Pigskin 621 A.D. was reviewed via SDL MAME in a Linux Yellow Dog environment installed on a PS3.
Apparently, in the Dark Ages, acts of regional conquest were occasionally determined by proxy games of football. That, or everybody has taken a break between all of the raping, pillaging, and raping to throw a Rugby game together. Pick one, as either is an apt introduction to Midway’s Pigskin 621 A.D.
Built around the same arcade board (MCR-68K) used for Arch Rivals, Pigskin 621 A.D. was released in 1990 as an obvious attempt to capitalize on the success of its basketball predecessor. Featuring the graphic and conceptual designs of Brian Colin, the game carries his style and sensibility, which has become a prototypical example of classical raster arcade art design. His pseudo Mike Crumb-ish caricatures throughout Rampage, Xenophobe, Arch Rivals, and Blasted are still present here. However Pigskin adds to it, sporting a stylized Asterix representation of the Dark Age and Nordic cultures.
Each caricature is unique: cartoonishly rendered as grizzled burly knights, Trojans, and Vikings, all with a bad case of chicken legs. The art design between the two opposing factions is intentional and clear, with the Blue Team consisting of European knights and Viking characters defending a castle, while the Red Team is a motley (albeit racially diverse) invading force composed of a Trojan, a Muslim guy in a turban, a Loki horned geriatric, a black homeless man, and a Mongolian. Brian Colin’s artful cutaway vignettes of back alley bribes, locker room executions and players receiving surreptitious hints from a hunchback all flesh out and help realize the dark age backdrop of the game.
In the spirit of full disclosure, let’s get the following out of the way: this game does not play like an American football game. There are no plays, no downs, no field goal kicks, no real passing system, no audibles, no jukes, no jives, and no diving tackles. That’s fine, though, American football sucks anyways
Ah, “football”: a game of punitive inches and feet where a preemptive offside conjures childlike finger pointing by the opposing team; a game where once great moves like the forearm tackle have gone the way of the Mastodon and Trilobite. Have you seen how many flags referees carry? All that game is about is penalties now. Rule upon rule designed to create an idealized play style, but instead becoming increasingly esoteric pieces of an overly intellectualized meta-game where no one breaks a bone or even has the common decency to slip into a coma. Zzzzzzzzz.
Pigskin 621 A.D. plays a lot like Rugby, but without all the homosexual man hugging bits. Not that hugging bits of a homosexual man is a bad thing- you gotta have some way to pass the weekends- but it’s just not present in this game. What we do get, is a frenzied scramble of grizzled Dark Age vagrants who punch, tackle, and murder their way across obstacle decorated battlefields in an arbitrary attempt to get a football into the opposing team’s end zone. Perhaps conceptually it’s taking the analogy of football and global conquest to its ridiculous point of convergence? Perhaps not.
There are no downs: all contested conflicts end in a fumble, resulting in a game experience that looks a lot like a college football game. Passes and laterals are executed by a single button press, which flings the ball to the next adjacent player in the direction you are facing. Holding the pass button longer before releasing it scrolls through various receivers, creating the potential for a much longer pass to teammates who are further down field. Blocking and pass interference are performed by the tried and tested method of punching the shit out of everybody. Again, holding the punch button down cocks the player’s arm back in preparation for the punch, with longer hold times resulting in a hay maker which knocks and spins the opponent, taking them longer to recover and get back into the game.
In the absence of plays, formations are available. Specifically, there are three formation types, which are rotated by, of all things, the formation button. The formations have offensive/defensive counterparts, although each counterpart isn’t necessarily a counter measure to its respective formation. They are “Block/Get Ball”, “Scatter/Man to Man”, and “Bad Attitude/Bad Attitude”. This might be more accurately called “Run In Front Of Me/ Dogpile”, “Clusterfuck”/“Chase Clusterfuckers”, and “Get In a Line”. Strategically, these formations can be used in a “Rock, Paper, Scissors” fashion counteracting the opposing teams strategy. Ultimately, it is a basic but effective pool of strategic formations designed to allow the player to focus more on the ass kicking and less on the strategy.
The only foible here is that the game play can get too fast paced to focus on strategy and the myopic camera perspective doesn’t help either. You really never see the layout of your team across the whole field, so you easily become detached from any idea of tactics. Team mate awareness is more of an abstract concept, a recollection of “Oh, that one guy ran off screen so he’s probably still over there.” This tends to be the case anyway; since obstacles are non-existent when off screen. This is a small mercy, since blindly navigating a hazard strewn field off screen would be like trying to piss in a paper cup with the lights off.
The key to victory is taking advantage of the weapon system. Littered about the battlefield among the skulls, pits, moats, hedges, pillars, and other obstructions are various weapons. These include nooses, scythes, torches, maces, hatchets, and spears, each with their own murder animation. You don’t necessarily wield these weapons in the sense of Golden Axe hacking and slashing: instead these weapons are concealed on your body and come into use during a dogpile. A dogpile occurs when the ball handler and an opposing player collide into one another. Much like the board game Risk, the victory of a dogpile is determined by variables such as which team has more players in the pile and who has a weapon. Two players with weapons in the dogpile negate each other, resulting in a non-fatality. Should the opposition be caught off guard and unarmed, they face murder by hanging, decapitation, spearing, backstabbing, or good old-fashioned immolation. Making a successful solo rush into the other team’s end zone really requires a knowledge and use of weapon locations and chaining pickups with kills to escape each progressive dogpile.
Against the AI, the game isn’t that difficult, though it does offer the selection of two difficulty levels. The learning curve takes about two full games before you understand the flow and begin to use the formations effectively. The one great thing about the game design is the handicap that goes into effect if one team is about to trounce the other. If you’re beating the ass sauce out of other team, the game adds an extra troll player to the opposing team. The trolls are faster and stronger, and if you keep pummeling the other team, despite this advantage, the game adds another troll to their faction. If the victim of your relentless footballing is the Computer AI, then the game’s handicap system goes even further, providing you with the option of selecting “Troll Bowl”. Troll Bowl is you against an entire team of power-enhanced trolls. It’s an entirely refreshing, creative, and transparent way of dynamically ramping the difficulty when even today, lazier game designers opt to invisibly cheese the enemies’ stats (*cough* fuck you Motorstorm).
Ultimately, I could not recommend this game more. Many older games really require a level of nostalgic indulgence, asking you to forgive dated conventions while you draw from your childhood to fill in the gaps. This is not the case with Pigskin. The game play experience still holds up over time, despite the lack of depth and absence of polygons. The game offers enough novelty to be original and unique, while the aesthetic flare adds a sense of style that is comparable to modern retro-pixel graphic art design. Not intended to be a Tecmo Bowl or a John Elway, this game really did pave the path for future fantasy football themed games (Alien League, Cyber Ball, etc.), showing that there was an audience looking for sports games set in bizarre and exaggerated circumstances.
Editorial changes and contributions made by Gigantor (thanx for cleaning up the mess ).