This year's portable Madden finally gets into the red zone. Does it score?
There's nothing quite as hilarious and heartbreaking as watching a pass bounce off the helmet of an oblivious-yet-wide-open receiver. At first you laugh because it does look pretty funny. Then you feel sorry for the receiver, because he's now facing a lifetime of sports blooper reels and mockery from random tough guys in bars. But the more you think about it, you actually feel sorriest for yourself, because you had to witness such awfulness. He might be a fantastic receiver. It doesn't matter. He has scarred you with his incompetence, and he deserves your scorn.
This happens several times per game in Madden NFL 08 on DS, and it's not the only frustrating moment you'll have. But it is a good metaphor for the Madden DS experience: great setup, lots of hope and promise, ultimately denied true greatness by some boneheaded mistakes.
This year's iteration of the venerable franchise easily outclasses its forbearers on the DS. Gone is last year's horrible kicking game, replaced by the old reliable power meter/timed button presses. The blocky character models have been touched up with a cool sheen to the uniforms, and animations are now a little smoother. Touch screen implementation is subtle and intelligent, particularly in the clean menus that guide you through the endless play options available. Another neat new control addition is the ability to select players on defense by simply touching them. This is the kind of intuitive gameplay addition that makes the DS such a user-friendly platform.
The number of modes that the game offers is downright staggering. Be prepared to check everything off of the usual Madden to-do list: Season, Franchise, Situation, Practice, Custom League, Mini Camp, Two Minute Drill, Create-A-Team, Create-A-Player, Create-A-Play, and, for the wildly impulsive, Play Now. Most of these are customizable, and many are multiplayer-friendly (usually through local multi-card wireless). Also, this year's Madden offers up a rendition of that tabletop classic, paper football. It might be a little on the gimmicky side of touch screen gameplay, but it retains the same simple charm that made paper football fun to play at school when the teacher had her back turned.
The multiplayer options in Madden NFL 08 DS are pretty substantial as well. As stated above, many of the game's modes are playable with a friend. Some, like Play Now and Paper Football, only require one game card for multiplayer. And if you fear the physical contact of others, you don't even have to leave your home to compete online through Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Surprisingly, the Madden DS online experience is quite smooth and contains practically no lag whatsoever, something that can't be said about its big brother on the Wii.
But before we go pouring Gatorade on ourselves in celebration, we have to talk about the actual gameplay. Sadly, it doesn't live up to the standards set by the presentation, offering a serviceable game of football that apes the "real" (console) Madden experience without actually capturing any of its greatness. The motions and controls are basically the same (you'll try the new touch screen controls but quickly revert back to the good old d-pad and buttons), but their effect on the game world is unreliable and unrealistic. Frankly, this game has more bugs than a week-old dog carcass in Michael Vick's backyard. Helmets disappear and reappear at random. Players run through each other or fall down at the slightest whiff of a tackle. Sideline runs in either direction are nearly always good for a first down. A pass could result in all kinds of unrealistic outcomes: it could fall to the ground suddenly, disappear from the sky and reappear in the receiver's arms, cause a traffic jam of players running in place around each other as the ball sails overhead, or my personal favorite, it could bounce off of the receiver's helmet and into the hands of the pursuing cornerback. D’oh! Thankfully, the incredible presentation comes to the rescue again with customizable AI menus, so with a little work, some of the balance issues can be corrected. But there are far too many broken, frustrating moments that can't be fixed with AI sliders. Perfectionists, beware.
Assuming you've got the patience to work through these infrequent but recurring gameplay issues, Madden 08 DS is a tough deal to ignore. There's a lot of game packed into that tiny cartridge. If the DS is the only way you can experience Madden, or if the portability of it is an essential requirement for your football needs, then go ahead and pick it up. For those of you who are lucky enough to exist without such restrictions, any of the console versions would be a safer choice.