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Ubisoft’s Madden for Game Boy just arrived from an alternate universe

The game was never officially released

John Madden Football (1988) cover art with Madden holding a football and bursting through a chalkboard
The cover art for the very first Madden game, 1988’s John Madden Football.
Image: Electronic Arts
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Nintendo enthusiasts started poring through a huge Nintendo leak in July. Tons of files were dumped onto the internet. Called the “Gigaleak,” the files held source code and other assets for games like Super Mario Kart, Yoshi’s Island, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Hackers and data miners have found more file dumps since then, too. An anonymous user dropped a bunch of Game Boy files online in September, reportedly holding ROMs for games on the Game Boy and Game Boy Color.

That includes unreleased games, like Pokémon Picross, which was canceled in 1999, according to Pokémon YouTuber Lewtwo. And then there’s Ubisoft’s John Madden Football — a port of Electronic Arts’ John Madden Football ’93 that was supposed to be released on the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy. Welcome to Ubisoft’s alternate universe.

Ubisoft announced the game, which was developed by NMS Software, in 1993. It said at the time that the 8-bit ports of Madden would be available by Christmas of that year, but the games were never released. Game Informer magazine previewed the title in 1993, according to The Video Game History Foundation, but with a “non-interactive demo.” Playable prototypes had never been discovered for John Madden Football, until now.

Ryan Langley, a game designer and curator on Nintendo Metro, posted screenshots from the game Tuesday on Twitter. He also shared a GIF with Polygon, showcasing some scenes from the Game Boy port.

Image: NMS Software/Ubisoft via Nintendo Metro

Langley told Polygon that the John Madden Football ROM is playable if you can get to it, but said it’s “just a bit baffling and hard to play” — perhaps a reason why the game was never released. “The Madden ROM was in a ‘POOL’ folder, which means (at the time) it was possibly in a ‘waiting’ space to go and be tested, but it wasn’t,” Langley said. “It was never given a cart code.”

Ubisoft has not responded to Polygon’s request for more information.

Game enthusiasts are currently combing through John Madden Football for Game Boy to note differences between it and the Electronic Arts-published games. Madden NFL is one of the longest-running sports video game series, one that changed how players viewed the genre. That’s partly due to Electronic Arts, which has published the franchise since the beginning, when John Madden Football debuted in 1988 on Apple II. The series became an annual franchise starting in 1990 (with a new version of John Madden Football), when it launched on consoles. (The Madden NFL series got an official NFL license in 1993.)

If you’re counting, that means there would have been three different versions of John Madden Football, all with the same name, if Ubisoft’s Game Boy port had gotten published.

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