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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Madden NFL 18 - cover
Tom Brady graces the cover of Madden 18

The first bit of news regarding this year's Madden NFL football game has been released by EA. As is typical, the first bit of news is the cover athlete. This year, none other than Tom Brady will grace the cover of the game.

The cover shown seems to be labeled as a "G.O.A.T. Edition". "G.O.A.T." -- if you're unaware -- means "Greatest Of All Time". I'm not entirely sure if this label is supposed to refer specifically to the cover athlete, or if it's supposed to represent a belief within EA that Madden 18 will be the greatest Madden game of all time.

NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus followed-up EA's cover announcement by writing a "Power Ranking" of all Madden covers. I'm not quite sure what his criteria for judging these covers is, as the justifications written below each choice seem more like fluff to me. As far as I can tell, he's basically just ranking his favorite players that have been on Madden covers, rather than the covers themselves.

This lead me to contemplate my own standards for a good Madden cover. Personally, I don't like the use of an individual cover athlete for a sports video game. I do agree with Hanzus that the covers featuring Madden himself tend to be pretty bland, but I don't dismiss them off-hand.

Personally, my standard for a good cover (for any game, let alone a sports game) is that the cover be representative of the game itself. This applies to Madden games as well. A game cover should effectively be an advertisement for what's in the game. And in the case of an annually-released title (like sports games, Call of Duty, Rock Band in its time, etc.), the cover should advertise what's new in this year's game. For me, the best Madden covers are the ones that showcase new features of the game. So when EA has contests and votes to decide the cover athlete, I roll my eyes. It's such an arbitrary process.

Covers for Madden '95 and '96 stand out as particularly good covers featuring John Madden's image,
as they both highlight scenes of football being played.

Since I would prefer that the cover showcase new features of the game, rather than an arbitrarily-chosen individual athlete, I'd much prefer to see a scene on the cover, rather than an individual player. For this reason, I actually like some of the old covers featuring John Madden. The Madden '95 and '96 covers stand out to me as particularly good game covers for this reason. The '95 cover, in particular works really well, as the imagery invokes the idea of Madden himself watching the action unfold and providing his trademark commentary for it.

I'd like to see EA move towards using scenes like this on their covers, instead of just single athletes. Ideally, such a scene should be representative of some new feature or mechanic in the game. The '96 cover is a great example, as it shows Carolina Panther and Jacksonville Jaguar players, both of which were new expansion teams being added to the NFL (and to Madden) that year. The cover is, effectively, telling any potential buyer what is new in the game, without you even having to turn the box over and read the marketing spiel on the back.

As far as covers featuring individual athletes go, there are a few that I like...

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