Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Super Mega Madden: Third Down

Madden is misunderstood because people think it's a "sports game".

It's not.

Madden is a simultaneous-turn-based fighter.  Its characters are teams.  Its stages are stadiums.  Its health bar is field position.  Rounds consist of four timed quarters, with an overtime if scores are even when time expires. Madden is not a stock match, which sets it apart from most fighters. Instead, it's a timed match where the winner is determined by number of "knockouts", which are measured in touchdowns, field goals, and safeties.  Move lists exist for each team/character in Madden as playbooks with a twist; the user can select any playbook for any team.


Plays in Madden are the same as attacks in a fighting game.  Each play carries a risk/reward component. The safest play in Madden is the dive play, which is equivalent to a light punch or the shortest frame count attack in a fighting game.  The riskiest play in Madden is the play-action pass, which is the same as a heavy kick or the longest frame count attack.  Just like capitalizing on miss-timed attacks in fighters, a savvy player can anticipate and punish play calling mistakes in Madden.

Although it occurs at a much slower pace, there is a counter move for any input, or play, in Madden. If a user suspects a run to the right, they can call a play that is designed to stop runs to the right. In fighting games, a user can use a feint and follow that up with the move they wanted to use. Feints exist in Madden in the form of play-action or draw plays. Instead of blocking high or blocking low, users on defense decide between zone and man coverage. There are even move cancels in Madden.

Combo knowledge is an integral part of fighting games. Knowing how to string together attacks is similar to orchestrating a long drive on the virtual gridiron. A light punch sets up a medium punch in a Capcom fighter in the same way deep passes set up draw plays in Madden.    

Understanding the combos is only half the battle in a fighter. The ability to execute them consistently ensures victory. The same is true for Madden. User controlled passes, tackles, catches, and jukes matter just as much as effective play-calling. The best players flawlessly execute strings of plays that keep their opponent off-balance. Madden is a mind game, just like a fighter.

They just don't understand.

When a review of Madden highlights the shortcomings in the free agency part of franchise mode, or the repetitive nature of A.I. scripted commentary, the reviewer has missed the point. Super Smash Bros. Melee is not one of the greatest fighters of all time because you can participate in a 100 Man Melee. It is one of the greatest fighters of all time because it has sound mechanics and balanced gameplay. Madden reviews barely mention gameplay or balance. They tend to focus on the shallowest parts of the singleplayer experience--like setting hot dog prices. If a Madden reviewer does mention gameplay they're likely to talk about the feature EA listed on the box and move on to their complaints about the shots of the static players on the sidelines, or how endzone celebrations were untouched from last year's game. Imagine reading a review of a King of Fighters game and the reviewer taking time to comment that win poses aren't varied enough, or that the announcer still only says, "FIGHT!" In Madden, those are tragic errors, but they're mentioned because the reviewer doesn't understand the mechanics enough to speak to them.  

That's understandable, because there have been twenty-five Madden releases since 1988.  There have been three numbered Marvel vs. Capcom games, three Super Smash Bros., and four Soul Calibur games in that same time span. The reviewer simply hasn't had enough time with the previous iteration of Madden to highlight the changes in the game's mechanics in the same way they can spot the differences between games that aren't released as often. So they end up critiquing what they can observe, which is endzone dances, hot dog prices and commentary. The commentary does suck, but that's not the soul of the game.  

More than just hot dogs!
The mechanics in Madden also take a while to figure out. Online ranked matches take around forty minutes to complete. There are thirty-two unique characters in Madden, which is on the high end as far as fighters go. Combine that with weekly character changes, and annual releases, it's hard for anyone to gain a deep understanding of Madden without putting a lot of hours in. By the time a person does get a firm grasp on the game, the newest version is already on the shelves.       

It knows you're faking that punt!

It's a fighter.

It's time to think of Madden as a fighting game. Fighting games are meant to be played against humans. Playing Madden against the computer is like playing rock paper scissors against a mind-reader who decides to let the user win from time to time. This is unique to Madden due to the start and stop nature of football.  The computer knows every play the user calls, and also knows the perfect defense or offense to counter it. Any success simply occurred because the A.I. chose not to react.  Changing the difficulty just modulates the degree to which the A.I. responds to user inputs/plays.  The user doesn't fool the A.I. on a play-action pass, the A.I. let it happen.  The fact that Madden offers an enjoyable singleplayer experience should be celebrated, and then quickly forgotten. Tekken isn't scored based on its arcade mode, yet Madden is judged on the quality of its singleplayer modes. That's not fair to Madden.

Future conversations on Madden should discuss how the game's mechanics hold up in a competitive scene. That is the nature of conversations on fighting games and Madden is no different.      
I'd love to see Madden at Evo.

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