The second of NES’s (technically) third-party day-one titles, this American football sim seemed a natural fit for the U.S. launch.

10-Yard Fight

Japanese title: 10ヤードファイト • 10-Yard Fight

Developer: Nintendo/Irem
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-TY-USA]
Japanese release date: Aug. 1985 [IF-02]
Genre: Sports (American football)
Alternate versions: Arcade [1983]; 10-Yard Fight ’85, Arcade [1984]; Vs. 10-Yard Fight, Arcade  [1985]; MSX [1986]

As this chronology of the NES’s initial 1985 release lineup nears its end, these final few games appeared in Japan almost simultaneously with the American console launch. Like the system itself, American localizations of games could sometimes take years to arrive following the Japanese debut of those titles, so the quick turnaround of these games makes them particularly noteworthy.

With Gyromite and Stack-Up, you had two games designed specifically for the American launch. R.O.B. was little more than an oddity in Japan, and Nintendo rushed to complete the peripheral and a couple of games to help the NES make more of an impression on Americans. Or, arguably, not to complete them, when it came to the seemingly unfinished Stack-Up. On the other hand, Irem’s 10-Yard Fight  presents a more complicated case, logistically speaking, as it technically hailed from a third-party, as with Kung-Fu. 

Nintendo would keep a tight rein over NES game production in the U.S., but in Japan publishers could roll their own. Nintendo launched the Famicom without the built-in security measures that the NES would include, and so the Japanese market was far more unruly than in America. 10-Yard Fight publisher Irem was one of those companies that made the most of the freedom afforded by that autonomy: They distinguished their early Famicom cartridges by adding a small red LED to the case that would light up when played. Unlike the NES, the Famicom was a top-loading console, so playing an Irem title gave your Famicom a little extra pizzazz. 

But Irem’s independence meant that Nintendo had to take special measures to get 10-Yard Fight into the U.S. lineup. The game debuted in Japan at the very end of August 1985, a mere six or seven weeks before the NES’s initial release. In order to the game into the October U.S. launch line-up, Nintendo ended up working on the home version of the game themselves—meaning it was a game licensed from a third party, converted to console internally at Nintendo, then published in the U.S. as a first-party title (though released by Irem in Japan). 

But of course Nintendo would take whatever pains were necessary to get 10-Yard Fight out the door in time for the U.S. launch. Of all the games to appear in the initial NES lineup, 10-Yard Fight was by far the most idiosyncratically suited for American tastes. This has nothing to do with quality or game design, of course, and instead simply reflects the nature of the subject at hand: American football. Japan is one of the few countries in the world that seems willing to even give the time of day to the aggressive rugby variant that Americans call by the name of a completely different European sport, so it’s not too surprising that the NES’s first adaptation of football would come from a Japanese developer and publisher. 

It’s also no surprise that Nintendo looked at its lineup of games that featured, for example, tubby Eskimos rescuing eggplants or interactive robots crushing carnivorous birds with a predlilction for radishes and said, “We need to Yankee this up.” And so 10-Yard Fight enjoyed a place of honor at the NES launch. It would be one of the four sports titles to appear on day-one for the system (five if you count Excitebike), and the only one to originate outside of Nintendo.

Irem had debuted 10-Yard Fight as an arcade release in 1984, one with a somewhat unusual premise: Players took a strictly offensive role rather than alternating between offense and defense as in other football games. Hence the title: The game consisted of a series of fights to gain 10 yards for a first down and ultimately reach the end zone to score. In other words, it somehow managed to present an even more stripped-down vision of football than Atari’s 1978 Football. You know, the one where everything was rendered in monochrome Xs and Os. But, its simple and energetic score attack design worked well in arcades, offering a quick, fast-paced approximation of football. For the NES release, however, Irem (and Nintendo) retooled the game from top to bottom. While the offensive play design remained more or less the same, the home version adds alternating sides and a two-player option. In the arcade, 10-Yard Fight simply penalized players with a loss of yardage for failing to earn a first down or for allowing an interception. On NES, however, these setbacks allow the CPU or second player to take possession of the ball and attempt to undertake their own 10-yard fight. The field rotates 180º based on current possession so that the offense always appears at the bottom of the screen, driving toward the end zone above. 

This being an 8-bit team-based sport, 10-Yard Fight involves an awful lot of shortcuts and simplifications. When you receive the ball, your team charges ahead as a unit. As offense, you basically control only the quarterback. As defender, you press A or B to take control of either a cornerback or safety. You have no way to fine-tune your formations, no way to determine which two specific defenders the game will allow you to control. As offense, you guide the quarterback until he tosses the ball to one of his teammates, whose movements are determined by the CPU until the moment of reception. It’s a very hands-off kind of game that relies heavily on AI. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the computer gives itself tremendous advantages. 

Obviously, the computer controls its entire lineup as well as yours, and it seems to enjoy much greater precision over how its quarterback passes and who receives. It also has a tendency to launch successive chains of passes, with the quarterback tossing to a running back who then passes forward across to a wide receiver through illegal precedures that are practically impossible for a player to perform manually with any consistent success.

The CPU also seems to bend circumstances to its own advantage. For example, interceptions are pretty rare in 10-Yard Fight… but mysteriously, the game seems most likely to let a player intercept a pass at the very end of the first half. This, of course, allows the CPU to take possession of the ball at the beginning of the second half. And this is not simply sour grapes: It’s well-documented that Irem didn’t fine-tune the AI in adapting it from the arcade’s single-player offense-only format, and the second player in the NES version enjoys unfair advantages over the first because they benefit both from human intelligence and the CPU team’s AI cheats combined into a single unbeatable force. Evidently these flaws originated in a two-player arcade revision Irem released in 1984 and were carried forward faithfully into the NES conversion.

10-Yard Fight seems painfully dated compared to modern football games, or even versus Tecmo Bowl, which would arrive a few years later on NES. It is to football games what the infamous Bokosuka Wars was to real-time strategy: A rudimentary sketch. For that matter, the offensive formation as you’re returning the ball even kind of resembles Bokosuka Wars’ army movements.

Like much of the NES launch lineup, 10-Yard Fight was not a revolution in game design and wouldn’t have any real impact on the future of the medium. But it served its purpose—giving Americans a loose approximation of an indigenous sport on day one of the system’s life—and I suppose that’s good enough. It’s rough, but it’s still better than Stack-Up.