Madden NFL 23 - title

When John Madden was originally approached by EA about consulting with them on a new 7-on-7 football video game, he insisted that the game be "simulation football". He wanted authentic, 11-on-11 gameplay that could potentially be used as a tool for teaching the sport of football. It was the only way that he was willing to put his name on the product, and EA held fairly true to the philosophy of "simulation football" through the 90's and into the 2000's.

I think John Madden's last major contributions to the video game were around 2008, when he provided commentary and narration for the "Madden IQ" Skill Trainer. It wasn't long after this that EA's dedication to "simulation football" began to wane. A few years later, Ultimate Team was added to the game, Franchise Mode was gutted and replaced with a stripped down "My Careers" mode, and Madden himself stopped providing commentary for the game. Franchise Mode and core gameplay have been largely neglected in the years since, in favor of introducing terrible story modes, expanding the arcadey Ultimate Team mode, and adding even more arcadey game modes like SuperStar KO and 5-on-5 The Yard. The Madden video game series has fallen far from the goals and priorities of its namesake -- a fall that is made even more tragic and frustrating by an exclusivity deal with the NFL that bars any other company from producing an NFL-licensed "simulation" football game.

Madden 23 starts off with a tribute to the life of John Madden, who passed away this past December.

It's fitting that, with John Madden himself having passed away this past year, EA Sports and Tiburon seems to be trying to honor him by taking the video game back to basics and finally, after years of neglect, trying to address long-standing issues with the on-field gameplay, physics, and A.I.. Is it enough to satisfy the "simulation" expectations of John Madden, himself? Spoiler alert: NO.

Back to Simulation Football?

Madden 23 starts off well enough. The very first thing that the game asks the user to do is play through a tutorial of the new charge-up passing mechanics (largely ripped-off from Legend Bowl). Madden doesn't simply throw the user into a live game situation and expect new players to just know how to play -- though, expecting users to already know how to play the game from last year was always a sad testament to how little had changed in Madden from year to year.

After finishing the tutorial and deciding how difficult I want the passing mechanic to be, Madden 23 threw me directly into a demo "Legend Game". It's a Pro Bowl of All-Madden players from throughout NFL history, with 2 versions of John Madden coaching each respective team. The entire game is largely an excuse to let the commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin give a history lesson about John Madden's career and celebrate his accomplishments. My partner commented that I'd been playing for 15 minutes and she was already sick of listening to the game flagellate John Madden. Personally, I was more annoyed that the game defaulted to Pro difficulty, so scoring was relatively easy for me, and the CPU Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. Each score and turnover interrupted the commentary about Madden's career, preventing me from hearing the unique dialogue, which the commentary team would not return to if an interruption occurred.

Madden 23 tutorializes its new mechanics before throwing users into a game situation.

Whatever. The game itself is mildly entertaining. It uses clips and graphics from older Madden games as part of its presentation, some NFL Films music, and it includes old commentary clips of Madden himself introducing some of his favorite players, from Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Tony Gonzalez. It's as good and fitting a tribute to the ol' coach and commentator as I would have expected to see in a video game, short of playing through some kind of story mode and re-living moments from his actual career.

But that's just the tutorial and demo game. Is the rest of the actual game as fitting a tribute to the man who demanded "simulation football" from video games bearing his likeness?

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Legend Bowl - title

I already made one video praising Legend Bowl's innovative, player-driven passing mechanics: the passing charge meter, and the QB Vision. Within hours of me posting that video, Sports Gamer's Online broke the news that leaked information on Madden 23 shows that Tiburon will be copying this idea from Legend Bowl and implementing its own pass charge meter. If you can't beat 'em, copy 'em, right? Well it wouldn't be fair to Madden or to >Maximum Football or to Axis Football if I just gave Legend Bowl a free pass for not being a 3-d, physics-based football sim, and if I didn't also give a critical eye to Legend Bowl as well. So now I want to turn my attention towards perhaps my single biggest pet peeve with Legend Bowl.

The full commentary video is available on YouTube.

You might be thinking, "if this quy who made hours of video content tearing apart Madden, Maximum and Axis Football can't find anything wrong with Legend Bowl other than to nitpick about the huddle, then Legend Bowl must be pretty darn near perfect!" But, mmmm ... no. Legend Bowl is far from perfect, and there are plenty of other things that I can find to complain about, especially if its developer wants it to be taken seriously as "simulation" football. I have issues with how the game handles its difficulty levels, and the inability to more finely tune difficulty to my skill level or play style. Defenses have horrible containment logic and let too many plays break to the outside. Pulling linemen are often too slow about getting out to their blocks. Every team uses the same playbook, with the same formations and plays, so none of them have any distinct play style or personality. The QB Vision mechanic could use some more granularity. Special teams feels wildly under-developed. And ever since the Franchise patch, the button on the PS4 gamepad that used to assign a kickoff returner now moves a player to the top of the depth chart, meaning I can't set my kickoff returner for Franchise -- let alone field goal holder, longsnapper, or coverage gunners. Maybe I'll talk more in detail about any or all of those issues as well, but perhaps the one issue that sticks out to me the most with Legend Bowl is its weird game clock.

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Legend Bowl - title

Readers of my blog and viewers of my YouTube channel may be familiar with my series on "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football". In the second and third episodes of that series, I discussed how Madden's binary blocking logic, and the ability of QBs to hit any receiver anywhere on the field with the push of a button, leads to unrealistic pass rushes and inflated sack stats. Pass rushers either have next to no impact on the play, and the QB can throw a dime to anywhere on the field; or the pass rush gets home for a sack. An aggressive pass rush in Madden does not force a QB to have to throw early or off-platform and result in an off-target pass. Or at least, Madden's attempts at emulating this reality of football often feel poorly-defined, arbitrary, and inconsistently-applied. It hasn't been since the QB Vision Cone of 06 that Madden has really come close to getting this right.

This is where a little, pixel-art indie football game called Legend Bowl really shines (see my full review). With one simple, elegant mechanic, Legend Bowl has managed to emulate the idea of a panicked QB having to release an off-target pass before he wants to, in order to avoid the pass rush. You see, Legend Bowl employs a charge-up mechanic for determining the power and accuracy of passes -- and the same mechanic is also used for kicking.

This entire essay is also available in video format on YouTube.

The QB can still throw to any receiver with the push of a button (although there is a "QB Vision" mechanic, but it doesn't work like Madden's old QB Vision, and we'll talk about that a bit later), but the QB needs to hold the button for a split second in order to charge up the throw. Release the button too early, and the throw will be an under-powered, floaty, lame duck of a pass that will sail over the target's head, or be easily picked off by zone defenders. Hold the button for too long, and the throw will be "over-charged", which results in a severe accuracy penalty. The pass will likely be a laser beam directly into the dirt -- the football equivalent of a gutterball.

Ideally, you always want to charge your throw to 100% power, without overcharging and taking an accuracy penalty. However, that is easier said than done when a 300-pound defensive lineman is charging right at you. This is where Legend Bowl respects the pass rush in a way that Madden hasn't come close since the days of its QB Vision Cone. If the defense gets pressure, the QB doesn't have time to hold that button down and fully charge the pass, which will lead to more floaty, inaccurate throws. Inversely, panicking because you see a defender break free of his block at the last second can distract the player's brain just enough to mis-time the charging of the throw and over-charge it for an accuracy penalty. This is especially true on higher difficulty levels, in which the meter charges faster and the accuracy penalty is greater.

Pressure can rush throws, making them less accurate, and preventing the QB from putting his full power behind it.

Best of all, as far as I can tell, the CPU-controlled QBs are also bound by this mechanic. They also, as far as I can tell, have to take a split second to charge their throws. And if they don't have time to fully charge the throw, they too will throw a wobbly floater of a pass that sail over the receiver's head, or be swatted down or picked by a defender waiting in a nearby zone.

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Legend Bowl - title

While I was neck-deep in the 2020 editions of Axis Football and Maximum Football, another small indie football game slipped under my radar. Legend Bowl was in early-access on Steam for 2 years before its 1.0 release in fall of 2021. Its retro, pixel-art graphics caused me to initially dismiss it as just another nostalgia arcade game -- another remake or knock-off of Techmo Bowl.

But YouTube comments, tweets, and a discount during a Steam sale have finally convinced me to check it out. After all, Legend Bowl was awarded "best alternative sport game of 2021" by Operation Sports, so it must be doing something right!

In those 2 years since going into early access, Legend Bowl has resisted the urge to just release an unfinished game and re-sell annual incremental upgrades to gamers, the way that almost every other sports game does -- whether it's licensed or not. Instead, Super Pixel Games is confident enough in the game that it will continue to sell based on quality and word-of-mouth. Its creator seems more than happy to treat Legend Bowl as a living product, providing regular feature updates, bug fixes, and so forth without feeling the need to charge us full-price, again, for them. The game has been successful so far, and I'm sure there will, eventually, be a sequel. But in the meantime, I am thrilled that I do not have to re-review a nearly-identical football game each fall.

I initially dismissed Legend Bowl as just another Techmo Bowl clone.

Pixel-perfect simulation?

Don't let the pixel-art fool you. Legend Bowl is not just a casual arcade football game. It can be enjoyed that way, for sure. It's simple enough to pick up and play. Nevertheless, Legend Bowl is grounded in sound, fundamental football concepts.

Perhaps the first thing that gamers will notice is the incredibly slow pace of play. The on-field action is slow, allowing the user plenty of time to react to read the opponent and react to what is going on, whether I'm running the ball, passing the ball, or playing defense.

Running is not simply a race to the edge, as in so many other football games that have poor containment and pursuit angles. Cutting back inside, against the grain, is often a great way to pick up extra yardage or break a huge play, especially if my blockers are in good positions to shield my runner's cutback. Reversing field completely is also much more viable in Legend Bowl than it is in any other football game I've played. It feels really good to cut back inside, get behind the lead blockers, and hit a narrow seam for a breakaway play.

Running out of stamina and becoming "gassed" limits the frequency of breakaway plays.

To help get those precious yards, running moves feel really good to execute. Jukes have a nice explosiveness, and are great for side-stepping around lead blockers. The stiff arm is brutally-effective -- maybe a bit too much so. Running moves use a system similar to NFL 2k, requiring the user to mash a face button to sprint, or hold it down to charge up an extra-powerful move. And all these moves consume quite a bit of stamina, which prevents them from being spammed, and requires the user to be deliberate with our use of these moves. Sprinting or using special moves will result in the player becoming "gassed", causing him to slow down considerably. Runners being caught from behind while they are gassed has proven to be an excellent way of limiting the frequency of breakaway plays. It might even be a bit too strict.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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