The Madden series is one of the longest-running, most beloved and regularly most infuriating franchises in gaming history.
It first hit the world in a recognisable action-packed football simulation form back in 1990, but it was John Madden Football ’93 that really set the bar. Back then it dazzled gamers with its fluid, full-colour, dramatic graphics, fast gameplay and deep range of plays, controls and options.
Zoom forward 20 seasons, and Madden appears to have come a long way. Having long ago made the jump to full 3D, its graphics have never been richer or more detailed. The depth of gameplay has never been more impressive, and its new Infinity Engine means no tackle is the same.
But is it better? We went back to try out both Madden 93 (Snes version) and Madden 13 (Xbox 260) to see which game is truly the more enjoyable gridiron experience.
1st QUARTER: GRAPHICS
To start with the obvious, 20 years is a long time. There is simply no comparison in graphical terms between the two games.
Yes, it is easy to look back with misty eyes at the days of pixelated, generic players with comedic animations. And there really is a charming feel to the early game, even now. It is also arguably easier to see what's going on. Since the players are smaller and simpler, it's less difficult for new players to read the pitch - and easier for experienced pros to make precise, repeatable passes.
Above: Madden 93
And yes, the new Madden is not without flaws. The Infinity Engine adds a physicality not seen before in the game, but it also leads to new graphical quirks. Players are often sprawled on the floor for up to five seconds after plays, making them look either injured or dead. The camera often stutters, the crowd is still a generic cast of five or six identikit fans, the walking animations are awkward and stilted, and players still walk straight through referees.
But for eeking out the very last drops of graphical power from an ageing generation of consoles, the new Madden is a real graphical achievement. The level of detail from helmet decals to the grass is baffling. The use of focus is key to creating a ‘broadcast’ feel, and the fluidity of in-game animations is visibly better than before - plus you sense that as soon as it makes it to the next gen of consoles, Madden will instantly yet another giant step forward. We can’t wait.
SCORE: Madden 13 [ 14 - 3 ] Madden 93
Above: Madden 13
2ND QUARTER: Detail
As with the graphics, it’s hard to give Madden 93 an easy ride here just for the sake of nostalgia. The new game has a massive and extensive range of statistics, rosters, photos, individual players and playbooks. In career mode it even includes fake Twitter feeds to keep you abreast of the ‘news’ in your league. It’s a daunting title, and it also updates itself as the season progresses.
Meanwhile the old game doesn’t even have the official team, player or stadium names, meaning that New York Jets fans have to pay as New Jersey just to wear the green and white. It did make some leaps over the 92 version, admittedly, including adding a few new teams and the coin toss for the first time. But it’s another tough quarter for the veterans.
SCORE Madden 13 [21 - 6 ] Madden 93
Above: The Madden 93 Options Screen
3RD QUARTER: Single And Multiplayer Game Modes
Madden 93 has a pretty restrictive list of modes, including a regular exhibition game, a playoff campaign and an all-time-greats playoff competition. Still, the lack of modes does give the game focus. Yes, a full season mode seems like an obvious missing feature, but since the consoles of the time didn’t have a save-game capacity or (obviously) online multiplayer, that's understandable.
In breadth and detail, Madden 13 wipes the floor with the old title. It comes with a frankly baffling range of single-player and online gameplay modes, most of which introduce new depth and story-telling to the experience of make-believe football.
You can play in Connected Career mode as either a player (existing, legend or your own creation) or as a coach, making every relevant decision for your franchise. It turns an NFL season into a fully-fledged RPG, and while it’s better online with friends it’s also a very comprehensive single-player experience.
But - and it’s a big but - if you’re a a single player who wants to just play Madden and not all the fluff around the main game, there is bafflingly no simple ‘season’ or even playoff mode. You can play an exhibition game, and that’s it. Unless you want to go through the massive time commitment of a Connected Career, you actually have less options than in Madden 93. Which is, needless to say, a massive fumble.
SCORE Madden 13 [24 - 16 ] Madden 93
4TH QUARTER: Gameplay
Madden 93 is a simple, quick and ridiculously fun game to play. Thanks to the simple nature of console games (and gamepads) at the time, the moves your players can make are limited, but do include things like spins, dives and power tackles. The range of plays is also more restrictive, but audibles, hurry-up offense and a variety of different formations and options are present and correct.
Basically, the game works - and has stood the test of time - because it is simple, and fun. As all games should be. And, most importantly, it’s fast. You don’t have to sit through endless replays, cut-scenes and commentary chat to get to your next play, and the gulf between good and bad players isn’t as obvious or vast as it is now. Unlike in Madden 13, where a rookie will be undone by simply not knowing the right combinations, play modifiers and options to press, in Madden 93 it’s pretty obvious what you have to do at any one moment. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it - the game isn’t easy - but you’ll know why and you’ll enjoy doing it.
That’s not to say Madden 13 isn’t a fun game - it is. If you just want to bash through a quick game letting Madden pick your plays, you can, and the Infinity Engine means it’s much more brutal, physical and, yes, ‘real’, than before. But it’s hard for the new game to match the old title’s precise, pixel-by-pixel simplicity.
Yes, it’s a question of personal preference - but for pure playability Madden 93 is the better game. Not because Madden 13 is bad, but because the classic game is still so damn good.
FINAL SCORE Madden 13 [31 - 31 ] Madden 93
The Madden franchise is ultimately a brilliant but frustrating one, for exactly the same reason as any other sports game, from FIFA to Formula 1.
Why? Because, surely, it shouldn’t be this hard.
Sports, at their heart, are predictable, rational games. The rules are set, the boundaries are clear, the actors are known and even the uncertainties - the bounce of a ball, the specific flailing crunch of a tackle - seem as though they are governed by logic. A video game should be able to capture those certainties with ease - shouldn’t it? Unlike video games set in the chaos of war or the urgency of a living city, a sports game should be doable by now. We should have got there.
But - and it’s a biggie - the tragedy of sports, and the reason we still make and buy new sports games, is that, in reality, sports aren’t simple.
And they aren’t games.
They are interesting precisely because they aren’t predictable. They are infinitely complex. They are primarily human dramas that only appear to be played out in a logical way. It’s a cliche, but the least interesting thing about sport is the sport.
What keeps us interested are loyalties, stories, emotions and our own empathy. The variables within those expanded boundaries are endless - and the details are too many to (currently) capture in a simulation. The Connected Careers mode in the new game comes quite close - but it's too mechanical to be truly engaging.
Take gridiron itself: as a sport it is as thoughtless as war. But it is also as intricate as a chess match played on a mountaintop, with pageantry as colourful and emotive as the Palios of medieval Sienna. It is the most brutal, specialised and aggressive sport in the world, and - most importantly of all - it is played, like all the best dramas, by complex, flawed characters whose stories are deeper than they appear in the 60 minutes a week spent on the pitch.
Football played by robots would not be football.
As a result, neither Madden 93 nor Madden 13 capture the sport in a truly satisfying way. Games just aren’t there yet. Our graphics aren’t real enough, our ability to create atmosphere in a digital stadium is still rudimentary, and we still aren’t able to put the human-ness of sport first in a video game, instead of layering it on top.
For that reason, neither Madden game is a complete success. The old title is great - probably better, in fact - for a quick, intense game with friends. The new game can’t be matched for detail and drama, and in comparison the graphical leap is astonishing.
But while Madden still means American Football when it comes to games, for now that’s all it is. And maybe all it will ever be.