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With the United States bracing itself for its annual football frenzy in the form of the elaborately named Super Bowl XLVIII this weekend, we’re avoiding predictable prophecies regarding likely victors, and instead looking a little closer to home. While the game of American Football has always remained something of an underground pastime compared to its more spherical counterpart here in the UK, the sport actually made an unlikely stretch for stardom in the early ‘90s on the back of a SEGA Mega Drive title and a Mean Machines magazine cover story. In this feature, veteran writer Paul Davies considers the impact that John Madden Football had on changing British perceptions of the sport – and also the journey that the franchise has taken throughout its illustrious 25 year history.

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In December 1990, two extraordinary connections were made here in the UK: our side of the Channel Tunnel met with the French, and thousands of Brits went insane for American Football.

A quick message to our American friends reading this: first of all, “Hi”. Secondly, you have no idea how very little American Football meant to the UK before it became a hot videogame. Sure, the newly established and attention seeking Channel 4 had made extraordinary efforts to penetrate our thick skin since 1982 – but seriously, nobody I knew was talking about this coverage at all. Madonna? Yes (please). Montana? We cared more about ‘99 Ice-Cream’ than a 49er dubbed Joe Cool.

Not that the UK teenagers were paying little attention to Channel 4, far from it – there were steamy early morning ‘red triangle’ shows for one thing. By day, however, the hottest newcomer in town was a console gaming magazine they called Mean Machines. Our bedroom lives depended on it.

When Mean Machines dumped Robocop and TMNT for something called John Madden Football on the cover of Issue 3, let’s just say that many lives were changed that day. Mine too, I’m happy to say. So, as I share the excitement of millions of fans in the countdown to Super Bowl XLVIII, here’s my contribution to the Madden 25th Anniversary celebrations as we enter 2014.

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Mega Game

To reiterate: no British gamer was losing sleep over the lack of an American Football game as Christmas loomed in 1990. The issue of Mean Machines that awarded John Madden a score of 95% and the ‘Mega Game’ accolade also featured must-have arcade conversions Hellfire and Super Monaco GP.

I caught up with then Mean Machines deputy editor Richard Leadbetter (now Digital Foundry), to learn exactly why the mag made Madden its cover hero. “There was a reason that we put this game on the cover of the third issue of Mean Machines,” says Rich. “It was unique, original, and brilliant.”

Most importantly for Rich, John Madden “marked the arrival of quality Western software on a format that was dominated by Japanese arcade titles”. As he explains: “Back in the early 90s, it was the promise of pitch-perfect coin-op conversions that proved the biggest lure in attracting gamers to the consoles – and the Mega Drive in particular – and nobody did that better than the Japanese.

“Madden proved that the Mega Drive was capable of so much more, and it was an American developer, Park Place, that came up with the goods. At its core, the game absolutely respects the ethos of Japanese console gaming: it felt slick to play – supremely enjoyable in fact – and easy to pick up, even if you didn’t have a clue about the rules. Was Madden responsible for a boost in popularity of American Football outside of the USA? Quite possibly, but the real reason behind its success was simply that it was a fantastic game. It had elements of strategy integrated, but they didn’t get in the way of what was fundamentally an arcade-style experience. Park Place coded a brilliant console game first, and it just happened to be based on American Football.”

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Loving the Alien

Without wanting to drag you too far down my own memory lane here, one of the key aspects of Madden Football that caught me by surprise was the competitive multiplayer appeal. It was like nothing else we had at that time – certainly not on console. And it was intense! After choosing teams (usually ones that favoured passing plays), my friends formed a small league and one pal recorded progress in a school exercise book. It was an obsession that the Mean Machines office apparently shared, and most probably why it proved so infectious.

Gary Harrod, now at Square Enix but then art editor of Mean Machines recalls how, “Sport and exercise in general was not a mainstay at [magazine publisher] emap in the '90s – unless your idea of burning calories was the brisk walk to the cafe to grab a sausage sandwich. Madden multiplayer was the next best thing. Thirty sweaty minutes in the games room (an unventilated closet) desperately trying to avoid getting spanked was like a jog in a sauna for the office porkpie brigade. Didn't matter about the rules; no one knew a waggle from a rollout. Just toss the ball, catch, and run in zigzags up the field. Madden was one of the greats from the Mean Machines era without a doubt.”

This notion of a social, multiplayer experience is identified by Rich Leadbetter as “another key console staple”. Says Rich: “You could play Madden on your own, but it wasn’t half the game that it was playing with your mates – as we discovered at Mean Machines, where the game was a regular tournament favourite – even the postmen got involved!”

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An historic 25-yard year drive

If we can keep a good sense of humour about this, I’d like us all to take a Time Out to compare John Madden Football on Mega Drive with Madden NFL 25 as it appears on the PlayStation 4. And while we’re here in the huddle, take into consideration Mean Machines then editor Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall’s opinion of John Madden ’92 the following year. It’s rather prophetic.

Julian: “The greatest ever Mega Drive sports game has just got even better! Rather than completely rewrite the game, the programmers at Park Place have kept the basic elements that made John Madden's Football so brilliant, and just tweaked the gameplay and added some new features. Some people might be disappointed by this but personally I'm not – what's the point of fixing something that's not broken? The big question obviously is, is John Madden's '92 worth buying if you already own the original game? Well, if you still love playing it, but want more challenge and new features, definitely. But if you're not so sure, I'd recommend you give this a good go beforehand, just in case you think it's too similar. If you haven't already got an American Football game, John Madden's Football '92 is utterly essential.”

Fast forward two decades, and it’s fair to say that – even with its detractors through the years – Madden has been more than just consistent. In my view it has persistently raised its game for no other/better reason than to satisfy series fans while in pursuit of authenticity.

Jaz, currently heading up, could not have known that his comment in 1991 would be echoed year on year by reviewers growing accustomed to the nature of annual franchise updates. Without going into the details, the Madden NFL series has enjoyed its share of highs and lows, and player attitudes toward such features as GameFlow and turbo… yes or no (still unresolved).

Competition has been healthy, and welcome. In particular, SEGA’s legendary ESPN NFL 2K5 that bashed heads against the equally strong Madden NFL 2005. From a British fan’s eye-view, admittedly not nearly as steeped in NFL history as my US counterparts, I can only appreciate how each new Madden has lived up to the NFL license that EA acquired for Madden NFL ’94 released in 1993.

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Happy Anniversary – enjoy the game!

And so, here we are with Madden NFL on the latest consoles, neatly coinciding with the 25th Anniversary of EA’s golden goose. I made a point of holding out for the next generation edition to party like it was 1990 all over again. That old Mean Machines 'thrill of the new’ vibe is still very much in the air.

Now, as way back then, new Madden is teaching me how to appreciate aspects of the sport on a deeper level than I might see just watching on TV – especially how the next-gen features benefit The War in the Trenches and O-line efforts to create the passing pockets. It’s a beautiful thing, and if I weren’t so old and creaky I’d feel tempted to try out for a local team… not that there are many here.

Out of respect to the game of American Football and its most knowledgeable fans, I’m going to hand over to Ian Batch from the UK’s football bible: Gridiron Magazine. Maybe you can’t take my word for it, so the lads who live and breathe the game over here really ought to vouch safe for it. This quote is used with permission from Gridiron Issue II:

Ian Batch: “I first played John Madden Football in 1991 and was instantly hooked. The combination of strategy, execution, and athleticism is what makes the game so enthralling even to those who've never watched an NFL game before. Two decades on, we’re celebrating 25 years of Madden with some lovely touches, including the ability to play as former greats in career mode, where you try to recreate their Hall of Fame careers. The overall message is clear: legends live forever.”