Pop quiz: What NFL coach has the second highest winning percentage of all time? I’ll give you a hint: His Super Bowl winning 1976 Raiders were voted by fans to be “the greatest NFL team.”(1) If you’re still stumped, look no further than the title of this review. After retiring from a highly successful coaching career, John Madden turned to the analyst booth where his disarmingly bumbling presence and jovial personality made him a household name. EA first approached Madden in 1984 about making a pro football simulated video game, and in August, will release its astounding 26th installment of the franchise. That incredible journey was inducted into console gaming with the humble roots of John Madden Football, a game which does its darndest to present an accurate account of NFL football in 1991. In the end it doesn’t offer a lot of replay value, but there is a believable promise for much, much better things to come throughout the 90s and beyond.
One of the traditional Madden calling cards is specified simulation. Instead of selecting a play from few choices as some games do, John Madden Football requires the user to choose their play in stages. Only after selecting a player group (fast, normal, big, special teams) and followed by play formation (near, far, pro set, shotgun), does the user call a play from a series of pass and run options. Why all the hubbub? Cause Madden is a coach, silly! Long before graphical capabilities allowed the Madden franchise to carry a realistic visual, we see a commitment to capturing the spirit of strategy. Those wishing to pencil-whip their opponents will have their fill here.
For those who don’t want so much control, there is “Ask Madden,”a built-in feature whereby the user can safely call a situation-appropriate play. Not sure how to defend a 3rd down and 4 yards-to-go on your own 38 yard line? No sweat! By simply pressing B three times on the play calling menu, the user can take Mr. Madden’s advice, and just like a real player would in the heat of battle, turn his attention to the task at hand. Autoplay is another built in feature in which the user can allow the A.I. to control his man once the ball is snapped, but jump in at any time simply by moving the d-pad. A user can utilize this to compensate for their own weaknesses on defense, or in the passing or running game. This uniquely Madden-esque programming feature is another way of injecting a coach mode into the game. You may think you’re all that and a bag of chips, but how well do you fare when you call the plays and leave the playing to the A.I.?
As the franchise matured, sound would play a significant role in the Madden games, particularly as EA Sports strove to recreate the live broadcast feel of pro football. But in 1991 the role is minimalistic. The opening track serves as the only tune in the entire game, and is replaced during gameplay by a hum created by a stadium full of fans. Voice action is functional as both the quarterback’s play signals and referee judiciary statements come in clear. There are audio segments for blown whistles and even caught passes, but the chief sound effect is a frequently repeated “HUH!” every time players collide, which as one can imagine, is all the freakin’ time. While these frequent cacophonous collisions are complete overkill, the point is taken that Madden wished football’s aspect of physical confrontation to take a central role in his game.
The visual department is as archaic as the sound department is minimal. The menu screen looks like DOS 2.0, and a limited palette is used on even more limited character sprites. For crying out loud, player uniform numbers are impressionistic blobs! The avatars are certainly awkward as they bump, jostle and dive. The engine seems to be skipping every other frame. The result is not only uneasy on the eyes, but makes it difficult when measuring angles to reach a running lane, throw a pass or tackle the opponent’s ball-carrier. It’s an altogether poor visual performance that was fortunately much improved by the next year’s installment.
The game’s shoddy visual presentation certainly doesn’t elevate the gameplay department. While it may have seemed sensible a quarter century ago, in retrospect the programmers made a poor choice when designing the passing game. I am referring to the notorious pass boxes. Once the quarterback has snapped the ball by pressing B, his user must press B again to view his three pass options. Along with covering up valuable visual real estate, these abominations aren’t even an accurate representation of whether the player is open for a pass or not. Adding insult to injury, it is very difficult to make user catches once the ball is thrown, even if by chance the receiver is legitimately open, due to avatar slippage.
For as early a title as it is, it’s understandable that John Madden Football has limited game modes. Though going by different names, Exhibition and Regular Season mode appear to have the same function: playing a single game against the computer or an opponent. Tournament mode, which is preserved by password, places a team of your choice into an eight-team Conference playoff, which varies from the real NFL format of six teams. Sudden Death mode is like overtime: first to score wins. User options include changing quarter length as well as weather and turf type. However the high point of presentation is Madden himself. His pre-game scouting report is helpful in giving the overall impression that each match-up is unique.
Overall, John Madden Football is a poorly aged title that just barely escapes a place at the very bottom of the retro scrapheap. So why not banish it completely? Because it’s actually kind of fun to play. While pass-first teams may not be able to fully grasp their potential, the run-first teams are at home in this mash of humanity. Sure, we’ve got some slidage and A.I. deficiencies, but John Madden Football doesn’t lack character. It tried to do much with little, long before becoming the NFL’s “33rd franchise”. It set the prototype for the twenty-four-or-so titles to follow. And for that, I consider it an admirable first draft.
Two out of Five Stars
1) NFL.com, “1976 Raiders edge 2000 Ravens for ‘greatest team ever’,” March 30, 2012.
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