Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: Exient Entertainment
Release Date: August 8, 2005
Football games have been around longer than any other sport short of ping-pong. From the days of the Atari 2600, folks have been hitting the digital gridiron, clocking more hours than digits in a pro athlete's salary. Some games and franchises quickly descend into forgotten mediocrity or infamous horridness – such as Joe Montana Football, in the case of the former, or Mutant League Football, which immediately comes to mind (along with a few nervous twitches) for the latter. Others, however, are classics of the genre. For instance, if you love arcade football and the name Tecmo Bowl doesn't bring back happy memories, it likely only fails to do so due to frustration at the fact that it had the most unbalanced teams ever. Others still decide to stomp out any and all competition on the market, dominating due to sheer market share.
Guess where the Madden NFL series lies?
John Madden and EA Sports hardly need to even think about losing the NFL license they bought exclusive rights to, really. Due to the EA-created phenomenon that is yearly sports game releases, the name "Madden" is very likely the production staff's code speak for "Christmas Bonus." They keep making them, and fans – particularly the truly devoted, the type that would win several hundred dollars a game from betting – eat them up like M&Ms at a party.
As such, it's a really good thing that the Madden games are typically of the utmost quality, barring a few stinkers that came out for the PC. Such is the case with Madden NFL '06 for pretty much every console, though some more than others. The Game Boy Advance incarnation? Perhaps it doesn't fare so well, already lowered a few notches by the stigma of "Oh, it's on the GBA!” Thankfully, what's beneath that stigma is a good, solid game.
You're greeted right out the gate with something perhaps a bit unexpected – the minute you press start, you're assaulted with a surprisingly audible rendition of The Foo Fighters' song No Way Back. Before this game, it was hardly ever expected the GBA to produce anything higher than Genesis-level sound and music. The menus in the start of the game are extensive, many modes awaiting the player. The obvious Exhibition mode is there (though never actually called that), as well as a Season mode, the ability to change rosters, and all those other things that are pretty much givens in every Madden game ever.
What isn't a given, though, is the wealth of modes not in any non-Madden football game. There's a set of modes labeled "Mini-Camp" which lets you train and compete for high scores in simple practices like running (and dodging defenders), field goal kicking, and passing the ball through levitating golden hoops. Nobody said football had to follow the laws of physics, after all. There's also a "Situation" mode, which puts you in "what-if" situations, such as being on your fourth down with 20 yards to a touchdown. Of course, there's also the half-hearted cop-out game developers use to extend replay value, namely "collect these cards!” Doing various tasks in-game (like sacking the quarterback, never missing a pass for one game, etc) will get you points, with which you buy cards. It's not exactly the most innovative extra there, but it exists.
The graphics are... well, there's very little they've done to improve over Madden 2005. The "quarterback's eyes" shot the console versions tout during passing is nonexistent here, for obvious reasons, leaving you with a constant angled shot of the field which lends slightly to a 3D-ish look. The one major gripe, graphically, is that in order to be visible on a GBA screen, the football is now bright red and, if everything on the game field is in scale, roughly seven feet across. It looks more like a novelty football balloon being kicked around than an actual football, and kind of comes across as odd for the entire game.
Audio, on the other hand, is largely disappointing. Aside from the song constantly blaring on the title screen, there sounds to be little to no music in-game, leaving the murmur of the crowd, the sounds of the game, and John Madden himself rambling on. Obviously the data for the Foo Fighters song was simply too large, as it's left Madden with the recall of a lobotomy patient, shouting out all of three lines ad nauseam. Yes, John. We know that this is some big-time football. We know that's what you call football. Now please shut up.
All that's left to save the game from the trash bin is the gameplay, and thankfully, it is superb. Controls are sharp, responsive, and easy to understand. The only complaint here is that the running controls are a little confusing, as it takes a fair amount of practice to spin out of the way of defenders. In addition, defense takes a little bit of getting used to – far too often I've pressed the A button, intending to dive for a tackle, only to find that I switch to a different player who is perhaps a little too far from the guy I'm trying to tackle. The difficulty is balanced, though total newbies to football games might find themselves a little overwhelmed, as even the Rookie setting seems unfairly hard if you don't know what you're doing. Those that know how to pick plays, shout out audibles, and spin and juke out of oncoming linebackers, however, will find the game a nice challenge without being hideously broken.
Only two things separate this from being a truly good game: Firstly, the rosters simply don't deliver. If you aren't interested in updated player rosters, the GBA incarnation of 2006 is far too similar to last year's version. There's simply not enough that's new to warrant $20 more for the game. If you are interested, 2006's roster is even more incomplete than most NFL games, taking almost exclusively from the final rosters of the 2004-2005 NFL season. In addition, custom roster changes seem to glitch quite often, ending up with players in completely random teams wondering just how in the hell they got there.
Secondly, as in all Madden titles, teams are ranked by offensive rating, defensive rating, and overall power. Naturally, the team that won last year's Super Bowl gets the highest ranks, but even still, in Madden 2006, these ratings seem entirely arbitrary, even when watching the AI go against itself. The highest-ranked team, the New England Patriots, lose a good half of the time to the lowest-ranked team, the San Francisco 49ers. It leaves one to wonder exactly why the ratings are there, if the teams all play the same under the AI's control anyway.
Christmas Bonus Madden 2006 isn't the best game in the lot, but it's certainly a hell of a lot of fun. If you've never touched a football game in your life, it might be a little out of reach for you, and if you've played every football game out there, it might seem a bit boring and pointless. If you're looking for a portable NFL game to play on that long road trip to the next Super Bowl, however, you won't be disappointed.