Madden 97 – Finding sporting purity in America’s brashest hobby

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By Neil Merrett

Madden NFL 97, released in 1996 on Sony Playstation, developed by Electronic Arts

Even to a videogamer, with their love of complex rules and lore, real world sports can be a hard thing to get your head around and care about.  This is especially the case when the alternative digital pursuits offered in videogames are potentially limitless in terms of scope, design and simulated physics.

Rocket League for example, lets an individual engage in a football-esque futuristic sport played in stunt cars that are also kitted out with rocket boosters.

Why would anyone want to settle for a version of the same game played just on human legs and without the inclusion of wheels and pyrotechnics?

Yet millions of people all over the world love real life genuine sports for both simple and complex reasons that make producing video game iterations, such as the perennial football simulation FIFA, extremely popular and profitable.

After all, even the most rudimentary of sports sims allows die-hard fans to rewrite painful personal sporting histories or to live the dream of becoming a world champion after some epic, deeply personal struggle from the comfort of their living room.

Videogames as a time sink do have a strange benefit of serving as a kind of shop window for a sport that a player may normally have little interest or option to play or engage in.

Yet selling a sport to the uninterested or uninitiated can be hard at the best of times.  This is doubly the case when it is another culture’s seemingly unfathomable sport.

American Football, or Gridiron as it is also called, is a highly strategic and tactical way of getting a ball from one end of a pitch to another.  It is a sport that for many foreigners, as well as US citizens, borders on being esoteric in nature.

There are entirely different squads in the same team for defence and attacking, while the sport’s myriad rules, in some cases, actively encourage faking, hoodwinking and the use of secret codes and plays to beat the assembled horde of opponents that are charged with putting the player on the ground.

This very American sport is oddly suited for being digitised and reimagined as a videogame.

Removing the endless advertising breaks and condensing down the strategising and stop and start nature of Gridiron to its optional bare minimum, American football videogames are a somewhat pure, if not the purist distillation of the spirit of the sport itself.

Whether catching a seemingly impossible long throw while avoiding a swarm of opposing enemies looking to flatten and crush you, or firing off a pitch perfect kick to grab some desperate last minute points – it all makes a strongly compelling videogame, especially with several friends adding to the chaos and confusion.

In early videogame iterations of the sport, such as John Madden Football on the Amiga, the huge number of in game options were complicatedly split across a limited number of buttons on the controller or joystick. This threatened to remove some of that authentic panic of how best to dispatch a ball in a matter of seconds to any number of different players as a number of enemy hulks threaten to flatten you.

By the time the PlayStation console and its its eight action-button controller had become a reality, the John Madden Football series – now renamed Madden NFL to get that all important official licence – could capture and recreate the whip sharp reactions required of the star Quaterback player with a simple touch.

The quarterback is a role built into both modern American iconography and management speak to capture the essence of the heroic leader standing above the rest.

At the touch of a button, Madden 96 allowed the player to attempt an audacious 60 yard throw to some far off player, or seek to speed or crawl through a throng of opponents to desperately get a few more yards forward to gain another shot of glory or an all-important touch down.  Between the endless stats and drop down menus, there is real drama in Gridiron and videogames are a great way of conveying that.

A player can love or hate the gaudy show and spectacle of one of the US’ brashest sports, but they can still admire the structure of a game that mythologises the one last desperate all or nothing throw or move.

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Graphically, Madden 96, the first title in the series to appear on the 32-bit era of consoles, is dated and the gameplay sluggish.  Yet under the hood, thousands of miles from its target audience, it showed off something wonderful and pure about the source material.

EA’s ongoing mission decades later to painstakingly monetise every aspect of an already lucrative number of licensed sport games that aim to capture the world’s most popular pastimes, threatens to undermine the positive impact games can have to capture and inform a wider public about the pure fun of sport.  Well all except giving that important component of exercise.

But whether seeking to digitise gridiron, skateboarding, or even more obscure winter pursuits such as curling, videogames capture something wonderful about the real life games we both love or ignore.

This appeal will doubtlessly be bolstered and challenged by the addition of online gameplay and the introduction of more cinematic, narrative story modes that let a player assume the role of an aspiring world superstar.

Yet stripped away of most of the commercial considerations and promotions that are a vital and complicated component of modern sports, Madden 96 let you act out getting onto a field for a bout of kicking, tossing, catching and making some VERY big tackles.  Sport at its purist.  That can’t be all bad, health implications aside.

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