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Video Games

This Little Football Game On My Phone Is Fun As Hell

Gameplay from the mobile game Retro Bowl

Most popular mobile games are built on hooking the user. Usually, they are “freemium” games: no cost to download, but with required micropayments to make the fun parts accessible. It’s not that these developers should be giving away their hard work for nothing, but it would be preferable for them to charge up front for the whole game. There’s significantly more pushback against this micropayment model when it’s done for console games, which tend to start in the range of $60, but I’d argue that this shouldn’t be tolerated at any price.

Additionally, mobile games no longer serve the same purpose that they might have a year ago. Back in The Before Times, they were best used as distractions while on a bus, or at an airport, or when waiting to meet someone at a bar or restaurant—small increments of time during situations that don’t occur nearly as often as they used to. These two standard purposes of mobile games—to kill time, and to convince you to keep opening your wallet—are why it’s all the more noteworthy that Retro Bowl, a little football game I downloaded on my phone, is somehow not bullshit, and extremely fun to play for hours straight.

(I want to note here that Retro Bowl‘s free version fits the definition of a freemium game, but I ponied up the 99 cents for the unlimited version, so everything I’m discussing is in that iteration. I have not paid any more than that. Thanks to the Defector subscribers who made this possible; if you want, you can each take credit for a fraction of a penny like you’re all Packers shareholders. There will be no ownership meetings.)

Retro Bowl aims for a mix of two popular football video game franchises. It borrows the look and feel of Tecmo Super Bowl, with pixelated players, a sideline camera during games, and endlessly chipper menu music, but it goes deeper than the NES classic. The game progresses in a straightforward but surprisingly detailed franchise mode similar to older editions of the Madden series. You’re the general manager, the coach, and the players all at once. To help better understand the responsibilities, imagine if the Texans had decided to give Bill O’Brien more power.

After you pick a name—I ended up with “Samer Hopkins” since I forgot to enter a last name; cool—you will be assigned to run a football team. Not an NFL team, mind you, as Retro Bowl is clearly not licensed by the league. (This might be why it doesn’t suck; for a while I played Madden NFL Mobile and found it to become quickly repetitive.) All the stadiums are the same, and the players are clearly generated from a database randomizing actual NFLers’ first and last names. You can rename them if you’d like, but I chose not to interfere with destiny. Shout out to a few of my players, Dillon Edelman, Benny Mosley, and Randall Henne. Their monikers may not reach the legally dubious heights of Bobson Dugnutt, Sleve McDichael, and Todd Bonzalez, but I appreciate and adore them all the same. Look at those little fellas!

You’ll most likely be assigned a bunch of cruddy players for your first season. In the free version, you get 10 roster spots, but 12 in the unlimited. These are your stars. If, for example, you do not roster a quarterback, the team will create a no-name, replacement-level guy for you. Like a McCown or a McNown, he will suck, but he will exist.

You will basically have to rough it at the start, but this is also part of the fun. Every star can be traded, as long as it’s before the deadline and their morale is not toxic (also referred to as “Gase-pilled”). You can see all their info and attributes on the player cards. Their rating increases as their stats do, and their value is what you’ll get back if you want to trade them.

There are two ways to acquire players during the season; one is out of your control. Every so often a random event will trigger and another team will want to trade someone and tell you the pick they want for him. You can accept or reject it. The other method is through free agency, but all of those players cost coaching credits (top-left corner in the screenshots). Hiring coaches, upgrading your facilities, and meeting with players to improve their morale are all accomplished with this currency.

Here is where we get into the freemium territory. If you pay the dollar, you’ll get a nice chunk of coaching credits to start. (I don’t recall the exact number and am too far along to go back and check.) You can still earn one or two regularly for each game you play, though, and more through sporadic action events. After each result, you’ll be prompted with a screen that has something like, Crevon Amos played like shit today! Will you criticize him and decrease his morale, or criticize the team as a whole and decrease their morale? Or maybe it’s, The owner wants to meet with you, but the fans do, too. You’ll be able to see what you stand to gain and lose from these tough decisions.

The actual football games are basic and fun, but probably the least developed part of the game. You can burn through a full season in a couple of hours. It’s easy to learn how to throw a pass, and easier when you have a good quarterback. There’s no need to worry about running down the field, because the ball-carrier automatically moves straight ahead like a 22-year-old rookie with no concern for lasting brain damage. You can swipe in various directions to stiff-arm and such.

There is no defense; the game automatically sims that side of the ball. This might be the dealbreaker for some people, and it’s certainly part of the frustrations I do have with Retro Bowl: It’s sometimes ridiculously easy to throw an interception, and the opponent’s offense seems to score from anywhere. I’ve noticed that teams with fewer star ratings do get stopped more often on offense, and I use defensive star players with high tackling and speed abilities, but whether this works seems to be a point of contention among devoted players. Some find it useless to improve your defense in any way, since it’s mostly out of your control. I choose to keep it balanced anyway. Do what you want, but know that these aspects of the game will most likely be the ones that piss you off.

Even so, the irritating parts of Retro Bowl don’t turn me off from the game as a whole. As of writing, I’m eight seasons in. After delivering back-to-back championships for “NEW YORK J,” a team I did not choose, I took my talents to “CLEVELAND” and won a title there. You can take a job with a new team at the end of every season, but your options will depend on your performance. Not just anyone can hop to “LOS ANGELES C” without proving their mettle.

Retro Bowl obviously does not have the complexity of other sports games like Football Manager or Out of the Park Baseball, but it’s a simplified version that’s compelling enough to turn into a time-consumer without you realizing it. You might be sitting there at 11 p.m., thinking, OK, I’ll just play a few games for about an hour, and then the final game of that hour ends up with a last-second loss, and you can’t end the night on a defeat, so before you know it, it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve upgraded your offensive line although your running back keeps fumbling, shit, but you’re still leading the division, oh goddammit your offensive coordinator’s contract is up at the end of the season, just get through a quarter of this next season and end on a high note then pick it up tomorrow, it’s fine, morale might be shoddy but you can make it up by stringing a couple of wins in a row, just one more, who knows if there’s even going to be real football by December, fantasy football is nigh impossible within a pandemic, who needs a new season every week with DFS when you can have a new season every day, Retro Bowl is your football now, nay, it is the one you answer to, there is no god but Retro Bowl, which earthly being in their right mind could ask for anything more as if it were guaranteed or even deserved …

Anyway, I love these little fellas! I would give this game a rating of some kind but I don’t think it’s necessary.