The most successful gaming franchise of all time is this year celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Yes, its twentieth.

Madden NFL is perhaps the most iconic sports video game of our time, selling an incomprehensible number of copies and reaching just about every platform that ever even thought about being mainstream. It would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t have their own Madden experience.

Madden has over time become the face for sports games, always being at the forefront of available technology. Looking back over the last twenty years of Madden, one can track the evolution of gaming itself - from the humble beginnings of 10-pixel players on DOS, to the immaculately presented, photo-realistic version of today.

First published in 1988, John Madden Football (as it was then titled) was released for DOS, Apple II and Commodore 64. Due to the limited processing power of these platforms, each team was limited to six players on the screen at once, there was no voice commentary and it focused mainly on strategy rather than action. How times have changed. Today, Madden NFL 2009 promises to be an all action affair fronted by quarterback Brett Favre, a player nearly as iconic as the series itself.

Here in New Zealand, most of us wouldn’t know a corner back from quarter back, which is where one of EA’s touted new features comes in. Madden IQ is what players are presented with when they first start the game. It’s a short test that examines all facets of a player’s game play and then suitably adjusts the difficulty level. This, along with the option for new simplified playbooks to start out with and Madden Backtrack (more on that later), vastly improves the accessibility problems Madden has previously struggled with.

One does still feel though that some description or a simplified commentary should be present, as the jargon for defensive plays alone requires a dictionary. EA has made a commendable effort in this area though and Madden is certainly worthy of its “The First Sports Game That Adapts to You” slogan.

Essentially the core elements of Madden gameplay have been untouched - so as not to lose the “Madden feel". For the experts though, the play calling especially at the line of scrimmage has been enhanced. Audibles can now be called whilst remaining in formation and bluff plays can be called from the line of scrimmage. Commands can be given to individual receivers to run smart routes, especially on third down to make the best attempt at a first down. With all that offence, it’s going to take some great defence to stonewall the opposition and win back possession. On the defensive side of scrimmage you can spotlight receivers to assign double coverage. Menus have been improved so it’s much easier to call that last second blitz on the QB for the big sack! Whilst these changes may sound minor (or like a whole bunch of gobbledygook) the difference they can make is extraordinary.

Backtrack is perhaps the most useful addition to the game this year. Backtrack is like a coach breaking down the video replay of the last play to show exactly where the play failed and what needed to be done better for it to work. The feature has been seamlessly integrated into the gameplay and the comments are genuinely helpful. In conjunction with rewind, where after a shocker of a play players can go back to try again, this creates more skilled and knowledgeable players.

Most of the game modes are carry-overs from Madden 07. Superstar mode, where players take the helms of their own created player and take him from draft day to the hall of fame, remains virtually untouched but there’s still plenty of content here. Franchise mode is as solid as ever, with only minor tweaks and changes apparent. The ‘new’ game mode this year is the Madden Challenge feature, letting players relive the greatest moments of the 2007 NFL season. Though frustrating at times, finishing the situations unlocks new scenarios, all the way up to the holy grail of Eli Manning’s Super Bowl XLII winning final drive.

Online game play over Xbox Live ran smoothly, just as the last few instalments have let us grow accustomed to. Online games typically seemed to run for around an hour or so and for the most part were enjoyable (especially a 70-13 demolition of someone who seemed to be the only other kiwi partaking in online American sports).

Madden 09 is downright gorgeous looking, with everything from the menus to the stadiums looking superb. Stadiums are incredibly detailed and the players are absolutely stunning. The weather effects leave players caked in mud or drenched after a burst of rain whilst other times it’s like playing at the North Pole for all the snow. The addition of celebrations following touchdowns is fairly humorous and adds a touch of class to the overall presentation. Players can do everything from dunking the ball over the goal post to ‘Crankin dat Soulja Boii’ in the end zone, which is good for a few laughs, especially online.

The audio has been cranked up a number of notches with the addition of Cris Collinsworth to the commentary team. His input is insightful, natural and non-repetitive – refreshingly different commentary from most sports games’ banter.

Madden NFL 2009 has truly shown what twenty years of experience can produce. Whilst the key gameplay elements don’t differ too much from last year, the additions have all added something new and positive to the game, keeping both old- and new-school Madden buffs satisfied. The graphics and animations are truly superb and the addition of Cris Collinsworth to the commentary team was an excellent move. It’s obvious as to the amount of time and effort EA has put into polishing and tweaking this game to near perfection, and the final product is superb. Here’s to hoping the rest of the EA Sports 09 range is just as good!

The mind boggles seeing how far this series has come. What will the next twenty years of gaming hold?