JOHN MADDEN FOOTBALL / EA / Sega Genesis
What is it with early Genesis football games and crazy title screen music? First it was Joe Montana Sportstalk Football with some song that sounded like some dude screwing around with DJ Scribble's Playstation game and throwing in a few lethargic Yos here and there, and then you have the first John Madden game with some crazy football rock song. I'm not complaining though, because this was actually the best title theme of the series out of the ones I've ever heard - once they got to the Playstation the game was firmly aimed at the ghetto market so it was all shit rap songs that blared repetitively while you messed around with your rosters and stuff.
There was no NFL or NFLPA license at this point, so the usual trick of using only city names and jersey numbers is pulled. The colors are a bit off on some of the teams, but the majority of the NFL for 1991 seems to be represented. The game is the most primitive of the series in pretty much every way, but in terms of gameplay modes, it means that you only get exhibition (one-off) games, and a very limited playoff mode that limits you to choosing amongst only eight fixed teams - if your favorite isn't in there, too bad, I guess.
I like the small, clean player sprites and fairly fast movement in this one, which are actually better than some of the later years. The sound is a little ridiculous, though - there was no Madden commentary as of yet, and the grunts and groans from the players often sound like they're being run through with a sword or something.
Play calling is probably Madden's strongest feature overall, going way beyond any other football game of the time and executing pretty well on the whole. You start by picking the player package (hands, fast, normal, etc.) and then the formation (pro-set, shotgun, etc.) This gives the game extra layers of depth in play-calling and coaching, but players have to run on and off the field when you make personell changes which makes the overall pace of the game a little slow, especially if you're used to something really zippy like Tecmo Super Bowl. The CPU also likes to sit in the huddle and wait to see if you'll show their defense to them, which is certainly more realistic and makes the game more strategically deep, but also slows the pace of play down even further.
Gameplay on the whole is very solid, impressively so for the first effort of the series. It does have the issues with passing that the series became known for for a number of years, though - the "pass windows" are confusing and give you too little information to work with in a lot of cases, and massive pass interference often doesn't get flagged. You can also pull the trick of massive encroachemnt to rack up ridiculous amounts of sacks, and it's easier than ever in this installment because players do these Superman dives where they fly over five yards at an impossible speed (also can be used to rack up cheesy amounts of rushing yards on the other side of the ball.)
Madden was a great first effort and a blast when it was first released, but it's basically been outstripped in every way by later entries of the series - it has the least gameplay options and the most unrefined gameplay of the series. Probably the best title screen music, though, and if you just want a casual football game for one-off matches here and there, and can grab it for pennies on the dollar, it's worth it.
* Gameplay Video
* 1991 news story on the game