If you're a hardcore Madden fan, you know that playing football on a handheld has always been a dreadful proposition. People have dreamt for a long time about playing a "real" version of Madden on the go, and this is why Madden 06 for the PSP was such a highly-anticipated game. While not without some significant issues (lots of load times and several bugs) Madden 06 delivers a satisfying game of football that will tide you over while you're away from your PS2.
The franchise mode has been trimmed down, but you can still go through multiple seasons with your team, sign players, do drills, play the preseason, put players on the practice squad, and trade players. There's no create-a-player, and the superstar mode is nowhere to be found, but it's more than adequate for general managers on the go. You can even transfer a franchise game from your PS2 and play it on the PSP, allowing you to play your season away from home, but it's a little complex, and the fact that you can only do one game at a time makes it not really worth the effort. It's great that EA recognizes that people want this option, but it needs to be improved before being worth the effort.
Since you don't always have time to play a full game, it's worth noting that all of the mini-games from the consoles are included, along with several new PSP exclusives, a few of which are very fun. You can play all of these games against three friends, passing along the PSP after each turn and talking trash while you wait. Unfortunately, you can't practice several of these drills, as they are only available in competition mode. The scoring is also very unbalanced as some of the more difficult games, like covering a receiver, won't net you many points, while the punting game, which is quite easy, earns you tons of points. For some reason you can't save your game while in the midst of a competition, so if you run out of time, you'll have to put the PSP to sleep or simply give up.
While there were sacrifices made to various parts of the game in transition to the PSP, most of the series' trademark gameplay is intact here. Each team's playbook is unique, and you can run the full complement of alternate formations, flip plays at the line, and call audibles. Hot routes can be adjusted, and you can even make intricate changes to your defensive coverage before the ball is snapped. The computer A.I. seems to be on-par with the consoles, though some quirks, like an inordinate amount of dropped passes are present. Two fairly obvious omissions are that you can't view replays and you can't challenge calls. This really doesn't hurt the game a whole lot, but it's one of the several indicators that the game was rushed.
Since there's no right analog stick, the controversial passing cone that made its debut on consoles this year is nowhere to be found, nor are the hit and juke moves that were mapped to the stick. For the most part, the game's controls are solid, but they have a slightly different feel here. The running game is more responsive to your commands, which isn't good or bad per se, but it does feel different than the running game on the PS2. Precision passing doesn't work well on the handheld because the analog stick makes it an all or nothing proposition. It's impossible to put just a little bit of touch on the ball, so you're constantly overthrowing receivers, especially if you're passing on the run.
There's no nice way to put it – Madden's load times are a problem. Even after enduring a long load time to get to the "EA Sports, it's in the game." clip, you've got another thirty seconds of loading just to get to the start menu. Long load times are also present in the mini games, which puts a damper on some of the fun, when four people are crowded around the system waiting. While some long load times aren't the end of the world, the sheer frequency of load times during a game severely hamper the overall experience. After selecting a play, the screen turns blue for a second or two before switching to the field view, but the biggest offender is the pauses that happen during the action. On a turnover, the game freezes up for a few seconds, and it will even pause during kicks, making even an extra point sometimes difficult. On a positive note, the game saves games very quickly; much faster than the PS2.
Madden 06 has quite a few gameplay bugs, which are disconcerting to see in a "finished" product. The biggest issue is a bug that causes the game to crash, and crash often. EA has posted a workaround for this on their site, but many people don't know where to find this information, and there are differing reports as to whether or not this workaround actually solves the issue. There's also an issue with players not keeping the points the earned during training camp, which is a careless oversight on the parts of the developers.
From a visual standpoint, Madden 06 gets the job done, but not much more. It looks better than a PlayStation One game, but not as good as a Dreamcast game. The framerate is slow, and stutters from time to time, but it's certainly playable. The player models are large, but other than their names on their jerseys, they're not very detailed, and they're all about the same size. Most people won't notice that the number of animations has been reduced significantly, unless you're looking for celebrations, which have almost totally been eradicated. The stadiums look ok, which is all you really need in a handheld. It was disappointing to not see snow falling when you play in the snow – there's just a smattering of white on the field, which looks pretty bad.
Madden 06's audio is solid yet unspectacular. John and Al's commentary has been reduced quite a bit, so Al doesn't do much more than provide basic calls while John's insight is even less prominent. The commentary is often delayed due to load times, and will occasionally continue to ramble on well into the next play. The EA Trax are quite good, (wow, I can't believe I said that) but there don't appear to be as many of them on the PSP as there were on the PS2. The crowds will cheer during a big play, but they don't do much else. You won't hear music clips from the PA, and you won't hear team and player specific chants.
One of the risks that the NFL took when consummating the exclusive license deal, was that EA could get away with releasing less-than-stellar games because they faced no competition. Madden 06 for the PSP was released too soon – there's simply no denying that fact. With features missing such as instant replay and challenging plays, and bugs that will crash games and others that ruin player progression, the game could have used some more time in the shop. While some may chalk it up these issues to a learning curve or the PSP not being able to handle it, NBA Live 06 has already proven that great sports games can be pulled off on the PSP. Even with all of its problems, Madden 06 is easily the best football game to ever grace a handheld, but it's only worth $50 if you're really hankering for some pigskin on the go.