GameSpot Sports Classic - NFL 2K
We party like it's 1999 in our retro look at this Dreamcast pigskin classic.
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Design by Collin Oguro
The NFL football world looked a lot differently in 1999 than it does in 2005. Compared to today's Madden-only NFL world, the late '90s might seem like a relative embarrassment of riches, with six established NFL games either already released or soon to hit store shelves that year. Nonetheless, despite all these choices, things were getting stale on the gridiron. The Blitz series was an already-established alternative to the more sim-style games such as GameDay and Madden. And while NFL Blitz 2000 was a strong game, it certainly wasn't the zenith of the cycle. Meanwhile, Microsoft's NFL Fever franchise was a worthy, if underwhelming, series on a platform that casual sports gamers were increasingly ignoring in droves--the PC. And while games like Madden, QB Club, and GameDay were pretty solid games in and of themselves, there was no question that the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 consoles were getting more than a little long in the tooth. If it wasn't an explicitly expressed sentiment by football gamers, it was certainly implied. People were ready for something new.
Sega had just that in mind with the release of its Sega Dreamcast console and the first in an all-new series of football games: NFL 2K. The Visual Concepts-developed football game sent shock waves through the sports-gaming industry in the late '90s by boasting features, gameplay, sound, and, most prominently, a visual quality that had frankly never been seen before in a console football game.
Save perhaps for Soul Calibur, there was no more-visually-arresting example of the Dreamcast's pixel-pumping power than NFL 2K. Never before had players in a console video football game looked better, animated more realistically, or moved with such a sense of purpose and loving detail. Certainly the Dreamcast's raw power had plenty to do with it, but harnessing that processing clout was a team of developers determined to wring as much power from Sega's swirly console as possible. The result was a graphical package that included hands grasping for balls, individual mesh holes in jerseys, and detailed laces on the spine of the officially licensed footballs. The tackle animations alone were unique. Who could forget the seemingly ubiquitous shoestring tackle, when a defender would grab your runner by the foot just as you thought you had a clear lane. Legend has it that famed film director (and annual E3 attendee) Steven Spielberg was "stunned" the first time he saw NFL 2K in action. This was high praise indeed, considering Spielberg is known for stunning audiences with his own cutting-edge visual work.
"With NFL 2K's incredible control, you feel as though you're down on the field with the NFL's finest. It's got graphics that look great and move flawlessly, and sound that makes you feel as though you're on the bottom of the pile during the action and sitting on the couch when watching replays. NFL 2K is a truly amazing football game that is nearly flawless in every regard. If you're a football video game fan, NFL 2K is reason enough to buy a Dreamcast."
NFL 2K would have been an interesting side note in the annals of football gaming history had it merely been a visual feast, however. Luckily for gamers everywhere, those intense visuals were backed up by sterling gameplay and features that were utterly unique to the console on which the game appeared. Take the visual memory unit, for instance. Sega's quirky and cute memory cards acted not only as memory units on which you could save your game, but also as important supplements to one of the core aspects of any football game: playcalling. Instead of your cheating buddy watching the screen to see what play you called, you could slyly scroll through your playbook and choose the play of your choice...and your buddy would be none the wiser. In fact, it wasn't that far removed from real football, because the VMUs didn't show play diagrams, so you were forced to memorize the plays themselves based only on their names. It's the closest many of us armchair quarterbacks have ever come to studying a playbook like Peyton or Tom. The downside? VMUs were costly, and an NFL 2K save pretty much hogged the entire memory capacity of a unit, leaving little room for your Ready 2 Rumble boxer or CART Flag to Flag championship save files.
Little touches grabbed us from the outset. For instance, we loved how the plays were superimposed on the field when using regular old non-VMU playcalling, as this made it a snap to see exactly where your wide receiver would break on an out route or precisely which offensive linemen your running back would need to squeeze on a running play. The commentary alone was worthy of an award, if for no other reason than that it showed gamers what a booth team could sound like when it actually worked together. With all due respect to the venerable John Madden and his then-boothmate Pat Summerall, those two had been phoning it in for years. "Dan Stevens" and "Peter O'Keefe," the play-by-play and color commentary team in the NFL 2K booth from the start, gave insightful, context-friendly, and, yes, even funny commentary on nearly every aspect of the action on the field. It was clear the Visual Concepts team was clearly thinking broadcast quality from the get-go with this pairing, as the audio, coupled with the already stellar visuals, made for a fantastic experience. And, no, you can't coach that.
In a way, NFL 2K was both the beginning of a new football journey--the first football game that demonstrated what the next generation of consoles would be capable of--and a finale of sorts, as the game's appearance on the network-enabled Dreamcast signaled the end of the strictly offline nature of console football releases. NFL 2K1 would be the first Sega sports game to make good on the network promise, but this was still ahead of the competition. It would take Sony, Microsoft, and EA Sports a few years to get their respective online acts together, but the message was clear: Sports games were heading toward an established online presence like that found on SegaNet (as it would come to be known), and publishers would ignore this trend at their own peril.
NFL 2K was the product of a company truly making the most out of a console's next-generation hardware capabilities, and it was one of the all-time best examples of a developer delivering a game that looked like something from the future. It was a shot over the bow of Sega's competitors in the sports world, and it was a wake-up call to the "big three" console makers: Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft. With NFL 2K, Sega truly declared that the next generation was here and that a brand-new battle for the hearts and minds of football gamers was about to begin.
The Real Thing?
Back in 1999, when the Dreamcast was in its (brief) heyday, I was more of a PC gamer and not so much of a console gamer. So I wasn't as connected with the goings-on of the console game industry or to what hot games were coming out for the major systems of the time. That should give you some context on why the following happened to me the first time I saw NFL 2K.
I remember it was early September, and I was walking around in a mall with a friend. I absentmindedly looked in a store window across the way and saw a television with NFL football on it. I was a bit confused, because I knew pro football season hadn't started yet. So I said to my friend, "Hey, let's go over there and see who's winning that preseason game." It wasn't until I approached more closely and watched a play that I realized I was gaping into the storefront of a game shop. And then it finally occurred to me that I was seeing a video game, and not an actual game of football. I was astonished. A video game in demo mode fooled me into thinking I was watching the real thing.
I did play a little of the game later on, and I was definitely impressed with the game's fluid control and its artificial intelligence. The computer, for example, didn't have to resort to obvious speed cheating to run down your ball carrier if he got behind the defense. The game looked and played more like real football than anything I'd played before. But despite all that, my most vivid, specific memory of NFL 2K was seeing it for the first time and being suckered into thinking it was real football.
Falling in Love Again
Before NFL 2K, I had all but given up on football gaming. Admittedly, I wasn't a huge football nut in general at the time (my beloved Patriots weren't much to write home about, after all), but the moment I got my first look at Sega's debut Dreamcast football game, I fell in love with football games--and, hell, with the sport of football--all over again.
I knew the Dreamcast was going to be something to behold when I first saw Soul Calibur, but it was NFL 2K that convinced me to buy the system. The sheer level of detail in the presentation--with the player models, the arenas, the audio--all just combined into such a brilliant package. Not to mention that it brought about the revolutionary level of gameplay control that the 2K series became known for. I remember playing the game against Jeff Gerstmann--a guy, I might add, who really didn't much like football outside of the Blitz series--and watching him marvel at the experience right along with me.
No doubt, NFL 2K's one of the best Dreamcast games ever made, one of the best launch titles of all time for any system, and easily one of the most important NFL games ever put out.
|Steve Young - 100||Terrell Owens - 97||Jamal Anderson - 94||Ray Lewis - 98|
|Brett Favre - 99||Keyshawn Johnson - 96||Terrell Davis - 94||Zach Thomas - 97|
|Mark Brunell - 95||Antonio Freeman - 95||Barry Sanders - 93||Kevin Hardy - 96|
|Randall Cunningham - 93||Cris Carter - 96||Eddie George - 91||Junior Seau - 96|
|Vinny Testaverde - 92||Joey Galloway - 95||Marshall Faulk - 90||Derrick Brooks - 94|
Just a Bit Longer
I can still remember seeing the very first video, and even the first playable version, of NFL 2K for the Dreamcast. Both were at arm's length, so I naturally was skeptical that the actual game would look that good. Most of all, though, I remember not wanting to get my hopes up too high, since I honestly didn't think the game would play or even look as good as what Sega showed us. As we now know, though, NFL 2K did, in fact, look and play exactly as good as Sega was claiming. As a result, I gave the game a very rare GameSpot score of 9.9.
The first time I actually got a chance to play the game, I remember asking if I could stay and play a bit longer. I mean, just think of it. Before NFL 2K came out for the Dreamcast, all we had were PlayStation games that, while cool for the time, were very basic-looking 3D games. Just seeing the players move, or even just using the analog stick to get a guy to creep up to the line like in real football, was amazing. Plus, the feel of throwing and catching a football in an NFL game at that point had never been done better. NFL 2K was truly one of the games that really made the Dreamcast seem like it had an incredible amount of potential. I honestly hadn't been that obsessed over a football game--like I was with NFL 2K--since Madden '92.
Some might think that after all this time I might look back at the very rare GameSpot score of 9.9 (that I gave the game) and think now that it was too high. But I just look back and kind of wish they had let me give it the full 10. All of the football games we've enjoyed since then owe a debt of gratitude to Sega, Visual Concepts, and NFL 2K.
I saw NFL 2K during the full-tilt madness of 1999's E3 in Los Angeles. This was just before the launch of the Dreamcast, and my buddy and I, who managed to make our way into the show using our fictitious company name of Grafek Inc., were in full-tilt gaming heaven, checking out all the great games on hand. I hadn't been paying that much attention to the Dreamcast in all honesty, as my PlayStation was still going strong at my house. And though I knew that Sega's next-generation console was on the way, my first real exposure to it was at the show.
I don't want to say there was a halo of light surrounding the relatively modest display of Dreamcasts sporting NFL 2K at the Sega booth or that an angelic chorus was singing the first time I ever laid my eyes on the game, but with the added special effects that nostalgia creates, it sure seems that way in hindsight. Having spent so many years with the rapidly aging PlayStation hardware and the relatively sports-free Nintendo 64, NFL 2K's crystal clear graphics and lively gameplay were a revelation. I normally despise the phrase "jaw-dropping" when describing a game, but this was truly a case where that clichéd phrase came in to play. My buddy and I just sort of stared at each another, nodded our heads, grabbed those chunky white controllers, and were off. There we were in May, a full four months before the Dreamcast was set to launch, and I knew where I'd be on 9.9.99.