Posted: Thursday August 11, 2005 1:12PM; Updated: Thursday August 11, 2005 3:15PM
By Adam Duerson, SI.com
Back in June, a cute scene unfolded at a preview party for this year's edition of Madden NFL. While finger foods and cocktails swirled about the main floor at the Manhattan ESPN Zone, a dozen Playstations whirred and whistled and the NFL's elite made like 12-year-old boys at -- well, a Madden preview. Donovan McNabb, bedecked in what a more unforgiving person might call a mumu, bobbed and swayed with his controller. A starry-eyed Byron Leftwich gazed at a flat-screen, his face that of a QB who'd just been Urlacher'ed. Sean O'Hara stiff-armed interrupters -- and potential interviewers. ("Too busy.") Michael Lewis, defending champ at the NFL-players-only Madden Bowl, dazzled on-lookers with his joystick wizardry while Michael Strahan, clearly not up to par with some of his fellow gamers, cracked funnies and made excuses, dipsy-doodling his way out of potential head-to-head games. And Daunte Culpepper sat in the corner having devoured all takers. Rubbing his trademark six-inch pepper necklace, he channeled his inner Madden Buddha: "Best game yet. Can't top it. No one will beat me."
Football's Fab Five
John Elway's Quarterback?Joe Montana Football?Bo Jackson's Hit and Run? What's the greatest football video game out there? Here are five titles that have shaped the way we play today.
1. Madden 2006 (reviewed)
2. TECMO BOWL (1988): For years the gold standard among football games and a perfect example of how classic 8-bit simplicity (only available on NES) trumps the 32-button finger mastery required of an XBox game. Twelve teams. Nine players each. With only an A, B, select and start button, controls were mind-numbingly simple and play-calling was pretty much on par with rock-paper-scissors. You could run one of four plays, but faced a certain sack or loss-of-yardage if your opponent guessed the play correctly. At one household I know of, this meant sofa cushions were walled up between gamers to prevent "signal-stealing." Furthermore, Ronnie Lott, Walter Payton, Bo Jackson and L.T. were outlawed. They were simply unstoppable.
3. MADDEN NFL '94: Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis (remember that one?) were still at the infant stages of using voice sounds when they introduced this, their pre-'06 pinnacle, so Maddenisms were limited. On the field, you were best off sticking to a team with a speedy runner (think Barry Sanders or the '85 Bears' sweet-footed "No. 34") and running 99-yard power sweeps ad infinitum. Pair that with generally weak defensive controls and a 1,000-yard rushing game wasn't really even that impressive. A perfect balance between real football and cartoonish action.
4. NFL BLITZ (1998): Basically, NBA Jam on steroids. Lots and lots of steroids. Like, Canseco-loads of steroids. The rules (seven-on-seven; pass interference was not only encouraged but necessary to survive), and strategy (flea-fickers and end-arounds abound) were far from being even NFL-like, but the game emoted a real "arcade experience" feeling for it all. It was the kind of game you could devote ten minutes to and, in that time, wax a friend 55-54 and be halfway through a rematch.
5. 10-YARD FIGHT (1985): This NES original gets nominated based on the George Halas Rule. No one really remembers it, nor can they pinpoint what, exactly was great about it. But it ushered football into the post-Atari era and we should honor our elders for being, well, elderly. If Madden NFL 2006 were a person, he'd pat 10-Yard Fight on the back, tell him how much he's meant to the game, and then lean over to his publicist and ask, "What did this old fart do anyway?" Short answer: it set a precedent -- albeit a crummy one -- for others to work upon. For example, some game designer out there quickly figured out that choosing a play before the snap might be a good idea. In Fight, you simply set a wideout in motion, hiked the ball and either: scrambled or threw to one of three receivers ... who always ran the same routes. You've gotta start somewhere.
Best Madden game yet? I'll give him that. In fact, I dare to say "Best Game Ever" if we're talking football video games -- maybe even sports titles. (Sorry, Tecmo Bowl purists.) So here's the funny thing. On top of the standard aesthetic improvements (and the leap in graphics here is quite noticeable) EA Sports has only made two major tweaks in Madden 2006: a new "Vision Control" passing system and a total immersion "NFL Superstar Mode." And one of them, Superstar Mode, is particularly terrible. As far as improvements go, this would be akin to the Ravens picking up Drew Carey to shore up their linebacker rotation. Here's my beef ... and my praise.
NFL SUPERSTAR MODE
The idea here is pretty simple. Simple and, perhaps, flawed. At the outset of Superstar Mode gamers get to create a player. Name him. Give him a crazy haircut. (Mohawk? You wild and crazy man, you.) Choose his waistline, slap on some wristbands and a flak jacket. Standard stuff here. And this is where they lose me. You get to choose your DNA by toggling through potential parents, the idea being to find a perfect balance of Stupid Deadbeat Dad and Brilliant Brain Surgeon Mom -- or likewise -- but not too much of one or the other. Not only are you creating a physical, Roethlisberger-wrecking linebacker or a touchdown machine of a running back. You're creating a personality and an attitude. Your challenge: don't screw up or you'll turn into a Randy Moss/Terrell Owens type. Bad decisions make for bad people make for bad football players ... I guess.
Throughout a preseason and 16-game NFL regular season you'll have to take a version of the NFL Wunderlic Test, interview with teams, hire an agent (Gee, should I hire the slimeball or the really nice guy?) and check your player's cellphone voicemail an average of once every 30 seconds. Wouldn't want to miss a call from your video game mentor, played here by ex-Bronco Terrell Davis, lest you be perceived as a loner. That's bad for the rep.
There are plenty of opportunities to tarnish your image. There's a tattoo shop around the corner from the stadium (only bad boys get tattoos, duh!) and you're given every chance to promise a win, tell off your coach or even demand a trade. More well-behaved Superstars get movie offers (I signed up for a supporting role in a little teen comedy called Air Hockey 101 -- and was promptly fired when I couldn't remember my lines) and vie to become the next Madden cover athlete. All apologies to the 16-and-under set, as I can only assume this is the target audience, but I'm struggling to find the entertainment value here. They've basically boiled down NFL success to a matter of making right-over-wrong decisions and gameplay becomes secondary.
Passing has never been a particularly noticeable problem with Madden gameplay, but its relative ease has always allowed for fantastical 135-134 barnburners that would make even Peyton Manning's head implode. (If I had a dime for every 97-yard over-the-shoulder pass I've seen...) Here's where the EA Sports team really shows off its ability to nitpick the bejeezus out of an already sensational product -- in a good way, mind you -- and improve upon it.
The new "Vision Control" system requires your QB to look at a receiver before he throws to him, thus making it more difficult to check off of a primary receiver or throw off-balance across-the-body. Every quarterback emits a conical eyeline (Peyton Manning's looks like a big piece of apple pie; Eli's like a skinny speedometer needle) which can be toggled through and pointed at receivers. Passes within the eyesight are inherently more accurate, but try throwing to your third option without looking his way and your pass may end up in the stands. This turns the passing game into a more realistic "drop, stop, read and release" process and will subsequently up the sack count with longer pocket times.
The reward: if you pass to a player you're looking at, you can increase your precision even more by placing the ball high, low, or to the side (using the control stick). Throwing into double coverage becomes less problematic when you can put the ball where only your wideout can reach it. Completely realistic.
In the final Madden season before a new generation of consoles comes out, EA delivers one helluva farewell performance.