John Madden Football (Series)

Grade(s):

John Madden Football (1990): C

John Madden Football ’92 (1991): B-

John Madden Football ’93 (1992): B+

John Madden Football Championship Edition (1992): B+

Madden NFL ’94 (1993): B+

Madden NFL ‘95 (1994): B+

Madden NFL ‘96 (1995): C+

Madden NFL ‘97 (1996): C+

Madden NFL ‘98 (1997): C-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 25th

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Years: 1990 – 1997 (see grades above for exact year for each game)

Genre: Boom!

Note: Of all the games in the series of EA’s Madden titles, these were the Editor’s favorites:

Brad: John Madden Football ‘93

Stryker: Madden NFL ‘94

In the grand scheme of things, there really aren’t a lot of video games that had a significant influence on the world. Sure, many of them inspire other games that come out later, some even go on to form all-new genres, but there really aren’t a lot that have had far-reaching, world-changing effects on the entire industry. There’s Pac-Man, which popularized video games with the mainstream, there’s E.T., which killed the industry, and there’s Super Mario Bros., which brought it back from the dead. But 99.9% of games, even really good ones, don’t have much of an impact at all. For example, if Golden Axe had never existed, we’d be out a couple of fun games, and Sega would have made a little less money, but that’s about it.

John Madden Football is one of the important games. In fact, it’s quite possibly the most important video game to come out in the last 25 years. I realize that sounds like I’m wildly overstating it, but you have to consider that Madden’s success didn’t just make Electronic Arts a tidy little sum of money. It quickly became EA’s most popular title, not to mention one of the best selling game franchises of all time, and was the key to company becoming the behemoth it is now. Don’t forget that in 1990, EA was a modest-sized company that had been putting out PC games, and the Genesis was their first true console.

In fact, Electronic Arts actually had to “pirate” a Genesis development kit, because Sega gave out all of the ones they had to higher-priority publishers and ran out of them before an insignificant also-ran like EA got one. These days, of course, console makers bend over backwards to make sure EA is publishing on their platform. To not have Electronic Arts games available on your console is a deathblow – just ask the Dreamcast.

With a special halftime appearance by Gozer.

Madden’s success lead EA to create an entire brand of realistic simulation-style sports games – something which were virtually unknown to consoles at the time. Besides basically creating what would be the most popular genre of video games, this also established the Genesis as THE system for sports games which, as much as hardcore Sonic fanboys might want to deny it, is what really made the Genesis a legitimate competitor to the Super Nintendo. As we’ve mentioned a million times before, most sports translate pretty well to video game adaptions because, well, they’re already games.

Sports games also appeal to a slightly older fanbase than most console games of the time. This opened gaming up to a wider audience as older players came in, or more likely, a lot of kids that would have gotten too old for Mario or Zelda found a new way to stay interested. Prior to the Genesis, video game consoles were considered kid’s stuff – the kind of thing you give up once you hit puberty in favor of more mature interests… you know, girls. Or at the very least, things that were less likely to turn away girls. But Madden and EA’s other sports games kept those Genesises from getting buried in the closet. That’s how powerful the EA Sports games were – it got teenage boys to continue engaging  in a behavior that was almost certainly making them less likely to touch boobs.

Seriously. Those Vikings have a better chance of touching Barry Sanders, and you know that ain’t gonna happen.

This became sort of a self-sustaining cycle, as more older gamers led to more games being made that were targeted to older games, which led to more older gamers, etc. And not just sports games, either – almost every type of game “grew up” during this era as a result of a slightly older gamer demographic. The fact that there are plenty of 30 and 40 year old men out there today who still play video games is largely attributable to Madden, both directly and indirectly. And the fact that many of them somehow have wives and children says a lot about women’s willingness to adapt in order to keep the species going.

So, to recap John Madden Football’s achievements:

  • Became one of the highest-selling game franchises of all time
  • Turned Electronic Arts from a modest sized PC game company into a third party behemoth
  • Legitimized the Sega Genesis
  • Created an older demographic for video games or, more importantly, kept the (then) current generation of gamers interested in gaming
  • Popularized realistic sports sims on consoles
  • Changed humans mating habits

Those are six HUGE things, all of which have a major impact on today’s gaming industry. Now, just for the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at the impact of the game that finished at #1 on our Sega Genesis Top 50 Games list, Pirates! Gold:

  • Gave Sid Meier something to do until he invented Civilization (the game, not actual civilization)
  • Spawned a mildly popular Xbox sequel a decade later
  • ARRRRRRRR!!!!

That’s only three, one of which isn’t even a real thing. And even the two real ones aren’t all that influential. You could even throw in the other three games that round out our Top 4 – NHL Hockey, Kid Chameleon, and Warsong, and still not even come up with ONE influence that looks significant compared to anything on Madden’s list of accomplishments. Hell, NHL Hockey owes its existence to the success of Madden.

Of course, that’s just a generalized list of Madden’s impact on the world. When you start to really look at these things in detail, you begin to notice how deep the rabbit hole goes. What if EA had stayed small, the Genesis had struggled, or Nintendo had remained absolutely dominant through the 16-bit era? How long before realistic sports games caught on with console gamers? Or would they STILL only be popular on the PC? If the Genesis failed and Nintendo established a near monopoly in the early 90s, would there have ever been a Sony Playstation?  Without a Playstation would we have ever had Resident Evil, or Tekken, or Metal Gear Solid? Or the Xbox, Halo, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?

In sports parlance, that’s what we would call Madden’s “off the field” accomplishments – they’re nice, they’re important, but they don’t really help you win games. As interesting as this little history lesson was, it had pretty much nothing to do with the series finishing #25 on our list. That was earned “on the field”, with gameplay that strikes a nice balance between a fun game and a decent simulation of the real sport.

We refuse to review a football game without somehow referencing Andre Rison. Here he is catching a pass.

For a series that’s often credited with making video game football more like a TV broadcast, Madden’s greatest innovation was actually making the game less like television by adopting an overhead, behind the line of scrimmage perspective as opposed to the sideline camera angle used by almost every broadcast and other sports video game at the time. Now you could look downfield to see how the play was developing, what the defense was doing, and spot open receivers. Previously, once a receiver ran more than 10 yards or so, you couldn’t see him and had no way of knowing if he was open, covered, tripped and fell down, or had been murdered by Raiders fans. All you could do was rely on the “Tony Romo method” – throw the ball in his general direction and hope for the best. To give you an idea of just how cutting edge this camera angle was, 20 years later, no football game would dream of not using this perspective. And to give you an idea of how inept TV networks are, they’re still using sideline cameras… I don’t know, maybe they think it’s more dramatic to watch a game that way, never knowing if a guy is open or about to get tackled until the last second.

Thanks to the revolutionary camera angle, we can see that all of Buffalo is covered in snow.

Which is not to say that the presentation was always perfect. For the first few years, the game was plagued by “passing windows” – little picture-in-picture boxes at the top of the screen that zoomed on your receivers. It wasn’t a bad idea, but the boxes didn’t show nearly enough to know whether a guy was truly open, and the windows covered up critical parts of the screen which, ironically, were usually where your receivers were. These were eventually eliminated, giving players an unobstructed view of the whole field, to which gamers showed their appreciation by no longer throwing incomplete passes 85% of the time.

Compared to the current generation of football titles, the Madden games on the Genesis are more player-centric. On defense, it’s easier to change the guy you’re controlling multiple times without screwing things up too badly (haven’t we all, at some point, tried to break up a pass in a newer football game, and gotten control of a different guy than you expected, and ended up running away from the ball?). And offensively, the success of a play depends a lot more on what you do than your computer-controlled teammates. It’s less realistic this way – since football is the ultimate team sport, it makes sense that the ten players you aren’t controlling would have a bigger influence on the game than the one that you are. The upside though, is that the Genesis games feel like you have a lot more control over the outcome, which is a lot more enjoyable. There’s not much fun in watching the computer win or lose games for you. That’s really what it comes down to – these old Madden games might not seem very realistic anymore, but they’re still a lot of fun.

Much like EA’s series of basketball games, the graphics in Madden have their own unique charm to them. Electronic Arts had sort of a signature art style, and while it’s hard to describe, it is oddly beautiful, and it’s amazing how good a game with basically 22 pixelated, identical guys running around on a field can look at times. A lot of this has to do with the animation, which is surprsingly fluid, detailed and varied. It looks like a real football game not because the graphics are super-realistic, but because the players run, tackle, and catch like real players do. One other thing Madden’s art department deserves credit for is that few other football games have ever gotten the look of a muddy, rain soaked natural grass field accurately. Madden uses a yellowish-greenish-brownish color mixture that just feels absolutely right somehow.

Here’s photographic proof that yellowish-greenish-brownish is a real color.

The Madden series had an interesting evolution, in that the features kept getting better, but after a few years, the gameplay started getting worse. None of the Genesis games have the now ubiquitous “franchise mode”, in which you build a team up over multiple seasons, but people might be surprised to find out most of the Madden games don’t even have the option to play a season. In the earlier titles, you had the choice to either play a single game, or the playoffs. Forget about all the statistics we’re used to seeing in our sports games, Madden ’93 couldn’t even keep track of your win-loss record. This seems especially surprising considering not only that PC football games (such as Joe Montana Football) had offered season modes for a while, but so had Tecmo Super Bowl, on the NES.

Stryker and I were unable to agree on the “best” year of Madden, but the general consensus was that the series peaked sometime in its middle years. The game switched to a different engine for Madden ’96, making it harder to control and overall just feeling a bit sloppy. And Madden ’98, the very last year of the series, is kind of a mess.

At least it’s a nice-looking mess. Sort of like a sideline reporter.

For what its worth, the Madden series has always been one of my favorite franchises when it comes to storytelling. The story in every Madden game is basically the same – you’re a football team, and you want to win the Super Bowl. Along the way, you play football games and meet interesting characters like “opposing running back” or “referee”. Of course, the genius part is that the game never comes right out and tells you the story with an elaborate intro, or cutscenes or anything like that. Instead, the entire story is told to you through from playing the game. Admittedly, the narrative lacks the depth of, say, Bioshock, but I do find it’s straightforward efficiency kind of refreshing.

Yeah? Well, it was Atlanta who went to the playoffs that year.

Availability: Because the game was so popular, and a new version came out every year, buying a copy of Madden isn’t difficult. Almost any store that sells old Genesis games will have copies of it, probably more than they know how to deal with. Don’t be surprised if they’ve been using extra copies to prop up wobbly table legs, as doorstops, or as an inexpensive building material for an expansion of the store. Or doing this. Earlier and later entries from the series are a bit harder to find (though generally not much more expensive), but those are also the worst years, so unless you’re a collector, it’s no big deal. Barring that, you can find plenty of copies for sale online, though the shipping will likely cost more than the game.

The only exception to that is the extremely rare John Madden Football Championship Edition, which is basically Madden ’93, except with an additional 38 historical teams. This was a Blockbuster “for rental only” exclusive, which was released in limited numbers, and fewer still found their way into the hands of gamers. These fetch pretty high prices online, often more than $50, and sometimes over $100. While it’s certainly tempting to have a version of Madden ’93 where you can play as the ’66 Packers or the ’75 Steelers, it’s probably not worth anywhere near that amount of money. Keep in mind that the scouting in these early Madden games was sort of an imperfect science, so it’s not exactly a flawless recreation of these old teams… and besides, when you’re playing a football game that came out in the early 90s, all the teams in the game already are already “historic teams” in a sense.

Yep, just keep telling yourself that. We’ll be over here watching the 2 greatest teams in NFL history play each other.

Finally, I’d be derelict in my duty if I wrote this much about Madden games without including a video of the psychotic ambulance driver from Madden ’92:

As Madden would say – “Where’d that truck come from?!?!