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In Depth on Atari’s Super Football

by Taylor

19th February, 2014

In Depth on Doug Neubauer’s Super Football

Sunday, January 19, 14

By Taylor White

Figure 1 Doug Neubauer, designer of Super Football, Solaris & Star Raiders

Super Football created by Doug Neubauer and published by Atari in 1988 was Atari’s third, and most comprehensive rendition of an American football game for the VCS. The game, which was an Atari original (not ported), features five players on each team, and a moving 3D playfield. Super Football uses a fairly complex algorithm to determine whether to display each player using a P0 sprite or a P1 sprite when players overlap on the same vertical lines. The decision to display only five players as opposed to the eleven one sees in video games today is derived largely due to the graphical, computational and two-sprite limitation of the Atari VCS.

The author subverted intentions of the hardware designers with a number of innovative software techniques. Neubauer drew each sprite multiple times on different lines and then used the flickering effect (most notably seen in Pacman) to reposition the same sprite in another location on the line. With these techniques he was able to place 10 men on the field as opposed to the two sprites originally intended by the Atari hardware designers. Neubauer also used the playfield to create a 3D environment—showing only a portion of the field at any time disappearing into the background. The 3D perspective angled viewpoint effect was a first for sports games on the Atari VCS which prior had only used birds-eye view that revealed the entire field, now displayed the field from behind the quarterback. To accomplish a realistic environment, Neubauer used a number of different sprites to depict players in different locations. Players farther down the field appeared smaller, giving the game a scaling effect. Although this was not true scaling (as this was nearly impossible with raster graphics), it provided a satisfying experience on the VCS.

Super Football remedied a number of shortcomings of previous football games. Super Football allowed for one player play, featuring a fairly strong and intelligent AI opponent. It also introduced another first for sports games on the VCS, the pause1. Because the game relied on different colored players to differentiate between player controlled and AI-controlled, it would have made B&W play impossible, and the developer decided to use the available switch on the VCS as a pause button (it also didn’t hurt that the game was released in the latter portion of the 80’s and most people were using color televisions by this time). An important gameplay aspect Super Football improved upon, was the field goal. Realsports Football, a 1982 football game also published by Atari was much more simplistic in play, did not feature a kickoff or field goal. Super Football not only had both of these but also depicted it as a smooth arc from kick to landing.

Super Football’s improvements were substantial when compared to its predecessors. Videogamecritic.com describes the game as, “the missing link between the ‘early’ flat football games and the Genesis Madden titles”. Super Football established many of the precedents now seen in modern titles.

Figure 2 Cyberball (1988)

Neubauer’s Super Football was a good game, considering it was running on a system over ten years old by the time it was published. Comparing Super Football to similar arcade games like Cyberball (released in the same year) one will find Super Football isn’t as sharp graphically, but has very similar gameplay, an impressive feat for a game running on a fraction of the computing power. Because the Atari VCS was nearing the end of its lifecycle by 1988, Super Football isn’t seen on any best sellers list, the fan base just wasn’t there. However I’d have to believe it was an impressive game for the home during that time period. Unfortunately, due to the graphical nature of sports video games and the ongoing desire to look as realistic as possible, Super Football would not hold its own with the public against games like NCAA 2014 which benefit not only from the extra computing power but also from over twenty years of experimenting and perfecting.

Figure 3 NCAA ’14 (20th Anniversary)

All in all, the lesser-known Super Football was an impressive accomplishment given the technical limitations of the Atari VCS and the lack of prior precedents set by previous sports games. I hope you enjoyed this history and in-depth analysis of a great game for a classic system.
1 I am making this claim with no knowledge of evidence counteracting this statement.

Works Cited

“Atari 2600 Reviews.” Atari 2600. The Video Game Critic, 21 Oct. 2006. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

“The History of Football Games.” GameSpot. N.p., 14 Aug. 2005. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. “Color TV Introduced.” 20th Century History. About.com, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

“Super Football.” IGN. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

by Taylor