The little tykes are cute, I'll give them that. The charm of Backyard Football 2006 is undeniable. While it may be intended for a younger audience, escaping the burden of complexity inherent to either of the crown jewels of the EA Sports line, Madden and NCAA Football, and playing a simple game of football between kids in the neighborhood is a concept that could turn the heart of even the most hard core sports elitist.
The allure of Backyard Football 2006 begins with the presentation. For those of you familiar with Nickelodeon's animated line-up, the look of the game is very Jimmy Neutron. The 3D player models are clean and cartoony, with big heads, rounded features, and expressionate faces. Your team is outfitted with the regulation gear of your favorite NFL team (I guess this game flies under the radar of the EA Sports juggernaut, and their exclusive license). The playing fields are set in various places, with backdrops as familiar as the neighborhood trailer park to those as picturesque as an ocean vista.
The sound is much different than that of your usual football game. The audience never boos. Both they and the announcers cheer you on throughout the game. The announcers serve basically two purposes: they provide helpful hints and witty banter. In a case where you are third and long and fail to convert by using a running play, the announcers will let you know that a passing play would be a better choice next time you are in that situation. They are truly funny, too. The humor in Backyard Football 2006 works for both a young audience and older gamers weary of all of the old video game clich?s. I laughed out loud at the bumbling announcer who tries to spread his knowledge of the game by informing us that "in England, a field goal is called...um, cricket!" Of course any old school gamer knows that his statement is sheer genius compared the sage advice John Madden has given us over the generations.
Backyard Football 2006 allows you to play an entire season, a single pick-up game, or a two-player multiplayer game. Season Mode proceeds as you would expect. You choose your roster from the best and brightest youngsters in the neighborhood, in much the same way kids have been picking teams on the playground for generations-you point at the kid you want and he or she is on your team. Players are automatically assigned a position based on their strengths. There is no second string, no injuries, so everyone gets to play in every game. A handful of NFL stars make an appearance, as children, in the form of unlockable bonus players. Little input is required to run a season. You can realign your roster, but as each player's abilities are so strongly suited to a particular position, it is ill advised. The options menu allows you to adjust the rules of the game from the standard to more of a little league style of play. For example, you can replace the traditional 10-yard first down conversions with two-play conversions or no first downs if you like.
The gameplay is made simple with an easy interface, plenty of hints and tutorials, and a minimum of plays to choose from. There are 16 offensive plays, 16 defensive, and a handful of special teams plays labeled "kicking." No play is too overwhelming. Most are as simple as seeing the route and knowing that "P" stands for pass, "R" stands for run, and so on. In this way, younger players that are new to the game can take their first steps on their way to joining the ranks of the elite, or at least your typical, obsessive, jaded football gamer.
With the simple interface, a plucky cartoon style, and pint-sized players adorned with the logos of your favorite NFL teams-what could go wrong? Well, first and foremost, the game is no fun to play. At all. Despite the simplicity of the playbook and control scheme, it is nearly impossible to complete a play. Passes are routinely dropped or intercepted, your offensive and defensive lines are inconsistent, and the running plays are weak. I understand that we are dealing with children here, and not professional football players. It is only natural that they have limitations. But for the sake of playability, it would have been better to make it too easy than too hard. The fact that each failed play is met with an "awe, shucks" kick at the turf and a pat on the back by the announcers is surely intended to reinforce good sportsmanship in younger children. However, the perpetual failure of the players to complete even the most basic plays is unbelievably irritating, especially for kids. Rather than generating enthusiasm and confidence, Backyard Football 2006 will more likely have your child screaming obscenities and throwing controllers well before their prime.
The game is plagued by performance issues. The game jitters and slows down. The animation is clunky. The sound is clipped abruptly by scene transitions. There are also issues with the gameplay itself. I have no idea how they measure yards in this game because there were times when I failed to convert a ten-yard first down after I had run nearly a third of the playing field. I enlisted a second pair of eyes to judge my progress and they couldn't figure it out, either. And on the PC version, the default controls do not necessarily match those described in the booklet.
And seriously, there are many child actors out there who would love to be featured in the voice cast of a video game. Hire them, please. It is just annoying listening to a bunch of adults talking baby talk and trying to sound like children.
Backyard Football 2006 is a game that is intended for children, could be enjoyable for adults, but ultimately ends up being unplayable for anyone. The charm only lasts so long. After that, there is only frustration as your plays are blown over and over again, for no conceivable reason. But let's not give up on the concept. With a little flair and a good polish, Backyard Football could have the appeal of a game like Lego Star Wars. Render the game with the latest 3D technology, or even cell shading. Keep the simplicity and the sportsmanship, but boost the players' skills so that gamers have at least as many successes as they do failures (good sportsmanship, after all, applies just as much to winners as losers). Make it run with a little sizzle, a little flair. You'd have a real game then, the kind of game that can be a bonding experience for parent and child, sports fans young and old.