(Author’s Note: Being the sports honk that I am, I do plan to add more sports games to the JGR library. However, in terms of sports series, such as Madden or NBA Live, I will probably just pick one to review out of the group unless there’s a good reason, like a major change in the engine or something along those lines…otherwise, I’d be wasting 1,200 words at a time on a roster update, and nobody really wants that.)
By 1997, EA Sports and their Madden franchise was beginning to pull away as the dominant name in video game football; Tecmo Bowl was finished, Blitz was just reaching arcades, Gameday…well…Gameday sucked, and there was no 2K series because it was not yet 2K. And with the advent of the Nintendo 64, EA had a shiny new system to bring Madden onto, and it was critical to come out with momentum, and in late October of ’97, they released Madden Football 64.
Except, somewhere along the way, in EA’s zeal to create the first N64 iteration of their pigskin juggernaut, they forgot something. The more eagle-eyed of our readers may have noticed the full title of this game is Madden Football 64, not Madden NFL ’98 or Madden NFL 64. There is a reason for this. EA somehow, for whatever reason, did not get the NFL license for this version (ironic given that EA now has the EXCLUSIVE NFL license, and strange because this same year’s Super Nintendo offering was Madden NFL ’98).
In short, that means that all the uniforms look like parks and rec league unis, you’ll be playing in the EA Sports Championship instead of the Super Bowl, and the names of teams are changed to the city they play in, so the Minnesota Vikings become Minneapolis, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers become Tampa, and the New England Patriots become Foxboro…yeah, I didn’t know that the NFL owned the rights to the phrase “New England” either. It sucks, to be sure, but at least they didn’t jigger with the teams’ colors, and the NFLPA license is there, so all the players are in the game, so it shouldn’t be a COMPLETE dealbreaker.
Aside from the 30 non-infringing contemporary teams, there is a metric crapload of classic and secret teams available, so if you wanted to matchup say, the ’72 Dolphins and the ’85 Bears, feel free. There’s also a pretty solid range of modes to keep you busy. Franchise Mode wouldn’t come into being until next year, so you can really only play one season, but there’s also a custom season mode where you can arrange conferences and divisions however you like, and even plug in those classic and secret teams. There’s a tournament mode for 8 or 16 teams, and a fantasy draft mode where you and up to 7 other players can pick teams and battle it out round-robin style. If you had this game in college or otherwise had a half-dozen like-minded friends, I could definitely see this being the most fun, especially with the ridiculous team names you get to choose from (AARDVARKS! HEDGEHOGS! Win or go home!).
But, all the options and modes are meant to be syrup on the gameplay waffles, right? Well, even more than the lack of the NFL license, the gameplay is the biggest disappointment here. Running the ball is damn nigh useless, except at the goal line, where a QB suddenly develops the ability to Superman dive over everyone and score automatically. Play action passes don’t work because the animation doesn’t quite match up and the quarterback will fake handing the ball off to an empty space next to him. Only the best passers in the game are even remotely accurate enough to try to dink and dunk the ball upfield with quick passes, so by default, your best option for consistently moving the rock is to just huck it deep, take control of the receiver yourself, and win the jump for it. Every. Time. I played more than my share of this game as a kid, and despite my knowledge of football being decidedly more intricate and refined at age 25 than at age 8, I still couldn’t find a better way to score or a way to stop it. There’s no juke move, the spin move is ineffective (and looks…bizarre), and the speed burst lasts about two steps and doesn’t give you enough speed to turn big gains into touchdowns without getting caught from behind.
To its credit, everything runs smoothly and looks fine (although moreso in screenshots than in motion). Some of the animations, especially blocking and catching, look more than a bit silly, and tackling is basically two sprites running into each other. All of the stadiums are rather well done, but the endzones all look the same and the EA Sports logo is plastered at midfield. Sound is decent as well; the commentary is handled by Pat Summerall on play-by-play and John Madden spouting cliched nonsense. Collisions between players portray the clacking of pads and physical impact well, and little touches like the “DE-FENSE” chant on third downs and the occasional rumble of thunder during rain games are implemented nicely.
My only real complaints with the sound are that there is a glitch of sorts that makes the crowd noise disappear entirely at times, and that the only music in the game is the god-awful tune that plays over every menu screen. It is the kind of generic, squelchy-guitar dreck you would expect to find on a commercial for a low-budget regional sports channel or a terrible pregame studio show.
Overall, Madden 64 isn’t a terrible game, but it is certainly below-average. What ultimately sank it, though, was the competition; around this same time, Acclaim released NFL Quarterback Club ’98, which featured the complete NFL license and high-res graphics, and this game couldn’t compete. However, it’s not a horrible first effort on a new console, and at least EA would learn from its early mistakes.
Easy to play, runs smoothly, tons of modes and options.
The 8-Year-Old Kid’s offense is the only one that works, saving anything requires an ENTIRE Controller Pak, and for God’s sake, nobody wants to play as “Nashville” or “Phoenix”.