In the quarter century since the introduction of Pong, sports video games have come of age. Now you can buy computer simulations of everything from fishing (Trophy Bass 2 by Sierra, CD-ROM for PC, $54.95) to snooker (Virtual Snooker by Interplay, CD-ROM for PC, $39.95). The real New York Jets may be hapless, but who cares when you can turn them into virtual winners on a video screen? For this holiday season, there is an excellent selection that will impress even the most techno-hip fans.
The best of the bunch is NBA Live '97 (Electronic Arts, CD-ROM for PC, Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn and Genesis, $59.95). Crisply animated and attentive to the tiniest detail, this engrossing hoops simulation is astounding. The image of every player in the NBA (except for Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, who have licensing deals separate from the league's) has been faithfully reproduced, right down to Dennis Rodman's Day-Glo hair. The game's playbook has more than 50 options and uses seven offensive and five defensive sets, allowing you enormous coaching flexibility. (You can even get whistled for illegal defense.) To animate the players, programmers asked Sacramento Kings guards Mitch Richmond and Tyus Edney to run through a series of basketball moves while wearing special sensors on their bodies. Their motions were converted into digital information and programmed into the movements of the video characters. The result: smoothly flowing on-court action that's almost as enjoyable to watch as it is to direct.
Since its debut in September, Nintendo's powerful new video-game machine, the Nintendo 64, has probably set as many records for hype as for sales. Luckily, Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey (Midway Home Entertainment, for Nintendo 64, $74.95), so far the only sports game available for the N64, shows off the system at its best. Taking advantage of the machine's cutting-edge technology, Gretzky's 3D spins hockey action at a breakneck pace, capturing the speed and power of the sport. Gretzky's 3D keeps the action lively and distinct with crystal-clear graphics and some Fox Television broadcast innovations, such as a glowing puck and the rocket trail that illuminates a shot on goal.
MLB Pennant Race (Sony, for Sony PlayStation, $50) is designed for the obsessive-compulsive baseball fan. This superior simulation features all 28 major league teams, along with more than 700 players, complete with their statistical profiles. You can play a season's worth of games, and the program will track player and team statistics. Every major league stadium has been faithfully re-created, as have every team's home and road uniforms. Pennant Race is so believable that you half expect your computerized players to go on strike in midseason.
For football devotees there is Madden NFL '97 (Electronic Arts, CD-ROM for PC, Sony PlayStation, Super Nintendo and Sega Saturn and Genesis, $59.95), with more than 100 past and present NFL teams, 500 offensive and defensive plays and all 30 NFL stadiums. Fluid three-dimensional animation makes the players run, tackle, pass and celebrate like their real-life counterparts. The playbook offers a vast array of strategic options. And the look and feel of the game are almost indistinguishable from an NFL broadcast: James Brown introduces each contest, and John Madden and Pat Summer-all do color and play-by-play. Finally, there is a general-manager function that lets you create your own teams and even customize players.
Imagine a sports-themed Jeopardy! staged by MTV, with questions written by Jerry Seinfeld, and you'll have an idea of what You Don't Know Jack Sports (Berkeley Systems, CD-ROM for PC and Macintosh, $30) is like. This trivia game has the same witty style and pop sensibility as its nonsports predecessor, You Don't Know Jack. A typical question: "At Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane challenges the Grateful Dead to a volleyball game. What does it mean if the referee flashes a peace sign?" (Answer: Grace Slick touched the ball twice.) The best thing about Jack Sports is that it transforms video-gaming from an isolating experience into a social activity. What more could you ask from a video game—or, for that matter, from sports?