People with low attention spans seem to be the target audience for Madden NFL Arcade, a scaled-down game that turns the clock back to the days when you didn't have to take a week off work to learn team playbooks. This Xbox Live and PlayStation Network game is the kind of dumbed-down, old-time arcade football that Tecmo used to make, with just five players a side, a handful of plays to call, and no kickers in sight. This makes it a lot easier to get into than its ever-more-intimidating big brother--a kind of casual game for everyman. But it doesn't have much of an identity because it cuts out features from the main Madden game without adding any personality of its own. So you're stuck with a stripped football game that you settle for hauling out only when nongaming football fans drop by, which doesn't exactly seem worth 1,200 Microsoft points or $15 over on the PlayStation Network.
But Madden NFL Arcade does succeed at being accessible. Just about anybody can sit down to start playing immediately, even if you can't tell the difference between football and foosball. Everything has been cut back. There are just five players per side on offense and defense, which is cut down from the NFL-standard 11. The field has been dropped from 100 to 60 yards to promote more scoring. You have just four downs to score, and then the ball is turned over. Punters and kickers have been given the boot. Extra points are awarded automatically because end zones don't even have uprights, or you can choose to stage another play from scrimmage and go for two. Playbooks consist of running, passing short, passing medium, passing deep on offense, and calling a blitz or going into coverage for the aforementioned passes on defense. Only the top players of all 32 NFL teams are featured, and they can only play in one-off games because there is no support for tournaments or leagues. There isn't even a clock to deal with because teams scrap to be the first to put up a set number of points (the default is 30, but you can customize this). Standard controls are just as streamlined. You use the left stick to move, the right stick to juke and swim past blocks, and hit a button to pass. That's it. Say goodbye to making power rushes, adjusting linemen, and calling audibles. You can even knock this down a notch by choosing the simpler arcade control scheme. At least you can play with three other people, online or on the same system.
So Madden NFL Arcade aims to distill the fun of football into something that people who don't know the difference between nickel and dime coverage can enjoy. Games like NFL Blitz have been using this philosophy for years, and they're fun, casual football games. But here, it's like the developers focused too much on what they were editing out of the big Madden game and not enough on what they wanted Madden NFL Arcade to be in its own right. The gameplay feels stripped down, which is not something entirely new for a casual or an arcade-first crowd. There is really only one concession here to the arcade crowd that has grown up on the goofiness seen in NFL Blitz, as well as its many imitators, because even the graphics and sound are just a slightly less subdued take on reality than that found in the mainstream Madden game (lineman look like the Hulk; receivers and cornerbacks have chicken legs; fireworks are launched from the end zone corners with every score). Wacky game changer power-ups that roll up slot machine-like before every play can be deployed for Blood Bowl-style situations. It's Alive turns any incomplete pass into a live ball up for grabs. Fumblitis gives opposing ball carriers a bad case of butterfingers. Make It, Take It lets you keep the ball after you score. Entourage lets you bring your whole squad onto the field as help on the line. And so on.
But there only about a dozen of these screwball plays, and they get old fast. You're not even guaranteed to get one on every play because the spinning wheels that determine which game changers are activated for each team often come up blank. So the reality most of the time comes down to throwing the same old short, medium, or deep passes; slamming it up the gut for another four-yard gain on the ground; or countering these choices on the other side of the ball with the same limited number of defensive options. You don't really have to do much on D after the ball is snapped, either. Computer-controlled backs and safeties play really tight, forcing a lot of dropped balls and picks. You can do pretty well calling a blitz on every play and then just dropping the controller to let your boys do their thing. Because of this tough defense, games typically drone on into lengthy back-and-forth affairs where you only put the ball in the end zone one out of every four or five possessions. Instead of the high-flying acrobatic catches and highlight-reel touchdowns, you get a dull possession game that will have you yawning long before you hit 30 points. The end result of all this is a game that plays almost as slowly and deliberately as real Madden. But it has none of the added depth and action options that make that football franchise such an addiction.
In a lot of ways, Madden NFL Arcade feels tenuous. You can tell that EA Sports is trying to branch out here and embrace the arcade sports gamers that have been left behind by the increasing complexity of the company's flagship gridiron franchise, but nobody has decided exactly how this new kinder-and-gentler Madden should play. This leaves you with a boring game stuck in the middle between realism and over-the-top arcade antics that isn't a good fit for anybody.