A quick glance at Legend Bowl, with its charming pixel art and upbeat chiptune soundtrack, might make you think it's a throwback to retro arcade-y American football games like Tecmo Bowl.
And it is, but it's also a lot more. That's because there's a ton of modern stuff going on under the hood in Legend Bowl, which is now in Steam Early Access (opens in new tab). There's player, coach, and team customization, including management options for your stadium, right down to letting you build hot dog stands. There's a dynamic weather system that isn't just for show: wind direction and force can have an impact on thrown or kicked balls. The controls aren't complex, but there's some surprisingly fine detail to them (which I'll get to in a minute). If you like arcade style action that still contains a ton of detail, this might be the American football game you've been looking for.
One tiny, delightful example: After each down the ref will collect the football and place it back on the line of scrimmage. Don't worry, you can skip the animation by clicking a button, and no doubt you will. But if you want to see it happen, you can! The refs even bring the chain crew out from the sidelines to measure the distance on close first downs. As someone who wishes games like Super Mega Baseball 3 (opens in new tab) would have the catcher throw the ball back to the mound after every pitch, instead of the ball just magically appearing there, I appreciate this kind of attention to detail.
Back to the controls. There's a simple tackle button, but also a shoulder tackle button if you want to try to knock the ball loose from the carrier. There's dive, a shoulder charge, strafing so you can run backwards while watching the guy you're defending, hurdling while running forwards, and a stiff arm—and you can even choose which arm you're using for the stiff arm.
Players have a stamina meter that has continuity between plays, so you can try to tire defenders out by snapping the ball quickly. As you can see above, passes can be blocked or swatted out of the air, bobbled, and grabbed by another player (or if you've got the speed and reflexes, the same player who swatted it or bobbled it). The tutorial walks you though all of this, but very quickly, and it's tricky to all put it all into practice during a game until you've memorized the buttons. I definitely recommend a controller, but you can play with a keyboard, too.
And this is the first football game I've played where kicking is really challenging. In my first two games, I missed three extra point kicks, which is typically the easiest part of a football videogame. Those extra points are expected, they're gimmes. But in real football, games often come down to the kicker, so kicking a field goal or an extra point should be a challenge in a game. And here, it's hard, with a swiftly moving directional arrow and a power meter that fills and empties in the blink of an eye. There are no easy kicks, and I really dig that.
In fact, the whole game is pretty tough—except when it isn't. My first few sets of downs I barely made it to the line of scrimmage on a run or completed a pass. And then I had to punt, which as I said, is very tricky to do well. But the few times I did complete a long pass, it was nearly always a touchdown. When I aimed my pass perfectly (which is rare, as passing is tricky too) the AI would goof, either by turning to jump for the ball or just standing there for a moment and allowing my receiver to catch the throw and hustle past them to the end zone.
Legend Bowl (opens in new tab) is in Early Access so there's time to shore up the AI a bit more, and there are a few features not yet available (like player trading) but it's already an incredibly fun and really impressive indie football game with local shared/split screen multiplayer. The pixel art and animation are great, from the refs scurrying around to helmets occasionally being knocked off during hard hits to an exaggerated splatter of pixelated blood on really hard hits. The music is excellent, too! Even if you don't buy games in Early Access (understandable), I recommend wish-listing this one and keeping an eye on it.