Before Tecmo’s Bowl, Tehkan had a Gridiron Fight.
The golden age of arcade gaming followed a simple pattern: smash and repeat; smash and repeat. Space Invaders, the first arcade blockbuster, saw a slew of copy/paste imitators with names such Attack UFO and Beam Invader. Similarly, Hangly Man, Lock ‘n’ Chase, and Mighty Mouth all hoped to steal away some of Pac Man’s quarters. In many cases developers didn’t even change the graphics on their clones. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the arcade market was big enough, and the public’s appetite intense enough, to allow multiple companies to profit selling, in essence, the same game. This booming arcade ecosystem allowed a former office supply company to elbow into the market with a game they called Gridiron Fight.
Atari popularized arcade Football in 1978 with its aptly-titled, Football. Two players sat at a table-like “cocktail cabinet” and marched their x’s and o’s down a black-and-white field by spinning the everloving dickens out of a trackball. The machine proved a hit not only in arcades, but also restaurants, where patrons could sit and play while waiting for service.
Like Pac Man and Space Invaders, Atari’s Football saw a number of competitors and clones. In 1983, the Taito Corporation released 10-Yard Fight. Though infamous for its clunky NES port, 10-Yard Fight’s original arcade cabinet improved over Atari’s Football in almost every way. Instead of x’s and o’s, 10-Yard Fight boasted animated player sprites. Housed in a standard upright arcade cabinet, 10-Yard Fight replaced Football’s blister-inducing trackball with joystick and button controls. We often think of “Ready! Down! Hut hut hut hut” as the hallmark of Tecmo Bowl, but a similar voice sample played in 10-Yard Fight a full 4 years before Tecmo Bowl made it famous. 10-Yard Fight earned Taito a tidal wave of quarters.
At this point in history, Tecmo didn’t quite exist. Before 1985, the company was known as Tehkan. Founded in the 1960’s, Tehkan sold office supplies before transitioning into entertainment products and arcade machines. Given the voracious arcade market, Tehkan happily profited from re-treads of already popular arcade machines. Tehkan’s first offering, 1981’s Pleiads, aped Space Invaders and Galaxian.
Shortly before changing their name to Tecmo, Tehkan combined the gameplay of Atari’s Football and the graphics of Taito’s 10-Yard Fight in a game called, Gridiron Fight. Like Football, Gridiron Fight used a cocktail cabinet with trackball controls. Like 10-Yard Fight, Gridiron Fight boasted a top-down view and full-color, animated sprites. Player 1 controlled the (oddly-named) “Red Impulse” in a pulse-pounding, rapid-fire game of American football against the blue “Gunners.” One quarter bought, well, one quarter. A full game cost $1.00.
It’s not exactly fair to call Gridiron Fight a clone. Gridiron Fight improves previous football titles in ways that would eventually lead to Tecmo Bowl. Both Football and 10-Yard Fight devote sizeable chunks of the screen to the Graphical User Interface, or GUI, displaying the down, distance, time and score in thick black bands. Gridiron Fight, on the other hand, puts its GUI in small boxes directly on the field of play. Similarly, first downs are marked by arrows at the sidelines. This allows the football field to stretch from corner to corner, giving the game a larger feel over previous titles.
Gridiron Fight also made better use of its graphics. Player sprites are bigger, with depth and shading. Additionally, Gridiron Fight created a faux-3D effect, one later used with great success in Tecmo Bowl, by growing the football sprite as it flies high in the air. We can also see echoes of Tecmo Bowl in how Gridiron Fight uses a separate play select screen. Similar to ads for Rygar and Ninja Gaiden on Tecmo Bowl’s scoreboard, Gridiron Fight includes banners advertising other Tehkan games such as Bomb Jack and Star Force behind the endzones.
As for the game itself, Gridiron Fight is exceptional for its era but utterly whelming today. It’s cabinet design, using a trackball and only one button, makes passing a chore. When passing, players must first spin the trackball to position their quarterback, then hit the button to stop the QB and enter “passing” mode. With the QB stopped dead, players spin the trackball in the direction of their intended receiver. A short spin will result in a short pass, a long spin will chuck a hail mary. It is very easy to miss receivers. Additionally, once in passing mode, the QB is a sitting duck; even a moment’s hesitation usually results in a QB sack.
Gridiron Fight also offers a few unintended quirks. First, there is no acceleration curve like we’d eventually see in Tecmo Bowl. Spinning the trackball hard enough will cause players to go from a stop to an instant sprint. This is most noticeable on kickoffs, where the kicker can practically outrun the ball and blast the receiver the moment he catches the ball.
Gridiron Fight also includes safeties, but it seems Tehkan’s programmers didn’t quite understand them. Gridiron Fight awards 2 points to the defense but then makes the defense kick off to the offense, instead of the other way around. A good Gridiron Fight player will eventually get into a offense-free loop where they score a safety, kick it off to their opponent, score a saftey, etc., etc.
Gridiron Fight’s biggest legacy, though, is its overall feel and appearance. In markets where the title Gridiron Fight didn’t translate well, Tehkan called the game All American Football. Like we’d eventually see in 1989’s Tecmo Bowl, Tehkan pumped its game full of “eff yeah ‘Murica!” A large, star-spangled outline of the United States covers midfield. Majestic eagles guard each 30-yard line. The crowd sitting in each endzone looks to be a cross-section of America, full of vibrant colors. Though lacking Tecmo Bowl’s signature “Ready! Down!” voice samples, Gridiron Fight ‘s sound design features bone-crunching hits and grunts as players fall to the ground. The ref blows his whistle. The crowd roars. Despite its sometimes-frustrating gameplay, Gridiron Fight truly feels like a game of American football.
Once re-named, Tecmo would take the lessons from Gridiron Fight and make a better american Football arcade game. They’d change to a side-scrolling display. They’d make the action so big it needed two screens. They’d turn the dial up on everything that makes football so special. They’d make Tecmo Bowl.