Sega’s Forgotten Games, Before NFL 2K There Was Sports Talk

Several retro franchises have been abandoned or have morphed into other franchises over the years. Sports games have had this happen more often than other genres of games. In this case, I would like to look at a forgotten football series. Sega’s Joe Montana/NFL Football games.

If you told me a few years ago that I would be tracking down some obscure football video games, I would tell you that you’re crazy. However, that was the situation I found myself in as I came up with this fun idea for a topic to cover. I wasn’t expecting Sega to have made things so confusing. The name of the series changed at least five times. I’m being serious:

  • Joe Montana Football
  • Joe Montana Football II: Sports Talk Football or Sports Talk Football: Joe Montana II
  • Sports Talk Football ’93 Starring Joe Montana
  • NFL Football ’94 Starring Joe Montana
  • NLF ’95 (Wikipedia says this is the sixth, and I’m not sure how or why)
  • Prime Time Football ’96 Staring Deion Sanders (License change)
  • NFL ’97 (Sega Saturn exclusive, I think)
  • NFL Prime Time ’98 (Last in the series. Sega would reboot with the 2K series)

The name was changed in 1995 after the licensing deal with Joe Montana expired. I’m guessing that Sega chose not to renew it. Sega would sign Deion Sanders for at least one game and then use Prime Time on two of the following three games.

It seems like Deion was only featured on the cover of one game. It makes things odd as Sega didn’t pursue a license for the next two games in the series. There wasn’t much crossover in Sega’s other consoles as the series continued.

There is also the matter of a lawsuit that Joe Montana filed against Sega for breach of contract. It was filed in July 1997. Montana was asking for 5 million dollars in compensation. I’ll get more into the lawsuit later on.

The series helped pave the way for Sega’s other sports games on the Genesis and the 2K sports games. Sports games were one area that Sega excelled at. Their sports games were often better than the competition, in both the games they made and those published on their consoles. It helped them stand out from Nintendo.

Let’s look at this series and talk about some of the odd stories in this series.

Early Years and Sports Talk Football

Before the Joe Montana series, Sega had produced two games based on American Football. In 1987, Sega produced Great Football; in 1989, they made Walter Payton Football (American Pro Football). However, Sega of America didn’t have the time to create this game in-house, and they were still rebuilding their development studios.

After reading several books on Sega of America’s history, the trend was building up a development pipeline and then shutting it down as the industry changed. It is a series of stops and starts. Ken Horowitz’s books, The Sega Arcade Revolution and Playing at the Next Level, help to explain this part of their history.

Sega wanted to get a football game to market for Christmas 1990. However, Activision lied to Sega about the game’s development, forcing Sega to look for an alternative. This led to the game being pushed to January of 1991.

EA was working on the latest edition of Madden. The same company made both Madden and Joe Montana Football, but Joe Montana Football was very different. It had fewer teams, few plays, and a more arcade style of play. It wasn’t exactly like Tecmo Bowl, but it was less realistic than Madden.

Park Place Productions made the first game. It didn’t have a license from the NFL or the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA). This meant the game couldn’t use the NFL Team logos, team names, or player names aside from Joe Montana. It would have been a little strange if he wasn’t in the game after signing a contract with Sega.

I’m not a fan of this game. The controls feel off for some reason. I’m also not a fan of how the passing game works. It can be confusing when you’re trying to throw the ball, and it is a guessing game on if the receiver will catch the ball. I prefer Tecmo Bowl to this game.

It is a fun game, but I wouldn’t say I like this style of football game. For some reason, having the camera behind the quarterback always bugged me on the SNES and Sega Genesis. I found it a little hard to get used to.

Park Place Productions would only work on the first game. BlueSky Software would be the developer for Joe Montana II through NFL 95. BlueSky was founded in 1988 and was in business until 2001. They developed games for various home consoles, handheld consoles, and personal computers.

BlueSky’s first entry in the series is an interesting one. It looks like the Tecmo Bowl games, but it tries to be more realistic. It plays similar to the PS1 version of Tecmo Super Bowl. It is a strange mix of arcade and realistic football that doesn’t work well.

Some other strange things sounded cool at the time, but I find it more annoying than anything else. Zooming in on plays is jarring. I really hated this.

Sports Talk Football 93: Staring Joe Montana looks like a graphical upgrade of Joe Montana II. It plays the same but is more detailed than the previous entry in the series. It also suffers from the same issues as the earlier games.

Both games make it painful to play offense. I’m not sure what is happening with them, but the defense is much tougher than any other football game I’ve played. Passing in the ball feels like playing Russian roulette.

I didn’t experience this with Joe Montana II, but in Storts Talk Football 93, things just happen. There were so many plays where it looked like the offense handed the ball to the defense. I know it was supposed to be a fumble, but it didn’t feel that way.

It was effortless to return punts and kickoffs for touchdowns. This was bizarre to see. I’m so used to this being close to impossible in the Tecmo Bowl games that it was strange to be able to have big returns with ease.

This side view didn’t work well in Joe Montana II or Sports Talk Football 93. It worked well in Tecmo Bowl, but in the games released by Sega, it didn’t work as well. Having the game zoom in looked cool, but it was jarring to play. I can see how some people would like it, but I didn’t.

With the next game, we would get another name change and some major changes to gameplay. NFL Football 94: Starring Joe Montana would return to the style of the first game in the series and Madden Football.

I feel like the graphics have gotten worse with the perspective change. It still zooms in at times and is as jarring as it was with the previous game. When the game is zoomed in, the graphics look much better. When the game is zoomed out, the graphics don’t look all that great.

This game feels like it is trying to be a television broadcast. While the other games in the series also attempt this, I feel that the developers did a better job of this in NFL Football 94.

NFL 95 was the last game to feature Joe Montana. It was also the last game that BlueSky would work on. Around the time this game was made, the licensing agreement with Joe Montana ended and was being renegotiated. Something happened, and Sega parted ways with Montana.

I haven’t found much information on the lawsuit besides the fact that it happened and was settled out of court. I’ll cover the lawsuit later; let’s focus on the game now.

NFL 95 looks the best out of the BlueSky games. The zoom mode from the previous games is gone and is replaced with a smoother camera that is much less jarring. The defense is still quite a bit tougher than other games.

Of the BlueSky games, I would recommend NFL 95. It is a good game that is closer to how the Madden games play. The passing system is still a mess, but it has always been a mess for the entire series.

From here, the development team would change along with the signature player. I’m not sure how the following games will play, and I am missing one, but I’m hopeful they will be better than some of the BlueSky games.  

Prime Time and Decline (96-98)

After the split with Joe Montana, Sega made three more games in this series before the NFL 2K series started. Those games were made by FarSight Studios, formerly known as FarSight Technologies. I couldn’t find out why the change in development studio happened, and I guess Sega decided to switch to FarSight to make a clean break in the series.

FarSight has had a long history of developing video games. Unlike BlueSky, FarSight is still making games today. Let’s start with another name change for the series.

This game has a confusing name. The box says Prime Time NFL: Staring Deion Sanders. However, an alternate name, Prime Time Football 96, is used when researching the game. I’m not sure why there is this discrepancy, but it makes things confusing.

Prime Time Football 96 looks like NFL 95 but plays better. Both games were better balanced. You didn’t have to struggle to gain yards on offense.

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but the touchdown celebrations were getting more elaborate. It isn’t anything crazy, but it does enough to bring some personality to the game. This made things better than a simple simulation of an NFL game.

NFL ’97 is the only game I haven’t played and don’t own in the series. It is exclusive to the Sega Saturn, and I wasn’t motivated to start collecting for the Saturn just for this game. It was beyond the scope of what I wanted to do here, and I felt that I could form some consensus through the reviews of the time.

The reviews for the game aren’t good. I’m not sure why this one was only released on Saturn, not Genesis. Other games in the series had their Saturn ports canceled. Many of these games were exclusive to the North American market, and the Saturn wasn’t that popular here, but it would have made sense to release it in as many forms as possible.

The final game in the series is called NFL 98. You have no idea how happy I am that the name stopped changing. It made researching this game so much easier.

By this point, many of the problems I had with the other games in the series were gone. The zoom feature had long been removed, making the game easier to play. You have more formations, it is easier to tell what you’re doing, and the games are more user-friendly.

The FarSight games look much better. They were also made late in the Genesis lifespan, and the developers knew how to get the most out of the system. 96 and 98 are very good-looking games that resemble the Madden games from this time for the most part.

Madden had moved on to the 32 and 64-bit systems, so those will look better than these 16-bit games. The two series would be similar in play styles, and in my opinion, it was a matter of personal preference which one you liked. It’s kind of like with the EA and 2K games today.

After this, Sega would move development to the 2K Sports franchises. These would initially be released on the Sega Dreamcast. Once the Dreamcast was discontinued, the games would appear on other consoles. The NFL 2K series would be discontinued in 2004.

Montana v. Sega of America

In July 1997, several newspapers reported on a lawsuit between Joe Montana and Sega of America. According to the articles I’ve read, Montana was supposed to receive a percentage of the game’s sales, but Sega told him the contract was void. This was the result of an attempt to negotiate a contract extension.

The negotiations occurred in 1995 when Montana’s name was removed from the games. This timeline is a little strange, as the 95 and 96 games removed Montana’s name. The 95 box does use his likeness by having a picture of him as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.

I wish there were more information on this lawsuit, but I couldn’t find it. The only thing I could find was what Montana was looking for. Since the series was over and Sega said the contract was void, I’m guessing there was a settlement, and things were kept private.

This is a little anti-climactic. If there is more information on this, I’ll make an update to this. Sometimes, stories end this way.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure why I found this series so interesting. It could be that it was almost in constant flux with changes in developers, names, and eventually licensed NFL players. The game’s origins as a watered-down version of Madden are also a fun footnote in Sega’s history.

This was a confusing series to gather information on. The more successful Madden series and many of the other one-off football games from the 90s overshadowed the series. There was also Tecmo Bowl, even if it was more of an arcade game than a simulation.

I’ve wanted to talk more about the Joe Montana series for a while. I kept finding more games connected to the series as I dug into it. The games played a role in Sega’s success in North America.

The lawsuit between Joe Montana and Sega was the most exciting part of this for me. Mostly because of how little coverage of it there was. It is the one thing that I might look into again at some point. I’ll also have to look at the NFL 2K games at some point.

Published by Paul Werkema

Hi! I'm here to share my hobbies with all of you. I love video games and books, so I write about the books that cover video games or are novels about video games.

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