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)
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)
Honorable Mentions: College Hoops 2K8 (Xbox 360, 2007), March Madness 2000 (Playstation, 1999), NCAA Basketball (Super Nintendo, 1992)
Electronic Arts (1995)
One of the best titles in the 3DO sports lineup, FIFA International Soccer has the realism to please die-hard fans and the non-stop action to appeal to more casual gamers. 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 realistic-looking players. The game is very easy to play, and the camera effectively rotates and zooms to keep you on top of the action. Your players always seem to be in perfect position to receive passes, and switching control between players is equally painless. Whether you're playing against the computer or up to 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 crank it up for this game. The crowd sound effects are remarkably clear, and when the chants resonate through the speakers, you really do 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 crazy fast - my friends couldn't keep up with it. As a nice bonus, halftime feature videos of "great moments in soccer". Sure to please even non-fans, 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)
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 release 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 multi-player 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)
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 complete in the pole-vault, long jump, shot put, javelin, discuss, 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 produce 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)