It was a foregone conclusion that EA's Madden franchise would eventually make its way to the PSP handheld. After all, there's nary an active platform that Madden doesn't make at least some kind of appearance on. And now, roughly a month after its console, PC, and other handheld counterparts, Madden 06 is on the PSP. For better or for worse, EA Sports has managed to cram quite a bit of football into Madden on the PSP, with most of the key gameplay touches that Madden is known for intact, in addition to a full-fledged franchise mode and online multiplayer. Unfortunately, Madden 06 also comes encumbered with a few kinks in its padding, with the most notable issue being a painfully sluggish interface that makes menu navigation a severe chore. Still, if you're the patient type and can stand sitting through a fair amount of menu loading, you'll find Madden 06 on the PSP to be the best game of handheld football available on the market.
Madden 06 on the PSP has some things in common with the console versions of the game, but it most closely resembles a Madden game from a couple of years back. Some of the on-the-fly defensive playmaker controls (most notably the hit stick) are understandably absent due to the lack of a second analog stick on the PSP. However, in this case, with misfortune also comes benefit, as the game also lacks the flawed passing cone from this year's console version.
But enough about what Madden doesn't have--it's what it does have that's most important. Which is to say, it has just about everything else, gameplay-wise, you'd expect in a Madden game. This is full 3D football like you'd experience on the consoles, but in the palms of your hands. All the basic presnap gameplay mechanics are available, as well as all the basic offensive and defensive move controls. The developer even managed to squeeze in precision passing, the mechanic that lets you more accurately place your passes above, below, in front of, or behind receivers by angling the analog stick in the direction of where you want the pass to go. It's a great mechanic, though on the PSP it's a touch unwieldy, as the sensitivity of the analog stick is somewhat tougher to deal with. Meaning, if you press the stick too far in one direction or another, the pass will often overshoot the receiver by quite a margin.
In fact, the analog stick sensitivity is the one big problem in an otherwise fine game of football. It's most blatantly a problem in the running game, which is made infinitely easier by the stick controls. Essentially, you can quickly reverse directions on the stick while running the ball, and your ball carrier will switch directions almost on a dime. Evidently, the classic momentum-based running of the console Maddens hasn't quite been implemented here, so it's way too easy to dart and dodge around defenders while gaining huge chunks of yardage. While regular big runs might be the norm for some backs, having 250-rushing-yard, five-rushing-touchdown games with Kevan "2.3 yards a carry" Barlow on a semiregular basis strikes us as problematic. Upping the difficulty to All-Madden does make the defensive artificial intelligence tough enough to plug up those holes (more often than not), but it also makes the rest of the game wicked hard. So it's tough to find a balance.
Apart from the rushing inconsistencies, the feel of the game is still great. The passing game has a wonderful feel to it, and the defense is as satisfying as it can be without the aid of the hit stick. Sadly, the flow of the game isn't quite as excellent as it could be. This is exclusively due to a momentary hang-up that crops up every single time the play-calling menu pops up, as well as to the subsequent hang-up that comes immediately after you select a play. It's never longer than a second, but it's a second longer than you'd expect from a modern football game. It effectively extends games longer than you'd prefer, and it's hard to really make quick play calls when you're on a roll.
This problem is clearly some kind of optimization issue between the game and the system, and it doesn't stop with in-game play calling. Loading times are scattered throughout the game, and though only a few of them are especially long, Madden 06 is the kind of game where you'll want to jump around the menus fairly quickly. And you simply can't because of these loads. Nowhere is this more a problem than in the game's franchise mode. This is an almost identical representation of the depth and detail found in the franchise mode on consoles. Owner mode and the Tony Bruno show are absent, but you can perform pretty much every other type of managerial task, like signing free agents, drafting rookies, making trades, playing practices and training camp minigames, and ultimately (hopefully) taking your favorite squad to the Super Bowl. There's also a new practice squad function that lets you add free agents to the squad for reserve purposes, in addition to a new assistant coach mode that earns you bonus ability points for your team via goals set for you by assistant coaches for each game. It's a great franchise mode overall, and it plays out with few glitches or annoyances--beyond the one gigantic annoyance, that is.
Again, going back to the sluggish interface and loading times, the franchise mode becomes the worst kind of pain to navigate through because it takes too long to jump between menus to simulate anything. Simulating an entire season can take up to 10 minutes. Trying to sign free agents is almost not even worth it sometimes, as you'll have to sit for a minute or two to simulate through each day. And this is not to mention that the developer has, for some reason, decided to lock the increasing and decreasing of contract amounts to a single button press. So you can't just hold down the button and have it go up or down. You have to press the button one time for every increment. This might have been less of a problem, except that when you're negotiating with a player and other teams provide offers bigger than his default one, when you go back to try to negotiate a better deal, the game defaults to whatever the original "wanted" offer was, which is usually at least a couple of million under what the best deal currently is. Each button tap represents $10,000 of salary. Multiply that by a few million and you're going to wear out your D pad pretty quickly. Were it not for these ugly menu navigation and use issues, the franchise mode would be a clear-cut winner. As it is, it's a great mode that requires an awful lot of patience to use effectively.
The game's multiplayer functionality might try your patience a bit, too--or at least the sign-up process will. The standard ad hoc wireless multiplayer is functionally just as you would expect it, but the game features online play as well. Unfortunately, the online sign-up process is the same long and drawn out nonsense the PlayStation 2 and PC versions of the game use. On top of having to register for an EA account (provided you don't already have one), you'll need to agree to either pay EA $2 or let ESPN spam your e-mail account as part of a "sponsored" sign-up deal. Word of advice: Get a free webmail account for this one. Once you actually get into the online play, everything's pretty much as it should be. Plus, you can use the new EA Sports locker feature to transfer files with your friends and move files around between the PS2 and PSP versions of the game, provided you own both.
Apart from the franchise and multiplayer, Madden 06 on the PSP also includes the minicamp mode, which comes along with a number of new minicamp games. Some of these new minicamp games are fantastic, including a route-running game for wide receivers and tight ends, a coverage game for defensive backs, a blocking one for offensive linemen, a quarterback-sacking one for any defensive player, and even one for kick and punt returners. A couple of these games, though, are also incomprehensibly bad. There's a hardest-throw game for quarterbacks, for instance, that is the clumsiest thing put into a football game since first-person football. Still, the good far outweighs the bad in this case. It's just too bad that all the new minicamp games can only be played individually and can't be played in the minicamp challenge mode.
Madden 06 manages to create a fully 3D handheld game of football that looks great. Though the player models are far less detailed than you'd see on consoles, most of the animations from them have made their way into this one, so you'll get many of the big, brutal hits and fantastic catches you'd get in the other versions. The game runs at a pretty smooth clip, and apart from the momentary hitch-ups where it tries to load up a new menu or play-calling screen, the frame rate almost never drops. The sound quality is about the same as the console games, with plenty of grunts and smacks on the field, Al Michaels and John Madden's generally obtuse and uninformative commentary, and the same soundtrack that features lots and lots of the indie rock bands the kids love these days. Admittedly, the amount of audio EA has crammed into this game is pretty impressive, but the actual audio itself is hit or miss. Not to mention that, for some reason, the in-game track display often identifies the wrong song as the one playing when the soundtrack is going.
As the first simulation football game on the PSP, Madden 06 gets more than enough right to recommend. It's got its quirks, for sure, as well as a few serious annoyances, but the gameplay is undeniably great. EA will undoubtedly work out many of these kinks for next year's game. However, there's more than enough quality content in this package to make this year's game worthwhile for any PSP-owning football fan.