Echo: Arena represents the best representation of the genre to hit the VR market, utilizing the tools at hand to deliver an experience exclusive to VR. It’s simple in its construction, charging two teams to toss a Tron-esque disc through the opposing team’s goal, but carves its own niche by removing gravity from the equation. Players float through the arena, propelling themselves with wrist jets or by using terrain, walls and even other players as launch points. The tactile controls offer the most realistic movement of any game in the genre, allowing for improvisation never yet realized in athletic videogames. It takes some time to get used to, but no other game feels more kinetically gratifying than Echo: Arena.
The Mutant League series as a whole remains one of the most revered of the 16-bit era despite having only two titles under its belt, and that legacy can be mostly attributed to Mutant League Football. Everything about this game remains entertaining in some form to this day. Standing as a humorously grotesque parody of the sport, the game takes post-apocalyptic football to its most logical conclusion in the most entertaining way. It trails into the sophomoric on more than one occasion, but still delivers plenty of satisfaction with its dips into cartoonish levels of corruption, weaponization and death. The act of sending Bones Jackson off into deep space by knocking him out of bounds, that chiptune scream erupting from a skeleton in shoulder pads, on the Saturn field never gets old. The game was popular enough to spawn a modern remake in 2017, but the original game for the Sega Genesis is one that is near impossible to usurp.
Heralded by many as the quintessential future sports title, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe stands as tentpole for the genre itself. The Bitmap Brothers’ classic is hard to escape when discussion of the genre arises. The game takes a lot of inspiration from the 1975 film Rollerball, which depicts a violent contest that resembles an even more full-contact version of roller derby and handball with some motorcycles tossed in for seasoning. Speedball 2 omits the motorcycles and takes the game off the oval and onto an enclosed arena that is ripe for ricochet passes and fast-paced action not seen on home computers at the time. The game breaks with the conventional notion of sports by allowing players to win matches without scoring goals. There are score multipliers, scoring loops and sensors on the side of the arena that deliver points just like goals. Players can even score points for injuring other players. Off the pitch, the game offers one of the more intricate management sims, allowing players to sign new roster members and beef up their stats throughout the season. This mix of complexity with fury solidified the game’s status, which led to the creation of many games in the same vein (PowerBall, Dead Ball Zone). The game has tried to make the jump to 3D and HD, but both resulted in mediocre experiences that only led audiences back to Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, a testament to its longevity and inability to be duplicated.
Make ready any device. Behold the pinnacle just below the pinnacle. Super Baseball 2020 is the perfect mix of everything that makes a future sports game. The sport of baseball remains unchanged for the most part, but the changes made are ones that are logical implementations of a futuristic society. By limiting foul territory, encasing the fans in glass capsules that send the ball careening back toward the field and limiting the home run area strictly to centerfield, Super Baseball 2020 alters the game slightly in a way that makes it much more thrilling. It’s the physical representation of the old adage that a triple is the most exciting play in baseball. Rosters are made up of men, women and robots, with some teams being exclusively robot or female in composition, offering an image of inclusion and coexistence that current sports don’t represent. If your team isn’t up to snuff, players can spend some cash earned in-game to upgrade their armor or outright convert them to robots, a ghastly tactic that forces players to weigh humanity with success. With all of these components in play with one another, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the mines, called crackers, that the umpire adds over the course of the game. There is so much at play within a single game at the Cyber Egg Stadium, yet its packaging comes across more streamlined than any other future sports title. It never feels overly complicated, but has so much to offer for those willing to look deeper. I’ll gladly continue my time with the Ninja Black Sox until my cartridge gives out.