Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is back on the field, throwing elegant, targeted touchdowns once again. Yes, it’s because he’s the cover athlete for Wild Card Football, a new arcade offering that recalls 1999’s NFL Blitz with its dashes of wry humor (courtesy of ESPN’s Chris Berman) and its bending the rules of the game. Like the games in arcades of the ’80s, Wild Card sports quick play with uncomplicated controls and crazy action. That includes using any of 150 “wild cards” which, for example, allow the defense to call UFOs to the gridiron to abduct opponents and prevent the big play.
Kaepernick, you remember, came under fire from the right in 2016 for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice . Shamefully, the NFL powers that be iced him of the rest of his career. Today, he remains an activist with a shining nonprofit that gives back. Recently, I asked him what his favorite book is and he said, “That has to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” And he loves this game, so much so that when I played with him in Los Angeles, he beat me handily. He had memorized not only the plays, but the strategic elements of the game: the wild cards.
Choosing one of these 150 cards does everything from taking away strength from the opposing team to placing bumpers on the field so that anyone with the ball banks about like a pinball. Enthusiastically, I unlocked more of these power ups, so that the action became wonderfully stranger and satisfying. While the game isn’t straight strategy and memorizing hundreds of plays as in the Madden NFL series, there’s a fair amount of thinking involved to win. You’re given about 10 points per game, for instance, and each card you play deducts points. Winning helps you to level up in modes that use wild cards. You’re not only more vigorous after victory and going forward. You receive more cards and points to trade players and purchase cool uniforms. For me, fiery skull heads were the perfect Halloween-ish look for a team I named after my high school hooligans, The Lackawanna Steelers. While there are season modes, it’s the wild card modes called Tour and Dream Team that are the most enjoyable.
Since Kaepernick is featured on the game cover, I thought I’d be able to draft him as my quarterback from play one. But you need to indulge in many two-minute quarters to accumulate points and trade players you already have in order to get to the 1500 points Colin costs. There’s no player who costs more in the game.
There are no official NFL team names here. Instead of the the Buffalo Bills you have groups like team Josh Allen (the Bills quaterback). Kaepernick looks strong, confident and blocky, as do all the players from the NFL who are here because of a deal with their players association. Everyone is bulked up like the Hulk or Arnold at his prime. Still, despite the comic book aesthetic, the players resemble their real life counterparts strikingly well. And when the defense hits, it appears like a wrestler’s pile driver move. On offense, jukes and stiff arms are crazy cartoon animations—a juke looks like something between a cat leaping and the Flash running.
There’s no a play-by-play announcer, though it’s sorely needed. Chris Berman is there for some spot-on perspective, but not after every play. Kaepernick would have been great at it. Heck, so would a local sports radio personality. And the player banter after and between plays needs more humor and variety. Calling the other team too small, too slow, or too short gets old quickly.
The gridirons, often outdoor riffs on various towns and natural wonders, are inspired. Yes, the New York City looks like something out of EA’s NFL Street games. (The trio of early 2000s PlayStation 2 games is clearly an inspiration for the pigskin-loving creators.) But the others are creatively brilliant. There’s a unique field that features the mighty Niagara Falls as a background and another is full of towering redwood trees. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Niagara Falls in any other video game, ever.
Not available for launch day was a subscription service that includes online play, which I assume will also offer loot boxes for somewhat easier accumulation of legendary players. Currently, you get one or two shiny, spinning loot boxes after each game, but these often include so-called Common players worth 40 points each, I’d need to trade 10 of them to get a decent quarterback. 49ers QB Brock Purdy was underrated stat-wise. He only cost 40 points, a bargain at thrice the price.
Finally, the programming of the game’s opposing defense is a little off. I was able to pull off a long-ball play like a Hail Mary, pretty much at will during my 10 hours of indulging. Usually, the game’s defense would stop this action. But that’s kind of the utter joy of an arcade game. The point is to score points with a ball that cuts through the air for 60 yards. You don’t need any stinkin’ complex programming of code. You just want to have fun and win. With Colin at the helm and a wild card with a rocket icon that helps him to throw 50 percent better than his already awesome arm, over-the-top thrills are guaranteed.