Ready player one: The top 5 arcade-style sports games of all time

The world of arcade-style sports games is a magnificent blend of creativity.

At its worst, the games can be convoluted zany messes that end up being a melting pot full of mistakes, but at their absolute best, these products are a celebration of sports, free of rules and all their flag-throwing limitations. Sports games that have the honor of being a part of this gaming genre tend to lean more into the unrealistic “video-gamey” experience primarily associated with games inhabiting an arcade.

While sports simulation games like EA Sports’ Madden and 2K Sports’ NBA and WWE gaming franchises opt for gameplay grounded in realistic depictions of their players and the sport at hand, their arcade-styled counterparts are full of over-the-top abilities and graphics. The arcade-style sports gaming experience is one that allows the player to slam-dunk a basketball literally on fire or spiking a volleyball so hard that it transforms into a bomb upon impact. You know, just your typical athletically exaggerated sporting event.

But, unfortunately, it’s been a long time since we had an unapologetically fun arcade-style sports game. Until now. Maybe. 

In 2020, 2K Sports announced that it is busy working on an official NFL/NFLPA licensed arcade-style football game that wouldn’t compete with the likes of EA Sports’ Madden. While this news is fantastic, it does come after 2K made two arcade-style sports offerings in NBA Playgrounds and WWE Battlegrounds, and they were decent at best.

The good news, though, is that 2K is seemingly aware of this. A recent update from 2K Sports letting the fans know that they are delaying the game to 2022 to ensure that they create the best possible product is a sign that maybe we are in for a real treat. One that may spark a resurgence in the arcade-style sports gaming genre, a genre that has been rather hit or miss over the past couple of years. 

So, to celebrate the news of this forthcoming arcade-style football game, I wanted to run down the best arcade-style sports games of all time. 

NFL Street 2 (2004)

Released in December 2004, just 11 months after the original NFL Street, NFL Street 2 was available in all its wonky arcade glory for the GameCube, PlayStation 2 and the OG Xbox.

Street 2 capitalized on everything that made the first entry a crowd-pleaser and expanded upon those elements: new single player-focused game modes like Own the City and a fully fleshed out NFL Challenge (which was needed because the first game’s NFL Challenge was severely lacking), party modes for 4-player mayhem such as Crush the Carrier, Jump Ball Battle, and Open Field Showdown. 

It also featured more customizations, the chance to play as west coast rap legend Xzibit and his crew, a fire soundtrack and, of course, the additions of the classic Gamebreaker 2 that made everyone fall in love with NBA Street just a year before this gem.

With its unapologetic passion for the authentic street-football experience, NFL Street 2 serves as a love letter to music, hip-hop, and, of course, football. Hopefully, 2K’s upcoming arcade-style football game is something like Street 2 as opposed to whatever NBA Playgrounds and Battlegrounds were. 

Mario Strikers Charged (2007)

One of the most destructive and hectic arcade-style sports games to ever exist is the next game on our list: Mario Strikers Charged. In Nintendo’s sequel to its well-received Mario Strikers for the Gamecube, Mario Strikers Charged takes everything that soccer (or futbol/football depending on where you’re located in the world) fans love about the sport and, well, charge it to the max.

Released for the Wii on July 30, 2007, this arcade-style soccer game defies the rules and limitations of what soccer is in our world and turns the universe of soccer on its head.

Mario Strikers Charged has it all: special moves that leave the field on fire, honing red shells cracking your opponent just in time to stop them from scoring a goal, and, of course, random party elements that give the game that classic Nintendo touch. Mario and his supporting cast of the Mushroom Kingdom wreak havoc through the various Super Mario-themed stages with its striking visuals and intense soccer matches/game modes; they do it exceptionally well. 

What helps this Mario sports game stand out from the other zany Mario-themed sports titles and other arcade-style sports games is that Mario Strikers Charged has a bit of an edge to it. The characters aren’t their usual light-hearted selves and are more determined, driven with a desire to win. As a result, there’s a particular bit of energy to the game that gets you hype every time you pull off a special move and decimate your friends’ entire existence.

SSX Tricky (2001)

As you can tell by this list, EA Sports BIG was definitely on one during the early to late 2000s, and SSX Tricky is one of the many masterpieces that the team released during this period. Grazing the screens of kids’ and teenagers’ TV sets from North America to Europe during the 2001 holiday season, SSX Tricky was released on November 5 of that year. Spearheaded by a remixed version of Run DMC’s legendary song “It’s Tricky” as the game’s intro and boasting the iconic EA BIG graphical aesthetic, this game was destined for greatness. 

Much like the Street series that would soon follow, SSX Tricky was all about how far the sport of snowboarding, and its culture, could be taken without appearing to do too much. The developer crew wanted to merge the unfiltered skateboarding culture with snowboarding and create a high-octane X-Games lovechild that would be hyped to play every time you turned on your gaming console. Based on the immediate reaction from gamers and the legacy this game carved out for itself, it’s safe to say that the risk paid off. The game’s soundtrack and voice acting were also praised as some of the industry’s biggest names participated in creating this classic, such as Lucy Liu, who voiced fan-favorite Elise Riggs. 

Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 (2000)

When discussing arcade-style sports games, you can’t give all the praise to only EA Sports BIG for revolutionizing the genre. Yes, they were killing it with their creative yet risky visions of what a sports game could be, but they weren’t the only company taking those chances. Best known for their little fighting game franchise called Mortal Kombat, Midway Games were also heavy hitters in the arcade-style sports genre as well; one of the games they made that ended up being a timeless classic was called Ready 2 Rumble: Round 2

Boxing video games up until this point in time have been notoriously geared towards simulation-style gameplay and mechanics that replicated the “realistic” experience of the sport. But, when it comes to the raw, unabashed arcade-style, well, there haven’t been that many.

 

Enter Ready 2 Rumble: Round 2. Like the other sequels on this list, Round 2 picks up where its predecessor left off and doubles down on the comical yet ruthless identity that made the first game so popular. With an array of flashy parody characters, fighting game-like hidden finisher combos, and an art style more akin to NFL Blitz/NBA Jam than Fight Night, Ready 2 Rumble had cemented itself as one of the best arcade-style sports games of all time.

I mean, what other sports games you know have both the likeness of Shaquille O’Neal and the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson (and with their permission!). 

NBA Street Vol. 2 (2003)

The next game on the list is arguably one of the best video games if not, one of the best arcade-style sports games of all time: NBA Street Vol. 2. Released on April 29, 2003, Street Vol. 2 took the Street series to incredible new heights: the art style, the soundtrack, the various courts looking accurate depictions of the hoods that they were based on, the personalities of the ballers (both real and fake), and the streetball handles were unlike anything audiences had seen up until that point from a sports video game. 

Inspired by the iconic Nike Freestyle Commercial featuring Lamar Odom, Jason Williams, and Baron Davis, the game devs over at EA Sports BIG thought it would be amazing to have a basketball game rooted in the street-ball fundamentals like that Nike commercial. Around that same time, the game devs were very much in love with Hip-Hop and how closely entwined that culture is with the sport of basketball.

 

From these two concrete bases of inspiration, the foundation for NBA Street Vol. 2 was set and the rest, as literally everyone says, is history. The sheer amount of content set this game apart from the first iteration of the series, but the Hip-Hop mixtape aesthetic of this entry and the improved gameplay made it a beast in its own right. The game would be nominated for several gaming awards, including the VGX Award for Best Sports Game and VGX Award for Best Soundtrack.

The game even inspired a plethora of copycat NBA Street titles as well like NBA Ballers and Street Hoops, which were successful but not quite like Streets Vol. 2. Easily one of the greatest arcade-style sports games of all time and still sees tons of play and demands of a remake/remaster from fans to this day. 

Final Thoughts

The best arcade-style sports games are the ones that put creativity and fun first, realism second. This genre of sports games is hands down the most timeless in terms of replayability because they seem to be created as love letters to both sports and the cultures that love them. Here’s hoping that whatever arcade-style football game 2K Sports is working on will be in the same vein as the legendary games mentioned here and not like the half-hearted attempts they have made in the last five years. 

Did any of your favorite arcade-style sports games make the cut? Did this list get you hyped for a potential game-changer from 2K Sports? Drop us a line on Twitter @jdsportsus and let us know your top 5 arcade-style sports games of all time. 

Marc Griffin is a full-time freelance writer hailing from Buffalo, NY. With expertise in Music, Comics, Video Games, Street Fashion, and Pop Culture, Marc is a jack of all trades, master of some.

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