The Madden games have always been about realism, and so they’ve never appealed to the same gamer crowd that loves NFL Blitz or similarly over-the-top games. Madden NFL Arcade is as the title suggests a more arcade-like, more unrealistic and simplified version of EA’s venerable football franchise. But even though it removes much of the complexity of its counterpart, it still retains certain elements of the sim genre that just don’t mix with the rest of the game. It unsuccessfully straddles the line between casual and hardcore, which is a shame because hiding behind the many initial hurdles is a pretty fun game.
The lack of any semblance of a tutorial is the most glaring drawback of the game. It’s strange that a game aimed at a more casual crowd would omit something as important as a tutorial, and in that regard, Madden NFL Arcade seems to be made for people that already know how to play it. The only thing that it offers to newcomers is a menu screen explaining the different button configurations, but since all the buttons are context sensitive, it can be very intimidating scrolling through the many different situations you’ll find yourself in (preplay offense, preplay defense, passing, ballcarrier, ball in the air/loose ball, defensive engaged, defensive pursuit). I only learned how to properly juke, stiff arm, and spin by asking a friend who is a Madden veteran for help. The intended audience for this game is likely to be confused and frustrated for the first couple hours of play.
What sets Madden NFL Arcade apart from other arcade football games are the Game Changers: Power ups that range from simple things like speeding everything up to more grand powers like switching scores. Much of the fun and strategy of the game lies in knowing when to best use these power ups, but unfortunately, the only description of them is in another menu screen. If you get one during a game, it only appears as an icon with no name, so it’s difficult to know what exactly it’s supposed to do. You’ll spend your first few games using every power up as soon as you get it just to see what it does. Actually learning when to best use these power ups is an effort in trial and error.
The sport itself has been simplified down to only four plays: a running play and three passing plays of varying distances. For newcomers to Madden this is the most attractive part of the game, yet over time, it becomes apparent just how limiting the selection is. Your players always run the same play, the only thing that changes is the distance. There’s no strategy involved in the play selection, and no real difference between a short pass and medium pass. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm that works and never change. I found myself passing nearly every play and always to the player marked with Y because it always worked. The only time it didn’t work is when the opponent used a Game Changer.
You can play as any team, but this feature seems like a concession to the fans who want to play a specific team. Each team is given an overall skill rank, but because the actual gameplay is so simplified, there’s no way for a lower ranked team to overcome and win over a higher ranked team. In fact, there’s no reason at all to choose a team ranked below 90 unless you’re purposefully trying to make the game harder.
Yet despite all of it’s shortcomings, if you can get past the lack of tutorial and the simple strategies, and if you’re fine playing as the same team every time, Madden NFL Arcade offers a uniquely condensed, arcade version of football. The field is only 60 yards long, and there are no first downs; teams only have four downs to score before the ball is turned over. There’s no time limit, and the first to 30 points wins. Game Changers actually can change the course of the game and using one to score a touchdown is intensely satisfying. The first time that you win a game you’ll want to play another immediately. They’re fast-paced, lasting no more than 15 minutes on average, so it’s easy to get hooked for an hour without realizing it. But that first victory is so elating because getting to that point is an arduous task.
The learning curve is prohibitively high for the casual gamer, and there’s no depth to attract the normal Madden fan. The game can be simple fun, the kind of game you pick up for a quick bit during halftime, but you won’t hesitate to turn it off if there’s real football to be watched.