Thursday, February 05, 2004

Tecmo Bo

Who's the greatest athlete of all time? It's a hotly debated question, yielding candidates from Babe Ruth to Babe Didrickson, from Milo of Croton to Muhammad Ali.

A less hotly debated question is the one of who the greatest video game athlete of all time is. For ESPN columnist Bill Simmons and countless fans of video football, there is no question: Bo Jackson bestrides the pixelated playing field like a colossus. For fans of the SNES game Tecmo Bowl, Bo was such a dominant force that you could run his onscreen avatar back to his own one-yard line, then sprint the length of the field for a 99-yard touchdown, unfazed by the entire opposing defensive line clutching onto his back and legs. Ranking his top five video football players, Simmons says:

Anyone who played video games in the late-'80s discusses Bo Jackson reverentially, in hushed tones ... you can't even understand unless you were there. If ESPN ever decided to run a "SportsCentury and Beyond: Video Bo Jackson" episode, they could easily fill the hour just with people telling Tecmo Bowl stories about Bo. Nobody else was even close.

Ironically, the real Bo Jackson's legacy can't begin to compare. We remember him as the first two-sport All-Star and a Nike pitchman, but he never played for a world champion. In fact, he only played 38 games before his football career was ended by injury. But to this day, he's still revered by videogame fans who pester him to sign their videogame boxes and regale him with tales of the amazing football wizardry "Tecmo Bo" pulled off in their homes and rumpus rooms. As Salon reports, the videogame versions of athletes are more real than the real athletes themselves to many gamers, and marginal players are often remembered as superstars to those who used a digital milieu devoid of drug problems, injuries, and contractual holdouts to explore the fullest potential of what these athletes might have achieved.

Hockey fans may argue for Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, or Bobby Orr, but for the cast of the movie Swingers, and other hockey videogame fans, Jeremy Roenick was the ultimate hockey player. While Roenick's a great player, his digital avatar was an unstoppable force who'd score goal after goal and lay Gretzky up in the hospital with bonecrushing bodychecks.

For me, it's Vincent Lecavalier. The former number one pick was once projected to be a superstar, but got off to a disappointingly slow start in the NHL. It's only now that he's starting to fulfill his potential. But when I played NHL 2002, he was nothing less than the greatest hockey player the world had ever seen. Why? Let's go back to that word I just used a minute ago: "potential." While EA had him ranked at an overall rating of 87, making him an easy straight-up trade for Mats Sundin on my Maple Leafs team, his potential rating was 99. This meant that after a single season's play, his overall rating would often rocket up to 99. If he didn't have 100 in every single category after three seasons, your game was broken.

You might think that the smart move would be to trade away all your veterans for high-potential rookies. You'd be absolutely right -- locker room leadership and playoff experience only really count in real life. However, some of the veterans were worth keeping around for reasons that might be debatable in the real world, but didn't even make sense in the alternate reality of the game.

Take the Leafs' Robert Reichel and Mikael Renberg, for example. The game had both of them rated at about 75 overall with middling potential. Yet, for no discernable reason whatsoever, they'd both consistently shoot up to an overall score of around 89 or 90 after only a single season. I learned this to my chagrin after having traded Reichel in the usual (for a Leafs fan) feelings of disgust in the first season of my first campaign; in subsequent campaigns, Reichel would actually displace Sundin as my starting centre. That's just bizarre. And yet, I've actually started to like Reichel a little more as a result.

So when Salon says

... in many cases, the fond memories that a particular fan may have for a sports star owes more to the performance of his pixelated version than his actual on-court heroics.

I can tell you they're absolutely right. After his having won pretty much every individual award except the Vezina for several years running, Vinny Lecavalier is my Tecmo Bo.

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