The mighty John Madden Football series turns 30 today – a huge achievement for any game series. Haimona Gray looks at how the series has matured and mutated over the past three decades.
Picture 22 athletes at the top of their fields competing at a level they had to forgo the majority of childhood to achieve. You are none of them. You are a 12 year old latchkey kid on his third straw of sherbet defying laws of physics in a sport you’ve only seen once.
This week Madden, one of the most popular video game franchises in history, turns 30.
Madden’s success comes down to many factors – entertaining gameplay, a lovable ‘John Candy if he really loved footy’ frontman, Electronic Arts’ almost limitless wealth, a large and devoted American fanbase – but its appeal to a wider audience than the actual sport it loosely simulates (American football) has been key to its longevity.
Starting as a DOS game with lots of statistical information but only one fuzzy camera angle, the early Madden era was characterised by their technical and statistical nuances. The pre-Sega Genesis Madden games are Philip Glassian in their select appeal, Philip Rothian in the reactions they elicit from the uninitiated.
Even existing as slightly fancy blocks, Madden always had the outlines of what the game should evolve into slowly year-by-year, but an annual release model has made the kind of ambition required to pull this off sadly rare in the franchise’s history.
The second Madden era, the SNES/Genesis games between 1991 and 1996, was marked by breakout hits, combining home consoles with easy-to-learn gameplay well suited to short loser-passes-the-controller party play.
It was the innovations of this era that made Madden fun. You know how you can stare at a sea slug and wonder how something which looks like a sea turd could be an evolutionary improvement over anything other than a bigger sea turd? The answer is natural selection, aka competition. Same with Madden. During the early ’90s there was still some degree of competition in American football, with some other non-NFL franchises still in existence and NFL licensing not yet as significant a market force as it would become.
The next era was defined less by gameplay than console and financial power .
The Playstation and Nintendo 64 generation of consoles provided what anyone who has ever seen a Super Bowl demanded – better viewing angles, tackles which had force and power behind them (for a explanation on why, upon reflection, the “smashed ’em” focus was misguided I recommend this horrifying tale).
The game became characterised by long passes and jarring hits, with the running game enjoyed for its rugby-style runs and side steps.
During this time Madden arguably reached Jonah Lomu Rugby-status in New Zealand gaming culture – the highest honour our nation can bestow on a video game that someone’s little brother or cousin will challenge you to.
As the console versions’ gameplay saw significant advancements, including improved joystick control, other versions of the game were left behind; the PC version became essentially a port with several important controls removed. This is a trend that haunts the franchise to this day, but worse news for fans was just around the corner – the lawyer era of Madden was about to begin.
By 2004, Madden had achieved fantastic success but it still had competitors, most notably 2k, makers of the popular NBA 2K franchise. Eventually its parent company EA Sports decided all this competition wasn’t in their best interests and their business model became ‘Buy Everything’.
In December 2004 EA Sports reached an exclusive rights agreement with the NFL and the players union. Since then there have been more class-action lawsuits against this agreement than there have been credible competitors to Madden itself.
It wasn’t just monopoly status which Madden used to its advantage. EA Sports’ comical wealth allowed it to invest in motion capture and high end graphics its competitors simply couldn’t afford.
Madden ’05 surpassed any football game made before it – the visuals and experience of playing the game for hours improved to the point that a player would forget how to write with a pencil before they forgot how to Hit Stick a quarterback.
If Madden ’05 was a glimpse into a promising future, Madden ’06 was a dystopic eyeful of the present.
Created to fill a scheduling gap, Madden ’06 on the newly released next-generation consoles was poorly received due to containing less content and more awkward controls than the previous year. It is now widely considered the worst Madden game ever made.
This would be the general direction for the next decade: highs and lows, constant tinkering with controls to limited success, graphics reaching impressive accuracy, and increasingly expensive hit-and-miss annual editions.
Madden‘s lawyer era has never truly ended, but a turnaround in the quality of each successive game (combined with a shameless cash grab) led to now – the credit card era.
The credit card era begun with a highly regarded game with an ulterior motive. Madden ’11 was the first in a series of attempts to lessen the steep learning curve around American football, making the game more streamlined for arcade-style players while also adding ever-increasing ‘football manager’ style control of teams. They also introduced Madden Ultimate Team.
Madden Ultimate Team is essentially a card game side-quest with an option to use real money to purchase card packs. As a business model, this type of in-game purchasing (microtransactions) make a lot of sense, but as a consumer these microtransactions – on top of the NZD$100+ cover price for a game which is barely updated year on year – just seems shameless.
Like Rick James misremembering slapping Charlie Murphy in the damn face, I would never be caught wasting money this recklessly… ok, yeah I’ve given Madden more than $50 developing a card team which wasn’t transferable to the next game and which I will never get back.
Thanks to the success of Madden Ultimate Team and the franchise’s ability to transcend its source sport’s failure to catch on outside the United States, I’m confident there will be a 31st anniversary, and a 32nd too. In 20 years, the game might be exclusively microtransactions and a PSA about the dangers of failing to salute the flag, but right now the Madden franchise is still a gaming triumph. If it was about rugby New Zealand would have more e-sports teams than breweries.
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