The Video Game Critic's
Sports Hall of Fame
The Best Games PER SPORT of ALL TIMEUpdated May 18, 2019
I've written literally hundreds of sports game reviews over the past two decades, with certain titles dating back to the 1970s. A few have always stood out in my mind, so I decided to compile a list of the greatest game for EVERY MAJOR SPORT. A few of these were very close calls, so I included honorable mentions as well. Keep in mind these selections are for video game consoles only. Enjoy!
This is, without a doubt, my favorite classic baseball game. It may not have all the features of Intellivision's World Championship baseball, but it beats that game hands-down with superior graphics, awesome control, and impressive voice synthesis. Realsports Baseball gives you uniformed players, a sharp-looking diamond, and a stadium complete with a homerun fence -- and a crowd. There's even a scoreboard that displays the complete line score.
The pitching controls are outstanding! You can choose between nine pitches, and even control the ball in flight. Thanks to the helpful shadow, each pitch is visually distinctive. The batting controls are also innovative, taking full advantage of the unique Atari 5200 joystick design. You swing by sliding the joystick left to right, and can even control the height of your cut. Fielding takes a while to get used to, but the computer is surprisingly adept at choosing the appropriate fielder.
The whole baseball experience is captured in this game, complete with tagging up, hit and runs, squeeze plays, no wind-up pitches, base stealing, and throwing errors! Thanks to some nifty voice synthesis, an umpire calls strikes, balls, and outs. The menu screen allows you to fully configure the number of players, difficulty, and number of innings. No game is perfect, and waiting for the teams to leave the field between innings gets old after a while. But when it comes to classic baseball, Atari 5200 Realsports is second to none!
Honorable Mentions: World Series Baseball 98 (Saturn, 1997), SportsTalk Baseball (Genesis, 1992), Baseball Stars II (NES, 1991), Baseball Stars Professional 2 (Neo Geo, 1992)
Before the "dark times" of EA's sordid monopoly, Sega produced some amazing football games. NFL 2K5 is quite possibly the best football title ever produced, and certainly the most ambitious. Each contest begins with a fully rendered Chris Berman at the anchor desk introducing the upcoming match-up. You're also treated to camera shots of enthusiastic fans filing into the stadium.
NFL 2K games have always boasted cutting-edge graphics, but 2K5 raised the bar even further with players that remove their helmets and jaw-dropping television graphics. Even the cheerleaders were given a makeover. 2K5's gameplay is rock solid, offering balanced passing and running attacks. The controls are responsive and the action moves at a brisk pace. It's a little heavy on the turnovers by default, but you can dial that down via the sliders on the option screens.
The playbooks are loaded with fun gadget plays including flea-flickers, halfback passes, and fake reverses. One small issue is how on defense it can be a little hard to pick out the blitz plays. Brief cut-scenes show coaches ranting on the sidelines, chain measurements, and dejected fans. The commentators are very spirited and often joke around with each other. I can't say enough good things about the replay system, which puts all the others to shame. Not only are its controls intuitive, but the analog triggers let you adjust the speed of playback with pinpoint precision.
The coach's challenge system is terrific as well, with close calls correctly handled "from the booth" when less than two minutes remain. The half-time and post-game highlight shows are accurate and entertaining. Chris Berman provides a comprehensive recap of all the big plays while referring to players by their comical nicknames. These highlights are animated footage - not still images! I also love how the "ticker" at the bottom of the screen displays various game statistics.
And just when you thought things couldn't get any better, at the end of each game a fully-rendered Suzy Kolber interviews the star player on the field! Sega pulled out all the stops with 2K5, and priced it at a mere $20 - undercutting Madden by $30. Once Electronic Arts realized they couldn't compete fairly, they contrived an exclusivity deal with the NFL that effectively put the 2K franchise out of business. It was a slap in the face for football fans, because NFL 2K5 is better than anything EA has ever done - and probably ever will do.
Honorable Mentions: Tecmo Super Bowl (NES, 1991), Super NFL Football (Intellivision, 1983), Madden '95 (Genesis, 1994), John Madden Football (3DO, 1994)
Electronic Arts (1994)
Combining the primitive charm of the old school with the playability of the new, Bill Walsh '95 hits that sweet spot of college football action. Unfortunately my man Ron Barr has been axed in favor of putting Bill Walsh at the sports desk, and he looks out of place. You can now select from 36 teams, with no classic teams represented. The graphics retain that grainy look of the previous year but the gameplay is much improved. That's because they ditched the passing windows!
Yes, now you can clearly see your receivers running across the field and tell if they are open. Timing is key to passing so don't hold onto the ball for too long! Personally I think the refs go a little overboard calling the pass interference penalties. The running game is strong and it's great fun to pull off a triple option. Just make sure you go north-and-south with your running game because trying to round the edge is risky. Sometimes you can press the spin button repeatedly to shake off tacklers. There are some pretty ferocious hits as linebackers put their shoulders into ball carriers, laying them out flat.
The kicking game is easy to grasp, although the football looks huge as it passes through the uprights. Madden's voice is used for commentary but only sparingly. The games are unpredictable and momentum can turn on a dime. Of all the classic college football games I've played, Bill Walsh College Football '95 comes out on top.
Honorable Mentions: NCAA Football 14 (Xbox 360, 2013), NCAA 06 Football (Playstation 2, 2005), NCAA College Football 2K2 (Dreamcast, 2001) College Football National Championship (Genesis, 1994)
Capitalizing on the unbridled success of the first NBA Jam, Acclaim's Tournament Edition retains the fast-paced gameplay of the original while spicing things up with interesting new options. Each team now has three players to choose from instead of two, and you can substitute between quarters. The gameplay places more emphasis on defense, so you can expect to see more steals, blocked shots, and "boings" off the rim.
The expanded options menu lets you customize more aspects of the game, as well as enabling power-ups and "hot spots" on the floor that are worth extra points. The new "juice mode" speeds up the action and sends things into overdrive. But the most valuable new addition is the inclusion of a much-need four-player mode. Statistics are now saved via battery backup instead of a long password. NBA Jam Tournament Edition retains the magic of the original game but offers more options, more unpredictability, and more fun.
Honorable Mentions: NBA Live 95 (Genesis, 1994), NBA 2K6 (Playstation 2, 2005), Street Hoop (CD) (Neo Geo, 1994)
Electronic Arts (1995)
A good judge of a basketball game is how it plays 25 years later and Coach K College Basketball does not disappoint. You know you're in for a good time when you hear that porno music kick in over the main menu (ohhhh yeah!). Okay the graphics are a little rough, suffering from missing frames and occasional break-up. And the developers didn't do us any favors by digitizing the crowd audio - it's loaded with static.
Reusing the NBA Live engine was a good idea, as it provides an optimal view of the action. Just don't ask what's holding up those backboards! The pacing is brisk but not over-the-top, and the controls are surprisingly intuitive considering there's only three buttons. You get 32 teams to choose from including a powerhouse Maryland Terrapins squad led by Joe Smith at center.
The player animation is great. When taking it to the rim players execute elaborate slow-motion dunks that knock defenders off their feet. When going for a layup it looks like the player is holding his nose for some reason. Occasionally the backboard will shatter, resulting in a droopy net with glass all over the floor. There's no steal button but you can harass the dribbler by pushing up against him, which can jar the ball loose.
When a player is fouled I love how he always shakes his head before getting up off the floor. The foul shooting system is perfect in its simplicity, and I like how you can tap buttons to make the fans distract the shooter. Adding to the atmosphere is a fidgeting crowd, an active scorer's table, and cheerleaders who spell out "T-E-A-M". If a shot misses the rim the crowd will chant "aaaair baaaalll!"
Even Coach K's quirks are endearing. You can often nudge CPU players out of bounds, but changing direction near the center line usually results in a cheap over-and-back penalty. The ball drops from the shooter's hand when the clock strikes zero, like it's a hot potato or something. The CPU has a tendency to hit full-court shots at the buzzer, so make sure you're up by at least four during the waning seconds.
One legitimate knock on the game is how it only displays the score after each made basket, which is annoying towards the end of the game. It may not be perfect but Coach K remains a fun go-to during March Madness. Pound for pound this may be the best college basketball game ever made.
Honorable Mentions: College Hoops 2K8 (Xbox 360, 2007), March Madness 2000 (Playstation, 1999), NCAA Basketball (Super Nintendo, 1992)
Electronic Arts (1995)
Perhaps the strongest title in the 3DO sports lineup, FIFA International Soccer has realism for die-hard fans and non-stop action for the casual gamer. I always enjoyed FIFA on the Sega Genesis, but its small, grainy characters were hard to make out. The 3DO hardware is better up to the task, rendering sharper, more real-looking players. The game is very easy to play, with a camera that effectively rotates and zooms to keep you on top of the action. Your players always seem to be in the perfect position to receive passes, and switching control between them is painless. Whether you're playing against the CPU or competing with five friends the competition is always intense, especially around the goal.
But what surprised me most about FIFA is its amazing audio. If you have a surround sound system, you'll definitely want to crank it up for this game. The crowd sound effects are remarkably clear, with chants that resonate through the speakers, making you feel "in the game". FIFA's rich option screens let you adjust the camera angles, weather conditions, game length, penalties, and music. Just be sure to change the playing mode to "sim", because the "action" mode is just insane. As a sweet bonus, halftime videos feature "great moments in soccer". Sure to please fans and non-fans alike, FIFA is one of the best soccer titles I've ever come across.
Honorable Mentions: Super Sidekicks 3: The Next Glory (Neo Geo, 1995), FIFA Soccer 95 (Genesis, 1994), Mario Strikers Charged (Wii, 2007), Soccer Slam (GameCube, 2002)
Electronic Arts (1993)
In my humble opinion, NHL '94 was the absolute pinnacle of hockey video games. This edition introduced a number of new features including penalty shots, four-player support, and reverse-angle instant replays. But NHL 94's best addition is its "one-timer" shots (aka "quick-stick"), allowing a player to quickly redirect the puck into the net after receiving a pass. It really adds a whole new dimension to the offense.
Other bells and whistles include a season mode, statistic tracking, and player cards. The game is fully customizable, and I'd advise you to turn those penalties off! NHL 94 doesn't have any fighting or blood, but that's okay, because they would only interrupt the flow of the action.
Interesting animations include a little boy in the front row of the crowd who occasionally walks up to the glass. When a player turns a hat trick, yellow hats are thrown onto the ice, although this looks so sloppy that I initially thought it was a glitch in the game! NHL '94 has held up well over the years, and I'd take the Pepsi Challenge between this and a modern hockey game any day of the week.
Honorable Mentions: Blades of Steel (NES, 1988), Ice Hockey (Atari 2600, 1981), NHL Hitz 20-02 (Xbox, 2002)
This is simply the best golf game I have ever played in my life. The graphics are gorgeous, the control is perfect, and the action moves along at a brisk pace. What else could you want? Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds makes those Tiger Woods games look like crap! The game takes a few minutes to "install" initially (typical for a PS3 game), but this minimizes the load times, so it's well worth it.
Hot Shot's anime style has changed little over the years, but it has become more polished. Not only do the courses look more attractive than those in Tiger Woods, but they even look more realistic! The grass actually looks like grass, believe it or not! The likeable cast of characters are less freaky than those in previous Hot Shots games, and include a few cuties. Some critics complain that the series needs to "evolve" more, but that would be a huge mistake. The game's three-press swing meter is still the best there is. It's intuitive, responsive, and incredibly fun. I love how you can apply some serious backspin that literally burns up the green!
Hot Shots does offer a new "advanced shot" control option to appease sourpuss critics, which drops the meter in favor of hitting buttons in time with your players' movements. That totally sucks, so stick with the traditional style. Out of Bound's presentation is first rate, with inviting scenery, exciting camera angles, and pleasant background music. The golfer reactions are somewhat repetitive, but you can always bypass those.
One thing that annoyed me about this and other Hot Shots games is the fact that there are only two golfers and one course available at first. That stinks, but I have to admit that unlocking stuff (via the "challenge mode") is a labor of love. Each challenge is a short match (usually 9 holes). Some challenges incorporate special conditions, but they don't go overboard with the gimmicks. After playing Hot Shots Out of Bounds, you'll want to throw all of your other golf games in the garbage. Out of bounds? Nah, this is right on target.
Honorable Mentions: PGA Tour Golf 3 (Genesis, 1993), PGA Tour Golf (3DO, 1995), NES Open Tournament Golf (NES, 1991)
Just when you thought Sega Sports was running out of steam, they released the first great Tennis game in AGES. And when I say ages, I'm not exaggerating! You can go all the way back to Activision's 1982 Tennis game for the last truly fun Tennis title. What's even more surprising is how simple Virtua Tennis is to play; there are only two buttons: shot and lob!
The key to this game is positioning, and it's amazing how much control you have over your hits. You control the aim, strength, and can even apply spin! As you would expect from the Dreamcast, the graphics are smooth and life-like. You can choose between eight actual tennis players (all men). From a distance they look great, but close ups reveal faces that resemble Frankenstein with Chewbacca teeth.
The background graphics and sound are fine but you won't notice them because they take a backseat to the outstanding gameplay. There are several modes, including 4-player doubles matches and a tournament mode which is full of fun mini-games. Here's something you might not notice: when you're playing the game, check out your VMU screen. You can watch the game on the VMU also!! It may not be practical, but it looks amazing! No question about it: Virtua Tennis IS the best tennis video game EVER, and easily one of the most thrilling multiplayer games of all time.
Honorable Mentions: Hot Shots Tennis (Playstation 2, 2007), World Court Tennis (Turbografx-16, 1991), Super Pro Tennis (Intellivision, 2013), Wii Sports (Wii, 2006)
I've played a lot of volleyball games in my time, and Kings of the Beach is the best classic volleyball game! Its graphics are terrific, with scenic backdrops and well-defined players. Okay, one guy looks like he's wearing a diaper, but work with me here. A brilliant control scheme lets you spike, block, and even dive for the ball.
One problem that plagues many volleyball games is the ability to get your player into proper position to hit the ball. Kings of the Beach addresses this issue by stopping your player once he's moved into the correct spot, and that makes all the difference in the world. There's even a training mode to help you learn the moves.
Volleyball is all about teamwork, and this game makes it easy to cooperate. Grab a multi-tap to form teams, or join forces with a friend to challenge a CPU-controlled team! Kings of the Beach is easy to play, but mastering it is another story, and the CPU opponents are no joke. So if you're in the mood to run around in the sand and spike a ball into somebody's face, Kings of the Beach is your game.
Honorable Mentions: Summer Heat Beach Volleyball (Playstation 2, 2003), Beach Spikers (GameCube, 2002)
This bowling game is amazing! I can't believe how incredibly deep and expertly designed this is. One to four people can participate by taking turns. The screen displays the pins on top, a scoreboard in the center, and your bowler (side view) on the bottom. Using a slightly over-complicated control scheme, you pick up your ball, line up your character, take aim, and apply spin. You actually have 16 degrees of precision for your spin.
As the ball rolls down the lane, you get a close-up of the pins, which bounce around realistically when hit! The animation of the pins falling is slow (like slow motion) but it's great fun to watch, and the realistic pin movement makes it possible to nail some tough combinations. The game's attention to detail is remarkable; you can even select your ball weight and the slickness of the lane. In addition to regular bowling, there's also a challenging "pick-up-the-spare" game thrown in. This is by far the best classic bowling game I've come across.
Honorable Mentions: Wii Sports (Wii, 2006), League Bowling (Neo Geo, 1991), Nester's Funky Bowling (Virtual Boy, 1996)
Electronic Arts (2006)
If a single game embodies the raw power of the new generation of consoles, it's Fight Night 3. At first glance, this could be mistaken for an actual televised event. The sweaty fighters look incredibly realistic (especially up close) and their movements appear smooth and natural. Wait until you see the close-up, slow-motion replays of a boxer's face becoming grotesquely contorted as he's "crunched" with a devastating right hook. Heck, it hurts just to watch it (is that a blood worm that just flew out of his mouth?).
Fight Night Round 3 maintains an unprecedented level of realism without sacrificing the raw energy and fun of the sport. You can throw jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and even specialty punches. Most are initiated with intuitive sweeping motions of the right thumbstick, and the ensuing lag time depends on how tired your fighter is. Being proficient at this game will require employing proper boxing techniques. Punches must be varied and strategically mixed with blocks and dodges to keep your opponent off-balance. Simply whaling away with reckless abandon will leave you tired and wide open for counters.
As the fight progresses, sweat flies, bruises form, and blood runs down faces. Initially I was perplexed by the lack of screen indicators (like a clock), but my buddy Scott pointed out that this just adds to the realism. EA got so many things right with Fight Night 3. You get a whole slew of recognizable fighters from all weight classes, including Mohammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Roberto Duran, and Sugar Ray Leonard.
The load times are substantial, but the hip-hop background music is outstanding - some of the best I've heard. Each round is introduced by a shapely bikini-clad babe, but as my friend Jonathan noted, these girls could really use a sandwich. The announcers sound professional enough, but at times their commentary is so far off base that you'll wonder if they're watching the same match.
In the addictive Career mode, you can create your own boxer and gradually work him through the ranks. It's amazing how you can customize every minute detail of your fighter, right down to the contours of his face. Some of the more tedious aspects of the game have also been addressed with the handy auto-training and auto-healing options. Playing solo is fun, but there's nothing better than slugging it out with a buddy in the versus mode. Fight Night Round 3 is perfect for applying a profanity-laden beat-down to a close friend, so let the trash talking commence.
Honorable Mentions: Punch-Out!! (Wii, 2009), Boxing (Atari 2600, 1980), Ready 2 Rumble Boxing (Dreamcast, 1999), Evander Holyfield's Real Deal Boxing (Genesis, 1992)
TRACK AND FIELD
This addictive Olympic-style game has clocked a lot of hours on my Playstation. Featuring eleven track and field events, one to four players compete in the pole-vault, long jump, shot put, javelin, discus, hurdles, sprint, triple jump, high jump, and swimming. Like any good video game, the button-mashing controls are easy to learn but tough to master, and the 3D visuals are smooth and lifelike. Record-setting performances can be saved to memory cards and replayed. International Track and Field is challenging when played solo, but it's an absolute riot with a few friends.
Honorable Mentions: Track and Field (NES, 1987), Track & Field (Atari 2600, 1984), Decathlon (Atari 2600, 1983)
Not only is this a fun game, but it can teach you a thing or two about gambling. One to six players begin with $750 each and bid on a series of four-horse races. Prior to each race, you view the recent history of each horse before placing your wager. There are two types of bets: Win and Exacta. Once the race begins, you are not just a spectator. No, you'll actually get one chance to strategically "coax" and "whip" your horse. While these actions don't make a dramatic difference, they could be critical in a close race.
Horse Racing is a well-designed game, and the screens are chock-full of information and stats. The racetrack graphics are good, although the horses are small. The instruction manual steps you through the game and provides useful background information. If there's one problem with this game, it's the fact that there's minimal action, and the races usually aren't very close. Still, this offers as much as you could expect from a horse racing title.
Honorable Mentions: Stakes Winner (Neo Geo, 1996), Steeplechase (Atari 2600, 1980)
It took a while for Sega to release a top-of-the-line racer for the Saturn (Daytona was considered a disappointment), but all of the pieces fell nicely into place with this one. As the premiere racing game for the system, Sega Rally offers fantastic off-road driving action with smooth visuals and sublime controls. The finely detailed vehicles lean into turns, execute power slides with ease, and kick up mud realistically.
The three tracks (desert, forest, and mountain) aren't spectacular, but offer bright, attractive scenery with minimal pop-up. The silky-smooth frame rate really helps you get into a groove, and the jazzy soundtrack isn't bad either. You can view the action from behind your car, or try the more difficult first-person angle. Helpful voice and arrow cues alert you to upcoming turns and hazards. Like any good off-road racer, the key is executing controlled power slides over slippery terrain. Careening around corners half-way out of control is exhilarating, and banging into other cars is all part of the fun.
Playing modes include practice, championship, two-player split screen, and time attack. The game automatically saves your best times, which enhances the replay value. You can customize your car and even compete against "ghosts" from previous runs. As a well-balanced blend of driving realism and arcade fun, Sega Rally Championship is arguably the best Saturn game of all time.
Honorable Mentions: Indy 500 (Atari 2600, 1977), Virtua Racing Deluxe (Sega 32X, 1995), Gran Turismo 3 (Playstation 2, 2001), Sega Rally Revo (Xbox 360, 2007), World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars (Xbox 360, 2010), Rallisport Challenge (Xbox, 2002)