You know what’s good? Sports! You know what also can be (generally) good? Video games! It’s also pretty fun when those two things meet, and even more fun when they meet in the weirdest ways possible.
That happened quite a bit more in the ‘90s and early aughts than it does now (probably because it costs a whole lot more money to make video games these days, but that’s another story) and while they weren’t always good games, they were usually worth it on their novelty factor alone. And I am fascinated by these games.
I have spent hours playing Ninja Golf on the Atari 7800. I don’t really know why, I’m just so intrigued by the process that spawned such things. I’ve played far too much MLB Nicktoons, because seeing Spongebob Squarepants share a field with Carlos Beltran is still hilarious to me. To use a more well-known example: Jerry Glanville’s Pigskin Footbrawl is something I’ve been playing a lot of. It’s a game that doesn’t relate to Glanville in any way, but somehow has his name on it. Discovering why that is and also, you know, playing the games, has been my mission for a long time.
Hopefully that means my bosses will continue to let me write about the cross-section of sports and video games, with some deeper dives and the like. But until then, as sort of a primer, an appetizer if you will, how about we establish a base? Let’s take a brief look at the WEIRDEST sports games for each major sport.
This is part one, where we’re covering American football, basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, and golf — I will cover tennis, auto racing, combat sports, and some others in a follow-up article.
American Football: Brutal Sports Football (Atari Jaguar)
Honorable mention: Jerry Glanville’s Pigskin Footbrawl (Super Nintendo)
We’re starting out hot and heavy with, you guessed it, an Atari Jaguar game. Also released for a number of other consoles, Brutal Sports Football is exactly what it purports to be: football, but more brutal than football already is. I’m somewhat obsessed with this game.
Now, don’t confuse obsession with skill, because I am TERRIBLE at it. Part of that is me not having much experience with the Atari Jaguar, and part is the game being crushingly difficult. But it sure is fun, and as you can expect, it’s quite violent.
Featuring teams like the Thugs, Slayers, and Goats (actual goatmen, of course), Brutal Sports Football is pretty standard football, if pretty standard football included axes, beheading, repeatedly stomping your opponent into the ground, powerups in the form of rabbits (?), and a surprising amount of backstory to its teams.
No, really. Every team has a brief explanation of their history/what kind of team they are. And they’re ridiculous.
Some of those are just ... whew.
Just how brutal is Brutal Sports Football, you ask? Well, you can use the severed heads of your enemies as a weapon to cave in the head of another. So, it’s at least on par with actual football.
There’s something about the gameplay that intrigues me, even though I can’t get a damn thing done in it. It’s surprisingly smooth feeling for an early sports game, and the rules are interesting. Aside from the murdery bits, the goal is to get the ball into the end zone, which is an enclosed area a bit closer to a soccer goal. You can throw it or run it in, and when you run one it, it feels a good bit like dunking.
I suck at it (a theme you’ll find on this list), and I don’t think it’s an amazing video game. But it sure is weird.
Basketball: Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball (Super Nintendo)
Honorable mention: Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City (Super Nintendo)
I’m going to start this one with a declaration: Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball is a bad video game. There, I said it. It’s out in the open. Some people — whom I no longer respect as human beings — claim it’s a good game and enjoy it immensely. They are horrible people and if you like it, so are you.
Hyperbole aside, WHERE IS BILL LAIMBEER? Much like Jerry Glanville’s Pigskin Footbrawl, Laimbeer has absolutely nothing to do with this video game, and, like the game above, it was released under a different title in other regions, Future Basketball. But there is also very little about it that is futuristic, save for the drab, gray arenas, the robots, and what the game says are jetpack-assisted jumps, but are actually still pretty lame, standard basketball jumps.
There are bombs, but nothing about getting them feels good. What baskets do or do not go in seem to have no correlation with where you are and what the opposing players are doing to you, and the “combat” animations are so slight it’s hard to tell if you’ve hit someone, unless they explode.
The game has bad sound effects, bad music, slow action, a bad camera, and very little excitement. I’m told some people enjoy it, but as a kid, I’m not sure I’ve ever returned a game faster. That doesn’t make it any less weird though, and the fact that this game exists at all is pretty fascinating. Why does it have Laimbeer’s name on it? Why is he on the cover? Where are the fans?
I’m so confused. I wanted to give this to Michael Jordan’s Chaos in the Windy City, or the fan game Barkley: Shut up and Jam: Gaiden, but Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball is a little higher profile and I wanted to set the record straight while also pointing out that it’s weird. And dumb.
Baseball: Ninja Baseball Bat Man (Arcade)
Honorable mention: Nicktoons MLB (Multi)
This is one of those that doesn’t REALLY resemble the actual sport it represents, because it’s not a baseball game so much as it is a 2D beat-em-up arcade game with a baseball theme. And when I say baseball theme, I mean every inch of this game is steeped in baseball stuff.
You fight baseballs. You fight giant catcher’s mitts with faces on them. You’re a robot baseball man who hits other robot baseball men with baseball bats. One of them just uses a giant baseball as a smashing weapon.
The story — yes, the game has a story — is that you, the Ninja Baseball Bat Man, or N.B. Batman, as the commissioner of baseball refers to you — have to recover items stolen from the Baseball Hall of Fame. You can play as the well-balanced Captain Jose, the speedy Twinbats Ryno, the powerful Beanball Roger, or the long-reaching Stick Straw, who stands 7’2’, officially.
It’s a pretty great game, actually — a fun 2D brawler you can play cooperatively, I definitely played and beat this in multiple arcades with friends of mine.
The game was conceived by Drew Maniscalco, who came up with the idea after reading about the top grossing films of its time — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and one of the Batman films (speculated to be Batman Returns). So Maniscalco wanted to create his own superhero-influenced game. He also liked the word “ninja”, thinking it felt “mysterious,” which was more than enough of a concept to make a video game in the early ‘90s.
This is the game on this list I can 100 percent recommend. You should play it if you can.
Hockey: Mutant League Hockey
Honorable mention: NHL Hitz 2003
So, I actually didn’t want to include Mutant League Hockey on this list just because the Mutant League franchise is so big. That said, there is a surprising lack of weird hockey games. I went with NHL Hitz 2003 as the honorable mention because I think it works surprisingly well for an NFL Blitz spinoff, but I was hoping for something really nuts for hockey.
That isn’t to say that Mutant League Hockey is sane. No, it’s quite weird. It’s your basic hockey, except with robots, undead skeletons, and trolls, and lots of things that are quite lethal, like exploding pucks and spikes on the boards.
Getting checked into them is not fun.
There are also random holes in the ice, and you can hit people with your stick. You can get a powerup that turns your goalie into a giant demon face, and if the opponents score on your giant demon face, it explodes.
And it’s oozing with personality, including fake coaching quotes like the one above. Have you ever seen a sideline interview that was actually interesting? Probably not. But they’re plenty interesting in Mutant League Hockey. Also, one of the arenas is the Madness Square Garden (why not Scare Garden?).
Soccer: Inazuma Eleven GO 2: Chrono Stone
Honorable mention: Battle Soccer: Field No Hasha
If you’re unfamiliar with Inazuma Eleven, it’s a game developed by Level-5, a company responsible for many high-profile puzzle and JRPG video games, like the Professor Layton, Dark Cloud and Ni no Kuni series of games. There is also a manga and anime spinoff of the games. I think any games in the series would fit on this list, but I went with this one because it’s my favorite of the bunch.
This is a story-heavy and strategy-heavy video game. The main character (of the series, not this game specifically), Mamoru Endou, is a talented goalkeeper and the grandson of Daisuke Endou, a legendary soccer player. You’re trying to save your team from being dissolved and you do that by progressing a surprisingly deep story, interspersed with bits of tactical soccer gameplay and strong anime cutscenes.
The game centers around the Football Frontier tournament, and includes arenas set throughout time and a final arena in a SKY PALACE. There you play Zeus, another team, who are drinking “ambrosia”, which is basically just a whole bunch of PEDs to make them better at the game. They’re juicing! In this relatively wholesome soccer game!
Gameplay includes scouting, recruiting new players by beating them in battle. In actual soccer games, when you run into one of the opposing players, it initiates a command duel, which has its own series of moves and actions you can take as part of it. Normal soccer rules apply with substitution and number of people on the field. It’s honestly impressive how deep it all goes. It’s not something I would recommend to non-RPG players, but fans of the genre should absolutely give it a spin.
Golf: Ribbit King (Nintendo Gamecube)
Honorable mention: Desert Golf (Mobile)
Before I get into Ribbit King, a quick note about this honorable mention — Desert Golf is a simple, never-ending golf game that came out on iOS and Android and doesn’t have much going on for it ... which is part of the reason it’s weird. The game has no explanations, no anything but a ball and hole, and some hills. I played it through a couple thousand holes. There are things about it that I will not talk about in case readers want to try it for themselves, but suffice to say when the game became a hit, a lot of people had a lot of discussions about secrets or things hidden in the procedurally-generated game.
Now, back to Ribbit King, an extremely under-appreciated golf game where you play as a person, or what appears to be a picnic basket(?), and you’re hitting catapults holding frogs with your mallet to launch said frogs around a course filled with flies, hazards and extra points. When you hit the frog, it will then hop upon landing, and how much hopping is dependent on powerups you’ve used, your swing, and the stamina of the frogs, which you can replenish with items.
Strictly speaking, since I strive for 100 percent accuracy, I will of course note that the game does not refer to it as golf, but Frolf.
It’s a weird game. There’s a full story mode with voice acting, and it’s as weird as you can expect. You play a carpenter named Scooter, and you’re trying to become the Frolf Champion, so you can win the Super Ribbinite, a fuel source needed to save your home planet. There’s also a sentient rock pile, gumball machine, and karate-using panda.
The game is a successor to a Japan-only Playstation game titled Kero Kero King, which I played way back when but never knew about Ribbit King until the past year or so. I’m glad to have found it.
There are so many weird games for these sports I didn’t even get to mention — Super Baseball 2020, Mega Man Soccer, Blitz: The League, Zany Golf, like 40 other crazy baseball games and so much more.
Sound off in the comments on what I missed and your predictions for the next batch of weird games.