Replay Value: 5.5
While I know just how accomplished, polished and authentic the typical Madden installment is, I have never been the biggest fan of uber-simulation. I certainly understand the appeal for those who consider themselves enthusiasts of the sport in question (I’ll be buying Gran Turismo 5 on day one, of course), but when it comes to something like football, I just wanna hit someone. What I really want is little more than a next-gen version of good ol’ Tecmo Bowl and in all honesty, that’s what I expected to get from Madden NFL Arcade. Fast-paced, defying all physics, silly power-ups, and in general, a grin-inducing good time that hearkens back to the golden age of gaming when reflexes, luck, and a wee bit of silliness dominated. Unfortunately, while the foundation is definitely here and it’s something I would’ve been most happy with, EA just doesn’t take the next step. For $15, I anticipated a slightly more robust and complete production…this feels more like a $8 game.
The graphics may be the best part of the game, as they’re colorful, fairly well detailed (especially for a downloadable title) and even whimsical in the design of the players. They will actually remind you of an artistic style found in a game like Kingdom Hearts, with the big upper bodies, spindly legs, and big feet. Sure, the linemen are bigger than the receivers or running backs but for the most part, all players conform to this goofy, appealing design plan. The field looks nice and the special effects are well implemented and can really come to life during instant replays. Zooming in on a dude who just got “frostbit” is always entertaining, for example. Although you may not have noticed, we’ve been seeing a significant increase in the level of visual quality in digital games and Madden NFL Arcade won’t disappoint in this category. The animations are fluid, there are no graphical hitches or glitches to speak of, and while I still think it could’ve used a bit more flash, this palette works.
The sound isn’t quite as good; the clarity of the sound effects can be muddled and the balance always seemed just a touch off. I expected to hear a lot more out of the players on the field; in an arcade-y production like this, wouldn’t you think you’d hear some trash-talking and extra-loud smacks when “Big Hit” is toggled? And how about some over-the-top post-touchdown celebrations? Heck, I see more flamboyant routines in the real NFL on a weekly basis. As I said in the intro, EA just didn’t take that necessary next step and make this game jump off the screen. The lack of a decent soundtrack also hurts because that’s anther element that could’ve really helped: slap a bunch of hard-hitting tracks over the hits going on during gameplay, and suddenly, you get that extra rush of adrenaline. You know what else it could’ve used? Custom music. Oh man, that’d be sweet for something like this. As is, the effects and overall sound are decent but we just needed more clarity and more of…well, everything else.
The gameplay is as simple as simple can be. Even if you select the standard control scheme instead of the arcade setup, you still won’t have much trouble gaining a firm handle on player movement, especially if you’ve played Madden in the past. While this game definitely doesn’t adopt any of the realism found in the standard installments, it does keep parts of the momentum/motion mechanic we’ve become familiar with, and the buttons are relatively accessible. You can execute a power move with the X button when running with the ball, and that same X button can be used to lay a Big Hit on the ball carrier when you’re on defense. Circle spins on offense or switches the chosen player on defense, Triangle catches or swats a ball down, Square jukes, etc, etc, etc. There’s nothing here that will really take you by surprise, and of course, that’s the point. You’re just supposed to dive right in and have fun.
And you will have fun, at least for a while. The gameplay is appropriately fast-paced, you are rewarded for becoming a master of the controls, and the Game Changers (power-ups) perform their job admirably; they can be the bringer of positive hilarity or crushing defeat. That’s the mark of a good arcade-style game; when the momentum can change on a dime and when once you were steamrolling, you’re now back on your heels. It also helps that EA decided to adopt entirely new rules; these are more like what you’d make up when playing in the back yard: you’ve got four downs, but you need to score a touchdown within those four downs…there’s no such thing as a first down, nor are there any field goals (extra points can be tacked on automatically). The field is only 60 yards long to accommodate this rule and there’s no time limit; the first team to reach 30 points wins, although you can change the point total in the options menu. You can also change where you start with the ball and the difficulty level.
The Game Changers are power-ups that are randomly assigned at the start of each play. Sometimes you’ll get nothing but if you get one, it can be used simply by pressing the L1 button on offense or defense. There are around 20 Game Changers, and they range from turbo and molasses (super slow, obviously) to more exotic upgrades, like Entourage (extra guys on the line), Fumbleitis (guess), and Ball is Alive (any ball that hits the ground, even from an incomplete pass, is considered a fumble). You can freeze guys in place with Frostbite or send out the Triple Threat on offense when decoy receivers head out to distract defenders. Man, you’ve even got a Game Changer that actually flips the score! Be careful not to use it if you’re leading, though… You feel real stupid when that happens. All of this is fun and works quite well, although you won’t be able to recognize all the power-ups by their pictures when they first show up.
So far, no problems. But now, the biggest issue of all- when I spoke before about the “incomplete” feeling, what I mean is that despite the intended goal of the game, everything still feels very tame. The Game Changers don’t pop up anywhere near often enough – I would go seven or eight plays in a row without seeing one – and without them, the entire game just downshifts into a fairly standard albeit semi-entertaining football title. I also have a couple small complaints with the gameplay itself. Firstly, it seems almost impossible to get to the QB unless you blitz all the time (horrible idea) and secondly, catching a ball is usually best left to the AI. You can press triangle to catch but like in most games of this franchise, that’s just too erratic for me. Lastly and most important is the fact that there is no Tournament mode of any kind; there’s only the Play Now option where you just play through a quick game. That’s it. You can go online if you wish but it’s basically the same deal.
This is where the game loses me. Without a Tournament or some sort of mode that would make one player continue to play for longer than 15 minutes at a time, one quickly grows tired of the game. This is why I couldn’t play Hot Shots Tennis, as much as I wanted to. Plus, they could’ve made each game more chaotic and involving by giving us way more Game Changers; hell, those things should’ve been available on almost every down, as far as I’m concerned. As is, all the plays are already set, the receivers do just about the same thing all the time for every team, and with only “Run, Short Pass, Medium Pass, and Long Pass” available, things get old quick. I understand the need to simplify things but they went a touch too far, and didn’t amp up the craziness and zaniness enough to compensate. And with no tournament mode of any kind – even Madden ‘93 on my SNES had a Playoff option – I just can’t say it’s worth $15 for one person. I guess if you plan to play it online a lot, maybe…
But the bottom line is that Madden NFL Arcade has a great deal going for it and they did almost everything right; they just didn’t follow through and make it a worthy, over-the-top arcade experience.