Sports dorks the world over have long clamored for a realistic sports simulation for their favorite sports. For most of the pre-computer era, baseball nerds would create fantasy leagues on notebook paper and collect box scores from their local or regional newspapers to keep track of scoring. Once computers were small enough to fit inside high school gyms, the popularity of sports statistics began taking off towards what has become a multi-billion dollar industry: fantasy sports and video game simulations. Today's baseball nerds only need access to computers conveniently located in your local library, educational institute or mom's basement to have access to a dizzying array of statistics in just two or three clicks of a mouse.
The larger point being sports simulation, fantasy sports were conceived as a way to take your favorite players and make a "super-team" that could beat someone else's team. Sports simulation (based largely on statistics) is the digital culmination of the dream that most school-aged children (and really awkward adults) who play sports have: what it must be like to play as a sports star. In the backyard, you're Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr or Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana lobbing bombs to Paul Hornung or Lynn Swann or Jerry Rice. On the court, you're Larry Bird or Michael Jordan or LeBron James... on the diamond, you could be Babe Ruth... and so on. Anyone who has played sports has wanted to be as good as the best at that sport. Sports simulation, in video games, goes quite a way in achieving just that. Yesterday's sports dorks using newspaper box score clippings and today's sports dorks getting ESPN updates nine times a second on their wifi-enabled smartphones have a lot in common.
It's amazing what the Franchise mode has done for the Madden Franchise, as well as breakthrough simulations in the Madden games such as Create-A-Player and the full-season mode. These would technically be mini-games for other genres, but in one game of Madden, you can play out an individual career, a handful of franchises, a tournament, online games, or just one exhibition game... in a sense, you're buying several games in one to give you the full sports simulation experience.
I've chosen to single out Madden since it is by far the most popular sports simulation franchise on the planet for video games (fantasy sports are incredibly popular but we're sticking to the traditional sense of video games here). Also, because I have owned every iteration of this series since it came out all the way back when I was smart enough to think that ketchup was a food group. I'm escaping from yet another online Madden match that will surely end in the other player quitting after I run up the score with the Cleveland Colt McCoys.
Each game presented something new, something fresh, and while some don't hold up today in terms of playability, at the time they were groundbreaking games for the sports simulation world. Hold the ratings in historical context, and maybe it will make more sense than the genius that thought stuffing a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey was brilliant marketing.
The Early Years - John Madden Football (1980's-1993)
There is a lot of spilled ink regarding the tumultuous path that the Madden franchise took to becoming the juggernaut that it is today, so I'll sum it up from an elementary school-aged kid's point of view: nothing in the sports simulation world could even compare to what you saw on the screen with the early Madden football games. A full playbook, realistic 3D fields and your favorite players--all controlled with your average console controller. On top of that, game designers at the time were well aware of the competitiveness that comes with sports and sports fans, so integrating the versus mode was absolutely necessary. Each year brought smoother graphics and spawned an entirely new genre of sports simulation video games that crossed over into other sports such as baseball and basketball. By 1993, it seemed like there were more football simulations than football teams, and with game developers learning the nuances of programming video games, the better each simulation became every year.
It's impossible to rank these games individually, but the 1992 version of John Madden Football stands out as an impressive game because by then the game had gone mainstream. Newer gamers will recognize this one in the packaging for Madden 2005's 15-year anniversary special edition.
This came out about the time I really started getting into sports, so it holds a special place in my rather large Sega Genesis collection. The best thing about this game is that you were able to recognize the differences between players--instead of a 10-digit rating, now speed and strength were factors. The worst thing about this game is that it is generally remembered for being able to call the same play over and over with the same predictable result.
This iteration brought about one of the most underrated changes in sports gaming history: player names! QB #8 just doesn't have the same ring as Steve Young. That's easily the plus side. On the downside, not a lot changed in actual gameplay.
Here's where Madden went from simple on-the-field simulation and ventured into off-the-field simulation: not only could you trade players (Dan Marino fakes a handoff to Barry Sanders and lobs one deep to Jerry Rice!) but you could create players, even yourself! If that's not enough, your 40 time was measured by how fast you could alternately press two buttons--if Red Bull existed we would have seen a wave of defensive ends running 1.83 40's. Create-A-Player became a staple of the Madden franchise and playing out a full season with statistics satisfied some of the key requirements of true sports simulations. This game also featured the ability to tackle players after the whistle--nothing funnier than laying out a guy after the play just to have an ambulance run him over and cart him off with a broken index finger.
Madden crossed over to a new platform called the "Playstation"--look it up sometime. The game originally was supposed to debut the year prior, but some programming ineptitude delayed it until 97. Either way, what was delivered was a haphazard mashing of 3D graphics that, while cool to look at, didn't actually feel like a sports simulation should. The general manager mode was still fledgling and wouldn't be fully realized for a couple of years.
In terms of playability, this game upped the ante much like Madden 94/95 did since game developers had more time to work with the new gaming consoles. However, the most significant change was the addition of Franchise Mode, which attracted a whole new type of gamer. What originally was a fun way to swap players into new uniforms had exploded into Armchair GMs out to prove that Detroit could win a Super Bowl with 14 or so one-sided trades. It became a game within a game. The ability to swap draft picks and build for the future offered a new, realistic simulation that couldn't easily be duplicated by mock drafts, sports bar arguments and the plausibility of every what-if scenario that haunts franchises like Cleveland that come within a play of glory but ultimately live on in infamy. While raw, this proved to be a vital addition to the Madden experience, and Franchise Mode is essential to most of today's sports simulations.
The NFL Draft has evolved into such a spectacle that fans can now settle arguments over obscure 6th-round tight ends from some also-ran conference by referencing any number of the one trillion mock drafts that exist on the internet. Luckily, this Madden had only a 4-round draft. It also finally looked and felt like a real 3D simulation should, and the graphics on the Playstation and N64 were incredible at the time. Player ratings had blown up to almost absurd calculations, and the only bad thing I can say about this game is that it gave Randy Moss ("No. 18" in the game) a 50-something rating. The lesson, as always: don't smoke weed in college, or some game developer on his ethical high horse will penalize you with a crappy Madden rating.
PC Gaming has existed since text-based adventures earned you a "that's naughty!" scolding for typing in profanity, but this edition of Madden actually proved to be worthwhile on computers. Expansions in Franchise Mode were key for this game.
Madden 2001 (Eddie George cover)
The first time we see a cover without Madden on it, this game focused on overhauling graphics and in-game play since the next era of consoles was being ushered in. Noting that, there was nothing spectacular about this game outside of looking pretty.
Madden 2002 (Daunte Culpepper cover)
Really the first "Next-Gen" Madden game, it was designed for the newer game consoles and didn't play as well on the N64. The graphics were much less choppy and player design was really starting to become complicated and realistic. Still, Madden hadn't had a significant breakthrough in a few years, and this ends up being one of the more forgettable Madden games in the last decade.
Madden 2003 (Marshall Faulk cover)
Things started getting goofy with this game--player cards, a soundtrack, and a bevy of customizable features for each player. However, it all added to the enjoyability of the franchise, and prodded it in a direction that most of today's Madden players will appreciate. Basically, it set the framework for the next Madden game, one that utterly destroyed the previous mold of the Madden franchise.
Madden 2004 (Michael Vick cover)
I'll start off with this--in the all-time fantasy draft for video game football players, the number 1 overall pick would be hotly debated between Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl and Michael Vick in Madden 2004. This game was an arcade game trapped inside a realistic simulation's plastic disk--it was so unbalanced it produced some of the most ridiculous statistical achievements in video game sports history. (Seriously, I racked up 6,382 yards rushing in one season with Vick). It also introduced hot routes, and the ability to change plays at the line. So much came from this game, as unrealistic as it was, that certain people will swear up and down that this is the best Madden game of the 2000's.
Madden 2005 (Ray Lewis cover)
Since Madden 2004 featured ridiculous offense, Madden 2005 adapted like a coach at halftime and implemented QB spy techniques, made the ratings differences mean a whole lot less and allowed your little brother to turn your favorite player's helmet into a fan souvenir. It also meant a step back from progress, basically correcting last year's "mistakes" and not featuring much else in the way of game-changing features outside of the hit stick. This also marks the year that one of the most beloved football sims on the planet, NFL 2K5, made its last appearance as Madden gained exclusive rights after this game came out. 2K5 is one of, if not the best football simulations of the 2000's. People STILL play it by manually updating the rosters themselves each year.
Madden 2006 (Donovan McNabb cover)
This entry marks the beginning of the recent swoon of quality Madden games and probably tops the list of most frustrating entries in the series yet. The QB Vision feature was too hard for casual gamers and too inconsistent for hardcore Madden players. The Truck Stick was introduced as well, but unlike QB vision didn't handle realistically (Warrick Dunn trucking 320lb lineman was hilarious). Finally, the debut of the Superstar Mode made for an interesting new "game within the game" but with all of the new features wasn't developed well and got pretty stale after a few playthroughs. All in all, this was an ambitious title that spread itself too thin. Instead of focusing on one thing, the franchise tried doing several things at once, all with varying levels of failure that would need to be corrected in future installments. Or, in the case of QB Vision, eliminated down the road permanently.
Madden 2007 (Shaun Alexander cover)
Finally, a Madden game your kids could enjoy because you couldn't sell beer in franchise mode anymore (but hey, load up on those $12 coffees at Qualcomm Stadium on 90-degree days!) The Truck Stick was reinvented as the highlight stick, which is a key feature in current Madden games. Instead of simply running people over, you could back-step or juke around them. (Well, unless you're Jerome Bettis, in which case you just kind of fall forward no matter what you do). Much like the cover athlete, this game felt too much like "run 3 yards and fall down" as most of the development was spent on the run game (lead blocking feature), while the passing game got the upgrade to hot routes (smart routes) and was sentenced to inglorious death by Vision Cone epic fail. Franchise mode updates were token at best.
Madden 2008 (Vince Young cover)
Much like the cover athlete, who was way better as a Longhorn than he'll ever be as a Titan or Viking or Rough Rider, EA Sports found itself in a dilemma this year when its college football games overtook Madden as far as solid, realistic, enjoyable gameplay goes. NCAA Football was on the upswing while Madden was dropping like Brady Quinn on NFL Draft boards. The improvements to the hit stick, franchise mode and gameplay were a step forward, but nothing that endured for more than a couple seasons. The mini-games in training camp ended up being the funnest part about this game.
Madden 2009 (Brett Favre/Jet Favre covers)
The saving grace for this game was the end of the deplorable QB Vision Cone. Madden IQ was introduced but didn't really do a passable job of evaluating how well you played. The online portion of this game can probably garner a solid rating on its own, since it was the first that let you and 31 of your closest friends or random strangers play through an NFL season online. With the advent of console technology, Madden was discontinued on computers. The Franchise Mode and Superstar Modes got their biggest upgrade in nearly four years.
Madden 10 (Troy Polamalu/Larry Fitzgerald cover)
Madden developers were being pressured to deliver a game that was fun while also remaining true to the original goal of realism for the franchise. Ratings were stripped down so that there were only a handful of elite players and a whole bunch of regular Joes. The franchise mode and superstar mode were basically untouched. The gameplay took a dramatic step forward as more complicated offensive and defensive pre-snap adjustments were implemented. The NCAA Football game suddenly was no longer a testing ground for Madden developers, and as the NCAA game became stronger, it forced Madden developers to correct some awful AI in the games (particularly on defense) so that realism would remain intact. It also marked the downfall of previously-implemented features like "weapons" and got the series back on track. The intro video is incredible (unless you're a Cardinals fan).
Madden 11 (Drew Brees cover)
Far from declaring the franchise perfect, this year's Madden game features a simplified play-calling system, gang tackling, and probably the most realistic running game you'll find this side of Marty Schottenheimer. NCAA and Madden both made significant changes to gameplay and graphics, since the nex-gen systems demanded it. While Franchise Mode is still playable, Superstar mode has barely been touched in the last few years. The game mode with the most attention (and rightly so) has been online--online franchises, online tournaments, and a much fairer match-maker mode for when you just want to run it up like Bill Belichick on some hapless NFC West squad. Building on the realism of Madden 10, Madden 11 measures up graphically as one of the most visually-pleasing games on the market today. However, Madden still has some chinks in the armor, and while developers can never please every single gamer, the last two years have been a positive step forward for a franchise apparently doomed by the combined weight of consumer expectations and an exclusive NFL license.
Picture credit: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1711/we_see_farther__a_history_of_.php?print=1