That Madden 98 is the best American football game for Sega Saturn goes without saying; it wins the contest by default. The real question for gamers today: how well does Madden NFL 98 play two decades later? The answer: surprisingly well.
We really shouldn’t be surprised by this. The dirty little secret about sports videogames is that all of the major franchises have perfected their gameplay formulas years ago. Want to play a full season, own a franchise and enable player trades? Perhaps you’d like to play classic Super Bowl teams? How about offensive and defensive plays taken from real NFL teams? Do official league and players’ association endorsements interest you? Motion-captured player animations? Authentic recreations of all team stadiums? Fantasy draft? “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” as the saying goes.
Madden 98 feels like a culmination of everything the series had built to that point since it the Sega Genesis glory days (Madden 92 is still my series’ favorite). The controls are still somewhat simple and are still based on that old A-B-C control scheme. Players can sprint, spin, jump and dive with a single button press. Plays are selected by formation and grouped in thirds. Audibles can be selected on the fly. Kicks and punts are performed with the classic dual-bar system. Tackles play out like car crashes where knockdowns are instant. And, yes, you can perform late hits for cheap thrills, one of those silly guilty pleasures that never gets old.
The graphics feature 3D polygons that faithfully recreate all NFL stadiums, while all players are rendered as 2D sprites — “dynamically loaded, light sourced super-sprites” to quote the back cover. This would be the final year before EA finally caved in and switched to polygon players, but let’s be honest to ourselves and admit that polygon football players didn’t begin to look great until NFL2K exploded onto Sega Dreamcast. The super-sprites in Madden 98 can hold their own against their peers, and perhaps they have aged more gracefully. The animation is more natural and captures more exciting moments like toe-dragging catches or one-handed grabs.
The computer intelligence is exceptionally tough and defenses will punish you for trying the same moves over and over. You might pull off a successful slant run or play action pass, but if you try those same moves again, the linebackers will beat you like a gong. The balance of power is tiled more towards defense, and successful offenses really have to work for their yardage. You have to know your formations and your opponents very well. Mind you, my passing game is mediocre at best, but that’s always been my cross to bear. I really need to practice on the “touch passing,” which allows your quarterback to lead passes, much like the “maximum passing” in NFL2K. Until then, I tend to rely on my running game and hope my defense can knock out some turnovers.
In terms of gameplay modes, you can play an exhibition game, a full or custom season, play a tournament or fantasy draft, or work the front office. Over 120 NFL teams are available, including the Madden All-Stars, the Pro Bowl teams and all Super Bowl teams. John Madden and Pat Summerall provide play-by-play commentary which was very good for its time. There are nice little touches like the first-down markers that are brought onto the field to measure the ball’s position, which adds a bit of drama.
Compared to Madden 97, the animation here is much more fluid, the graphics are more refined and the AI is much more sophisticated. There are also no cheap “money plays” that you can exploit for easy touchdowns. This was the final Madden to appear on a Sega system, as Electronic Arts famously boycotted Dreamcast after Sega purchased Visual Concepts, the creators of NFL2K. They demanded a monopoly on the sport, and after Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001, Sony and Microsoft were bullied into killing their football franchises. In 2005, EA secured their exclusive licenses with the NFL and NFLPA, killing the NFL2K series. They have had a complete monopoly on football ever since. And the Madden franchise has been a steaming turd pile of mediocrity ever since. Gain the world, lose your soul. That sort of thing.
Oh, well. Time for another game of Madden 98? I’ve got the Vikes and the pizzas. Bring nachos and sodas.