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
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.