Madden Turns 20: Does anybody remember what video game football was like before Madden? Though the Tecmo franchise offered some amusing -- if not shallow -- experiences, the landscape was littered with laborious adaptations such as 10-Yard Fight and John Elway's Quarterback Challenge. Then Coach Madden came and changed everything. We're happy to report that the 20th anniversary of this glorious franchise keeps up the tradition of raising the bar for what a football video game should be.
Bring Your Playbook: Right away you'll realize this isn't your father's Madden. John Madden puts you right in the classroom when you boot up the game, offering up his "Madden IQ" test to evaluate your gamer skill level. The test is taken in an ultra-cool 3D, holographic environment and involves a series of drills for the key facets of gameplay: passing, rushing, run defense, pass defense. After you finish, you'll be given your Madden IQ score (200-800), which you can improve upon as you progress through the game or if you retake the test.
The Age of A.I.: The stock difficulty settings football games have offered us all these years have grown tired. That's why it's so refreshing to see Madden's new "My Skills" feature. Picking up on your Madden IQ score, the CPU will construct a customized difficulty tailored specifically for your skills. Beginners and longtime gamers who have been intimidated by complex football titles will be able to challenge the most hardened of Madden veterans without fear of being embarrassed.
Still The Real Thing: For hardcore gamers, all of the complexities you have come to love (i.e. Hot Routes) are still there and more, including such new features as Formation Subs, Slide Protection, Bluff Play art, and Smart Routes (to the first-down marker) are at your disposal.
Booth Truth: Veteran announcers Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth, newcomers to the virtual booth, do an excellent job, even if you sometimes feel as though you are watching Notre Dame getting throttled on a Saturday afternoon on NBC. Collinsworth's analysis is often close to the mark, and once in a while he'll break down a play telestrator-style in a new "BackTrack" feature.
College Feel: For the first time in Madden, games with longtime foes will be designated as "Rivalry" matchups, with dialed-up intensity and rivarly-specific commentary from the announcers. So when the Raiders and Broncos play, it will get your blood pumping just a bit faster. Same goes for Cowboys-Redskins, Jets-Dolphins and all of the NFL's other classic rivalries.
Online And Alive: Online leagues support up to 32 players with flex scheduling. Good luck getting everybody to play their games in a timely manner, but it's nice to have that option nonetheless.
Kick At Your Own Risk: Just like in EA Sports' NCAA Football 09 title, you can return missed field goals in Madden. So keep a guy deep in case your opponent's 50-yard attempt comes up short.
Not-So Mighty K.C.: The Dolphins are predictably bad, but if you want a team that you can roll up yards and achievement points against, pick on the Chiefs. If Madden 09 is any indication, this is going to be a loooong season in Kansas City because this team reeks worse than a jockstrap after two-a-days.
Check out this clip of Madden 09 in action:
Things We'd Change
Collector's Item?: Is it worth springing the extra $30 for the the collector's edition for the PS3 or 360? It comes with the 1993 Madden edition, which is nice until you realize that was one of the years they used the annoying "passing windows." The other free title, NFL Head Coach 09, captures the experience of being an NFL coach so well that you quickly realize that is the last job you would actually want.
Call Me Toast: In the Madden Test, the pass defense is pretty much impossible. When the ball goes up and you try to make a play, the game lags and suddenly your cornerback becomes mired in quick sand. The ball goes over your head and you end up with a "Rookie" pass defense rating.
Say What?: EA may still be working out a few glitches. After scoring a touchdown at the Georgia Dome, my receiver disappeared while heading toward the crowd to celebrate. Then there was the touchdown pass I threw that was overruled by instant replay ... but I still got to line up for the extra point and the touchdown counted.
Play It Again, Sam: The "Rewind" button that allows you to take a mulligan on the most recent play is a great idea but it shouldn't prompt you after every play. It should an option in the play calling window instead. The way it's set up now, it slows you down on your way back to calling the next play.
Achievements Lacking: On the 360 version, the achievements are random and not all that satisfying. As far as I can tell this is EA's way of not allowing us to sim our way to achievement points the way many of us have done in past years. Three-hundred yards rushing with the Jets? Seven touchdown passes with the Falcons? Just set the CPU to "Rookie" and you can pile up hundreds of points in no time.
It's Madden. It's the NFL. You gotta have it. The only reason to stay away from this annual treat is if the game were wretched beyond belief, and that couldn't be further from the truth. It's a very solid football title in its own right and makes significant advancements in what has often appeared to be a stale genre.
Graphically Sound: The gameplay-driven Wii isn’t exactly known for its horsepower, but Madden 09 -- the 20th Anniversary edition of the venerable EA Sports franchise -- is the most beautifully rendered sports title for the Nintendo console to date. The Madden literature boasts the most realistic models ever (doesn’t it always?), but give EA Sports credit for turning in some immaculate work for a milestone version of their flagship title. You can practically smell the freshly cut grass -- a notoriously tricky rendering for programmers -- and the "movie weather" provides the dramatic conditions the heading implies. No problems with the frame rate either, a common problem in last year’s edition.
Runaway Victory: Riffing off the upgraded graphics, one particularly notable improvement is the strikingly realistic running game. New animations nail down what makes real-life NFL running backs so impressive: by finally capturing the balletic art of backfield running. Longtime Madden players will enjoy watching running backs automatically hurdle over fallen bodies in traffic and turn their shoulders to slip through the 18-inch openings between Herculean linemen. Running between the tackles on All-Madden difficulty is no longer the self-defeating proposition it once was.
Everybody In: While the curious absence of the Madden IQ innovation featured on the PS3 and XBox 360 versions of the game is disappointing (see "Things We'd Change"), the Wii version of Madden boasts an "adaptive difficulty engine" which similarly tailors your experience. Instead of Madden IQ, the Wii version features "All-Play" -- a reworked version of the Family Play feature from last year’s game, which enables any user to "pick up and play" with a high rate of success. In this for-beginners-only mode, almost any move can be executed by simply waggling or stabbing the Wiimote toward the screen, and red or green icons over wide receivers indicate whether a player is open or covered. But a number of the game’s features accommodate users with varying levels of expertise: The first selection on the play-calling screen is "Ask Madden," "Basic Play Set" and "All Plays" -- essentially catering to beginners, intermediates and experts, respectively. Most importantly, users preferring the regular difficulty level can actually play enjoyable, competitive games against "All-Play" users.
Diagram Plays On The Fly: What it lacks in football realism, the "Call Your Shots" mode compensates for with increased fun factor. The innovative feature enables the user to conceive Wiimote-drawn hot routes prior to any passing play -- from slants to deep routes to reverses -- to slice and dice defenses. Again, it’s not particularly realistic, but it’s truly addicting.
Giving It A Fresh Face: The developers have given the franchise’s increasingly stale presentation a complete overhaul. No addition or tweak is too dramatic, just some general housekeeping to sharpen the game’s feel without sacrificing the familiarity of the interface. Areas of improvement include commentary (Cris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond take over the booth), new camera angles and an enhanced play-calling system featuring instant replays of the previous play on the actual play-calling screen. (Though it’s worth mentioning a number of the advertised improvements -- like a starting lineup banner, for instance -- weren't included on the Wii edition of the game.)
Wear Movement Clothes: A fun twist for the kiddies (and the hopeless couch potatoes) on the Wii edition occurs after a user makes a game-altering play like scoring a touchdown or grabbing an interception. The game implores the user to "Wave your arms!" and "Raise the roof!" The more actively the user celebrates, the greater attribute boost the player receives -- so there’s actually a competitive advantage to be gained to this ostensibly mindless tack-on. Adult gamers might be annoyed by the incessant roof-raising -- if the feature’s divisive reception on NCAA Football 09 is any indicator -- but it’s a fun expression of the Wii’s active-play ethos.
Playground-style Pigskin: Fans of the arcade-like Wii Sports games will get a real kick out of this new mode: a "neighborhood-style," 5-on-5 adaptation with gigantic player heads, smaller teams and a simplified four-play playbook. There’s not much more to 5-on-5 Mode beyond the surface -- and the computer AI is generally awful in single-player games -- but it’s a fun alternative to play with a friend if you’re pressed for time or otherwise uninterested in playing a full-length game.
Check out this clip of Madden 09 in action:
Things We'd Change
No Madden IQ?: The tag line for Madden 09 is: "The Game Adapts To You." But does it? I was disappointed to discover the Wii version of the game doesn’t include the much-ballyhooed Madden IQ feature included on the PS3 and XBox 360 editions. For those versions, a player completes a diagnostic test in four areas upon first play -- rushing, passing, rush defense and pass defense -- and the computer determines where the user is adequate or needs improvement. The game proceeds to issue the player a Madden IQ score between 200 and 800 points based on their performance. The IQ score moves up or down depending on how a player performs during his or her Madden 09 career and tailors the difficulty levels across several facets of game play. This revolutionary break from the traditional catch-all difficulty levels -- Rookie, Pro, All-Pro, All-Madden -- seemed like the coolest addition to this year’s edition. Oh well.
Nunchuk Sensitivity: Here’s a carryover complaint from last year’s edition: Just as with Madden 08 for the Wii, a user can audible to another play with a quick flick of the Nunchuk controller upward, downward, leftward or rightward. Problem is, the control is too sensitive for its own good. So when you’re facing 4th-and-long, pinned up inside your own 10 and the punt team comes onto the field, the slightest flick of the left hand will send your punter under center for a regular play from scrimmage. And since calling an audible for the "original play" isn’t evident, you’ll find yourself burning unnecessary timeouts.
Superstar Mode: Entering its fourth year as a franchise staple, Superstar Mode is a twist on the long-term Franchise Mode. Instead of guiding a team through multiple seasons, you select a rookie and guide him through his career. It’s basically Franchise Mode from a first-person point of view, where you’re boosting your player's attributes through training camp exercises and earning points over the course of the regular season based on game situations. I chose DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles -- a wide receiver -- meaning I spent most of the games throwing lead blocks downfield or running routes with very few pass attempts thrown my way. You’re not even choosing your own plays during the games, sucking most of the fun out of the game’s "chess match" element. It begs the question: How real is too real? Superstar Mode remains a tantalizing but ultimately unfulfilling game mode in Madden.
Not The Game! We’re Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice!: You wonder how much memory the developers have invested in the detailed Practice Mode and Virtual Trainer. Longtime or even recent initiates of the Madden franchise will gain almost nothing from the five mini-games designed to instruct users about the basic rules and concepts of the game and the sport itself. There was a time when a basic grasp of football knowledge was a prerequisite for playing a football sim. While I support the general effort to open up the Madden experience to casual gamers, EA Sports may be going too far with these excessive training programs.
As EA Sports continues to develop and fine-tune the "All-Play" concept on the Wii editions of its annual sports releases, hardcore gamers will continue to be disappointed by the perceived emphasis on drawing in novice fans. With advents like the "Call Your Shots" mode, it’s not like the developers completely ignored the veteran fan base, but the long-term direction of these Wii versions is evident. In the end, if you want the most realistic football sim on the market, maybe you should rethink your future with a Nintendo console obviously committed toward bringing together gamers of all ages and backgrounds. But if you’re looking an inclusive experience suitable for any level of player -- and a perfectly enjoyable football game for the hardcore set -- there’s no need to overthink it: Madden is still the one.