Saturday afternoon, following a brief and humbling stint on the IM Building’s hardwood floor (I didn’t used to airball lay-ups, did I?), I experienced the healing power of Best Buy when the store’s phone receptionist informed me that a few Xboxes were actually in stock.

Gennaro Filice

A commodity of Tickle-Me-Elmo hotness this holiday season due to its reduced $150 price tag, Xbox had evaded me for over a month. But, after a swift heist of my housemate’s car keys and a quick bank withdrawal of my Christmas dough (grandparents really do this whole gift-giving thing right), the wait was over.

Ten hours and 12 games of ESPN Basketball 2K5 later, it was 4:10 a.m., and I was ready to hit the sack. But my roommate, Kaegi, who was indubitably functioning with extreme amounts of liquid courage after attending a few house parties, began running his mouth:

“I’ve never played ESPN basketball, and I’ll still shut you down.”

I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge — even one of the drunken nature — regardless of the time of day. So, I accepted.

Kaegi — never a predictable man — chose to run with the 1990s Western Conference All-Stars. I countered with the 1990s Eastern Conference All-Stars.

A quick glance at the game’s matchups, specifically at center, sent Kaegi to the ground, utterly amused.

Shaquille O’Neal vs. Shaquille O’Neal!

Shaq, who dominated one half of the ’90s with the Orlando Magic and the other half with the Los Angeles Lakers, was starting on both sides. The ’90s East boasted the younger Diesel, who sported the fade haircut — an early ’90s must-have — while the ’90s West possessed the older Diesel, who sported the shiny, Mr. Clean-esque bare dome. Shaq of old vs. Shaq of new; Shaq-Fu vs. the Big Aristotle; hair vs. hairless. This battle of the titans — or titan, I suppose — had Kaegi laughing hysterically (the sauce generates easy chuckles) and me reminiscing intensely …

Sports video games have provided some marquee matchups that preceded this Shaq vs. Shaq dandy — matchups that captured the imagination of every American kid, coast to coast, on a daily basis.

These showdowns didn’t always exist — it took a few years for some real-life battles to emerge. In the early days of Nintendo, nameless/faceless players ruled the playing fields. “Double Dribble” — the first 5-on-5, full court basketball video game ever — provided four teams to pick from (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York). But there was no differentiation (name or number) from one player to the next. Nintendo’s “Ice Hockey” introduced the option of personalizing a player’s girth. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s that games began recognizing real-life players. This era spawned virtual showdowns of epic proportions — and they came to life in eight-bit (Nintendo) and 16-bit (Sega Genesis) form.

As an avid sports fan with minimal responsibilities at the time, I exhausted legendary faceoffs on a nightly basis. And there were three clashes that stood out above the rest.

Clemns vs. Pucket: No, that’s not a typo. “RBI Baseball” had room for just six letters per player name. But don’t let the condensed titles fool you — even today, there is still no better virtual diamond matchup than RBI’s Roger Clemens vs. Kirby Puckett. “The Rocket” held a formidable 2.48 ERA in the game, complementing a blazing fastball with a nasty 9-3 slider. But if there was anyone who could hang with Boston’s Clemens, it was Minnesota’s Puckett, who boasted a .332 batting average with 28 homers. Pairing off the two best players on RBI’s two best teams, this battle was almost as enjoyable as the game’s classic soundtrack that featured such hits as “Nobody on base” and “Someone on base.”

Bo vs. L.T.: Although “Madden” reigns supreme in football video games these days, “Tecmo Super Bowl” is the forefather of virtual pigskin. In the game, when the ball carrier ran into a defensive player, the duo would shimmy for a few seconds and then either the defender would make the tackle or the runner would break free. Bo Jackson never lost one of these Tecmo tangos … except to Lawrence Taylor. Equally fast and powerful, Bo and L.T. present the game’s most intriguing 1-on-1 showdown — a toss-up every time.

Roenick vs. the World: There may be no better virtual sports game than Genesis’s incomparable “NHL ’94,” and there may be no better virtual athlete than this title’s version of Jeremy Roenick. J.R.’s combination of sheer power and unparalleled finesse were immortalized during a scene in the movie “Swingers.” As undisputed master of NHL ’94, Roenick faced off against a rotating carousel of talented centers that included Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman. Although these matchups were tight, it was never a good idea to bet against J.R.

While today’s video games offer amazing graphics and gameplay, there is no matchup that even compares to any of these four … not even Shaq vs. Shaq.

 

Gennaro Filice can be reached at gfilice@umich.edu.

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