Retro Showdown: Walter Payton vs. Joe Montana on the Sega Master System

February 12, 2012 at 1:24 am | Posted in Features | Leave a comment
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Welcome to the first ever Retro Showdown at Retro Sports Gamer World.  Retro Showdown is where we take two retro sports games that share a common theme and compare them over a number of categories. After plugging the results into a complicated algorithm, we will come to a scientifically provable conclusion as to which is the better retro sports game.  The categories that we will examine include Game Features, Game Presentation and Graphics, Gameplay and Controls, Music and Sound Effects, and a final fifth category of Replay Value and Historical Significance.  In this Retro Showdown we’re going to take a look at two football titles on the Sega Master System: Walter Payton Football and Joe Montana Football.  Now, the Sega Master System isn’t usually associated with having classic 8-bit sports games.  For one, the quantity of titles in the genre is considerably small and definitely overshadowed by their 8-bit brethren, the NES.  Their earlier “Great” series of sports games (Great Football, Great Basketball, etc.) come off as generic based on the bland titles but the Master System built on those games with future releases that added affiliations with star athletes like Reggie Jackson, Walter Payton, and Joe Montana.  With these two titles released just a year apart, which of these Sega 8-bit gridiron games of yesterday will come out on top?

Before we delve into the nuances of each game, lets set the table with the Tale of the Cart!

Tale of the Cart:

Title: Walter Payton Football
System: Sega Master System
Release: 1989
Developer: Sega
Nostalgic Bias: None

Title: Joe Montana Football
System: Sega Master System
Release Date: 1990
Developer: Blue Sky Software
Nostalgic Bias: My family had a Game Gear (to go with our Commodore 64 and Apple IIGS) and I played Joe Montana Football as often as I could. As I built my Sega Master System collection last year, I was very excited to relive my portable experience on a screen bigger than 3.2 inches. The Master System and Game Gear games are identical.

Game Features

Both Walter Payton Football and Joe Montana Football lack a NFL or NFLPA license but they do include all 28 NFL cities with an accurate division breakdown for 1989 and 1990 (Ah, the memories of Phoenix being in the NFC East after moving from St. Louis).  Walter Payton Football gives you a second game mode after your standard exhibition (dubbed Monday Night Game) with the Road to Super Bowl.  Back then, the NFL wasn’t so strict about using their copyrighted material so this didn’t have to be named the Road to The Big Game mode.  As you can see in the screenshot, you get to advance through a standard NFL playoff bracket, and additionally get to choose between three levels of difficulty.  The game also boasts a password save so you can pick up on your playoff progress later.  Joe Montana Football is as bare bones as it gets for game modes and options.  You can select from one of three difficulties and play an exhibition game.  Both games have similar sized playbooks with Walter Payton allowing you to reverse (!) offense plays as well.    EDGE: WALTER PAYTON FOOTBALL

Game Presentation and Graphics

To best determine the presentation piece, lets start with the game covers themselves.  While Joe Cool has a red jersey with Sega emblazoned on it, Walter went all out with the Sega color combo of blue and white while rocking a headband and striking a Heisman trophy pose.  Interestingly enough, both games seemed to have the same writing team as the description on the back of the cases starts extremely similar.  Walter Payton Football gets you pumped with “It’s the snap!”, while Joe Montana Football starts with “It’s a snap!”  I don’t know why anyone would be surprised enough during a game of football to exclaim “It’s a snap!” but I guess the creative juices just weren’t very high with whomever was putting these two together.  Graphically, Walter Payton uses a top down view and the dimensions and proportions of the field compared to the players is pretty accurate (This is the opposite of Touchdown Fever on the NES).  The graphics aren’t bad for an 8-bit offering and the menu screens are detailed nicely.  Walter Payton also has cut screens for a referee’s call and when there is a change of possession (which is pretty trippy actually).  Each team also has their own uniform colors, which as you can see with Joe Montana Football, isn’t always a given.  Just like John Elway’s Quarterback for the NES, and despite being released in 1990, every game in Joe Montana is the same red vs. blue teams.  The player models in Joe Montana also look like the bad guys from the first level in Contra and don’t stack up to the player details Walter Payton Football included.  Joe Montana does throw in a touchdown celebration screen but it isn’t enough to tip the scales here.  EDGE: WALTER PAYTON FOOTBALL

Gameplay and Controls

I’ve always found it interesting how non-intuitive passing can be made out to be with a two-button controller.  Thankfully, Joe Montana Football uses the same model that Tecmo Bowl does and it befuddles me that it isn’t more common in older football games.  In Joe Montana’s case, one button changes the receiver, and the other button passes.  Brilliant, right?  Walter Payton Football went a different direction and before each pass you tap either left, up, right or down to direct which receiver the pass with go to.  Unfortunately this intended target isn’t highlighted so your left hoping you selected correctly as you’re also trying to move your quarterback around to avoid a rush.  Even after selecting the right target, the passing game in Walter Payton just doesn’t click as well as Joe Montana.  Hitting your outside receivers is nearly impossible and I found myself looking for the slot receiver over the middle (the “up” on the controller target) or my runningback (the “down” guy) out of the back field.  The defense just seemed to swallow your main wide receivers which led to constant incompletions or interceptions.  The running game, however, is much better in Walter Payton football as they included sweeps and counter runs, while the Joe Montana run game was extremely basic and rarely effective.  This ties into my biggest complaint for Joe Montana Football; the game is absolutely slow as molasses.  It doesn’t matter which team you pick or what kind of plays you’re running.  The game runs slow and predictable, and there are no big plays at all.  When you hand the ball off, you’re going to get between zero and four yards.  Your best weapon against this malaise is a QB scramble but as soon as you run into a defender, you’re tackled.  From a special teams standpoint, Joe Montana completely mailed it in.  There is no lining up a kick or using a power meter.  You literally just hike the ball and watch.  Walter Payton, on the other hand, had a separate animation where you lined up power and accuracy meters.   This was a tough category to choose and despite the lethargic programming, the passing game and controls in Joe Montana make the game slightly more playable.  EDGE: JOE MONTANA FOOTBALL

Music and Sound Effects

Sports games are not exactly carried by their musical score, but as technology developed and we added in features like play-by-play announcing, there are enough differentiating factors to take notice and compare games with.  Very similar to Reggie Jackson Baseball, Walter Payton Football has very catchy music during the play selection screen and absolute eardrum-burning sound effects during the action.  Joe Montana Football suffers a similar fate but without any music offered.  Crowd noise is pulsating squeals of static most likely used as a sample for future Dreamcast boot-up sounds.  The cool midi rifts in Walter Payton are good, but there are no winners when it comes to in-game noises.  EDGE: WALTER PAYTON FOOTBALL

Replay Value and Historical Significance

When Sega paid Joe Montana over a million dollars, it was not to promote games on their 8-bit system.  The Joe Montana name would go on for many years on the Sega Genesis, ushering in a number of new gaming conventions including the introduction of play-by-play announcing.  Unfortunately, this is a completely different Joe Montana Football than what the 16-bit console received.  Walter Payton was already retired from the NFL when his game came out and is better remembered for being on the Bears in Tecmo Bowl then his Sega Master System game.  From a replay value standpoint, the game modes and save feature are big pluses for Walter Payton Football.  Multiplayer adds a lot to retro replay value and the speed alone makes playing through Walter Payton Football much more doable with a second player.  EDGE: WALTER PAYTON FOOTBALL


In looking at the complete efforts of these games, you can see the detail and dedication that went into Walter Payton Football.  From the presentation to the playoff mode, Walter Payton is a more robust offering.  Despite having decent passing controls, Joe Montana Football just cannot shake being a slow plodding football game that can be downright boring to play.  With the resources going to the Sega Genesis iteration, Joe Montana Football for the Sega Master System ended up getting one half of the effort and execution that Walter Payton Football did.  WINNER: WALTER PAYTON FOOTBALL


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