Consistently one of the most popular games on the market, Madden NFL has evolved significantly over its 20-year history. By Sam Machkovech

In the early days of football video games, it was all about the quarterback. Today, the man leading the digital pigskin charge isn’t throwing the ball, but lowering the “Boom!” With the release of EA Sports’ Madden NFL 09 edition, John Madden’s series marks 20 years of wowing gamers and topping best-seller lists. A look at the game’s evolution helps explain how a broadcaster became bigger than Mario.

1989 John Madden Football debuts on the Apple II computer. It would’ve come out sooner, but Madden insists that the game be tweaked until it features 11 players on each team -- a tall order for the puny Apple II. Already, the game stands out among its competition, thanks to large playbooks, special passing cameras, and Madden’s patented coaching tips.

1993 In its fourth year, the series sees major upgrades and becomes a hit on home consoles year after year. Its 3-D perspective, fluid control, and Madden sound bites cement the series’ core, while special tweaks (instant replay, injuries, access to “classic” teams) put it over the top. This edition marks the first with an official NFL license; real player names debut in the following year’s release.

1998 Every edition of Madden upgrades to full 3-D. Unfortunately, this has its drawbacks, as early-version players look like blocky LEGO men. Nevertheless, it’s a big step in the series’ progression to being likea TV broadcast, along with full-motion video replays and voice-over commentary from Madden and Pat Summerall.

2002 No more LEGO men -- systems like Playstation 2 are powerful enough to render everything from fingers to personalized faces. Online play begins, and since then, nation wide Madden trash-talk has yet to let up. Two years later, the series’ transition to 3-D truly smooths out.

2006 Madden debuts for the Nintendo Wii, and the series’ “It’s in the game” catch phrase takes on new meaning with motion controls. Push hands outward to fend off a tackle; wave a hand in the air to throw. Concerned parents rejoice, grateful for the physical activity (though minimal) this version affords -- at least until they lose a vase.

2008 Madden NFL 09 is marked by many changes: 17-week online seasons with up to 32 other friends, new in-game commentators, specially analyzed instant replays, and even individual blades of grass. Unnecessary? Perhaps. Cool? Definitely.