The Madden franchise and I go way back. I poured a lot of fifth-grade free time into Madden NFL 97 for the Super NES, and I can still hear that edition’s chiptune menu music in my head when I think about the series.
But, I have to be honest. For all the Madden games I’ve owned over the years — give or take 15, by my count — I’d trade them all for a high-quality arcade-style football experience.
Quality is highly subjective when we’re talking about a video game. For you, quality arcade football might be EA Sports BIG’s NFL Street franchise, which released three titles annually between 2004 and 2006 before taking its streetball and going home. Or maybe you checked out 2017’s Kickstarter-funded Mutant Football League from Digital Dreams Entertainment, a way-out-there unlicensed experience featuring monsters with parody names like Bomb Shady, Wham Neutron, Sven Rottenburger, and Baker Minefield on a field riddled with explosives and moving buzzsaws.
Call me old school, but Midway’s NFL Blitz still reigns supreme. It practically invented the concept of arcade football when it was, well, dominating arcades before they fell out of fashion. Blitz was simple, quick, and fun, even when it came to home consoles — sorry if you played it on the original PlayStation instead of Nintendo 64, because the latter was objectively superior.
But, as disgraced baseball slugger Mark McGwire once said, I’m not here to talk about the past. Let’s get back to Madden, in particular Madden NFL 21 and specifically its new arcade-style mode called The Yard. As I touched upon in my review of the game, I was not a huge fan of The Yard or, for that matter, the rest of the game. Compared to the arcade football experiences of the past, The Yard is notably tame.
The Yard ought to be something I really enjoy as someone who’d rather play an arcade experience than a straight simulation of the real thing. For the first time since EA Sports’ lone release of NFL Blitz in 2012 (after acquiring the rights to the series when Midway closed its doors in 2009), I can take control of real players and hurl multiple passes across the field while playing with a little more swagger than the league usually permits with its license. In Office Space, they wanted more flair; I want more swagger. Always.
Honestly, I’m not going to hold my breath for over-the-top late hits to ever return to an NFL game. I get the optics of added brutality in a post-CTE world. But why not have some fun with the tackle animations, without resorting to piledrivers and powerbombs the league most certainly would object to? Let the animators flex a little creative muscle here. And at least include some even sillier touchdown celebrations.
Most of all, I want the substance of an arcade-style football game. I want speed on the field. I want a game of The Yard to feel like it’s flying by at a breakneck pace. The Yard still feels like Madden between the sidelines, for better and worse. It’s the same gameplay, just with fewer players on a smaller field and a few new rules. You’ll still rely on the vast assortment of jukes and tackle-shedding moves. You must also remember to attempt secure catches near the sideline to make a catch in bounds. Nuances like this, in an arcade football setup, are not welcome. If I snag a reception at the sideline or the back of the endzone, just keep me inbounds or have me drop it.
The whole experience of The Yard is too muted. Touchdowns feel like another play that just so happened to result in points. Woo-hoo. Remember when you scored in NFL Blitz, and you got that celebration sound effect, with fireworks streaming around the scoring player who may or may not have been simultaneously on the receiving end of a Hulk Hogan-esque leg drop? There’s none of that.
There’s no commentary to enhance the experience, only the same soundtrack that plays in menus with some sparse crowd noise. Venues are too plain and usually just feel like playing practice mode. The Yard just isn’t an enticing way to play this game.
Funny thing is that Madden NFL 21 already has an alternative game mode, Superstar KO, which stands up to nearly all those presentation complaints. I’d like to think a merger of these two separate modes into one would be a more engaging arcade experience, at least from a sensory standpoint. All that would be left is to find a way to energize the sluggish-but-realistic speed of The Yard games.
Perhaps achieving a true arcade football gameplay experience was not the goal with The Yard. If I had to pinpoint what the publisher’s endgame was, I’d guess it was to create a gameplay loop that sucks players into the process of slowly upgrading their customizable avatar. There are separate Prototypes to enhance, which are essentially different loadouts, as well as abilities to unlock. More importantly for EA, I would have to think, is that players can work toward unlocking cosmetic upgrades for their avatar using earned or purchased in-game currency. I wouldn’t say Madden NFL 21 is gross with its microtransaction structure in the same way that other games have been in recent years, but clearly that’s still a priority when it comes to The Yard.
But, as down as I am on the current iteration of The Yard, and I wouldn’t suggest you rush to check it out for yourself, I am encouraged to see that there’s at least some attempt at arcade football in a licensed NFL game. It’s understandable that EA Tiburon, which hasn’t flexed its arcade-style football muscles since NFL Street was taken out of the game 14 years ago, isn’t going to win the figurative Super Bowl with its first real attempt at arcade football in Madden. The Yard presents a baseline now. Hopefully, the bar will be raised next year.
And Madden might have competition in that realm by 2021, too. NFL 2K, which rivaled Madden in quality before EA secured the exclusive NFL license 15 years ago, is slated to return next year with what 2K Senior VP of Sports Strategy and Licensing Jason Argent said would be “a good opportunity to service a more casual market.” Argent cited internal research that “there’s an appetite for that.” Clearly, I agree.
There’s no telling what 2K’s return to the football space will mean at this stage, but fingers crossed that it’s something in the arcade arena that either pushes or surpasses The Yard. In the latter years of the Madden vs. 2K gridiron video game showdown, competition bred innovation. If the same thing happens here, even if it only affects a single mode in Madden, that’s a good thing for arcade football fans like me.