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?
In conjunction with the cover story, The Best of Madden, I’ve included individual interviews with each of the pros. I asked each pro the same set of questions: Which is the best Madden, which version made the biggest strides? Which ones were the best graphical leaps? Which were the worst Maddens? Was there an “a-ha” moment for you? What is your favorite Visual Concepts football game?
Here is the full interview with Aaron Boulding, analyst and host, ESPN.
Doug Perry: Starting in 1989 on the Apple II, the Madden series has drastically evolved as one of the longest-lasting video game series in the industry’s history. What were a few of the most impressive gameplay advancements you’ve experienced in the series?
Aaron Boulding: The biggest evolution in Madden came with Madden NFL 2005. By this time the game had become one of the most popular competitive head-to-head online games and the designers realized they needed to put some effort into the defensive elements of the game. To put it simply, up until this point playing defense in Madden wasn’t fun because you were at the mercy of your players’ awareness ratings. Defense in Madden was better than defense in say Midway’s Blitz series but that’s not saying much.
The addition of the hit stick, defensive playmaker and other pre-snap options changed Madden for the better forever. Using the right analog stick to deliver a punishing hit or break up a play at a precise moment gave gamers a means of making a play using quick twitch reactions. This is something we’d all been doing for years anyway when we’d wave the controller or suddenly jerk as we sent our digital linebackers into digital running backs. Flicking the stick to inflict some extra hurt may have been a subtle movement but it lead to major drama on your TV screen and that’s all we’d been wanting even if we didn’t know it.
Likewise, being able to adjust what your defenders were going to do before the offense snapped the ball was a big deal because it allowed you to react quickly to some unorthodox or otherwise troublesome looking formation. Rather than relying on audibles –one to stop the run, one to stop short passes and one to stop long passes—you could keep your defense in the same basic shape yet adjust a few players or your coverage just enough to feel better about the upcoming snap. This in turn, made personnel packages more of a chess match. Since you knew you could tweak what your defense was going to do right before the snap, now all you had to worry about was how many defensive backs or linebackers you had on the field.
It gave players on defense plenty to think about finally instead of them sitting there waiting to get the ball back.
Doug: What were a few of the most memorable graphic improvements?
Aaron: Madden NFL 2001 on PS2 changed the look of videogame football forever. Obviously things would get better once high-powered consoles game along, but in 2000 the leap from sprites on PlayStation and N64 to three-dimensional dudes who moved and looked closer to the real thing meant we’d never look back on the bad, old pixilated days.
Doug: Which iteration, in your opinion, is the best overall game in the series? Why? List the year and the platform.
Aaron: 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).
Doug: Create a top five list of Madden games, including the year and system.
Aaron: 1. Madden NFL 92 Genesis (Had ambulances on the field thanks to Randall Cunningham’s brittle ass. 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
Doug: Which Madden version was the worst one you’ve played? Why? Make sure to include the platform.
Aaron: Madden 06 attempted to push the envelope by changing the passing game. The designers wanted player to be more involved in the decision making process that a real NFL quarterback goes though. So the you could only pass to a receiver that a QB was “looking at.” You would look at a receiver by making sure the QB’s vision cone –a highlighted wedge of light extending from the passer’s head like a flashlight beam— was aimed at the desired receiver. An outstanding passer like Tom Brady had a vision cone that basically covered the whole field, while a chump like Rob Johnson’s vision cone was more like one of those laser pointers. The problem with this system is that it didn’t fit with the rest of Madden’s gameplay mechanics. Pass rushing, the timing on your dropbacks, the speed of the receivers didn’t accommodate this new passing system. Since you, the human being, could see a receiver coming open on your TV screen with no problems, it became a pain in the butt to then make the QB “look” at the receiver, thus tipping off the defense, and then fire the pass with the proper velocity and touch. It wasn’t a bad idea, it just couldn’t be properly implemented without changing the entire feel of offense in Madden. Gamers had already invested quite a bit of energy in learning the nuances of Madden since the 2001 edition. The 06 game suffered from a bit of an identity crisis in that it didn’t know if it was just another edition of Madden or a revolution in video game football. A football game has to know what it is.
Doug: What’s your favorite Visual Concepts football game? List platform and year.
Aaron: I like the original NFL 2K. Even with its flaws and the all of the innovation that would come years later, the first game open my eyes because it was as solid and well made as Madden. At that point, EA wasn’t the only kid on the block as far as video game football. The GameDay franchise from 989 Studios was a major player as was Acclaim’s Quarterback Club, even though I could never explain that latter game’s popularity. The idea that yet another NFL licensee could instantly step in and challenge Madden for quality, to say nothing of the tingling sensation everybody had from the then-awesome power of the Dreamcast was mind-blowing in 1999.