Aren't football games supposed to get better every year?
John Madden and his horse trailer is back for a second year of football on the Nintendo DS. Madden NFL 06 for the DS has some new additions, new control features, and new gameplay modes to go along with all the stuff that you're used to seeing in a gridiron game. Unfortunately, the one thing it's missing isn't a mode or feature. The developer forgot to make the total package better than last year's version, which makes the 2006 game a lot less impressive.
Madden 06 DS has a bunch of new stuff this year. The big one is franchise mode, a first for the handheld football world. It works in pretty much the same way as the console counterpart, so the people who are into that sort of thing will dig it on the DS too. The Mini Camp mini-games are a neat addition, and even allow for multiplayer sessions (multi-card only). The main multiplayer mode of playing a game of football against friends has been improved to allow four players in a game at once, a step up from the one-on-one from last year. Other features not in the 2005 version that are in for 2006 include create modes, where you can make your own play, your own player, or even your own team from scratch. For a handheld football game, there's quite a lot to do.
Last year's game set a precedent by being the first ever handheld football game in 3D, but it was both a good thing and a bad thing. The good half is a little better in Madden 06. Up close, player models look sharper and cleaner. The play calling menus that were plain and boring last year are now much more presentable. A lot of the HUD graphics, like player photos, are also better looking. All of these improvements are in areas that don't really affect gameplay, though, which is why the bad half takes priority.
There's an issue with polygonal players being displayed on a screen resoultion the DS uses. If a receiver goes any farther than ten yards downfield, they start to blend in with the field, the field lines, and the defense, making it impossible to see if the receivers are open. The field radar on the touch screen helps with this somewhat. That is, it would have if the display had not been "upgraded" with some new features.
After selecting a play, the field radar appears on the touch screen. Underneath the Xs and Os is a diagram of the play just selected. This is a handy feature, but the lines drawn for the routes and blocking assignments are extremely thick. All this does is clutter the radar. It's hard to see the area around the line of scrimmage, which is important if you're relying on the touch screen to see if there's someone coming to sack you. The touch screen also has "buttons" that let you see a drive summary, see top ranking players, or see game stats. Why would anyone need to check stats when it's time to snap the ball? It's unnecessary.
Madden 2005 DS was great in that using the touch screen to call a play was the easiest thing in the world. You never had to touch the D-Pad or buttons. In Madden 06 DS, it's a little different. While the plays are still in a big enough box to touch with your finger, everything else is a tiny little circle. In other words, the developer expects you to use the stylus while selecting a play, then switch back to holding the DS normally. While there is a gameplay control option for the stylus (which will be explained shortly), in general you're not going to be using the pointer at all. Functions like going back a menu, zooming into a play, flipping a play, calling a timeout, and even scrolling up and down through the playbook are assigned to tiny circles which are not worth the effort to poke with a finger. This basically forces you to use the D-Pad and buttons to do the play calling, which is slow and clunky compared to the bliss of using the touch screen exclusively.
This brings us to the control portion of the review. As it was last time, the traditional D-Pad and 6 buttons the DS employs is your best bet when controlling players in Madden 06. Running is simple enough, with spin, swim, juke, and dive options all around. There's a new kicking system in place, which now uses the touch screen exclusively. To kick, just slide your finger from the bottom of the touch screen as fast as possible up to the top. The straighter you slide it, the straighter the ball goes. This new system makes it much easier to pin the other team deep in their own territory, since you can kick angles more easily.
Then there's the passing game, which I will now refer to as "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." Here's The Good. The quick passing option will bring up receiver passing icons immediately after the snap. The X button cancels the pass if you need the QB to scramble out of the pocket. It's the best option, and the one most owners of this game will likely use. Next is The Bad, the so-called normal setting. After the ball is snapped with the A Button, the pass icons need to be called up with another button press. The problem here is that it's not the same button as the snap as it usually is in all other versions of Madden. In this case, it's the X Button. Long-time pigskinners will have a hard time getting used to this small, yet significant change. Until doing so, expect to accidently do QB slides and scrambles you didn't want to happen.
Then there's El Feo, as the Spanish would say. The touch screen control option isn't just a supplemental function like it was on the 2005 version. In Madden 06, it's its own full-fledged control type. Running is done by moving the stylus in the general direction you want the ball carrier or defender to go. It's not precise, which makes things worse on defense since being an inch or two off can mean missing a tackle. After snapping the ball on offense (which needs to be done with the A Button, despite the touch screen control), the passing icons need to be called up by touching an icon in the lower corner. Then, you can touch a receiver running his route to throw a pass his way.
In theory, it should work fine. In football, it doesn't work at all. In the time it takes for you to touch the passing icon button, look back up at the top screen to find an open receiver, look back at the touch screen, and then throw the ball, you're going to get overrun by the defense. It takes too much time to do what the touch screen passing option requires. You still need to press the D-Pad or buttons to do actions like spinning or juking anyway, so is there really any point? Why even include the option if it's such a poor one? Is this another case of the developer forcing a touch screen control option on a DS game that doesn't need one? I sure think so.
If you want the summary of this review in a sentence, here it is: Madden NFL 06 DS is not a better game than Madden NFL 2005 DS. Madden should improve with every year, but for the reasons above, it didn't this time. The game was supposed to be the polished version of last year's solid first step in the DS door, but instead it's an overworked attempt and not as good as the original. While it's still a good game on its own, Madden NFL 06 for the DS is second best to the 2005 version, so hold onto the last game instead of upgrading. There's always next year.