Nostalgia can only take you so far. Such is the case with Tecmo Bowl Kickoff, an attempt to remake the superlative Tecmo Super Bowl on the Nintendo DS. Developer Polygon Magic should be given credit for successfully translating Tecmo Bowl's singular style of gridiron action to the DS, adding stylus control while maintaining the classic arcade football gameplay. But a lackluster season mode, the lack of any true star players (fictional or licensed), and one of the worst menu systems in years keep Tecmo Bowl Kickoff from reaching the hall-of-fame status of its hallowed predecessors.
Without the NFL license, Tecmo created a fictional league of two conferences, six divisions, and 32 teams with porn-star-worthy names such as the New York Hardknocks and the Los Angeles Supercocks. Thankfully, those can be immediately changed using a customization tool with which you can change team colors, logos, player names, and team cities. Well, "immediately" may be the wrong word here, given that the cryptic menu system will have you pushing the OK button seven times to confirm any changes, which may or may not actually be made. But with some dedication, you can eventually re-create the entire NFL, complete with stars of Tecmo past such as Barry Sanders and Mike Singletary.
Of course, you're changing only the names here, and when you get on the field, you'll begin to notice a lack of any true star players. Whereas Bo Jackson was single-handedly able to ruin your perfect season in the original Tecmo Bowl and is currently enshrined as the greatest video game athlete of our time, the fictional players on this roster all begin with such abysmal ratings that you'll feel as if your team consists of 11 junior-college punters. The game is not slow, per se, but you'll have to heavily upgrade your players before the game speed resembles anything close to Tecmo Super Bowl, and that takes multiple seasons. Given that the computer players don't seem to distribute any upgrade points themselves, your team will then dominate the league. Indeed, it's conceivable that you might never lose to a computer-controlled opponent.
On the field, the action is pure Tecmo Bowl, and any fan of the original will instantly get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Teams have eight offensive plays, four rushing and four passing, and a playbook editor lets you pop in a flea-flicker or play-action. If you're feeling particularly nasty, you can edit other team's playbooks as well so that all running plays will be right sweeps, for example, though we do not condone such chicanery. Instead of pressing a dedicated button to pass to a specific receiver, you press A to cycle through intended targets, and B to throw. The stylus control works surprisingly well for passing. You drag the stylus to move the quarterback and tap a receiver to throw, much simpler than cycling through players while under pressure. On defense, however, the stylus doesn't let you dive at ball carriers, which is a big problem because the diving tackle is the only surefire method to take down a player.
Despite the development team having years to do so, some of the same foibles that plagued the original Tecmo Bowl gameplay have yet to be corrected. Players will get credit for a catch or interception even when they are clearly out of bounds. Aggressive nose tackles can run right through the offensive line for easy sacks. And defensive backs will outrun the ball in the air to make an interception. Gameplay has been slightly tweaked to encourage a more defensive game. As a quarterback, you need to have an unobstructed line of sight to an open receiver or defenders will most likely bat your pass to the turf. Additionally, 100-yard bombs from Dan Marino or John Elway have been removed, and receivers on a streak pattern will simply stop when the ball is thrown and wait for it to arrive.
The only true gameplay addition is the application of super abilities to your players. As you play, you earn points that can be used to purchase traits such as hot potato (QB will evade a sack and pass to a player in close proximity) or vertical boost (jump higher to catch a ball). Problem is, the abilities mostly activate at random, and you have very little control over when you would like to unleash a power-run ability, for example. They are shown off in slick double-screen cutscenes, but not being able to control the timing of these moves takes away most of the fun.
Tecmo's trademark cutscenes, a collage of leaping bear hugs and 1980s-style high fives, make a triumphant return, and they are bright and vivid on the DS. The top screen is used only as a scoreboard, though it never tells you what yard line you are on, a significant problem if you are at the edge of field-goal range. The touch screen is used for play calling and general gameplay, and players look, move, and feel like those of classic Tecmo Bowl games.
In addition to quick games against the computer or friends via wireless or the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, there is a barebones season mode. Tecmo Super Bowl was an innovator for stat tracking, and nothing made many people happier than seeing their favorite players shattering NFL records, topping rankings charts, and being named to the Pro Bowl. Such pageantry is sorely missed in Tecmo Bowl Kickoff. Basic offensive rankings and defensive rankings are intact, but only your team stats, not player stats, are logged in the record book. All-time player rankings are a big omission here, considering that many Tecmo players live to tell their friends how they rushed for 800 yards in a game with Barry Sanders (not as hard as you may think in Tecmo Super Bowl--YouTube it). The best players in the league will appear on the All-Star Bowl roster, but there's no glorious cutscene to inform you of such accolades. There also isn't any continuity between seasons. Simply apply a few attribute points to your players, and begin season two. There is a trade option for aspiring GMs, though every trade is accepted by the computer, and there is no way to compare players' ratings in the trade. This wouldn't be a big deal if we were talking Joe Montana for Jim Kelly, but with a roster of no-names, it is.
Perhaps the only true improvement that Tecmo Bowl Kickoff makes is its audio. The quarterback's cadence is not nearly as annoying as in previous games, and the accompanying soundtrack that begins with each play has been updated. You can unlock the classic soundtrack as well, though it would have better served Tecmo purists if it were set as the default.
Then again, a lot of things would have better served Tecmo purists. Though it feels great to take your custom team on the road or play with a friend over wireless, Tecmo Bowl Kickoff isn't going to make you forget about the original NES games anytime soon. The classic gameplay will take you back, but it can only take you so far.