By Lucas Croft
Though Madden 96 never made it’s way to the 5th generation, Visual Concept’s failure to create a quality product on the new hardware paved the way for a new studio to take over the successful franchise. EA Sports and Visual Concepts parted ways after the Madden NFL 96 debacle, and entered into a partnership with Tiburon Entertainment. Purely a case of a studio’s game outgrowing the developer’s potential, the split was not only a result of Madden 96’s failure to enter the 5th generation, but also that the new hardware capabilities required a reimagining of the familiar formula that had lasted through Gen-4. Thus, Madden 97 was built from the ground up to be a totally new NFL experience with the goal of replicating what fans see when they tune in on Sunday.
Madden NFL 97 (1996)
Madden continued to support the 4th gen consoles with releases over the next couple years — the last Madden to release on Genesis and SNES was Madden NFL 98 — but they had fixed their gaze on winning a Gen-5 war they had already fallen behind in to Sony’s first-party football sim NFL Gameday. This wasn’t the first time Madden had stiff competition in the field. NFL Sports Talk Football 93 was a very strong offering on the previous generation, but EA Sports was always pioneering the path, never playing catch-up. Madden 97 was thus a double-down effort, and much like other times in the franchise’s history, the competition brought out the best in the development teams.
Madden NFL 97 was the first game of the franchise to be fully built on the 32-bit system, and the newly found power meant a newly found identity. Though the game had yet to be rendered in full 3D, the visual quality of the game was greatly improved. The gameplay still felt familiar and lacked a certain broadcast quality, but the Tiburon team was building a solid foundation for the future of the game. Field textures and art-work were improved, the play-calling overlay was brought into a form that would remain for years in the series, and player models were becoming more life-like.
Where Madden NFL 97 really began to take the series in a new direction was roster control. Salary caps found their way into the series for the very first time forcing players to evaluate both talent and value when building a custom roster. Real life free agents were also available to sign to any team. This roster control and discovery of what it meant to build a game on Generation 5 was paving the way to what would be the most influential title of the series.
Madden NFL 98 (1997)
The last Madden title to be released on 4th gen consoles was Madden NFL 98, and it was clear from its lack of innovation that it was being held back by its Genesis/SNES support. Madden NFL 98 contained few notable new features yet continued on its way to reclaiming the title as best console football game.
The most influential feature from this year perhaps didn’t come from the Madden franchise at all, but from the competition over at 989 studios. NFL Gameday, as the studio’s franchise was called, introduced 3D player models for the first time in 1997, a feature that would take another development cycle to be implemented in the now decade old franchise.
Madden NFL 99 (1998)
In what was the most overhauled Madden to date, Madden NFL 99 implemented key features that delivered on the potential of the hardware on which it was being built.
In speaking with former Programming director John Rotolo, it was clear that 989’s innovations with NFL Gameday 98 were the main competition focus. “The Sony 989 Studios NFL Gameday was the primary competition, and it definitely was a major focus to make sure that our game was superior,” Rotolo said in an email. “The Tiburon studio prided itself in making the highest quality games, and Madden NFL ’99 surely was a part of that tradition.”
That meant long nights for the team working at Tiburon, and Rotolo put it upon himself to keep the staff morale high. “Some may remember the famous Rotolo tennis ball sized meatballs, ” he regaled. “Pre Alpha, from December through April, during crunch weekends (usually twice a month), I would leave the Studio for a few hours to go home and cook the team a nice home cooked meal. This usually was either roast chicken with mash potatoes and gravy, or Homemade Spaghetti and Meatballs (I really do make Grande sized meatballs!) . The team really appreciated it, and we all ate well, and it wasn’t the usual greasy pizza or burgers or subs we eventually were eating during Alpha and Beta… A little more healthy and certainly more tasty.”
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the game was fully rendered with 3D polygonal graphics bringing a depth of field to the play that was impossible to achieve on the old hardware. Though Sony’s NFL Gameday was the first to achieve full 3D graphics, it didn’t take long for Madden to regain the ground as the best looking football sim on the market. Player models were more life like, animations were more detailed, and a more broadcast-like presentation was implemented featuring multiple camera angles and in-presentation instant replay. Moves such as the chop block and the juke were now possible in the newly renovated engine the series was built on.
Perhaps the most revolutionary feature of any Madden game to be created, Madden 99 introduced franchise mode. In this mode, a player took over the general manager duties of a team and could control the roster moves for up to 15 years. The move made sense. It was a natural progression of features that had been implemented in the game already from the salary cap of Madden 97 to create a player added in Madden 96. For years, the franchise had allowed the players to take the role of Monday Morning quarterback, and now the dream of running your favorite team was becoming virtually realized.
The modes implementation was no where near perfect as it failed to align itself with the real NFL in several ways. First, the NFL draft at the end of the year featured only 4 rounds rather than the true-to-life 7. While to some this oversight may not be anything major, what it meant was that there was a limited influx of young talent available to scout and bolster your roster with in the last few years of your franchise. Player progression was also systemically flawed as it was never a feature that was necessary due to the fact a player only had the ability to play a season at a time and then start over. Offensive players tended to progress extremely rapidly throughout the years of the mode while the ratings of defensive players crept along.
Flaws aside, Madden NFL 99 took what was already a solid offering and gave their fans even more to be excited about. The hard work that went into that year’s Madden game paid off as Rotolo recalled it “selling over a million copies for the first time in franchise history”. The kinks in the system would be ironed out, and franchise mode continues to be one of the most played game modes to date.
Madden NFL 2000
Franchise continued to be the focus of Madden NFL 2000, upgrading the experience by allowing a user to control multiple teams in a franchise. This meant that friends who shared a college dorm or brothers sharing a console at home could compete for local bragging rights.
From a gameplay perspective, Madden NFL 2000 focused on player paced agility. Previous versions of the game failed to capture the speed of Sunday action. This year’s title overhauled the way that players move, not only making them faster, but also making them more nimble. Though juke had been an option for years prior, players were now given the ability to make the juke the deadliest move in Madden that it continues to be today.
For the first time in franchise history, players were able to hot route receivers. Before the release of Madden NFL 2000, players who wished to mix up their play at the line of scrimmage would have to audible into a completely different play. Now, in an attempt to outwit the opposing defense, the quarterback could modify individual recevier’s routes prior to snapping the ball.
Also featured in this year’s iteration was the ability to give the CPU permission to make your roster moves for you. One of John Madden’s visions for the game was to be accessible to users who didn’t necessarily understand the ins and outs of running an NFL franchise, and this option allowed users to play through seasons without the worry of signing free agents, managing injuries, and drafting future talent.
Madden NFL 2000 was the last game of the franchise before it took its step into Generation 6, and the problems that marred the game in its previous transition were carried over as a lesson learned. The wound of Madden 96’s failure to enter into Generation 5 smoothly, were now scars to be reflected on as the PS2 and original Xbox were on the horizon.
Generation 5 meant great strides for the successful franchise. From the full implementation of 3-dimensional graphics to introduction of a franchise mode that not only changed Madden’s trajectory but the direction of sports gaming as a whole, the series was poised to be a juggernaut on the more powerful hardware coming down the line.