Little Things: Quarter Back Scramble

Lately I've grown interested in football games of the NES era, specifically those developed in Japan. At that point football (that'd be American football) hadn't proven nearly as popular in Japan as baseball or soccer or possibly even badminton, so I'm intrigued by what Japanese developers of the 1980s envisioned when crafting a sports game primarily for Americans.

Quarter Back Scramble: American Football Game is a great example. Aside from the capitalization of “Quarterback” in its delightfully blunt title, it's mostly on point in its gridiron depictions, and it was scheduled to come out here as Mike Ditka's Big Play Football. It's also the work of Natsume, and its graphics and soundtrack even recall the slick appearances and punchy sounds of action titles like Shadow of the Ninja and S.C.A.T. 

Yet Natsume made one very strange decision with Quarter Back Scramble, and you'll see it as soon as you press start. 

A woman in full Playboy bunny attire inexplicably poses next to the game's initial menu. She'd be right at home in a casino game of this era, but I have no idea what she's doing in a football title. There's a lot written about the sexist depictions of NFL cheerleaders, but I can find no record whatsoever of possible connections between Playboy costumes and football. Even the risque sights of the XFL cheer squads and the Lingerie Bowl were years away from Quarter Back Scramble's 1989 release.  

Natsume evidently wanted some sex appeal to accompany those staid gameplay options, but why not just show a cheerleader? Perhaps some confused programmer thought the rabbit-eared cocktail waitress regalia actually was the sort of thing football cheerleaders wore, but I doubt that, considering that a conventionally garbed cheerleader shows up in the game’s intro. Or perhaps Natsume just had leftover graphics from a canceled anthology of blackjack and poker games, and damned if they were going to waste them.

There are other amusing details in Quarter Back Scramble. I like the Pony Canyon logo in the middle of the field, as though the music publisher (and purveyor of many a crappy Famicom game) bought an entire football stadium. And like many sports games without official team licenses, Quarter Back Scramble had to make up its roster. You’ll pick from the Denver Miles, the Los Angeles Arks, the Chicago Forces, the San Francisco 50s, the New York Subways, and, my personal favorite, the Washington DC Hogs. With the real-world Washington team just about to announce a new name, I can only hope they’ll dig deep and reference a 1989 video game. 

I also appreciate Natsume’s rendition of the referee. Instead of a detached face or a stiff single image, he’s a squat little goblin in the super-deformed tradition of many an anime gag. And his expression relays that he’s not about to tolerate any guff from the more evenly proportioned football players.  

And then we have the game’s curtailed journey overseas. Accolade planned to release it on the NES as Mike Dikta’s Big Play Football but quietly canceled it. Footage of the American version shows only a few changes: the teams now have their official names, and the NFL logo replaces the Pony Canyon motif in the stadium—as well as the bunny-girl on the menu screen.  

However, Hidden Palace and the Video Game History Foundation recently released a prototype of the American version before Ditka and the NFL license were attached. It’s almost identical to the Japanese release, complete with rabbit-eared women inviting fans to Pony Canyon Stadium to watch the Denver Miles play the Washington Hogs. Accuracy aside, that would’ve been much more memorable for American NES owners than just another realistic football game.