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Legend Bowl - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Sound gridiron fundamentals
  • Slow, tactical pace of play
  • 10 yards feels long
  • Risk / reward mechanics are challenging and satisfying
  • QB Vision separates elite QBs from the rest
  • Stamina limits breakaway plays
  • Huddles run play clock nearly to 0
  • Models player personalities
  • Attention to detail
  • Not being re-sold to us every year

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Can't change qtr length after starting a season
  • Currently only supports a single season
  • Sitting through long huddle animations
  • Doesn't run enough clock without huddle animations
  • Hard to line up defensive pursuit angles
  • Special teams under-developed
  • Teams all use same playbook
  • Medium is too easy; hard too hard
  • Humor falls flat for me
  • No Timeout button on PS gamepad

Overall Impression : B-
Solid indie football that should appeal
to both sim and casual gamers.

Legend Bowl - cover

Developer:
Super Pixel Games

Platforms:
PC (via Steam or itch.io)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
2 September 2021

Genre:
sports, gridiron football

Player(s):
up to 4-player local multiplayer

Play time:
indefinite

ESRB Rating: N/A
MegaBearsFan Parental Rating: appropriate for all audiences.

Official site:
legendbowl.com

While I was neck-deep in the 2020 editions of Axis Football and Maximum Football, another small indie football game slipped under my radar. Legend Bowl was in early-access on Steam for 2 years before its 1.0 release in fall of 2021. Its retro, pixel-art graphics caused me to initially dismiss it as just another nostalgia arcade game -- another remake or knock-off of Techmo Bowl.

But YouTube comments, tweets, and a discount during a Steam sale have finally convinced me to check it out. After all, Legend Bowl was awarded "best alternative sport game of 2021" by Operation Sports, so it must be doing something right!

In those 2 years since going into early access, Legend Bowl has resisted the urge to just release an unfinished game and re-sell annual incremental upgrades to gamers, the way that almost every other sports game does -- whether it's licensed or not. Instead, Super Pixel Games is confident enough in the game that it will continue to sell based on quality and word-of-mouth. Its creator seems more than happy to treat Legend Bowl as a living product, providing regular feature updates, bug fixes, and so forth without feeling the need to charge us full-price, again, for them. The game has been successful so far, and I'm sure there will, eventually, be a sequel. But in the meantime, I am thrilled that I do not have to re-review a nearly-identical football game each fall.

I initially dismissed Legend Bowl as just another Techmo Bowl clone.

Pixel-perfect simulation?

Don't let the pixel-art fool you. Legend Bowl is not just a casual arcade football game. It can be enjoyed that way, for sure. It's simple enough to pick up and play. Nevertheless, Legend Bowl is grounded in sound, fundamental football concepts.

Perhaps the first thing that gamers will notice is the incredibly slow pace of play. The on-field action is slow, allowing the user plenty of time to react to read the opponent and react to what is going on, whether I'm running the ball, passing the ball, or playing defense.

Running is not simply a race to the edge, as in so many other football games that have poor containment and pursuit angles. Cutting back inside, against the grain, is often a great way to pick up extra yardage or break a huge play, especially if my blockers are in good positions to shield my runner's cutback. Reversing field completely is also much more viable in Legend Bowl than it is in any other football game I've played. It feels really good to cut back inside, get behind the lead blockers, and hit a narrow seam for a breakaway play.

Running out of stamina and becoming "gassed" limits the frequency of breakaway plays.

To help get those precious yards, running moves feel really good to execute. Jukes have a nice explosiveness, and are great for side-stepping around lead blockers. The stiff arm is brutally-effective -- maybe a bit too much so. Running moves use a system similar to NFL 2k, requiring the user to mash a face button to sprint, or hold it down to charge up an extra-powerful move. And all these moves consume quite a bit of stamina, which prevents them from being spammed, and requires the user to be deliberate with our use of these moves. Sprinting or using special moves will result in the player becoming "gassed", causing him to slow down considerably. Runners being caught from behind while they are gassed has proven to be an excellent way of limiting the frequency of breakaway plays. It might even be a bit too strict.

Like Maximum Football, the 10 yards needed for a first down feels long in Legend Bowl. Heck, the the first down line isn't even visible within the frame using the default camera angle! Making a first down feels like a real achievement, and I've lost count of how many times I've seen the chain gang come out to measure.

Blocking schemes follow basic football fundamentals.

Many running plays employ power concepts, with pulling guards, but they aren't executed entirely accurately. Trap, counter, and power runs have pulling guards and tackles, but they don't employ the actual "trap" techniques that are designed to create the inside running seams. Furthermore, pulling linemen are a bit sluggish about getting to the edge, and the runners frequently outruns them. They also sometimes get stuck on the backs of other offensive linemen. Super Pixel Games might need to speed up pulling linemen a little bit, and maybe also re-tune the other blockers to get off the ball quicker on their blocks so that pulling linemen don't have to get so deep to pull around their teammates.

Nevertheless, if you are patient on the controls and follow your lead blockers, there will be holes and seams to follow. They just might not be where you expect them to be if you know how these plays are supposed to work.

Charge up that arm!

Throwing the ball is also challenging due to a novel passing mechanic. The passing button must be held down for a moment in order to charge up the strength of the throw, but if it's held down too long, an accuracy penalty will be applied. That second or two charging up the pass leaves quarterbacks vulnerable to defensive pressure, and there are a lot of passes being swatted at the line of scrimmage. Not only do I have to use this risk / reward charge-up mechanic, but I also need to move my QB in the pocket in order to position myself with a clear throwing lane to avoid the big hands of those defensive linemen.

Over-charging a bullet pass will lead to a severe accuracy penalty.

Low-rated QBs have an additional challenge to consider, which is their limited vision of the field. Legend Bowl includes a "QB Vision" mechanic, but it isn't quite the same as the cone of vision that long-time Madden players may be familiar with. Instead, QBs with low ratings are unable to see down the field. With QB Vision enabled, the camera will not pan out on deep passing plays to allow low-rated QB to see if his receivers are open. The QB will only be able to see about 10 yards downfield. Throwing deeper than that will require the QB to hope that his reads of the coverage at the snap were correct, and every downfield throw is a bit of a leap of faith.

For higher-rated QBs, however, the camera will pan out to keep all the receivers in the camera's field of vision the entire play. These QBs can play a bit more like gunslingers, waiting for a receiver to get open downfield and then launching the pass when they see separation, while the lower-rated QBs have to rely more on timing routes and early reads of the defense.

Mediocre QBs can only see 10 yards downfield, while elite QBs can see the entire field.

It's a neat idea to separate elite QBs from the rest of the chafe in the league. However, I do wish that this QB Vision feature would have a bit more of a gradient in QB skill levels. Perhaps the camera should pan out for all QBs, but the extent that it pans out is proportional to the QB's skill level. Low-rated, backup-caliber QBs may not have any panning at all, severely limiting their vision to less than 10 yards; whereas mediocre QBs might be able to see a good 10-15 yards downfield, good QBs can see up to 20 yards, and then elite QBs can see the whole field. I feel this would be a better system than the hard cut-off.

Regardless, the limited field of vision of mediocre QBs forces such teams to have to rely more on short, ball-control passes. But even though better QBs can see further down field, completing those deep passes is still tough. This leads to much more realistic passing strategies compared to something like Madden, in which QBs can just chuck the ball downfield every play, complete most passes, and move the ball without ever seeing a 3rd or 4th down.

The slow pace of play makes defense easier to play.

Reaction time

On the other side of the ball, defensive play is also solid. That slow pace of on-field gameplay gives users plenty of opportunity to react to the offense's play, but the slow movement of players means that I can still be caught out-of-position. Gamers who struggle at playing defense in other football games might actually find coverage much more playable in Legend Bowl. You might not have to relegate yourself to rushing with a defensive lineman every play. That is, as long as the receiver you're covering remains in the camera frame. Just like QBs can't see downfield, the defense can't see its own deep coverage either. So if the receivers run downfield, I'm better served to change to a pass rusher or other underneath defender so that I can actually see what the heck I'm doing.

Defensive coverage and pursuit is pretty solid, though outside containment is a bit iffy. Linemen and linebackers tend to line up tight to the center of the formation, with no way to shift them to a more spread out front. But other than that, CPU-controlled defenders are mostly good about keeping the play in front of them and limiting yards gained.

I'm not-so-good at pursuit or at lining up for pass deflections or picks. The fact that the player sprites only represent 4 different directions makes gauging my current pursuit angle difficult. Having at least 8-directional sprites would go a long way to alleviating this, but that is a lot of extra animation work for the developer, and so I don't see that happening any time soon.

Special teams oversight

Special teams often feels like an under-developed oversight in most football games, and Legend Bowl is no exception. There are a lot of special teams concepts that are just missing.

Returners can kneel in the endzone for a touchback, but there's no button for fair catch (at least not that I could find). CPU-controlled returners (including my returner when I'm not able to actually see where he is due to the limited camera angle) will also attempt to field punts inside the 10 yard line, instead of letting them bounce in the endzone for a touchback. But then again, punts often get a lot of distance and not enough height, which means there's almost always room for a returner to gain some yards no matter where he fields the ball.

The risk of accuracy penalties from overcharging adds a lot of challenge to the kicking game.

There's also no trick plays on special teams. No fake punts or fake field goals, nor any tricksy reverse returns or hook-and-ladder returns. Heck, there isn't even an onside kick! Instead, Legend Bowl uses an experimental "onside conversion" rule in which the offense attempts to convert a play. If the opponent sends his special teams onto the field, you can trust that they are kicking the ball, and you can go all-out on trying to block it.

Good luck with trying to block kicks though. I've been pretty close to blocking several field goals, but I've yet to see it happen, so I'm not sure if it's actually possible. I haven't even been close to blocking any punts though. So without the possibility of fakes, and no risk (as far as I'm aware) of a botched longsnap or fumbled hold on a field goal, kicks are pretty routine plays.

To offset the mundanity of punting and kicking, the kicking mechanics in Legend Bowl is actually pretty challenging. The same charge-up mechanic for passing is used for kicks, which can lead to a lot of shanked kicks if you try to over-charge your power meter. This is the first football game that I've ever played that actually has a mechanical incentive for a kicker to "pull" his kicks and not always try for a max power kick. Doing so is extremely risky, so for shorter field goals and extra points, it's advisable to simply charge the kick to 60 or 70% power to make sure it's accurate.

There's no depth chart for special teams.

And of course, there's also no special teams depth charts. I can set kick and punt returners, but there is no depth chart positions for longsnapper, holder, or coverage gunners. This, combined with a lack of substitution logic for offensive and defensive starters, limits the usefulness of all those reserve players in my depth chart.

So yeah, I'd like to see a lot of work done on special teams. But for a game that was developed by one guy, I wasn't expecting special teams to be as robust as I'd like. After all, I seem to be an outlier with regard to my passion for special teams in football video games. In any case, kicking is far from automatic, so special teams is perfectly serviceable in Legend Bowl.

Hard to balance

At this point in my play-time with Legend Bowl, I'm at an awkward place in which I'm in between difficulty levels, and it's a much less enjoyable experience. Like with many games (sports games in particular), the transition from one difficulty to the next is jarring. There are no sliders to custom tailor the challenge to my particular skills or playstyle, nor is there much in the way of difficulty modifiers except for the QB Vision and kicking meter.

The pass and kick charge meters fill up faster on harder difficulties, which certainly makes that transition from one difficulty to the next tough. But that's just a matter of getting used to the faster meter. Unfortunately, my less-competent CPU-controlled teammates are not picking up the slack of my inconsistent play, which results in wildly uneven outcomes.

I can either play Medium difficulty and be winning 30-0 by halftime, then give up because I'm not having fun. Or I can play Hard and be losing 30-0 by halftime, and give up because I'm not having fun. There's no in between, and I don't enjoy either experience. So as much as I like Legend Bowl and want to keep playing it, I might have to just shelve the game and hope for more difficulty adjustment options, or for patches that re-balance the game.

On Hard difficulty, my CPU-controlled defenders repeatedly give up huge plays.

The biggest problem that I have on Hard mode, is that my defensive backs have a frustrating habit of falling to the ground as a CPU receiver catches a pass. This leaves the opposing receiver wide open for an uncontested catch and huge RAC opportunity. The only thing that stops these plays from being automatic scores is that the receivers often get gassed and caught from behind before they cross the goalline. But they just score on the next play anyway. It's impossible to play defense when my CPU-controlled teammates are completely blowing assignments like this. I can only control one player at a time, so there's nothing I can do about this.

Oddly, Axis Football 21 had the same exact problem. Weird. But at least with Axis Football, I can see down the field and manually control a safety to try to compensate for the A.I. failings. In Legend Bowl, I can't see what's going on deeper down the field, so I have to control an underneath defender.

On the offensive side of the ball, inside running becomes impossible on Hard mode, since there are simply no holes to run through. Every run play has to be off-tackle or an outside toss just to have a chance. And while throwing the ball, even when I do get the pass meter charged up for an accurate pass, they keep getting swatted down at the line of scrimmage anyway.

Too many passes are swatted at the LoS.

As I said, I'm having enough trouble adjusting to the harder controls. Maybe I'm just getting unlucky, but having all the RNG also working against me so aggressively is just overkill. Maybe, with enough practice, I'll get better at playing competitively at Hard difficulty, and I'll go back to enjoying the game as I did in those first few months. But if the problems are with A.I. behavior that is outside of my control, I just don't know what I, as the player, am expected to do to improve.

It would be nice if there were a difficulty setting in between Medium and Hard, in which the CPU team plays competently, and in which my defenders don't flop on the ground and let the CPU team make big play after big play. One of Axis Football's methods of custom-tailoring the difficulty of the game is to have separate difficulty settings for offense and defense. That would be a good start, but I'd like to see difficulty settings split up between "Pass Offense", "Run Offense" "Pass Defense", "Run Defense", "Passing Charge Meters", and "Kicking Charge Meters" with the additional modifiers for QB Vision and Scramble. That way, I can practice the tougher charge meter timings knowing that my CPU players will pick up some of the slack if I struggle.

Breaking the huddle

While the slow pacing of the on-field action is welcome, the pacing of the game clock might very well be my biggest complaint with the game. Matches in Legend Bowl really drag. I just can't find a combination of game clock settings that I like.

The reason for this is that Legend Bowl insists on making the user sit through the teams huddling up in between every play. The post-play presentation consists of the following, in sequential order, with no overlap:

  1. The ref will pick up the ball and run it back to the line of scrimmage.
  2. The play-call screen will open up, and the user can pick a play, while every player on the field runs to their respective sideline.
  3. Every player on the field runs from the sideline to the huddle.
  4. The players stand in the huddle for a few seconds before breaking the huddle.
  5. The players break the huddle (often with less than 10 seconds on the play clock) and line up for the play.
Huddle animations take forever and slow down the game.

All this happens between every play!

The user can press a button to skip any one of these steps, but doing so does not run any additional time off the clock. If you want to run time off the clock for realistic huddle breaks and for there to be a chance of a delay of game, then you have to sit through all of those steps in real time, which lengthens the time it takes to complete a match. If you skip these steps, then no time runs off the play clock, which increases the number of plays that teams can run and drags out the length of the match. Either way, the game drags, but for different reasons.

The end result is that a 5 or 6-minute quarter match can easily take well over 90 minutes. An 8-minute quarter game (half the length of NFL regulation) takes over 2 hours to play. To put that into perspective, I reliably finish 15-minute quarter matches of Madden and Axis Football in about an hour using those games' respective accelerated clock features. I dare not try a 15-minute quarter game of Legend Bowl, but extrapolating from the time it takes to complete a 5 or 6-minute quarter match and an 8-minute match, I expect a 15-minute quarter game would take 3 1/2 or 4 hours -- considerably longer than most real-life NFL football games.

Frequent readers of my blog and viewers of my YouTube channel will know that one of my core litmus tests for a simulation football game is how realistic and well-paced it plays with 15-minute quarters, and Legend Bowl fails this test miserably.

One of my core litmus tests for a simulation football game is how well it plays with 15-minute quarters.

I don't know if the huddles of Legend Bowl are working as intended, or if there's some technical limitation that prevents Super Pixel Games from having the players huddle up while the user is selecting a play.

Yes, there is an option to disable the huddles entirely, and there is an accelerated clock. The problem with this is the same as manually skipping the huddles. It doesn't run as much time off the play clock. After breaking the huddle, the accelerated clock will run a bit faster until it gets to about 16 seconds. By that time, the offense is already lined up and ready to snap the ball.

In real football, teams are usually breaking the huddle with around 16 seconds on the play clock, and most offenses are snapping the ball with under 5 seconds on the play clock. Playing with the huddle breaks actually does run off almost exactly the right amount of time, but disabling the huddles results in offenses snapping the ball with around 15 seconds left on the play clock every play. This dramatically increases the number of plays that are run, which extends the length of the game, which makes 15-minute quarters non-viable as an option.

A new football dynasty?

The on-field action of Legend Bowl is pretty good. So how's the career mode? Well, it's kind of a weird mixed bag. As of the time of this writing, Legend Bowl only supports a single season. We have one chance to take our chosen team all the way. There's no multi-season Franchise mode with an off-season draft, player progression, free agents, trades, or any of that sort of stuff. It's one-and-done.

Currently, Legend Bowl only supports a single season and playoffs.

What's weird is that Legend Bowl's Season Mode has a lot of the trappings of a full, multi-season Franchise Mode. Players have contracts with expirations. They have morale. They have personalities that would seemingly affect their willingness to sign a contract with a given team. There's also options for stadium, training, and rehab facility upgrades that boost player attributes and / or add income for the team.

These systems seem intended for a multi-year Franchise, so it seems odd to me that the game would be released without a Franchise Mode, but still have these features. Unfortunately, I'm not terribly keen on playing a Season Mode with the game as it is now. There is no way to change quarter length or difficulty once a season has started, and since I'm still kind of getting a feel for the game, I'm not sure yet what quarter length I'm most comfortable with.

With only 1 season to play,
contract expirations don't have any effect.

The player personality attributes and morale systems seem like they would be an interesting feature that would make roster-building a lot more thoughtful and challenging, as personnel drama could potentially disrupt a season. Certain facility upgrades also come with risks. Many of the training upgrades come with the risk of players getting injured during practice. Buying "Drugs & Supplements" will boost player attributes, but could also lead to players getting busted for using performance-enhancers. Having a sauna could potentially result in a sex scandal. Various stadium upgrades also come with the risk of injuries or offenses to fans, which could impact attendance and finances. So there's plenty of opportunity here for off-field drama. I haven't seen any such drama happen yet (because the game only lasts a single season), but this could give a potential Franchise Mode a lot of unique flavor that isn't offered in other football games on the market.

And based on the developer's Twitter activity, it looks like a multi-season Franchise Mode is in the works. I'm not sure when it's going to be released, or if it will be a free update. Either way, if the eventual Franchise Mode even remotely lives up to the promise that is already present in the single-season mode, then you can bet I'll be bumping the review score of Legend Bowl -- maybe even into the "A" range if I can find a comfortable difficulty level! When the Franchise Mode comes out, I'll either update this review, or I'll do a whole write-up just on the Franchise Mode.

Hopefully, a Franchise Mode would also come with more than one playbook. Right now, teams lack any distinctive identity. They all share the same playbook, and can call any play from any formation. Most of the starters also have overall ratings in the 80s, with the difference between good and bad teams being that good teams will have a few 90-overalls thrown in, and bad teams will have a few 77-overalls thrown in (usually at quarterback). But other than that, they all play roughly the same. Looking at the depth charts, I can't even tell if a given team is intended to run a 3-4 or 4-3 base defense, since every team I've checked so far has 2 right and left defensive ends, 2 right and left defensive tackles, 3 inside linebackers, and 3 each of right and left outside linebackers. So every team's defensive roster looks like it's built for running a 4-3 front. So I'd like to see that change as well.

Facility upgrades supposedly come with risks that could lead to off-field drama.

Proper Franchise Mode or not, Legend Bowl is a robust and polished little indie game that is definitely deserving of a purchase for any gridiron football fan. The retro graphics and methodical gameplay will likely appeal to casual gamers who maybe don't have the quick reflexes to compete in Madden, while the solid football fundamentals should be more than serviceable for sim-oriented gamers. If a Franchise Mode follows through on the promise shown by the Season Mode, and some of the lingering balance issues get resolved, we could be looking at a genuine gridiron gem that can compete on near even footing with any football game past or present.

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This War of Mine: the Little OnesThis War of Mine: the Little OnesTomb Raider (2013)Tomb Raider (2013)
Total War: AttilaTotal War: AttilaTotal War: Rome IITotal War: Rome II
Total War: Shogun 2Total War: Shogun 2Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the SamuraiTotal War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai
TrineTrineTropico 5Tropico 5
U-BoatU-BoatUltimate General: Civil WarUltimate General: Civil War
Uncharted 3: Drake's DeceptionUncharted 3: Drake's DeceptionUntil DawnUntil Dawn
VirginiaVirginiaVisageVisage
What Remains of Edith FinchWhat Remains of Edith Finch 

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

Check out my YouTube content at YouTube.com/MegaBearsFan.

Follow me on Twitter at: twitter.com/MegaBearsFan

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Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

Featured Post

The un-fulfilled promise of Civilization VI's announcement trailerThe un-fulfilled promise of Civilization VI's announcement trailer03/04/2022 The announcement trailer for Sid Meier's Civilization VI made me very excited. Not just because there was a new iteration of my favorite PC game franchise, but also because the message of the trailer made me excited for the possibility that Civilization VI would take a much more humanist and globalist approach to its gameplay...

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Event [0] was a watershed tech demo attached to a mediocre sci fi mystery gameEvent [0] was a watershed tech demo attached to a mediocre sci fi mystery game03/21/2021 Continuing on through my years-old backlog of indie Steam games, I moved away from Bloober Team games, but stuck with the sci-fi genre and played one of the most innovative games from 2016. I may be five years late to this one, but Event [0] is still a unique sci-fi mystery game that no other developers seem to have tried to...

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