Sports video games tend to age better than the rest. The rules have an eternal quality—the simplicity of the playground—and a lack of modern features often results in a more streamlined and fun-filled experience.
Whether someone prefers to hit home runs into the bleachers, pull superhuman tricks on a half pipe in the snow, or smash folding chairs over garishly tattooed meatheads in the wrestling ring, classic sports games have it covered.
Below, we've assembled a list of some of the most primitively fulfilling Sports video games from the classic console era.
NBA Jam (1993)
NBA Jam enlivened basketball sports video games with its cartoonish, arcade-style gameplay focused on two-on-two matchups. This approach eschewed simulation in favor of exaggeration, helping the game reach a broader audience. Players could go on streaks —”He's on fire,” the announcer would scream— after three consecutive baskets, boosting player abilities and adding a layer of game mechanics.
FIFA '98: Road to World Cup (1997)
As the last game in the FIFA series released on the SNES/SEGA Genesis generation of consoles but the second made with 3D models instead of 2D sprites, FIFA '98: Road to World Cup occupies a peculiar spot in the evolution of sports video games—somewhere between Neanderthals and Sapiens. While free of most of the team management clutter that would come to bog down many later sports sims, the game still boasts the inclusion of every national team from that year. And it even has that old Britpop hit, “Song 2.”
Gran Turismo 2 (1999)
Gran Turismo 2, developed in Japan by Polyphony Digital, brought console racing to new heights, offering unseen depth and realism at its release. The massive roster of cars featured over 650 vehicles—all customizable in myriad ways, from engine tuning and suspension adjustments to aesthetic tweaks like paint and body kits. At the same time, the game's mix of real-life and fictional racetracks showcased a diverse range of levels. With its ageless Playstation graphics, the game holds up as one of the all-time great sports video games.
SSX 3 (2003)
SSX 3 blended arcade-style fun with open-world design, letting players cruise around three interconnected peaks, each with its distinct environments complicated by a dynamic weather system with unpredictable conditions. RPG elements in the form of a character progression system further enhanced the game's appeal, and new gear and appearances unlocked throughout. The style seemed perfectly pitched to the era, with a goofy Mountain Dew commercial vibe permeating the design.
NFL Blitz (1997)
Outside of the Madden franchise, no other football game probably held as much dominance for as long as NFL Blitz. With its seven-on-seven gameplay, the streetball mechanics guided the experience despite the matches taking place in stadiums. Fewer positions to manage meant more time to focus on the action, and far less emphasis fell on picking plays than in more realistic sims. Meanwhile, physics-defying tackles, throws, and catches kept things silly and fun.
Wave Race 64 (1996)
At the dawn of the 3D era, Wave Racer 64 arrived with the N64 console, a throwback to SNES games like F-Zero but set on the ocean and built from the blocky new polygons that felt like all the rage back then. The game pulled off impressive water physics for its time, with waves and wake effects that made handling the jet skis feel satisfying enough. The water—the ubiquitous scenery—also featured impressive reflections and transparency, which added to the beach immersion experience. Moreover, split-screen head-to-head races meant the title had much use as a party game.
Mario Tennis (2000)
For anyone who ever wanted to serve volleys as Princess Toadstool to Kirby the ghost—quite the sore loser in this game—while a Koopa Troopa referees, Mario Tennis would make a joyful way to spend a few hours. From power hitters like Donkey Kong to speedy characters like Yoshi, the regular Mario cast all make appearances, with a surprisingly complex set of strategies emerging from their various quirks. Unique modes like the “Ring Shot” mode, where players hit orbs through rings on the court, add extra layers of replayability, while cute sound effects keep things firmly in classic Nintendo sports video games.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 (2000)
Before Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, skateboarding video games did not amount to much. After that game and its sequel, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, the match between content and medium seemed so perfect it seemed hard to imagine why it took so long for anyone to get it right. The intuitive controls made performing tricks feel natural, making it easy for anyone to pull of massive combos with huge rotations for maximum points. The game also included a park editor that lets players design and share their skateparks, extending the game's lifespan and fostering a diehard community. Presumably, many novices who tried out the game's tricks in real life encountered grievous bodily harm.
Blades of Steel (1988)
Pass, shoot, and fight—these simple charms carry the day in Blades of Steel, Konami's classic hockey game from the early days of NES. The rudimentary graphics remain more than adequate, while the crinkly sound effects keep the action gratifying. With multiplayer available, too, it's enough to make anyone want to lace up their skates and knock some character sprites out.
1080° Snowboarding (1998)
1080° Snowboarding relied on a stellar physics engine paired with pitch-perfect crunchy sound effects to deliver the most authentic winter sports video games late-90s gamers had seen. The game's treatment of various snow conditions—icy patches or powder fields—impacted each run and forced players to adapt their moves to the trail. This attention to detail carved out significant depth in terms of gameplay, making it the most realistic snowboarding simulation of its era.
NHL '94 (1993)
As the first game in EA Sports' NHL series to receive the official licensing of the league and players' association, NHL '94 had to give up the fighting featured in previous editions, though the brawls returned subsequently. With that omission out of the way, this game deserves credit as one of the best sports video games of all time, boasting smooth animations, stat-tracking, season mode, and the introduction of the one-timer shot.
Tecmo Super Bowl (1991)
Only a few football video games opt for the horizontal, sidescrolling format. Tecmo Super Bowl, the follow-up to Tecmo Bowl, has ended up as a near-unique historical curiosity for its choice to forego vertical. Full of flashing lights and 8-bit sprites, the game feels like something in a casino behind the jankiest row of slot machines, maybe next to an old lady chewing on a cigar. It's not to be missed.
Mario Kart 64 (1996)
When Mario Kart 64 came out, nothing like it had appeared before. If one takes racing as a broad category, this quarter-century-old classic can easily claim the title of the greatest racing game ever. With its spectacular mix of courses and drift mechanics, the racing side alone would ensure the game lived forever. Still, then we had Battle Mode, too, which let people shoot turtle shells at their friends to try and be the guy with the most balloons left at the end—basically, the most fun thing ever.
Baseball Stars (1989)
“The Crushers vs. The Lovely Ladies,” reads the stadium marquee before the game cuts to the pitcher on the mound, a bright red strawberry of pixels facing off against Crushers heavy hitter “Freddy,” a little green fellow who bears no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. It doesn't take much to get sports video games up and running, early developers found, and latter-day practitioners should take note. Baseball Stars, which has a few features more than its gorgeously simple graphics might indicate, deserves recognition for its minimalist elegance.
WWF No Mercy (2000)
AKI Corporation's string of wrestling hits culminated in WWF No Mercy, widely considered one of the best wrestling sports video games ever released. The grappling system married intuitive controls with satisfying complexity, requiring sharp timing and context-sensitive know-how to execute a long list of signature moves and dramatic finishers. All the big stars of the day, like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, graced the roster, while the branching storylines in career mode gave the game significant replay value and narrative depth.