He's not playing. He's not coaching. He's not announcing. He's not even on the cover.
Outside just a touch of token voice work, about the only thing left of John Madden in Madden NFL is his name. But that seems to be enough, because over the course of more than two decades, Madden NFL has become even bigger than its bus-riding, drumstick-chewing, Tinactin-shilling namesake. While Coach Madden may have slipped into a comfortable retirement, Madden NFL is working harder than ever.
A spin through Madden NFL is as close as most sports nuts will ever get to playing in a real National Football League game. (And considering the size of those defensive linemen, the closest most of us would ever want to get.) All 32 NFL teams and most of the athletes are represented here, playing in realistic, fan-filled stadiums across the country. The on-field action feels almost like a televised football game, from the announcers to the statistical graphics to the sideline cams to the corporate sponsorships.
"One of my goals was to make the video game look like television," said John Madden. "And then when I was at Fox, David Hall, who was the president of Fox Sports, was talking to a group at Fox in a meeting and he said, 'We want to make the game on television look like the video game.' And I thought, 'Man. We did it!'"
Did they ever. For gamers who really want to live the dream, Madden NFL allows you to create your own players (or even import them from EA Sports' popular NCAA Football franchise) and push them through a career's worth of games, practices, injuries and trades. It's all so real you won't be faulted for checking your knees for grass stains.
But as much as these yearly games do their best to emulate the look of the NFL, wannabe coaches don't need to spend their days and nights analyzing game film to prep for opponents. Though the complexities of coaching can compound as much as a gamer wants them to, Madden's makers have streamlined the play-calling process and added helpful, easy-to-use computer aids for those who want to cut through the clutter—and for novices who want to jump right into a rough-and-tumble game.
Really, though, how many true Madden novices can there be anymore? More than 85 million copies of the game have sold since its inception in 1988, earning EA Sports around $2 billion and making it the country's most popular sports game—with many fans buying the new edition every year. The game has become so entrenched in the NFL itself that pro football players have been known to call EA to "help" mold their digital images.
John Madden told the Los Angeles Times that one day, while he was in San Francisco, a prominent NFL player rushed into a hotel room asking, "Where's Madden?" The coach was right there, so folks, naturally, pointed to him.
"No, not that Madden," Madden recalled the player saying. "I want the game!"
Madden NFL 11
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. So the curators of Madden NFL apparently intoned as they tinkered and massaged the venerable sports game for 2011. Things haven't changed much from Madden NFL 10, and vets will likely slip into this version like a well-worn pair of jeans.
That said, two features have been introduced that, ostensibly, make it easier to call plays. One, GameFlow, allows the game itself to choose an appropriate play for you, based on down and distance. Second and short? Madden might select a halfback dive … or call for the QB to throw the ball long. Once a play's been selected, an audio coach—part of the CoachSpeak function—offers helpful advice on how to get the most out of it.
You can still choose your own play, of course, from 11's massive team-specific playbooks, and longtime Madden players will likely find GameFlow intrusive. But for less adept button-mashers like me, CoachSpeak and GameFlow were both nice value-added features.
The kicking meter has also been simplified, the audible controls tinkered with and the "turbo" button eliminated.
As has been the case for years and years, playing this game is about as problematic, content-wise, as watching one on television—maybe less, since here you don't have to worry about erectile-dysfunction commercials. Players see some crushing tackles, of course. And a few of the bands contributing to the soundtrack aren't the best role models—AC/DC, Kiss, Guns N' Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, Bush and Blur among them. (The worst of their lyrical blunders have been edited.)
Madden NFL 09
This installment looks incredible. Each well-manicured blade of grass on the various expansive fields appears to have its own unique shadings of green and brown. Rain and snow animations make you reach for a slicker.
But then again, who wants to just sit and admire the scenery when there's some football to be played? On the actual grab-a-controller-and-hike front, EA has once again come up with some improvements. Not that that's news. They do it every year. One of the biggest problems of the past was figuring out how to manipulate all the offensive and defensive capabilities of the game. And while 09 still doesn't include enough step-by-step guidance for beginners, it does at least address this issue with a creative Virtual Reality program, where a holographic Madden takes gamers through a series of running, passing, tackling and pass-coverage drills to determine their Madden IQ.
Sports announcer Cris Collinsworth is added to the lineup to deliver enjoyable color commentary during the game. He also leads out in a new BackTrack feature that, at random intervals, points out and helps correct mistakes that might be made during a play.
For seasoned Maddenites there are lots of fun new bits, too. For instance, when you're playing against a buddy you can now display fake routes for your receivers to throw him off the scent.
The grumpy among us might gripe about an occasional AI glitch, or the fact that in-game product placements for Sprint, Snickers and Under Armour pop up from time to time. A more serious concern is that the soundtrack includes some pretty dubious acts, from Disturbed and The Offspring to Busta Rhymes and Kardinal Offishall. So we're grateful that you can turn off the background music and concentrate on the plays.
Madden NFL 07
Up until now, Madden NFL's makers admit it has leaned heavily toward the spectacular. Big hits. Crazy juke moves. And, of course, big-time passing. It wasn't long ago that a Kurt Warner-to-Isaac Bruce bomb could earn you 75-yard gains … on every series.
That was so 2003.
Last year John Madden—the real John Madden—mandated more realistic artificial intelligence for the game bearing his name, meaning going for it on 4th and 3 was no longer a gimme. The result was yet more realism on gameplay. The game also introduced the ability to play not just as a primary runner, but as a lead blocker.
Another plus: an ever-expanding playbook (now taken from actual NFL teams) for on-the-field coaching and strategy. Yet perhaps one of 07's most attractive attributes is what isn't in it. No one's blowing off faces with bazookas here. There's no hidden sex scenes or random swearing. Players can actually sit back and fully enjoy just the game without any unexpected potholes.
True enough, EA Sports has been known for including a couple of relatively mild but nonetheless unnecessary distractions in the Madden games—namely, music from questionable bands and shots of cheerleaders in skimpy outfits. But this year marks the almost-departure of both elements. Gone are the real-life cheerleader "extras" and virtual halftime shows. And the game's extensive soundtrack seems to have been toned down slightly. Instead of Green Day's "American Idiot," now we're offered Dashboard Confessional's "Reason to Believe." In place of (hed)p.e.'s "Suck It Up," there's Audioslave's "Revelations." Not perfect bands or songs, but still an improvement.
Madden NFL 06
The glory of this 2006 version is how it gives an armchair quarterback the chance to put his money where his mouth is. And the new features here focus on making quarterback play more lifelike.
The first of these is QB Vision Control. Accuracy of passes increases to receivers within the QB's field of vision, which is noted by a lighted, cone-shaped area emanating from him. In addition to better on-field vision, your QB can now put a fine touch, called Precision Passing, on his tosses.
Two other new features expand gameplay beyond the field. Switching to NFL Superstar mode puts you in charge of a marquee player's life. You'll juggle time between meeting with mentors, agents and the media. Franchise mode lets you manage every aspect of your team: its roster, training camp, ticket prices and the cost of concession items (including beer, by the way).
This year the big hits are simulated more accurately. The "hit stick" allows a defensive player to unleash an extraordinarily explosive hit, causing the player on the receiving end to sometimes fumble … or get hurt. Usually, the result is a highlight replay.
As with many games in this genre, the only areas that draw flags are two off-field features: the cheerleaders and soundtrack. Programmers have toned down the presence of prodigiously—and ridiculously—endowed digital cheerleaders. But real footage of NFL cheerleaders shakin' their barely covered bodies still shows up in 11 of the game's 38 cinematic cutscenes. Madden NFL 06 also comes loaded with a rock and rap soundtrack. Most of the time these songs are hard to hear clearly unless you're listening very closely. If you do so, however, you'll come across questionable lyrics from artists such as Godsmack, Disturbed and Memphis Bleek.