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Exploring the (weird) story of the very first ‘John Madden Football’ game

A game that John Madden himself influenced heavily has a more interesting story behind it than you’d think, from its debut on the Apple II to its more arcade-style Sega Genesis port.

The very first game in the Madden NFL franchise came out 30 years ago, but it’s not the game that many remember as being the first. The 1990 Sega Genesis release of John Madden Football was the one that popularized the game, but it wasn’t the first version; the actual beginning was two years prior, on the Apple II computer system.

And it looked way different than the franchise looks now.

That original game in 1988 was much more focused on the strategies and intricacies of football, compared to the arcade-style of play in the Genesis release. It took three years to develop. It has its roots in tabletop gaming and stat-tracking. Madden himself was insistent that the game be a cerebral approach to the game of football. There were aspects of strategy that the franchise, to this day, does not offer anymore.

It allowed you to create your own plays from scratch and was a lot more complicated overall compared to the Genesis version. And these two games were also ported in different forms across multiple computers and game consoles, all with different features and ideas behind them despite sharing the same name.

But the story behind it all — one of the biggest franchises in video gaming history — is fascinating.

It all started in 1982

Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts (EA), was inspired by the Strat-O-Matic line of tabletop sports simulation games, and he always dreamed of transferring that style of game to computers.

“Most of my friends would tell you I started EA as an excuse to make a football game,” Hawkins later said. “And there’s probably a fair amount of truth to that.”

When he founded the company in 1982, development began on a football game and he approached at least two people about endorsing it — San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Cal coach Joe Kapp. But the former was already endorsing a football game from Atari, while Kapp reportedly wanted royalties that EA could not provide at that time.

Then, in 1984, he approached John Madden himself, already a retired coach well-known for his talents of making football easier to understand in the broadcast booth. A two-day train ride ensued, with Hawkins and game producer Joe Ybarra talking about the project and football in general with Madden. They told Madden the game would be a “football simulation,” and requested not only Madden’s endorsement, but his expertise.

“If this guy went to Harvard and made up his own major in games,” Madden recounted to ESPN, “I figured he must be a computer genius.”

Madden himself wasn’t well-versed in computers or dedicated gaming hardware of any kind, but he liked the idea, and considered its possibilities as a coaching and teaching tool. Madden dove in and taught the two executives route-running, game plans, and everything in between. Hawkins and Ybarra, not necessarily football experts when it all started, were suddenly immersed in the intricacies of the sport.

When given an actual NFL playbook, Ybarra was overwhelmed.

“I start flipping through,” Ybarra said, “and I think to myself, ‘These poor people — how the hell do they ever play football if they have to know all this crap?’”

Some wondered if Madden, AKA “Trip’s Folly”, would ever be completed

They were also absorbed in a game that was taking far too long to develop for a number of reasons, but the biggest was Madden’s insistence on there being 11 players on both sides of the field. The original design documents planned for six or seven players due to hardware limitations, and they did not expect Madden to be as involved in the planning of the game’s features as he wound up being.

“I’m not putting my name on it if it’s not real,” Madden said. “If it isn’t 11 on 11, it isn’t real football.”

This was crucially important to him, a man who didn’t engage with computers much beyond his telestrator. This became a large development challenge, and the game took over three years to complete, more than twice the length it usually took to develop games in those days.

In fact, the John Madden Football project was referred to within EA as “Trip’s Folly”, and Madden himself eventually began to believe that the project was cancelled or would never see the light of day.

EA brought in Bethesda Softworks to finish the game, but there were legal issues involving their own Gridiron! football game, which was published by EA. A lawsuit ensued, which slowed development further. They only got part of the work done, but ended up contributing to the game’s physics model.

It’s unclear whether the move to bring in Bethesda really hurt or helped the project as a whole. In the end, Ybarra and his team managed to release the game in 1988, with the help of San Francisco Chronicle writer Frank Cooney, who had designed his own figurine-based football game using numerical skill ratings (sound familiar?) and a copy of the 1980 Raiders playbook.

“All my memories,” Ybarra said, “are of pain.”

According to ESPN’s Outside the Lines:

Some of the pain was technical: making a game on a computer, the Apple II, that didn’t have enough memory, pixels, or disk storage. No sound chip, either, and only one joystick port. The machine could produce four colors, sure, but only if a programmer knew all the dirty tricks. Anything beyond seven-on-seven football caused the on-screen action to slow to a crawl.

The game is finally released in 1988

The game itself is fascinating for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the game’s title card that featured a Jaws-esque buildup before Madden himself comes crashing through to what is supposed to be cheers, but actually comes out sounding like hellish demons invading your computer. But due to aforementioned hardware limitations, the game ran slowly. It did, however, boast the promised sophisticated playbook design and many other features.

But the play design was the big one. The game allowed you to pick a formation, then move players around that formation however you want. You could assign every player on the field to a specific role, and they will do that, even if that role is terrible. You could assign all 11 players to bump-and-run cover a single receiver if you’d like.

No, really. You could. I did.

Every defensive player assigned to man coverage on a single receiver.

You could also create teams and full playbooks. You could grab any player on your side of the field and move him around before giving him an assignment.

The gameplay is where the original fell short: the hardware was underpowered for 22 players on the screen at once, and the game ran slowly. On the Apple II, you controlled the player by moving the mouse cursor, which would make that player run in that direction. It ran at about half the speed you’d want a game like that to run, though for many who enjoyed the strategy, this was a concession they were willing to make.

This is about as fast as the game ran.

(The play creator screenshot above is actually from the MS-DOS version, because it’s easier to get captures from, but it looked identical, if blurrier, on the Apple II.)

Enter the Genesis port in 1990

When the game was ported to MS-DOS and the Commodore 64, it retained much of the play design and also ran a bit better. But when it moved to the Sega Genesis in 1990, the game took on a whole new look and a whole new style of gameplay. The series started taking off, and it had to appeal to a massive audience.

By today’s standards, the gameplay is slow and the presentation is clunky, but compared to the Apple II, it ran like a dream. It was a more arcade-like style of football for what was, at the time, considered a much more casual home console market compared to those running games on computers.

Yes, that’s me not realizing I have control over the receiver and then somehow making the catch anyway.

It wasn’t perfect. In fact, John Madden Football ‘92 was so smooth and much better in comparison. But when examining the first game’s versions, the Genesis version outsold the Apple II version by a whole lot. EA expected to sell roughly 75,000 copies of the Genesis version and they sold about 400,000 instead. It was their first mega-hit.

The 3D0 version in 1994 was WEIRD

Due to using optical CD-ROM media in its hardware, the 3DO version of John Madden Football — released in 1994 after sequels to the game had already been made on other platforms — had a lot of interesting features that you simply didn’t see back then and don’t see often now.

The most notable is the game including real-life NFL footage, albeit heavily compressed. That isn’t something that has been factored into even the most latest versions of the game, save for the occasional quarterback reel introduced in recent years (and not all quarterbacks have/had it). There was also a highly compressed digitized John Madden giving commentary.

Keep in mind, this was ground-breaking stuff in 1994. Here we have real football players making real plays, in a video game! It looks awful now, but at the time, I was simply convinced video games would never be able to look better.

Ultimately, the very first version of John Madden Football made its way to the Apple II, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, Sega Genesis, Commodore Amiga, and the 3DO, taking drastically different forms. The series would go on to see releases on every major home console. Few aspects of the original hold up today, 30 years after it all began, but the franchise is still going strong.