When I was a kid, my buddies and I pumped quarter after quarter into an arcade game called Atari Football. It was anything but flashy: Its screen was black and white. The players were luminescent "X"s and "O"s. And there was one button to push.
We ate it up.
Electronic football has changed a lot since then. Today it's all about realism. And this year's computer football simulations, Madden 2000 by EA Sports and NFL Fever 2000 from Microsoft, don't disappoint.
Now in its 10th year, Madden is the granddaddy of PC gridiron games, and its 2000 version approaches perfection, a sublime blend of verisimilitude and playability.
Madden 2000 designers have considered the minutest detail. Sure, there are cheerleaders prancing on the sidelines and ad banners drooping from the stadium walls. But that's kid stuff.
Now each player's quirks appear on your screen -- for example, after a touchdown, Denver running back Terrell Davis snaps a crisp salute. In other football sims, a receiver is a lineman is a kicker. Not here.
In Madden 2000, wide receivers are twiggy and offensive guards look like refrigerators.
There are other nice touches: Crack someone hard and his helmet might pop off. Players have hot and cold streaks. Ball carriers can grind forward a few feet with tacklers clinging to their legs.
The game's artificial intelligence has received a tune up and is much improved over last year's. Now it's possible to mount an effective passing and running game against computer opponents. Veteran sportscasters Madden and Pat Summerall call the action. Although occasionally out-of-sync, their banter is spirited and usually on target.
Designers have also made the game more customized -- a godsend for rookies and pros alike. As in previous versions, you can play in a one-button mode if action is your thing. The game lets you tweak the computer's artificial intelligence, dumbing down the defense line or cornerbacks to give your guys a fair shake at finding daylight.
You can create your custom situations, re-creating dramatic moments in football history or toying with the absurd: The Ravens are 99 points down, with one second left, on their own goal line. What will they do now, Pat?
The features go on and on. There's a playbook editor, an Internet play option, and a franchise mode for those who prefer the view from the front office over the playing field. (Don't forget about the salary caps, boss.)
My only gripe: the game's confusing array of nested menus. As it stands, you have to use a combination of keyboard, mouse and game pad to work your way from opening menu to coin toss. And despite the relatively modest system requirements on the label, the game often overwhelmed my 3D-accelerated, 200 MHz Pentium PC.
In other sports news, Madden is joined on store shelves this year by a rookie: NFL Fever 2000 from Microsoft.
The game is an arcade-style romp that costs half the price and has far fewer amenities than Madden 2000. Still, it's fun -- Gates & Co. earn kudos for imbuing their take on the NFL with some of the most lifelike player animations of any computer sports title.
When players charge up the field, snag a pass, or crumple to the turf, every articulation is smoothly rendered -- even on my anemic machine. You can throw laterals and stiff arms. Take that sucka'.
While the playbook is fat with plays taken from real-world teams, play calling in Fever 2000 is a pain, requiring players to sift through a tedious web of menus. Score one for Madden here.
Hard-core computer football fans will probably be bummed. The game isn't rigged for Internet play, doesn't track individual player stats or have a coaching mode. There are other shortcomings, too.
Microsoft's artificial intelligence lacks the savvy of Madden 2000. Players often wander around as if drunk. Quarterbacks here are less accurate than their real-world counterparts. Finally, the second-string announcers Microsoft used for play-by-play -- Fox Sports' Matt Millen and Dick Stockton -- lack spice and are suspiciously quiet, even on breakaway plays.
But Fever 2000 remains a fine rookie effort and should satisfy any armchair quarterback looking for a few hours of fun.
Madden NFL 2000 ($49.95) requires Windows 95/98, a 166 MHz or higher processor, 30 MB of hard drive space, and 16 MB of RAM. Information: www.easports.com
NFL Fever 2000 ($19.95) requires Windows 95/98, a 200 MHz or higher processor, 50 MB of hard drive space and 32 MB of RAM. Information: www.microsoft.com.