The best sports games for those who don’t like sports

May 2, 2012

Don’t like sports? There’s a whole segment of games you can immediately write off, as far as you’re concerned. Or can you? You don’t have to be a comics fan to like Batman: Arkham City, and the appeal of Mario isn’t just limited to plumbing aficionados. Brad Woodling and Graham Russell are here to help with a list of games you should check out even if they have sports in them, because you’re missing out on a lot of fun.

Punch-Out!! (NES/Wii VC/3DS VC)

Brad Woodling: More puzzle and pattern recognition than sports game, Punch-Out!! (known in its earlier incarnations as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!) had you relying more on memory and timing than boxing strategy. It has a famous password system allowing you to re-battle any of the tougher adversaries, and is also unique in that the game utilizes the Start button as an input for star punches. The colorful opponents of Punch-Out!! are memorable and still a part of pop culture today. While there is no multiplayer, the single-player strategic experience is what is most appealing to non-sports gamers. Punch-Out!! would see future releases on the SNES and Wii (both retaining the original’s charm).

NBA Jam: On Fire Edition (360/PS3)

Graham Russell: If you’ve ever played an NBA Jam game, be it the arcade/16-bit originals or the recent remakes, you know what I do: that it’s much less of a sports game, and much more of a sports-themed multiplayer brawler. The newest version smooths the rough edges, looks slick and has a bunch of fun teams to play. Want to go around as Santa Claus, shoving Isaac Clarke and a raptor while an announcer rattles off silly-but-somehow-still-satisfying one-liners? That’s in a game now.

Virtua Tennis 4 (360/PS3/Wii)

BW: Tennis games have always inherently embraced the physics of pong games, making them easy to pick up and have a basic understanding of where the ball is going to go. The Virtua Tennis franchise has been around since 1999, and while the most recent releases are less celebrated due to dated controls and iteration fatigue, this basic arcade experience is one that appeals to non-sports gamers today. Virtua Tennis 4 (as with the others in the series) is littered with minigames that can be played as part of your World Tour or in a party mode setting. The minigames flash some RPG elements, as you earn coins to upgrade your created tennis player in the Tour mode, and the games themselves are in short timed bursts, which leads to repeated playthroughs.

Mario Golf: Advance Tour (GBA)

GR: Like RPGs? Well Camelot, the developer of the Golden Sun series, made a handful of cool, deep RPGs with Mario characters and a really compelling battle system. Okay, so the battle system is golf. How is that worse than picking commands from a menu? You acquire and upgrade equipment, take on bosses in match play and follow the story from obscurity to greatness. Both the Game Boy Color and GBA installments of Mario Golf and Mario Tennis share this format (and I’m sad the 3DS’ Mario Tennis Open isn’t following suit), but Advance Tour is by far the most accessible.

Sports Champions (PS3)

BW: While not the first tech demo for a motion controller to use sports as its vehicle, Sports Champions goes the nontraditional route in choosing its sports games to appeal to all gamers. Experienced best with multiplayer, but including a single-player experience that has unlockable mini-games, Sports Champions features six different arenas. Archery, Beach Volleyball, Disc Golf, Table Tennis and Bocce all use motion mechanics that are familiar, but the competition is fresh, because how often do you get the chance to play bocce in a video game? While these more casual experiences appeal to non-sports gamers to an extent, the real ace-in-the-hole here is the sword-slashing Gladiator Duel, which was technically a sport back in Roman times, so I guess it qualifies.

MLB Power Pros (PS2/Wii)

GR: This one’s for you fans of simulations. Oh, and visual novels, but not exactly at the same time. Yeah, Power Pros does contain traditional baseball if you want it, but the real appeal here comes from two special modes. In one, you build your character from high school to the pros, but you do it through a life-sim mode, where you decide to go shopping or to the park before you sleep for the day, and you make friends with teammates. Then there’s the franchise mode, with managing your players’ satisfaction and streaks and slumps to create the winning lineup. The 2008 sequel is just as good, but the original’s much easier to find, and at this point both rosters are outdated.

NFL Blitz (N64)

BW: The original arcade NFL Blitz experience was loud, brash (the original arcade machine shouted expletives at times) and hard-hitting. NFL Blitz was a juiced-up NBA Jam for the gridiron, and you needed to understand very little about the game of football to enjoy it. With its own rules and easy controls to pick up, it put more focus on trying to execute a piledriver on an opposing QB than to execute a short-yardage play. Fast-paced and very fun against a friend, NFL Blitz translated well to home consoles. The original Nintendo 64 game was an excellent arcade translation, with future Dreamcast releases emulating the arcade to a T. Today, a slightly tamed-down PSN and XBLA release is available, with updated rosters and the same core gameplay.

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games (Wii)

GR: At this point, you’ve probably experienced what the Wii’s best at: getting you around the TV and having fun with a group. While the other two Mario & Sonic games are largely best avoided, the 2010 installment hit the sweet spot, with cooperative events like hockey and bobsleigh and more actual games than shake-fests. There’s more depth to these events than your standard Mario Party minigame, but all that need for nuance you find in dedicated one-sport titles is skipped to make it fun for everyone. Oh, and snowball fights!

Blades of Steel (NES/Wii VC)

BW: Konami’s Blades of Steel was focused on action and timing, often delivering high-scoring games and plenty of sore thumbs afterward. Two key mechanics help it stand out. As you checked other skaters to try to gain possession of the puck, you often quickly went to a fighting mini-game where you mashed buttons in an attempt to knock your opponent down. Also, the direction of your shot on goal in the game was based on where a cycling arrow was located at the time of release. This made defending shots with your goalie fun and intuitive as well. While you can dust off your original Nintendo Entertainment System if you wanted, Blades of Steel was also an early port to the Wii Virtual Console.

Inazuma Eleven (DS)

GR: This may be tough to track down, as it (and one sequel) is only available in English if you import a (region-free) copy from Europe, but it’s totally worth it. Level-5’s RPG has the art style of Professor Layton, an interesting squad-forming, leveling-up process in a boarding school setting and touch-based controls that are more game than sport. The series is a phenomenon on Japan, and I can see why, but we don’t get it in the U.S. because it has a soccer theme. It’s a shame. (But again, that whole region-free thing!)

What do you think of our picks? Let us know in the comments!