John Madden Football


This review is brought to you by the one and only Retro Referee, Peter Skerritt. Be sure to check out his work on Twitter @PeteSkerritt.


Well, someone‘s ready for some football.


As much as I enjoy Madden’s grinning face, this is the superior cover.


PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts

DEVELOPER: Park Place Productions

GENRE: Sports

RELEASE DATE: 11/90 – (US), 12/90 – (EU)


John Madden Football. Madden, for short. Video game fans everywhere are familiar with Madden, regardless of whether they’re sports video game fans or not. Once a year, for the past 27 years and counting, a new Madden game hits store shelves and sells millions of units. There are Madden tournaments broadcast on television. Retail stores open at midnight to sell the game to eager players. Madden, more than any other sports video game in the United States, is a phenomenon.


Coach. Broadcaster. Video game icon.


It’s important to avoid comparisons between John Madden Football and its successors. Features that have become commonplace with Madden over the years—such as NFL and NFLPA licensing, player and team stat tracking, instant replays, and more—are not present in John Madden Football. This game is the first. It’s the ground-breaker. It serves as the foundation upon which future games in the series were built.


These playcalling screens have been a Madden staple since the beginning.


John Madden Football offers exhibition and playoff modes to players. Exhibition play is just one game played between two teams. Playoffs involve picking one team, with the objective of taking that team through a playoff bracket and winning the championship. The streamlined menu and relatively few options make it easy for players to jump right into a game without moving from screen to screen to make adjustments. “Pick up and play” players will like this quite a bit. Playoffs can be continued at a later time using a relatively short passcode, since the game doesn’t have a battery backup.


Will he run or pass?


Once in the game, now-familiar play-calling boxes appear for both the offense and the defense. There are dozens of plays to pick from based on the selected formation. Pro Form, Near, Far, Shotgun, and Goal Line formations on offense each allow for different play-calling options. Shotgun is pass-heavy, while Goal Line relies a lot on short-yardage running plays. Based on the teams that players select, the team’s roster will often dictate the plays that are called. Some teams have excellent receivers and are suited for a lot of passing. Other teams have a strong offensive line and strong running backs, which mean that running plays will be more effective. San Francisco is a powerful team that excels in both passing and running, and makes for a great team for new players to pick from while learning the game.


Receiver B is *wide* open!


On defense, too, there are several different formations to pick from. 4-3 or 3-4 defenses (based on the number of defensive linemen and linebackers each team uses) are usually average against runs and passes. Nickel defenses have one extra defense back to help with pass defense, or to have an extra player to send on blitzes. Dime defenses are great for pass coverage, but often get gashed if the opposing offense decides to run the ball. As players become familiar with opposing offense tendencies, play-calling becomes a little easier. For example, using the Dime formation in obvious passing situations (such as 3rd and more than 5 yards to go) is fair strategy. Calling blitzes on passing downs also puts pressure on the opposing quarterback, often leading to bad throws or even throws that the defense can intercept.


No Hail Mary for you!


Once a play is called, then it’s up to the player to execute it. The play controls in John Madden Football make this as easy as possible. Running plays rely on the C button to give the running back a burst of speed, while the B button pulls off a spin move that can shed would-be tacklers. Passing plays are a bit more complex; pressing the C button pulls up three passing windows that each depict a receiver and show whether he’s being defended. Passing is as easy as pressing A, B, or C—depending on which receiver is selected to throw to—and then seeing if the receiver can catch the pass. Not all pass plays are gamebreakers, much like in the NFL. Some pass plays are good for getting small chunks of yardage while others give players a chance to hit the long pass for a big play. It’s often easier to methodically complete passes and short runs to gain first downs than it is to go long and score quickly.


He splits the uprights!


In terms of presentation, John Madden Football does show its age a bit. Stat tracking is only done per game, with stats shown only at halftime and at the end of the game. There aren’t any instant replays at all, which is curious since other sports games (such as RBI Baseball 2 for the NES in 1989) had automatic post-play replays built in. Speech is limited to brief calls for first downs and touchdowns. One major plus for the presentation is the inclusion of “in-game highlights” during playoff games. During halftime and at the end of games, there are cuts to games in progress that show the last play of the game. Watching these game-winning highlights play out is still pretty neat, even today.


It’s a packed house for today’s game!


John Madden Football‘s aesthetic package is classic. On-screen players, though not very detailed, animate well. They run, spin, leap, dive, and tackle. Post-touchdown celebrations, like dances and football spikes, are also nice touches. Weather effects, such as snow, change how the field looks. On the sound side, the game is average. A small number of speech samples can be heard against the crowd effects, while the music is reserved for the game’s menu, halftime show, and end-of-game show.


People were spiking footballs long before Gronk was born.


To replay John Madden Football today is to experience the foundation of an inestimably important series of sports games. There were some crazy plays during my time playing the game for this review, including returning an interception for a touchdown or grabbing a fumble, losing it, and getting it back while running 50 yards for a touchdown. It’s these unexpected moments, along with seeing how the passing and running offenses got their starts, which made my time with the game really enjoyable. For fellow sports video game fans, I recommend giving this game a similar opportunity. Not only is it a fun, nostalgic walk down memory lane, but we owe John Madden Football for paving the way to the football games that we enjoy playing every year.



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20 thoughts on “John Madden Football

  1. Nice overview of this game. This was the first football video game to actually feel like you were playing football. It was a great simulation and the camera perspective and passing realism set it apart from everything else. While it didn’t have the NFL license in this first game, the team strengths were accurately depicted. This series was a system seller for Sega in the U.S. The SNES didn’t get a good Madden game until about ’94. It’s also worth noting that Sega had EA use the engine for this game in its Joe Montana Football released a couple months later. Basically the same game with some tweaking.

    1. EA took away features from Joe Montana because it was too good. Originally it didn’t have the 2D overhead perspective. Regardless it still is also a fun good playing football game as well.

  2. Good review – I appreciate the explanations of the various plays and formations! My usual strategy is just to use a constant stream of Hail Mary long throws, but now I’ve read this I’m tempted to give Madden another go.

    Really like this game, but the sequel, Madden 92, is probably my favourite of the series. It was just the extra refinement that gives Madden 92 the edge.

  3. Thanks for the review Peter. This is one of the few sports games I’m interested in, despite being Australian and having zero knowledge of American football. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out Madden 93 on SNES after getting it as a $15 bargain bin special (at the time, SNES games cost over AU$100). I never really knew what I was doing, but I had more fun than I expected to and I had a tangible sense that I was (tortuously) playing a quality product. I’ll be interested to try this first console version (note that it was originally released a couple of years prior for a range of home computers).

    1. The PC version was not nearly the same game. It was primarily a stats driven simulation game. It was good but was nothing like the console versions to be honest. Park Place built a new game from the ground up. It was perfect take on the EA formula for consoles. Mostly arcade action with stat based abilities.

  4. “Speech is limited to brief calls for first downs and touchdowns.”

    That’s because this is pre-Joe Montana II-Sportstalk Football. I remember when that one came out; it was incredible to hear play-by-play commentary in a viedo game! (Even if it often had a 2-8 second time delay.)

    1. But as cool as in-game speech was, Electronic Arts ruled sports games in the 90’s, especially on Genesis/Mega Drive. Everything I know about sports is due to these games (which is why every team’s roster is stuck in the 90’s in my head). 🙂

  5. American Football has been and probably always will be – a baffling sport to me.
    Enjoyed the review although I confess to not understanding much of the play references. Shame as this series has endured.
    But I’ll stick to ‘soccer’ games (with a bit of Tennis and Golf thrown in).

  6. This game was a revelation when it came out. While John Madden Football had made itself a name with the PC crowd, the DOS game was mostly a simulation game. I knew some people at my job in high school who raved about it and played in some leagues. But the Genesis game was a wholly new experience. It took the some elements that JM was known for at the time. And combined it with an arcade style football game like Techno Bowl, with a fantastic presentation. There simply was never another game like it previously for Football. It captured the sport unlike any other game with its realism and playcalling. And the controls just worked. The sprite scaling was so smooth it really looked like a 3D game. Me and my friends spent countless hours playing this game. I even had tournaments set up with like 8 friends at my house where we’d play for the Madden championship. Sure it didn’t have then NFL liscensing, but it had a detailed stat book on all the teams and you could fill in the names on who the players were. I can’t think of another sports game that blew me away at release by how much better it was than previous iterations than this one. It started a dysnast. And the other releases were equally as good or better on the Genesis. This game, probrably sold more teenagers and adults a Genesis than Sonic (pure observational speculation) and set up the Genesis as the machine for sports games. I high school this game was a phenomenon. In a once Nintendo focused space people would be talking about playing football on the Genesis. I knew a lot of people who defected to Sega because of this game and it’s sequels. And EA’s sports lineup in general.

    Sega would put out some also fantastic sports games of its own. Joe Montana was also very good. But was was famously crippled by EA (who was contracted by Sega to make a football game) because it was in some ways better than Madden. They didn’t want to undercut their own game. The Genesis had the chops to quickly move a lot of sprites for high speed sports game. Eventually Madden came out on SNES, but it was never as good or well playing as the Genesis games. It should never be underestimate how EA and sports games helped Genesis win the console wars, at least for awhile.

    1. I 100% agree with these comments. I truly believe that at least in America more people bought a Genesis because of the Madden games than the Sonic games.

  7. Great write-up, Peter. I’ve honestly still never played any of the original John Madden Football series of games on the Genesis, or SNES, for that matter, though I did have quite a bit of fun playing with a friend on Bill Walsh College Football back in the day (Go Huskers!). That game used the same engine, so from a strictly mechanical perspective, it was essentially the same game, with different players, stats, and probably a handful of rules changed for NCAA play, as opposed to official NFL rules. In any event, it’s a well crafted game, and I suspect that the first handful of Madden titles all share that high watermark of quality. Not being much of a sports fan myself, nor a fan of sports games, I can only say that while I don’t have a special place in my heart for the series, I understand and appreciate its impact on the gaming world, and what it did to bring sports games into the mainstream, and some contingent of the mainstream into gaming. For that reason alone, Madden, and EA, deserve a certain deal of respect for this achievement, because it has made gaming the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become, given guys like me a better social rep for being a gamer (not just an ‘ubernerd’ like when I was in school), and helped usher in the creative era we live in now, where you have large AAA studios working on massive projects, and smaller indie devs creating interesting games on a smaller scale, similar to the kinds of things we played when we were kids. Many guys my age like to think of this time as the “Golden Age” of gaming, but I’d argue that we’re living in that time. We have access to several generations’ worth of gaming legacy, but we also have a wealth of new, creative voices in the mix, and there are so many possibilities ahead with VR, the Switch, mobile and PC gaming, and all these things entail. So while EA can’t take all the credit for that, they certainly have at least a slice in that pie.

    Incidentally, I can’t think about Madden without recalling the episode of Chuck where Michael Strahan played as a major sports nut and a bully, and was pushing around a store employee over being able to use the store’s theater room for him and his buddies to play the latest Madden game on the store’s Xbox 360 system. Not only is it a memorable episode of the show, but even then, the ubiquity of gaming had become a major thing, with the annual sports titles selling massively each year, and the runaway popularity of the Wii making a major impact.

    1. With the flury of retro game consoles coming out, Has sega or anyone considered a retro Madden. I actually had the original for an Apple II e back in 1989, and love the ability to manufacture teams and players. The recent games are a pain to navigate through.

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