Editor’s Note: Since this review has been published, there have been several updates to the game. As such, this review is not necessarily relevant to the current version of the game, but comments on the version that was publicly available on July 30, 2020.
Last May, I gave “Retro Bowl” the first ever 0/10 score on this website, as every pro the game seemed to be negated by a con, in my opinion.
That review was based on me playing about 5 of its in-game seasons, and I stand by what I said. Since the review was published, it got picked up by the game’s reddit page, and has drawn the ire of its fans, which is absolutely fine. I have my opinion, they have theirs. While I’m glad they enjoy the game and it’s developed its own following, I did not initially have a positive experience with the game, and that’s reflected in my review. I’m not going to change my analysis of the game because its fans disagree with me. The fact that the game is made by an independent studio, emulates a retro style of gaming, and is on mobile does not excuse it from criticism.
I am writing this review because after my first writeup, I returned to the game, and as I progressed to Season 6, I had a different experience, one that is not reflected in my review of Seasons 1-5, which in my opinion, is indicative of how long you can expect a casual gamer to sit through this game (given how frustrating those early seasons can be, I also think that’s a bit liberal).
What I think broke the game for me in my first review was the game’s Coaching Credits system, which represent your credibility with the organization you pick, and also serves as the in-game currency. In a nutshell, “Retro Bowl” is a coaching simulator in which you pick a team, draft players, sign free agents, cut players, manage a salary cap, hire offense/defensive coordinators, manager team morale, and even control players on offense (defense is controlled by an off-screen algorithm).
Most of the time you’ll be playing an offensive minigame in which you control a QB and receivers, and kickers, and the game’s controls are dictated by the quality of the players you have. The issue is that, unless you want to pay money for the Unlimited Version, you’re limited to 10-man rosters, meaning you’re going to have four or five players on either side of the ball. When you don’t have a player in a position, their sprite still appears on the field — but they are often slow and control like garbage. What kills the game is that, in order to sign decent players and thereby unlock better controls, you need not only enough salary cap space to do so, but you also need Coaching Credits, which are slow to come by in the first five seasons of the game.
I am still not a fan of the Coaching Credits system. While it’s fine to reserve it for things like upgrading your stadium and training facilities, the double requirement it stacks on top of the salary cap to sign players is really brutal to new players, and is the reason why I reviewed the game so harshly originally, and is why I still hold the first five seasons in low regard. It would be much better to just allow players to use their full cap from Season 2 (as I’ll explain later, Season 1 isn’t a full season in this game), especially because of how easy Coaching Credits are to come by once you’re able to pay for your first decent squad. In my experience, once I got 200-300 Coaching Credits, I had all that I needed to build a great team from scratch, and that team was so good at getting Coaching Credits (you get more credits the more you win, and you get even more if you win the Retro Bowl), that it would only take 3 to 4 Seasons for me to earn my investment back, which is why I started from scratch in this game five times. Coaching Credits go from being game-breaking and frustrating to get early on, to so easy to earn that they have no real impact on gameplay, and they don’t seem to add anything of value to the game other than try to push an in-game currency on you.
The game’s Unlimited Version comes with a few of these credits and other features for $0.99, which isn’t inherently a bad deal. But beyond that, we see the true reason for Coaching Credits being in the game: You can buy 50 for $1.99, 100 for $3.49, and 250 for $4.99. Suddenly it’s clear why the game is so frustrating starting out from a control perspective and from a salary cap management perspective: As is unfortunately the industry standard, it seems that “Retro Bowl” adopts Pay-To-Win mechanics in which its base game was intentionally made harder and worse in order for them to sell you their own worthless in-game currency.
For that reason, it’s 0/10 score will remain for Seasons 1-5. As a critic and gamer who absolutely will not tolerate Pay-To-Win mechanics that break a game to this extent, I cannot in good faith give it a higher score, as anything good or great the game has to potentially offer is negated by frustrating controls and scenarios designed to psychologically manipulate you into spending money on a currency that shouldn’t be in the game. Perhaps my largest frustration with this is that there is a decent game with surface-level mechanics that, while are nowhere near accurate to a real game of football, can be enjoyable, and indeed, once Coaching Credits stopped strangling the game, there was a decent coaching simulator to enjoy here.
So let’s talk about what that game is like.
Games quick to start, finish
Part of me wonders why I came back to the game after having such a bad experience, documented in my initial review of the game. Mostly, it was because “Retro Bowl” is mindless fun. While you get to construct a 10-man roster — which is still too limiting for a game of football — and have to manage their stamina and attitudes, as well as the condition of your stadium and training facilities, games are relatively quick to start and to finish (games have about 2-3 minutes of gametime per quarter, but the actual playtime can vary; longer offensive drives will extend your game, and shorter offensive drives might shorten your play time; the game skips over defense and dictates its outcomes through an algorithm, which condenses defensive drives to a few seconds). And without that factor, I would have deleted the app.
Here are my complete results for all 32 seasons I’ve played of the game. I will reference them later to describe how I tackled the game. I’m at the point where I’ve won the “Retro Bowl” 21 times. Note that Season 1 is excluded from records, as the game has you start out by finishing the season for a fired head coach.
Season: Team: Record: Outcome:
2 CIN 10-5-1 Champions
3 CIN 15-1-0 Champions
4 CIN 15-0-1 Champions
5 CIN 16-0-0 Champions
6 CIN 16-0-0 Champions
7 CIN 16-0-0 Champions
8 CIN 16-0-0 Champions
9 CIN 16-0-0 Champions
10 CIN 15-1-0 AFC N 1st
11 CIN 15-1-0 Champions
12 CIN 16-0-0 Champions
13 CIN 15-0-1 Champions
14 CIN 15-1-0 Champ Rnd
15 CIN 14-1-1 Champions
16 CIN 15-1-0 AFC Champions
17 CIN 13-3-0 AFC N 1st
18 T.B. 15-1-0 Champions
19 T.B. 14-2-0 Champions
20 T.B. 14-2-0 NFC Champions
21 T.B. 15-1-0 Champions
22. T.B. 14-2-0 Champ Rnd.
23. CIN 15-1-0 Champions
24. CIN 16-0-0 AFC Champions
25. CIN 15-1-0 Champions
26. CIN 14-2-0 Champions
27. ARI 13-3-0 Champions
28. ARI 14-2-0 Champ Rnd
29. ARI 13-3-0 Wild Card
30. ARI 15-1-0 Champions
31. ARI 11-5-0 Champ Rnd
32. DET 14-2-0 Champions
I constructed a loose storyline around my teams. For seasons 2-17, I played as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, who brought them from never winning a Super Bowl, to being a sports dynasty. For 18-22, I signed a five-year contract (contracts are year by year in this game, but I pretended I agreed to five years) with the Tamba Bay Buccaneers, a team who floundered in-game when I was with the Bengals (I guess it didn’t have much faith in the post-Brady Bucs).
I had a rivalry with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who I played in three Retro Bowls against. When those five years were up, I returned to the Bengals to put them back on track. They consistently made the playoffs when I was with the Bucs, but never got beyond the first round, and they even missed the playoffs the year before I returned. So I built them up again, won a few Retro Bowls with them, before calling it a day. I was finally done with Cincinnati, and moved on to coach the Arizona Cardinals. In my head, I was playing a washed up Head Coach who wanted his last hurrah, but in reality, the game was easier than ever. If you use my RB strategy I’ll describe later and buy the best players you can it’s hard to lose. But in the absence of a proper story mode (No, I don’t expect a mobile game to have this), I made my own.
In Arizona, I intentionally lost games to make it more of a challenge to make the playoffs. I did this through not only benching players I needed, forcing me to revert back to the horrible “vanilla” “Retro Bowl” controls I hated in Seasons 1-5, but also by intentionally blowing passes. Natural injuries also helped, but I learned as long as my RB was healthy, I could win any game.
I noticed that when I left a team with a good record, they remained to be good for some times. When I returned to the Bengals, I played my former Bucs in three Retro Bowls. When I was with Arizona, I also faced the Bucs in the NFC Championship a few times. In my last season, when I went to Detroit, my former Cardinals faced me in the playoffs. I can’t say definitively that the game remembers your past team’s records, but in my experience with the game, it seems like it does.
For Seasons 1-5, I got my record from restarting the game so much, as until you essentially have enough Coaching Credits to pay to play, the controls are terrible, with the game favoring even the weakest defenders when you have anything less than an excellent receiver trying to come down with the ball, and I learned that there are certain ball positions that favor defenders no matter how good your players are. There is a catching algorithm to this game, and it does favor you the better your receivers are; the trick is being able to pay for them, which isn’t an issue once you reach the later seasons of the game.
The game also has a virtually unplayable kicking game unless you have a good kicker, and I found that it was much easier to go for 2 point conversions vs. extra points after touchdowns because kickers were prone to random injuries, and they are absolutely essential for drives that just barely end with you in field goal range, especially around the second quarter, where you lose possession if you have the ball at halftime.
My teams in Years 1-5 were decent, but not good enough to the point where I could actually enjoy the game. Truth be told, until I found our how to play RBs in this game, I probably still would not have enjoyed the game.
As I wrote in my last review, RBs are virtually unusable in this game, even if they have a five-star rating, if you try to hand off to them traditionally. Worse yet, the game had this bug in which it would assume you wanted to hand off to a RB, rather than throw to a receiver (sometimes my QB would freeze until I handed the ball off), which in most cases would create a wasted down (I experienced this less in later seasons; hopefully it was patched out). But after Season 6, I quickly learned that if you let your RB run down the field and then throw to them like you would a WR, they will rip past even high-level defenders even if your RB isn’t that good. So my strategy quickly became very RB-oriented, and they’d all have negative rushing yards after every season, but a ridiculous amount of receiving yards, with carries of 20-50 yards being normal.
And in a nutshell, that’s how I won 21 Retro Bowls without trying.
Sure, there were times when I was up against a team and they legitimately beat me, without relying on cheap interceptions and abuse of the game’s defense algorithm, which thinks 40 seconds is enough time for an opponent to score from the opposite end of the field unless your defense is four stars and above, which I tamed by using most of my draft picks on cheap but great defenders, and buying high-level free agent DBs and LBs. I quickly learned that if I wanted, I could win any game I wanted by always throwing to my RB, going for 2 point conversions, and saving my kickers for 40-60 field goal attempts, leaving the rest to my defense. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
My only limiter was when players go hurt, especially for long-term. When a player got hurt for more than 4 games, I found it easier to just cut them and hire a free agent in their place rather than go without their position for a little while.
The game has a decent cap system that I wish was not tied to Coaching Credits, as for me, it made the game unplayable starting out. Better players equal better controls, and without the ability to use all your cap, the game, in my opinion, deserves every bit of its original score. But when you’re finally able to use your cap, it allows you to experiment and have fun.
I still wish there was a defense minigame, and I still don’t see “that’s too hard” as an excuse for it not being in the game, seeing as the game already has some version of one when you throw an interception — your receivers instantly become defenders who must tackle the interceptor. All the developers would have to do is modify those mechanics and settle on a way for you to choose a defensive player to control.
And I still think that there’s too many bells and whistles for you to manage in the game. If the game makes you manage a meter and it has no impact on gameplay other than keeping you busy, it doesn’t belong in the game. I would argue that the game’s Morale Meter is little more than a chore that eats up Coaching Credits; the Fan Rating, while often gives you some bonus Coaching Credits, doesn’t justify its existence outside of its ability to generate in-game currency; and the Stadium/Rehab Facilities/Training Facility meters can be almost completely ignored with no consequences to gameplay.
The depth this game has comes entirely from its ability for you to select different combinations of players of different positions, cost, abilities, age and stamina. And if the game was only that, with tight controls from the beginning, with its in-game currency limited to only aesthetics, I would probably give the game a 5 or a 6/10.
But even though I found the game enjoyable after playing Season 5, there’s still a lot holding this game back from being a decent game in general. As it stands, it’s better than many mobile games on the market — but that’s a very low bar to clear.
I’m giving Seasons 6-32 a 4.5/10, which is average for me for a mobile game. I enjoyed this game almost as much as I enjoyed “Happy Glass”. If you can make it past the Coaching Credits curve, there’s a decent mobile game to enjoy for a little while and then forget about. But if you can’t, that’s completely understandable, and my first review better reflects that experience.
“Retro Bowl” Seasons 6-32 gets a 4.5/10