Madden NFL has had a largely tractionless history on Nintendo's platforms since the Wii supplanted the GameCube. It's a version that simply lacks identity, floating from cartoon characters attempting to play simulation quality football, to real world strategy that has to account for gameplay gimmicks.
Madden NFL Football for the Nintendo 3DS doesn't do much to reboot EA Sports' presence here. It's still spread too thin in its coverage, leaving it exposed as a shallow performer in simulation football, and a stale one in arcade action.
The game is not without its virtues. Its neatest aspect of is, of course, the 3D. Though the players are stylized models, and not lifelike, there's zero problem with what it seeks to deliver visually. Once you get the screen in the sweet spot position it's like looking through a glass bottom boat at exotic, colorful fish - or Chiefs, Packers, Bills, etc. Players on the periphery retained their clarity with the 3D tuned midway; driven to the max, you'll have some focusing problems. Maxed out 3D is unnecessary, there was plenty of effect at midpoint settings.
The rest of the game, however, feels like a port made of surplus parts, most of them shipped over from Madden NFL 11 on the Wii, including its 5-on-5 mode that will be very disappointing to anyone who's played Madden NFL Arcade. The 5-on-5 game plays exactly like Arcade (no kickoffs, four downs to score, same basic playcalling) just without the zany power boosts. While Madden Arcade faced criticism for what it attempted to do with the boosts, I'm sure no one would have been happy with their removal altogether. Their removal almost feels spiteful.
Arcade mode dips its toe into the main game as a third playcalling option, but here, too, there doesn't seem to be any real point behind it. Just like 5-on-5, you pick from three types of offensive or defensive play, or special teams. But instead of the game dialing in a single play on its own you then have to choose from another four diagrams brought up after that. Furthermore, they were randomized out of your playbook, so anyone looking for a bread-and-butter play will have to take a third step of redrawing the receiver routes. For me, the setup defeated the purpose of something that could have been a sensible a la carte midpoint between do-as-you're-told GameFlow (which I still prefer in all phases of Madden) and you're-on-your-own full playbook control.
There is one game mechanic in which the 3DS control is more suited for its execution. That's the on-the-fly "Call Your Shots" hot routes, which you manipulate by pressing the Y button and then drawing receiver routes or linebacker blitzes with the stylus. Fortunately, as you do this, the play clock stops, so you're not panicked for time.
But the other gameplay divergence from core console Madden, Spotlight Moments, is recycled from the Wii version and somewhat joyless. In a key spot the game might freeze-frame a play, move in for a closeup, and toss in a minigame button press for you to either break a play wide open or knock a ballcarrier senseless. This kind of first-down-by-Quicktime-event felt tacked-on, and such bullet-time features in mobile sports games are usually there to accommodate a limited control set. Madden NFL Football, thanks to the left analog stick, handles very well for a sport that's inherently crowded and complex on a small screen.
Season mode appears to lack any player management beyond signing free agents from a limited pool, but full disclosure, I only played one game out of it. At any rate, it appears to be just the opportunity to play all of your favorite team's scheduled opponents in order, which is less than what this franchise offers on the iPhone. You can pick half-season or playoffs-only if you want, 11-on-11 or 5-on-5.
The most notable absence from this game is any multiplayer, whatsoever. Even Madden NFL 09, the last Madden on the DS, had multiplayer, and behind 3D this new device's biggest enhancements are in its online support. While variables like route-drawing and Spotlight Moments almost certainly force a game to be singleplayer only, I'm sure most folks would ditch them for the opportunity to play a friend over WiFi, or bump into someone virtually through the StreetPass for a quick set of downs. Multiplayer might have even made the 5-on-5 mode worth including.
My Final Impression
Unfortunately there's no real compelling case for Madden NFL Football in any of its modes. The 3D presentation is very enjoyable and makes the game interesting look at in ways its Wii counterpart isn't and the stylus is much more suited to drawing up on-the-fly receiver routes than the Wii remote. But the 5-on-5 mode is a missed opportunity, and the disappointing lack of multiplayer strongly suggest this is a plant-the-flag port more than anything developed specifically for the 3DS' capabilities.
Clarification: This post should have mentioned that an EA Sports representative has said the publisher has no plans to release another Nintendo 3DS version of this game when the rest of the line re-launches in August.