Madden’s stranglehold on the digital rendition of American Football has been near-complete for several years, but 2023 has seen the arrival of an impressive array of indie offerings that are willing to offer a different view of gridiron. After Retro Bowl and Legend Bowl gave us a pack of 16-bit pixel-art plays, Wild Card Football is here to return us to the NFL Blitz era, making American Football games fun again. It does a pretty good job of it too.
Wild Card Football is essentially a spiritual successor to arcade-styled games like NFL Street and NFL Blitz, with trimmed down teams going head-to-head in overly brutal ways. Rather than real world teams facing off, each squad is headed up by that team’s star quarterback, so you get Team Purdy and Team Cousins rather than the 49ers and the Vikings. Each of your heroes is represented here – this might be the most any Jets fans see of Aaron Rodgers this year – but in essence these are the teams you know and love by another name, so Purdy is still going to hand it off to McCaffrey and cause your opponents untold pain. Hooray!
You can immediately tell this isn’t your average game of gridiron thanks to the hyper-stylised art style that have been chosen for each player. They’re even chunkier than they are in real life, and they’re kinda loveable too. At the very least they look as though they can take a hit or two, and there will definitely be some major collisions coming their way.
Wild Card Football feels wonderfully brutal. Every tackle, every stiff arm, feels as though its an earth-shattering connection, and some of these players will be spiked, suplexed or slammed multiple times in the course of a game. While that might be par for the course for Kirk Cousins, it’s liable to happen to anyone that has the ball here, and you’ll delight in every single hit. It feels great.
Overall, this is still American Football, so whether you’re on defence on offense you have to pick a play that’s going to outsmart your opponent. You can go with the AI’s suggestion, or pick your own, including a batch of trick plays to bamboozle the other team.
The Wildcards that lend the game its name are what really gives the game its own unique flavour. The cards are modifiers that have an increasingly bizarre and crazy set of effects, from simple boosts to your strength or speed through to pinball bumpers, UFOs and spinning electrical balls that mess with your opponents in a variety of ways. You build your deck, and through the Dream Team mode you can unlock new cards to add to your hand, giving you an extra edge out on the field.
If you’re not into what they’re selling you can actually turn everything off and play a more straightforward game of arcade football in both Season mode or Exhibition. The one mode where that isn’t the case is Dream Team, which is essentially Wildcard’s version of Ultimate Team. A bit like Ultimate Team, it’s also the most fun with the best sense of progression, and the opportunity to customise your team and their visual appearance. There are micro transactions here too, with the Ultimate Edition of the game including a healthy amount of content and customisation options which you won’t have to grind for. It’s a shame that they’re here, but I understand it from a business point of view.
You get to fully design your team, from the name to a very useable logo editor. There’s also a whole host of uniform options, from the mundane to the absolutely outrageous. My Lancaster Knights look like… well, knights from Lancaster, and I love it. You can go for Ghost Rider-inspired flaming skulls instead if you prefer, or perhaps you’re more of a pirate sort, hoping to grab some booty and take it to the endzone. I’m not sure that sounds quite the way I want it to…
Here you’ll also unlock the game’s frontman in the form of former 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It’s genuinely inspirational to see him return to the football fold, even if it’s the tiniest bit of what he’s due after what the league did to him following his stance on racial inequality and police injustice. If you’ve followed him after the NFL you’ll know that this is a guy who could absolutely still be playing top tier football. You’ll just have to make certain he does it on the digital field.
Between Dream Team and the other modes there’s a variety of online options, and there’s crossplay available so no matter what platform you’re on you should be able to find an opponent. You can also totally rope in a friend to play locally as well, with Wild Card truly coming to life when you’ve got someone’s actual face to shout into. It’s not big, and it’s not clever, but a bit like Wild Card Football itself, you can’t help but love it.