The Sega Saturn had a relatively short life in North America, but it still managed to get a couple seasons worth of football games released on it. And in this article, we're going to take a look at each one.
In full disclosure, I've never been a huge football fan in general, but I've played my fair share of games like NFL Blitz and NFL 2K. I mainly used this as an excuse to load up each game and check 'em out to see how they stack up against one another. There are five games that we'll be looking at here and we'll just go through them in alphabetical order. I considered including Quarterback Attack, but since it's more of an interactive movie, rather than a football simulation, I decided to leave it off.
Okay, enough of that stuff, let's go!
Madden NFL 97
The first game on our list is Madden NFL 97. This is the first of two Madden games on the Saturn and the first multi-platform entry in the series that was released for 32-bit consoles. It offers all of the requisite features that one could expect from an EA Sports title in 1996, including a full Season mode, Pro Bowl, the ability to create and trade players, a TV-style presentation, and so on.
The first thing I noticed when I loaded this one up is that it seemed really polished for a nearly 30 year old game. After hitting the field, the game just ran so smooth compared to other sports games from this era. The framerate is solid, the graphics are crisp, the controls are responsive, and, well, the game is pretty fun!
One minor quibble I have - and it's hard to fault the game for this, considering its age - is that it seems to be a little lacking in the play-by-play department. You'll hear some very basic commentary like "Incomplete" and "Touchdown", plus John Madden himself will comment on something every once in a while, but it's rather barebones in this release. Season Mode offers up some FMV clips that help bolster the presentation, but they don't matter once you're on the field.
Ultimately though, having never played this game before, I found it to be a lot of fun. I know the idea of playing a nearly 30 year old football game isn't going to appeal to most gamers out there, but if you're interested in seeing how they were back then, this is what I would recommend on the Saturn.
Madden NFL 98
The Madden series stuck around for one more season on the Saturn with Madden NFL 98. Not only was it the last entry for the series on the Saturn, but it was also the last entry before the series shifted to a fully 3D engine. While this game wasn't a complete overhaul of the Madden formula, it did introduce some nice changes.
According to critics back when the game was released, one of the biggest improvements was the so-called "Liquid AI", which improved the balance and overall challenge of the game. I haven't played enough to know how much of a difference the AI improvements made, but I did notice the improvements made to the play-by-play and TV-style presentation. While it's still a bit primitive compared to modern football games, Madden NFL 98 has much more frequent commentary and things look and feel a bit more realistic this time around.
The graphics seemed to be improved from Madden NFL 97 as well, though one thing I didn't really like was the change to the layout when selecting a play. In 97, you could see six plays at once and in 98, you can only see three. But on a positive note, the game engine still seemed pretty solid here even with the slightly improved graphics, though for some reason I didn't seem to like the controls as much. I'm not entirely sure what changed, but it just felt a little different to me.
Overall, I thought Madden NFL 98 had some nice improvements from its predecessor. I would probably choose 97 as it just felt a little better during the on-field action for some reason, but 98 is still an enjoyable football game.
Next up we have NFL '97, which also happens to be the only football game published by Sega on the Saturn. This is somewhat surprising, considering Sega had published a variety of football games on the Genesis. From what I've gathered online, NFL '97 had a bumpy development and bounced around publishers until finally landing with Sega. The developers would go on to release a follow-up called Jimmy Johnson's VR Football '98, which ironically would be an exclusive on the PlayStation the following year.
Anyways, NFL '97 is about as basic as it gets in terms of football games. It has the standard Exhibition and Season modes, plus a play editor, but it doesn't really bring anything new to the table. The menus are very basic and my initial impression was that it's hard to believe it was released around the same time as Madden NFL 97.
But hey, menus aren't that important, what counts is the actual football gameplay, right? Well, unfortunately, NFL '97 is once again very basic. Sure, it's football and I suppose it plays okay and all, but it doesn't do anything special. The controls are quite sluggish, especially compared to the Madden games and the graphics seem choppy. There's hardly any semblance of a TV-style presentation here, though it did have what I assume was a PA announcer who would recap the action.
The play selection screen is a bit odd since it's displayed on an all black background. It hurts the immersion a bit and seems like an artifact of how older football games were presented. It's also a little odd in that it automatically runs down the clock after you select a play, once again hurting the immersion...but mercifully it helps speed up the game and offset the sluggish controls.
NFL '97 received a negative reception when it was released and after playing it for a bit, I can understand why. I wouldn't say it's an awful game, but it lags behind the competition by a significant margin. It doesn't really have any noteworthy features and is simply a football game on the Saturn. Nothing more, nothing less. It's too bad a game that proudly places the Sega Sports logo on its cover is an inferior product, but perhaps in some small way the disappointing results helped Sega regroup when they would later publish the excellent NFL 2K for the Dreamcast.
NFL Quarterback Club 96
Given that the Madden series has dominated the football video game market for so long, it's easy to forget that there were several other competing franchises back in the '90s. Acclaim's NFL Quarterback Club series is a prime example and it saw yearly releases for home consoles from 1994 thru 2001. NFL Quarterback Club 96 is the second game in the series and was released in 1995 for a variety of consoles.
This game didn't really make a great first impression with me thanks to the lengthy load times and the fact that the B button is what you use to confirm menu items. But once I got into the actual football gameplay, things started to improve.
The graphics aren't anything special, but they're a noticeable improvement over the 16-bit versions. Like a lot of games from this era, there are random snippets of FMV clips and in this case, you'll see the referee pop up after certain plays, such as an incomplete pass or a first down. I'm sure in 1995 this was a nice, next-gen touch, but nowadays it just slows the game down too much.
And it's not just the FMV clips either, I thought the gameplay in this one was generally sluggish. Now, I know it's a nearly 30 year old game, but it wasn't as responsive as I would've liked. Still though, I did enjoy the general football gameplay here, especially once I got used to the pace and controls.
Aside from the FMV clips, there's not much in the way of commentary, which ultimately makes the game feel rather...empty. The other sounds are mostly play calls, grunts, whistles, and a constant crowd noise in the background. It's all serviceable I suppose, especially considering this was released in 1995, but at the time, sports games in general were on the verge of making some great improvements in this area.
NFL Quarterback Club 96 does have a couple of nifty ideas up its sleeve that help offset some of its presentation deficiencies. First off, there's a Simulation mode that offers 50 different situations from NFL history and lets you play them out. Each one has some text explaining the situation and then it's up to you to see if history can repeat itself. I thought this was a pretty cool and unique feature and certainly offers an extra challenge beyond trying to win the Super Bowl in Season mode. Additionally, there's an option to customize your own situation, which is a nice bonus, though the built-in scenarios are likely to keep you busy for a while.
The other neat thing is that it offers a "Smart Defense" option when selecting the play you want to run. I don't exactly know how it determines what play to select, but it seemed to work well enough for me. As someone who knows basically nothing about football play calling, I thought it was a nice touch and certainly helped speed things up.
NFL Quarterback Club 96 was the first football game released on the Saturn and while it's a little lacking in some areas, it was the only show in town for about a year. It's not a bad game by any means, but it's really hard to recommend it over the two Madden games.
NFL Quarterback Club 97
Next up we have NFL Quarterback Club 97. Like many sports games that receive yearly iterations, this version of Quarterback Club is very similar to its predecessor.
Although the improvements were mostly subtle, I thought the game felt better overall. The sluggish controls and general pace of the game seemed to be slightly improved, though it still took me about the same amount of time to play a full game. The graphics are better, but the framerate seems like it might be a little slower from the previous game. One nice improvement is that you can select from four plays instead of just three. Oh and they kept the Smart Defense option in, which remains just as handy as before.
Perhaps the biggest issue with NFL Quarterback Club 97 is that it was released around the same time as Madden NFL 97. While this version does retain some interesting features from 96, like the historical Simulation mode, it just isn't nearly as polished or as fun as Madden. I'd say it's an improvement over the previous version, if only slightly, but still not in the same league as Madden. This would be the last appearance for the series on the Saturn as it would move on to the Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast for the next few seasons.
So that about wraps things up for football games on the Saturn. Overall, I thought the Madden games were pretty solid and the Quarterback Club games provided some decent competition. I found NFL '97 to be the worst of the bunch, but I suppose it's okay if you need a football game in a pinch. I'm sure most gamers out there aren't looking to pop any of these into their Saturn anytime soon, but if you are, hopefully you found this article helpful.