Review: Madden NFL 09 (DS)

MADDEN NFL 09 (DS)
Genre: Sports/Football
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: August 12, 2008

For years now, John Madden’s NFL football franchise has been a way of life. Stores open at midnight just to be the first to offer the game. Gamers not only attend these midnight openings, but call in sick the next day just to try EA’s latest offering. And, of course, EA, the NFL, and Mr. Madden himself laugh all the way to the bank.

While the focus of the Madden series has always been on the console systems, the handhelds have their own less-heralded versions of the game. Madden NFL 09 marks the series’ fourth release for the Nintendo DS. It’s clear that the DS version of any game isn’t going to match up to its console counterpart, but how does this one fare?

Those people who complain that the series has gotten too realistic will be happy to turn on their DS systems and find that Madden NFL 09 looks, sounds, and plays almost exactly like a PS1-era Madden game. This is not unlike the way the Game Boy Advance versions of Madden were similar to the 16-bit Madden games of yesteryear. All the trick plays you remember from, say, Madden NFL 97 will work just fine in Madden NFL 09. Even the kind of plays that work (runs to the outside) and don’t work (just about any passing play) are intact in this version. Nostalgia, or laziness? Your choice.

One area where laziness does seem to come into play, though is the commentary. While the console versions of Madden are moving away from using John Madden himself as commentator, those who play the DS version will be treated to a sort of greatest hits package of Madden’s calls. No question, longtime Madden fans will have heard most, if not all of these before. And those they haven’t heard, they’ll hear very shortly and very frequently. Did you know the quarterback has to get rid of the ball quickly, but that the ball has to be catchable? If not, you will after playing roughly one minute of Madden NFL 09. It’s as though the game is acutely aware of the commentary’s misgivings, as the default settings have the commentary buried underneath the crowd music and gameplay noises, neither of which are anything to write home about. In fact, the referee’s whistle and the contact noises sound like they were transported out of a handheld Tiger Sports game.

Make no mistake about it, the DS version of Madden gets the short end of the stick. Just about everything we’ve relied on for years in the console versions of Madden – roster updates, EA Trax, so on and so forth – is missing. As bad as the sound quality is, this is where we see the real limitations of the DS. We do get some EA Trax, but it’s limited to a minute or two of a few select songs. Roster updates would actually be possible with the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection used for online gaming, but it’s not an option. Which is extremely unfortunate for two reasons. First, Brett Favre, the guy on the f’ing cover, is unable to be used. That means Jets fans, and countless others who idolize Favre (including Madden himself), don’t get to play as their favorite player. Secondly, the default stats are extremely skewed, to the point that approximately half the league’s tight ends have a rating of 100.

And speaking of oversights, here’s one for you. Madden NFL 09 for Nintendo DS does not offer the option of an in-game save. For a portable title, that is not only an egregious oversight, it’s completely unacceptable. A game with the default time of five-minute quarters can take up to an hour to play. How many people are able to commit to an hour of consecutive gaming on the go? Not an overwhelming number, that’s for sure. Therein lies the problem with this version of Madden. While it’s a game for a handheld system, it seems to be geared primarily toward play at home. Without the purchase of a separate online adapter, those who want to play online will be stuck playing at home or at Starbucks or something. And if you don’t have an hour – or, worse, your battery died in the middle of a game – you’re stuck. So then, if you’re going to be playing the game mostly at home, why not just buy the far superior console version?

That’s not to say Madden NFL 09 doesn’t have its merits. While we’ve obviously seen better from systems with more firepower, but what’s here is a solid, if a bit simple, football game. The game does try to conform to the varying needs of traveling gamers by offering quarters that can be as short as a minute long. The gameplay itself is fairly solid, though the passing game needs considerable work. There are portions of Madden that are fairly challenging, such as the kicking game, where field goals are blocked regularly and even extra points can be difficult to convert. Gamers will be surprised to find a rather intelligent AI on the other end of their DS, even on the default difficulty setting. The computer manages the clock extremely well and rarely does maddening (no pun intended) things such as lining up for a play just to sit there until the two-minute warning.

The game features a season mode, as well as a franchise mode that calls to mind the franchise modes of long ago. Essentially, it’s nothing more than a string of consecutive seasons with little in the way of off-season activity. We also get a tournament (playoff) mode as well as four mini-games that are rather stylus-heavy. The games range from the ridiculous (look at a play, then draw in the receiver routes from memory) to the games that sound awesome, but aren’t (paper triangle football) to ones that actually work (a modified version of the popular Rushing Attack mini-game from the console versions). The mini-games are a mixed bag, which is unfortunate; if they were even above-average, it would have done a lot for the replay value of this game.

Visually speaking, there’s not a ton to write home about. The graphics are pretty much what you’d expect; again, PS1-quality throughout. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s tough if you’re used to playing on the consoles and seeing the holes open up as the offensive line does its job. The graphics actually serve to get in the way of the gameplay at times, especially when the action reaches the top of the screen. This is one reason why passing the ball is nearly impossible – your receiver is often blocked by at least one opposing defensive back. It also wreaks havoc on punt returns, where you’re unable to see if you should call for a fair catch because all you see are players running toward you. Most games flip the perspective around when the ball is kicked. Not this one. However, they do manage to flip screens so that you can watch the referee spot the ball while you’re picking a play. Go figure.

The Scores
Story/Franchise: Bad
Graphics: Poor
Sound: Poor
Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Bad
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Dreadful
Final Score: Pretty Poor

Short Attention Span Summary
All in all, Madden NFL 09 for DS isn’t an awful game. It offers what you’d think it would, and nothing more. The gameplay isn’t bad, but with a limited playbook and without the advanced options featured in the console versions, it isn’t all that much fun to play. And, since there’s no option to save a game from the pause menu, it’s very hard to rely on this game as a portable fix for your 360, PS3, or Wii. Try it if you want, but save your money for the home versions.