The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or Super NES, or SNES) will be celebrating its 25-year anniversary here in the United States this month, so this is as good a time as any to take a look at the first football that we early adopters got for our new consoles: John Madden Football.
It’s important to remember that this was the only football game that Super NES owners had for the rest of 1991. Super Play Action Football, Capcom’s MVP Football, and Pro Quarterback didn’t arrive until 1992, while Tecmo Super Bowl and Super High Impact came out in 1993. Back then, this was all we had… and, to quote the Grumpy Old Man: “…and we liked it!”
Playing John Madden Football 25 years later, though, was a rough exercise. Some of the missing features can be excused, but there are some technical issues that are simply too difficult to overlook… and made me wonder how I could have possibly enjoyed this game back then.
First of all, there are some positives in John Madden Football to mention. The sampled voices and grunts on the field are pretty well done. The music is decent, too, although it’s not going to stick in your head like music from other football games. There is a playoff mode, which is a randomly bracketed group of teams, and a password feature saves progress so that players don’t have to play all of the playoff games in one sitting. For those who just want a quick game, either against the CPU or against a friend, that’s easy to set up and allows for various settings for time per quarter, the type of surface to play on, and the weather conditions. Finally, during halftime and the end of the game, it’s possible to see “highlights” from other close games that are going on concurrently with the one being played. It’s a nice touch that future EASN/EA Sports games would continue to use.
Things go downhill from there, unfortunately.
John Madden Football has neither an NFL nor an NFLPA license. This means that there are generic teams that are centered in NFL cities. The team colors reflect the franchises they represent, but that’s about it. There are no player numbers, either; this means that players can’t really know who’s who unless they are quite familiar with the team rosters and on which grouping (hands, fast, normal, big) the players would be on. On the plus side, this emphasizes “team”, since there aren’t any individuals represented, but that’s kind of a stretch.
Since there aren’t any individuals in John Madden Football, there aren’t any individual stats. The only stats that are shown occur during halftime and at the end of the game, and they’re very basic team statistics. For whatever reason, the game counts :00 as one second elapsed; this means that the total Time of Possession (TOP) stat will end in :04 for a four-quarter game. Turnovers are too general and don’t reflect interceptions versus fumbles, and both are in the game.
Instant replay is also inexplicably absent here. Players (including myself) take instant replay for granted these days, but it’s sorely missed in this game. As an example, during my time playing the game, I picked a pass off after a deflection and ran it in for six. I wanted to look at the play again to see how I caught it, but the only option available when pressing the Start button was to call a time out. To be fair, since it was the first Super NES football game, instant replay wasn’t an expectation yet; however, it’s hard not to call this out after playing the game again.
Easily the biggest problem that John Madden Football presents– and what makes it exceptionally difficult to play– is the atrociously low frame rate. This game makes Star Fox and Stunt Race FX seem like they’re silky-smooth games, by comparison. Once all of the players on the field are moving around, the frame rate drops to between 10 and 20 frames per second. This makes player momentum almost impossible to detect. Linebackers or defensive ends can have the opposing quarterback lined up for a sack, but timing when to dive forward or when to cut in toward the QB is like threading a needle at 75 feet away. As some players move off-screen, momentum is restored to players– usually in the secondary– but this causes player-controlled defensive backs to over-pursue on misfired passes or fail to line up properly with a wide receiver or tight end to make plays on accurate passes.
On offense, it’s not much better. Running plays tend to be more successful (Hint: HB Toss Left is a slam dunk for San Francisco), as defensive players often ricochet off of running backs– especially if they execute spin moves or are accelerating forward. That said, it’s too easy for players to gain momentum and run out of bounds as they turn the corner. The passing game is made somewhat easier through the use of passing windows, so that players can see how open their receivers are. It will take some practice to learn how the receivers cut for each play, as well as whether to hold the appropriate button down (for a bullet pass) or to lightly tap for a lob. In my case, for the last three games of the playoffs, I exclusively selected HB Toss Left. I didn’t throw a single pass and still won by more than 30 points each game.
It’s a shame about the frame rate issue being so detrimental to John Madden Football, because it would play decently otherwise. Despite being a football sim at heart, the play controls are fairly easy to learn and the difficulty is based on which team you select. If a player picks a powerhouse, the game is pretty easy. If a weak team is picked, the challenge will be higher. The plays make sense, and, with practice, anyone can grasp the basics and put up some points on offense. The CPU can put up a decent challenge, and occasionally goes for it on fourth down when players may least expect it. This can lead to taking surprise time outs and having to recalibrate defensive strategy.
Back in 1991, John Madden Football was the only pigskin offering for the Super NES, but it’s clear that the game’s development team, Park Place Productions, was still figuring out the hardware. Park Place would get another shot at football on the Super NES, as it developed Konami’s NFL Football (1993), a game that will be discussed here on the site at a later time. Later Madden releases were pulled away from Park Place and did improve, although it took a couple of years for EA Sports developers and contracted development teams to get a grip on the Super NES and produce better-quality games. Starting with Madden NFL ’94 (1993), the gap between the Super NES and the SEGA Genesis began to shrink a bit… but until then, the Genesis was clearly the front-runner– not just in football video games, but sports video games, in general.
As of this writing, PriceCharting indicates that a loose John Madden Football cartridge goes for about $2.75 (USD), while a complete-in-box game is valued at about $9.00. If you’re interested in playing the game for yourself, the cost of entry isn’t that high– but be warned, it’s a very rough game of football with very few bells and whistles. You’ll get to experience football as many of us did a quarter of a century ago, and maybe even appreciate how far we’ve come since then. I don’t recommend this game, though; for better Madden experiences on the Super NES, keep an eye open for Madden NFL ’94 or Madden NFL ’95.