In light of sports commentator John Madden’s retirement from the booth, coupled with the summer release of Madden NFL 10, a sudden overwhelming feeling made me stop and think: Which Madden rules over the rest?
The question is subjective in nature. There is no empiric evidence that points to a clear winner during the last 21 years of EA’s Madden series. The question itself might even be considered questionable –Does there have to be a best Madden? And, who cares?
Sports fans do. They rank and compare the numbers on everything. Given the series’ immense history, EA’s annual output of a new Madden, and the series’ evolution from 1989 to the upcoming Madden NFL 10–an evolution that itself is an insight into the video game industry–delving into the series makes a lot of sense.
But if there isn’t a single “best” Madden, which ones stand out from the pack? There are Madden games that have risen above the rest in each era, from the 16-bit Genesis games to the knockout 2000 PS2 launch title. Which ones stood out graphically? (What about them virtual polygons?) Which made the biggest tech leaps? Which ones failed?
I’ve interviewed Madden specialists, including a handful of select journalists, each of whom has followed, played, and reviewed the series (and many other football games) for more than a decade. I’ve interviewed a Madden competitor, a guy who’s appeared on Madden Nation and who runs a Madden fan site. I’ve included interviews with Tiburon’s producers to get a deeper look at the series from the inside. And I’ve included an interview with a former Visual Concepts producer and designer.
These folks include ESPN host and analyst Aaron Boulding, Game Informer’s sports experts Matt Bertz and Matthew Kato, and former long-term EGM sports writer (and current Insomniac community manager) Bryan Intihar. I also grabbed some time with EA’s Steve Chiang, senior vice president and group GM of Tiburon Studio, and Jeremy Strauser, Tiburon’s executive producer, each of whom have helmed the series through countless iterations. For a counter-point to EA, Dave Zdyrko, I spoke with former gameplay producer/designer at Visual Concepts and current lead designer at Quick Hit, Inc. And finally, we spoke with Raymond “Shopmaster” Goode. He was a contestant on Madden Nation (the TV show) and runs the fan sites Maddenwars.com, MyMaddenPad.com.
THE PROS’ ANSWERS
In email interviews with the aforementioned group, I asked the same set of questions, which is the best overall Madden game in the series? What is your top five list of Madden games? Which made the biggest improvements graphically? Which versions made the biggest gameplay advancements? Which was the worst version? And which gave you your first “a-ha!” moment? For the purposes of this article, I pared down their answers to their favorite game, plus their top five all-time favorites. For the full set of individual interviews, click on the names of each contributor.
Which Madden games made the pro’s top choices?
Aaron Boulding (ESPN): Madden NFL 92 (Genesis: until Madden NFL 10)
“With the exception of Madden ’06, which was an insult to video game football fans everywhere, the best version is always the most recent version,” explains Boulding. “All of the lessons, mistakes, improvements, enhancements and innovations of previous games are put to good use in the game that’s out right now. Even bad ideas like the quarterback vision cone (Madden 06) went to a halfway house in subsequent editions of the game before being banished forever (Madden NFL 10).”
Boulding’s Top Five
1. Madden NFL 92 (“Genesis: It had ambulances on the field thanks to Randall Cunningham’s brittle ass,” said Boulding. “JJ Birden and Neal Anderson were unstoppable.”)
2. Madden NFL 2005 (Xbox)
3. Madden NFL 09 (Xbox 360)
4. Madden NFL 08 (Xbox 360)
5. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)
Matt Bertz (Game Informer): Madden 99 on Nintendo 64
“‘Best overall game’ is a tricky term when you’re talking about an evolving series,” said Bertz. “One the one hand you have to go with the latest version, which features most of the gameplay improvements and innovations that made the game great over the last two decades. But if you use the term ‘best overall game’ to point toward the version that introduced the most innovative ideas I would have to go with Madden 99 for the N64. I think the debut of the franchise mode is the pinnacle achievement in the series history, and Madden 99 also marked the series transition to 3D and motion-captured animations.”
Bertz’s Top Five
1. Madden 99 (N64)
2. Madden 04 (PS2)
3. Madden 94 (Genesis)
4. Madden 01 (PC)
5. Madden 95 (Genesis)
Matthew Kato (Game Informer): Madden ‘06 for the PS2
“Madden ’06 had QB vision, Superstar mode (where you get to control one player on and off the field), and was a fast-playing title that had honed some of the series problems through the years,” said Kato.
Kato’s Top Five
1. Madden ‘06 (PS2)
2. Madden ‘04 (PS2)
3. Madden ‘94 (Genesis)
4. Madden ‘99 (PS)
5. Madden ‘96 (Genesis)
Bryan Intihar (Insomniac): Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)
“Even though the later PS2/XB/GC iterations continually improved gameplay, Madden NFL 2001 (PS2) will go down as my personal favorite,” said Intihar. “I’ve already commented on the visuals, but it was one of the first sports games that really started concentrating on the subtleties. No matter which NFL team you were a fan of, you knew the players—from their body proportions to extra gear—were going to be unbelievably accurate.”
Intihar’s Top Five:
1. Madden NFL 01 (PS2)
2. Madden 92 (Genesis)
3. Madden NFL 05 (PS2/Xbox)
4. Madden 93 (Genesis)
5. Madden NFL 08 (Xbox 360)
Dave Zdyrko (former producer/designer, Visual Concepts): Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)
“I wouldn’t necessarily call them the best, but my fondest memories are with Madden ’98 for the Sony PlayStation and Madden ’94 for the Sega Genesis,” said Zdyrko. “My level of enjoyment with Madden typically came from playing with my boys and these two versions happened to garnish some of my all-time Madden moments.”
Zdyrko’s Top Five
1. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)
2. Madden NFL ’98 (PS)
3. Madden NFL ’94 (Genesis)
4. Madden NFL ’93 (Genesis)
5. Madden NFL ’08 (Xbox)
Steve Chiang (Tiburon): Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)
“Excluding current PS3/Xbox 360/Wii, Madden NFL 2004 for the PS2 with Michael Vick on the cover was a great one,” said Chiang. “We had an awesome feature set with Playmaker control, Owner Mode, and things like the EA SPORTS Bio, which was an EA SPORTS version of the Xbox 360 achievement system… we tracked achievements for all of your EA SPORTS titles.”
Chiang’s Top Five:
1. Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)
2. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2: it took the franchise to the next level)
3. Madden NFL ’96 (Super NES: first football game made by Tiburon)
4. Madden NFL ’97 (PS: first 32-bit football game, and when Tiburon took over future versions of the game)
5. Madden NFL ’99 (first version with Franchise mode)
Jeremy Strauser (Tiburon): Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)
“This is a tough question,” pondered Strauser. “It is like asking to pick our favorite child. If forced to pick just one, I would have to say Madden NFL 2004 for the PS2 and Xbox would be it. The graphical and gameplay engine were in its fourth year, which is about what it takes to reach peak capability, online play was going strong, we had a solid base feature set and then added two huge things in Playmaker Control and Owner Mode. Madden NFL 10 has the potential to be that version for our current generation of engines.”
Strauser’s Top Five: 1. Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)
2. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2: this launched Madden into a new level)
3. Madden NFL 09 (Xbox 360/PS3: Amazing graphical engine, feature set filled out nicely)
4. Madden NFL 96 (Sega Genesis: My first credited Madden game, for purely sentimental reasons)
5. Madden 93 Championship Edition (Sega Genesis: classical best gameplay, top historical teams, cool and rare cartridge)
Raymond “Shopmaster” Goode (Maddenwars.com): Madden 06 on PS2
“I would have to say that last year’s Madden 09 for the XBOX 360 was one of the best Madden game in the series,” said Goode. “Madden 09 had made so many strides from 08 that it was hard not to like the game. Running a close second has to be Madden 06 for the PS2. Madden 06 with McNabb on the cover was a very good game also because it introduced the vision cone, which was a good in my opinion but wasn’t as well received by the community.”
Goode’s Top Five
1. Madden 06 (PS2)
2. Madden 05 (PS2)
3. Madden 09 (Xbox 360)
4. Madden 03 (PS2)
5. Madden 92 (Sega Genesis)
The Pro Winners: It’s a three-way tie between Madden NFL 06 (PS2), Madden NFL 2001 (PS2), Madden NFL 2004 (PS2).
THE AGGREGATE SCORES
While aggregation sites like Metacritic.com don’t always accurately reflect media outlet scores, they do a good job of providing a baseline average. The best average score on MetaCritic is Madden NFL 2003 (with Rams running back Marshall Faulk on the cover) for PlayStation 2, with a 95 overall ranking and which collected 10 perfect scores.
Tied for second place are Madden NFL 2002 (with Daunte Culpepper) and Madden NFL 2004 (with Michael Vick) on PS2, both of which scored an average of 94, the latter of which collected 11 perfect scores from media outlets.
GameRankings.com‘s top accumulated Madden review is Madden NFL 2004 on PS2 (91.75%). It is followed by Madden NFL 2002 on PS2 (91.66%), Madden NFL 2004 on GameCube (91.54%), Madden NFL 2003 on PS2 (91.40%), and Madden NFL ’96 on the Sega Genesis (91.25%). These are all aggregated scores from select media outlets.
Metacritic.com “winner”: Madden NFL 2003
GameRankings “winner”: Madden NFL 2004
MADDEN BY THE NUMBERS
Publishers use NPD’s TRSTS data to track unit sales in North America. Sales numbers help publishers determine whether to create a sequel. For Madden, that’s not really an issue, since there is always a sequel! Sales numbers aren’t good, however, for determining which games are best. If quality was equal to quantity than Britney Spears (a Mousekateer) would be a talented goddess of dance and song, instead of a popular pop singer who stole all Janet Jackson’s dance moves.
Sticking a wrench in evaluating sales numbers is the fact that newly launched consoles have poor installed bases. When the Xbox 360 arrived in fall 2005, EA could only sell as many Maddens as there were consoles in homes, and that’s assuming that every single Xbox 360 owner bought Madden NFL 06 (which they didn’t). To make up for early systems, EA also made Madden on existing systems (PS2, GameCube, Xbox, PSP, etc.), which is why the numbers (below) look they way they do. Also remember that Madden NFL 07 arrived in summer 2006, and it probably sold more units on PS2 than on Xbox 360.
Still, looking at Madden’s best selling games helps us determine the most popular Madden games in the public’s eye. The best selling Madden titles in North America across all SKUs (systems) are:
1. Madden NFL 07
2. Madden NFL 08
3. Madden NFL 09
4. Madden NFL 06
5. Madden NFL 2004
Some other interesting facts–according to NPD, year to date:
–Madden NFL 09 is the third highest selling title across all SKUs combined
–Madden NFL 09 is the fourth highest selling Xbox 360 title
–Madden NFL 09 is the second highest selling PS3 title
–Madden NFL 09 is the fourth highest grossing title across all SKUs combined
–Madden NFL 09 is the fifth highest grossing Xbox 360 title
–Madden NFL 09 is the second highest grossing PS3 title
Sales “Winner”: Madden NFL 07
MAKING SENSE OF MADDEN
The Madden NFL franchise is a remarkable series in the history of video games. It’s popular; very, very popular. It’s developed an incredible brand name; many gamers know “Madden” first as a game, second as an announcer. It’s not always the best football series, as early versions of GameDay and a handful of NFL 2K versions have shown. “Madden ’06…was an insult to video game football fans everywhere,” Boulding explains.
Furthermore, many gamers see EA’s exclusive NFL licensing as a negative. “Whether it was Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Gameday, or the 2K series, competition has always made Madden better,” says Bertz. “A rivalry-based league like the NFL should realize that competition breeds success, and I hope they lift the exclusivity agreement when the option presents itself.”
But since 1989, EA has cranked out a new Madden game each year, every new version full of new feature sets, improved gameplay and production values. “I think the series usually does a good job of trying to including things–like franchise innovations, superstar mode, QB Vision –that go beyond just being a yearly sports title that non-sports fans thinks is just churned out with new rosters,” says Kato.
To wit, Madden NFL 09’s player IQ feature is one of the more intriguinig features in years because it’s useful for both new and veteran players: it teaches players where they messed up and how to improve their game. The improvement to the game’s online functionality, added leagues, and Tiburon’s constant focus on improving player control push the series each year to a potentially better game.
By looking at sales numbers, aggregate scores, and the pro picks, there was no clear winner. If any game surfaced to the top, Madden NFL 2004 was among the bigger favorites. Can Madden NFL 10 top them all?
Perhaps Boulding put it best. “With the exception of Madden ’06, which was an insult to video game football fans everywhere, the best version is always the most recent version. All of the lessons, mistakes, improvements, enhancements and innovations of previous games are put to good use in the game that’s out right now. Even bad ideas like the quarterback vision cone (Madden 06) went to a halfway house in subsequent editions of the game before being banished forever (Madden NFL 10).”
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Let me know what your favorite Madden games are (and include your top fives).