Madden NFL ’98

FOOTBALL!!
FOOTBALL!!

In 2004 I whim-purchased NFL 2K5, Sega’s last iteration of tremendous football gaming before EA acquired the sole rights for NFL players and franchises.  The game was about $20 or something ridiculous.  I’d never really been into football before but it didn’t take long for me to get hooked.  I played a few full seasons and really enjoyed that the game did things like take you to Chris Berman’s (who is insane, I think) half-time show with updates and highlights from around the league during halftime.  It was immersive and well done.  The graphics were incredible.

A year later, since I couldn’t get my 2K fix (thanks EA, monopolies sure are great aren’t they?), I picked up my very first Madden game.  It didn’t take long before I understood why the dime defensive formation was superior for stopping passing plays or that quarterbacks threw the ball out of bounds intentionally sometimes to stop the clock.  I actually started watching football.  Sunday became “game day.”  I realized how deep the game is and how much strategy is involved.  I realized that nerds should love football.  What’s not to like?  Collisions, deep defensive and offensive strategies, pages upon pages of statistics and number crunching, and feature-packed simulation options that allow for the sorts of micromanagement you can embrace or completely ignore and still have fun.

I mention all of this because I think there’s definitely a segment of our gaming population who are essentially heterophobic.  Madden is for the popped-collar-ed-hardy-date-raping-jackass.  Football is for jocks and dudes who want nothing to look forward to in life besides washing their trans am on a long weekend… and football games are just digitized testosterone.  Except then we turn around and play Halo or Call of Duty or, oh, I don’t know, Left 4 Dead which are all as dependant on manly baysplosions as a game of football is.  I mean, I know we’ve all got hair where there wasn’t hair before, but it’s ok to have testicles and it’s ok to like football.

Anyway, what’s amazing about playing Madden ’98 is that it was, to me anyway,  sort of an inverse experience to EA’s NHL franchise.  Everyone who’s a fan of the NHL franchise of games thinks (rightly) that those ’94-’96 iterations of the game were basically flawless (well, I mean, sure the wrap-around made you a goal-scoring machine, but who cares?).  In the most current NHL you can actually switch your controls to ’94-era versions.  Certainly NHL ’10 is superior in almost every way to NHL ’94, but we’re still looking back with fond memories.

madden982

When I popped in Madden ’98 the gameplay immediately made me think of NHL ’94.  I could imagine that if I’d been a football fan when I was younger that I’d feel the same way about Madden that I feel about NHL.  There’s a definite reason these games have been around this long.  They’re tremendous.  Breaking through for a solid 20 yard run in Madden ’98 is certainly as satisfying as a well executed one-timer and sacking the quarterback is certainly as satisfying as hip-checking a guy in the high slot to break up a play.  Oh wait… here…  breaking through for a solid 20 yard run in Madden is as satisfying as focus-attack-dash-canceling your SRK into an ultra in Street Fighter IV and sacking the quarterback is as satisfying as landing a long-distance stick in Halo 3 or dropping all of Joker’s thugs in Batman: Arkham Asylum without being spotted or surviving the finale of Blood Harvest in Left 4 Dead.

Sure, John Madden himself may be antiquated, expository, and partially retarded, but good games is good games and Madden ’98 was one of the best on a system we all covet nostalgically almost as much as we did as kids.

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Madden NFL ’96

"Hey Bro, you look tired. Why don't we just chill and play some Madden?"
"Hey Bro, you look tired. Why don't we just chill and play some Madden?"

Hot damn has the Madden series ever changed in just a year! Apparently all the wicked shit was way too fucking cool for ’95, because Madden NFL ’96 is stuffed to the MOTHERFUCKING BRIM with the best MOTHERFUCKING BRIM-STUFFERS that I’ve seen in a video game!

Don’t believe me? Check this out:

  • Every time you start a new game, a complex algorithm generates the likelihood of the football being filled with reasonably powerful explosives, three different kinds of pig guts, William Burroughs-esque ‘cut-ups’ from seventeen magazine that mostly focus on fall fashions and skincare, a dead hummingbird, polyhedral dice (if these roll out as 00 then your team’s players are the strongest), mustard, or whatever is normally inside a football!
  • One of your players is French!
  • The phrase “Illegal Procedure” as pictured in  Jared’s review of Madden NFL ’95 has been replaced with the more accurate and honest “No More Abortions on the Field.” Madden NFL ’96 is too busy ROCKING THE FUCK OUT OF A MOTHERFUCKING OVERSTUFFED BRIM to mince words!
  • If you beat this game without swearing at it at all, a secret ending is unlocked! The secret ending is pinhole camera footage of John Madden making love to his wife as only he can: with the penis attached to his body.
  • Jared mentioned the settings for the weather, but did they ever expand on these! Not only can you choose “Night,” but now there’s also “Darkest Night,” “John Carpenter Fog,” and the ever-amusing “Locusts!” setting.
  • There’s a series of razor sharp knives that pop up out of the field at random locations (and sometimes in the stands) that leave the arena looking like the floor of a sports-themed abattoir. The phrase “MEAT IS MURDER” then scrolls across the screen before John Madden’s head slowly rises from the bottom left corner and winks at you, letting you know that’s not really how he feels about meat. He actually likes it a lot. I mean, just look at him.
  • During the halftime show the cheerleaders carry a banner that has the number of the Bro Rape Hotline. For the record it’s 1-800-BRORAPE(276-7273). If you get an out of service message it means they’re overloaded with calls.
  • Two randomly selected players on opposing teams will be magnetically attracted to one another, both romantically and because they fly through the air to crash into each other’s bodies, sometimes fatally. If this happens during the halftime show, the banner with the Bro Rape Hotline number will linger another ten seconds and the camera will zoom in on their tangled bodies.
  • Speaking of the halftime show, if you pick up your monitor or television and shake it as hard as you can, some of the cheerleaders’ clothes will fall off.
  • In order to simplify the complicated commands given during a football game, set NERD MODE to ON, and receive such messages as “Throw the ball to that guy who will then run to the left as fast as he can, hopefully not getting hurt by the other big men in this craaaazy game of violence!”

I’ve only scratched the surface of the new features in this game, and it’s already clear to see why the Madden series is the beloved football-simulating standby of people who like games where you simulate football. It’s like John Madden always says: “Is that a camera? Deborah, someone is watching us! Call the police!”

Madden NFL ’94

My initiation into the Ways of the American was a brutal one.  I had just got off the plane, set my bags down in the dorm, ready to have a lie down, when the Three Matts (I lived with three guys called Matt – creepy or convenient?  You decide!) tugged at my arm.

“C’mon Ossy (that’s how Americans pronounce ‘Aussie’.  Protip: it’s actually pronounced ‘Ozzy’ as in ‘Ozzy Osborne’)!  There’s a game on out back!”

“A game on?  What, like Halo, ’cause that’d be super-sweet (my Fratboy-anese was starting to come together at this stage)!”

I lost a fair few brain cells that day (for reasons which will soon become apparent), so my recollection at this point of the conversation is a little hazy.  But basically they explained to me that despite having just got off the plane, and despite my apparent state of jet-lag, they were about to thrust me headfirst into a game of American football, and yes, they were deadly serious.  I don’t know what they were thinking, to be honest – maybe they were under the misconception that I wrestled crocs on a regular basis, and figured I could handle it – but American frat-boys are renowned for their over-exuberance, and so I obliged.  I put on some shorts and a singlet and headed out to the oval with the Matts three.

Upon our arrival, it was widely announced that there was an ‘Ossy’ in their midst, and I think I heard whispers of crocodiles and magic boomerangs.  This was not good.  I was going to get hurt.

I played it cool, though.  That is to say, I played the n00b, and asked lots of questions about the rules.

“Is this okay?”
“What do you do when the guy with the ball comes at you?”

I think I diffused their over-enthusiasm just a little bit with this charade, though I did still get the snot beaten out of me.  See, I actually did know the rules, I just didn’t understand them.  Everything I knew I learned from NFL 2K for the Sega Dreamcast.  Being that it was the only decent DC game  I owned that wasn’t Sonic Adventure initially, I actually grew quite familiar with the sport of American football, dare I say even fond of it.  It became a vested interest a month later when I was living in Seattle and the Seahawks had made it to the Superbowl (sadly to lose to the appropriately-named Steelers, who stole the victory – I maintain – thanks to a series of dubious calls from the referees).

I did that.  No really, I did.
I did that. No really, I did.

But understanding – truly understanding – the sport of American football cannot be taught.  It’s part of America’s cultural DNA.  It’s a strangely regimented and heavily codified form of football – specific formations with specific plays, with specific positions taking specific pathways – and surprisingly so, given the nation’s cultural aversion to Colonial Britain’s stick-up-the-ass mentality and America’s generally freewheelin’ ways.  The number of set plays that can be employed in any given game of American football is absolutely mind-boggling, and memorising their names alone must be a pain in the ass, let alone their tactical benefits and deficits.  “Middle Joker Sky” (is that even a real play name?), “All Fire Press”, and the “Statue of Liberty play” are terms that appeal to me, but ultimately mean nothing to me.  Sometimes I yell out random words and numbers for the hell of it…

Despite my ignorance, I have over the years developed a great respect for the sport.  I like to think of it as a game of chess between two coaches, except all the pieces are sentient, and both sides execute their moves (nay, a full game of chess) simultaneously each ‘turn’.  Each team has a specialised line-up for offense and defence, and specialisation in the workforce is something to be admired.  But it’s the things that separate American football from other football codes that I believe do not lend themselves to good videogaming.  Translated to a videogame, it doesn’t really know what kind of game it’s trying to be.  It’s essentially a turn-based strategy game whereby both teams take their turn at the same time.  Once selected, you must then execute your turn in real-time.  It sort of feels like trying to swim against a tidal wave of your own making.  Set play and improvised play are two dissonant notions that I can’t seem to hold in stead (how do you play Civ II and Starcraft at the same time?).  The crunch and flow of each play execution is continually interrupted by huddles and line-up switches.  Conversely, the huddles are too short to make any sort of sensible decision without having memorised the entire playbook (this is where the DNA comes into it).  And because both teams select their plays at the same time, they can’t really respond to the opposition other than on the fly.  And yes, I know none of these things pose a problem to the real-life NFL quarterback, but I believe they are a problem for your average gamer.

WTF?!
WTF?!

Is there a solution?  I suspect not – not if the authentic NFL experience is to be maintained.  As people complain each year, the NFL videogame formula hasn’t really changed that much at all, even between Madden NFL ’94 and NFL 2K.  (Though here’s a piece of craziness that will blow your mind: Visual Concepts, the developers of Madden‘s arch-rival NFL 2K series, also developed Madden NFL ’94 and ’95.)  In all honesty, I believe they refined the formula as much as they could – long ago – without fundamentally messing with the sport itself, or without drastically altering the input method for videogames (watch this space!).  Seemingly all they have done is improve the bullet points of graphics, sound, and extra modes, which is to be expected.

Vintage Madden.
Vintage Madden.

HOWEVER, if someone was to develop a videogame based on backyard American football, I’d be all for it.  There was no lack of crunch or flow that sunny afternoon in Alabama.  There were no huddles (okay, maybe one), no line-up switches – everything was spontaneous, and the momentum of the game never slowed.  Sure, we weren’t as good as the pros of the NFL (especially not I!); and sure, I had a busted lip and a cocktail of jet-lag and concussion by the end of it; but we were having a great time.  I even smashed a guy with a Rugby League tackle (don’t worry, he was the receiver!).  When he struggled to get back on his feet, I asked aloud, “is that legal?  Am I allowed to do that?”  The three Matt-keteers just laughed and high-fived me.

WHOOP!
"Young offensive weapons" -- WHOOP!

An American football videogame without the trappings of pre-planning sounds like something I’d be interested in playing.

John Madden Football

John Madden Football

John Madden Football
John Madden Football

Let me just go right out and say it: I hate sports games.  I especially hate football games.  It doesn’t help that I greatly dislike the sport of football as well.  I’m much more of a fan of refined-skill games like soccer.  Or should I say real foot ball.  Fucking Americans polluting the namespace.  That’s right.  I went there.

Fake left, dodge right, long, cut-in chicken leg, hook deep run pass, with a cherry on top.  Who cares?  You're just going to be sacked by the computer bee-lining for your QB anyways.  Why bother?
Fake left, dodge right, long, cut-in chicken leg, hook deep run pass, with a cherry on top. Who cares? You're just going to be sacked by the computer bee-lining for your QB anyways. Why bother?

Sports games always try too hard to simulate the experience of some sort of fantasy league.  I guess that’s great if you’re the type who likes fantasy football.  I can’t stand it.  If I’m going to play sports games, I’d rather play games that consider the sport, its rules, and the related management as loose parameters to apply to a game that is primarily designed to be fun.  Good examples are any Mario sports games.  They’re not really sports games.  They’re fun games that happen to use the rough parameters of whatever their title sport is.  Another good example is the classic NES World Cup Soccer.  It was ridiculous and silly, which made it tremendous fun.  It didn’t care that you were breaking every rule of soccer.  It was interesting.

The visuals are rather mundane.  And I'm not asking for life-like realism here. I'm asking for something interesting.  It was done in the NES era so hardware isn't the issue.
The visuals are rather mundane. And I'm not asking for life-like realism here. I'm asking for something interesting. It was done in the NES era so hardware isn't the issue.

So how does John Madden Foodball fare?  Well, it makes good use of the expensive franchise that went on to sell over 16 sequels and counting.  I assume when he dies, they’ll start selling Posthumous John Madden Football, where he comes back from the grave to say his cliches for the voice-overs.

Verdict: It’s a sports game! What?  What do you want me to say?  You are either in that niche target market and drop $60+ every year for the newest and greatest football game, or you’re a gamer.  They’re all the same.  That’s all.  End of discussion.

Emmitt Smith Football

esf1
Emmitt Smith thinks he's bigger than football, huh?

Man!  I sort of wish the days when pro athletes got their own games never ended.  Bo Jackson had games, Wayne Gretsky, Emmitt Smith, Ken Griffey Jr., Brett Hull… this sort of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.  I think there’s a real market for it too.  I mean, think about it, it doesn’t even have to specifically be about the sport they played.  You could have the Pete Rose Gambling Challenge or Rick Tocchet’s Beat the Spread.  How about Michael Vick’s Canine Showdown?  You could have a Tom Brady japanese dating game called Brady Nails Another Supermodel.  Oh!  Bret Favre’s Final Retirement 2009 where you try to raise anticipation about your retirement to a fever pitch and then announce that you’re signing with another team after building a legacy mostly because you’re indecisive.

Roger Clemen’s Plausible Deniability.  That would probably be a little like the Phoenix Wright games.  Really, the possibilities are endless.

esf2
Emmitt Smith probably talks about himself in the third person to this very day.

Anyway, I’d like to review this game except I threw up all over the place during the hideous mode 7 twirling effect during kickoff.  It was pretty brutal.  It’s like that flashlight that makes you hurl.  Chunks everywhere…

esf3
BLLLEEEOOOOOORRRRRGHHHH

Oh, but then I fumbled the ball after a big hit and my guy lost his helmet (filled with vomit) and then Emmitt Smith chirps up with douchebag commentary “Ooh! That must have hurt!”.  Fuck you, Emmitt Smith.  Let’s see you catch a pass when you’re dealing with durfnose.  Maybe they should make that a game too… Emmitt Smith’s Piss off your fans by being a Fuckface Challenge.  Or maybe Emmitt Smith’s Super Fuckface.  Anyway, it’s a pretty shitty football game compared to the Madden competition.  I’ll take John Madden’s deranged barking to this smug jackass anyday.

esf4
My touchdown celebration was to puke on my own ass. It's not important how.

In conclusion, no.