The Tecmo Bowl comparisons are inevitable, and while its inspirations from Tecmo’s groundbreaking game are clear, you’d be mistaken for thinking Retro Bowl is a simple throwback to a bygone era. Beneath its nostalgic homage is a game that combines deep on-field strategy and team management with the pick-up-and-play ease of an arcade game, and one that finds a perfect home on Switch.
What it shares with Tecmo Bowl is, obviously, it’s visual style and retro appeal, but also the relative simplicity and ease of play. With colourful 8-bit sprites and energetic chiptune music comes a sense of playfulness that today’s more serious sports sims often lack. Instead of digging through menus and faffing about with card packs, you can have a new franchise underway in a matter of seconds and a season under your belt within the hour.
By whittling down the complexities of football to the sport’s bare essentials, Retro Bowl is the sort of game you can just jump into for a bit of casual fun, and still get something out of it even if you’ve only got a few minutes to spare. Two-minute quarters—less, in real time, because you only play offence—mean games are snappy, while play-calling that’s mostly handled by your AI offensive coordinator keeps the focus squarely on the action.
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Your role on the field is, mostly, as the quarterback: running whatever play your OC calls up, changing it up when you need to, and deciding when to pass, hand off, or try to run it yourself. An intuitive control scheme means you always have your different options at your fingertips, and even though it looks like a pared-back version of the real life thing, there’s a refreshing amount of depth, both in how the plays unfold and the options available to you. You’ll also play receivers and running backs after a successful pass or hand off, and take field goal attempts with your kicker, but driving your offence downfield is where most of Retro Bowl’s attention lies.
The passing game is a particular highlight. Where most other games assign buttons to receivers, Retro Bowl sees you manually aiming your throws. It’s a much more satisfying approach in its own right—the feeling that you’ve actually lined up that long ball yourself, instead of just pressing a button and watching a simulation play out—but it also opens up a lot of possibilities for strategic pass placement, leading your receivers, and the like. Stats still play an important role in determining whether the catch actually gets made, but being actively involved is incredibly rewarding.
Retro Bowl’s highlight reel playing style makes it perfect for when you want to just play a quick game, but it’s also moreish enough that “just one more!” can turn a “quick game” into a couple of hours—especially once you start getting involved in the management side. Rather than managing a whole team, your focus is on a handful of key players, with simple systems to improve their stats, manage their moods, and draft players. You’re also in charge of hiring, firing, and developing your offensive and defensive coordinators, with the former being particularly crucial in influencing available plays and the quality of play-calling.
Between matches, light-touch simulation elements take the form of random events that give you a binary option with different outcomes—do you attend a team meeting or a media briefing when there’s a scheduling conflict? Do you yell at a player who had a bad game, or defend him from the wrath of the team’s owners? There’s even a degree of fanbase management through linear stadium upgrades.
Individually, none of these elements is especially noteworthy, but they piece together into a management sim that finds a balance between depth and simplicity. I don’t think anyone’s coming to a Tecmo Bowl throwback in search of an intricate management sim, but there’s a lot more to Retro Bowl than you might expect. And while it doesn’t carry any official license, it does get as close as it can to replicating a certain national football competition in league structure, team designations, uniform colours, and so on—enough for a surprisingly good job of selling the fantasy, even without any official branding or player likenesses. (You can also customise all these things to your heart’s content, if you want to.)
Retro Bowl is, easily, one of the most downright enjoyable American football games of the last few years, and its appearance on Switch is a welcome antidote to a dearth of decent handheld gridiron. The Tecmo Bowl inspiration is abundant, and this is a loving homage to a classic full of retro charm, but it also packs a surprising amount of modern design influence under the hood. With quick, rewarding play sessions and a fine balance between ease of play, depth, authenticity, and excitement, Retro Bowl belongs on every football fan’s Switch.
Developer: New Star Games
Publisher: New Star Games
Genre: Sports, American football
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Android, iOS
Release date: 11 February 2022 (Switch); January 2020 (Android, iOS)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.