It’s a sad fact that most of us won’t ever be any good at football, but the best games can take you into a fantasy world in which you’re a world beater.
Amazingly, that applies whether you’re controlling a stick figure on an 8-bit computer or a fully realised 3D model with ultra-realistic stubble on a PS5. Seriously – we’ve shed real tears at a line of text on a screen describing how the opposition stick figure has just put us out of the cup.
But then that’s football: it has the power to reduce otherwise sensible people to mere shells of their former selves. And game makers soon realised they were on to something good when they created the first footie sims, because in no time they were flying off the shelf.
As a result, there have been hundreds of football games over the years – so many, in fact, that narrowing down our selection to a mere 28 titles was near impossible. Arguments raged across the office – FIFA or Pro Evo? Sensi or Kick Off? – and that’s exactly as it should be.
Why are we looking back on these classics of the genre now? After nearly 30 years, EA and FIFA have officially cut ties. Will an EA Sports FC be gracing this list in a few years’ time? Will Xbox One X and PS5 players have to update their team rosters like it’s PES on the PS2 all over again? And, of course, there’s the small matter of the World Cup.
Whether you agree or disagree with our list, we hope it’ll spark plenty of memories. Let the arguments begin.
27) Footballer of the Year (1986, ZX Spectrum)
People weren’t sure what to make of this oddball at the time of release. Part management game, part board game, you aimed to take a kid from the old fourth division to the glory of cup finals and Division One.
Success was mostly down to scoring goals in arcade sequences; chances were bought with ‘goal cards’ purchased in-game, and ‘incident cards’ enabled you to delve further into your young player’s life. If this all sounds a bit familiar, FOTY was a big influence on New Star Soccer creator Simon Read…
26) Tracksuit Manager (1988, C64)
We’re not sure how you manage a tracksuit; stupid name aside, this Goliath Games effort was an impressive management game with depth. You arrived just as your team (England by default) had a disastrous World Cup (so, pretty accurate), and had to figure out a road to success.
Highlights were akin to the running commentary you’d today see on a news website, and while that lacked visual impact, it provided plenty of insight into who was providing the goods for your team, and who to send for an early bath.
25) International Soccer (1983, C64)
This C64 classic was the first truly great soccer game. Inspired by the earlier Intellivision Soccer, it utilised a side-on viewpoint, and had two seven-a-side teams battling it out for a chunky, pixelated cup.
Despite creator Andrew Spencer not being a fan of football, he captured the feel of the sport, and squeezed throw-ins, corners and goal-kicks into the cartridge’s tiny memory. It’s also the one football game where you can sometimes head a ball half the length of the field – a bug Spencer noticed but left in because he thought it was funny.
24) Match Day 2 (1987, ZX Spectrum)
Knowing a good thing when they saw it, Jon Ritman and Ocean teamed up for a sequel to Ritman’s original Spectrum smash hit. This time, the players looked a lot like bodybuilders, and the underlying mechanics had been suitably beefed up: along with a far superior deflection system, there was a league format, volleys, flicks and jumping.
Shot strength was determined by a slightly awkward oscillating ‘kickometer’ and the pace was again slow, but this merely made for more strategic play.
23) Behold the Kickmen (2017, Nintendo Switch/PC)
Look, we adore the beautiful game, but sometimes it feels like the sport takes itself a little bit too seriously. Watching a gaggle of shouty adults boot a ball around a field for 90 minutes is hugely entertaining, but it’s also not that important in the grand scheme of things. Behold the Kickmen is here to remind you of that.
This is football as seen through the eyes of someone with absolutely zero interest in the laws and rules of the sport (or physics, for that matter). Kicking, tackling, passing, shooting, and scoring – it’s all here but dialled up to 11 in the most nonsensical way imaginable. In striving to make a complete mockery of football, developer Size Five Games has created one of the most comical and outrageous takes on the sport we’ve ever encountered.
22) Actua Soccer (1995, PS1)
Its name and tagline may have been a shot across Sega’s bows (“There’s nothing virtual about Actua“), but Gremlin Interactive’s title was noteworthy for more than just a bit of snide trollery: it was the very first console football game to offer fully 3D players. These were motion-capped from Sheffield Wednesday stalwarts Chris Woods, Andy Sinton and Graham Hyde, providing a level of clogger realism never before witnessed on consoles. The original featured only national teams, but a Club Edition featuring all 20 teams from the 96/97 Premier League season was released a year later.
21) Ultimate Soccer Manager (1995, Amiga)
For all of Championship Manager’s statistical goodness, nothing immersed you in a mid-’90s football world like the USM series. Transfers and team selection almost became minor distractions, as you reclined in your office next to a fax machine and Teletext.
There were advertising deals to negotiate, a stadium complex to build, and even bungs to offer the opposition. Yes, this was the George Graham era, when managers were unimpeachable emperors, and USM put you right on the throne with a hotline to football’s dark side.
20) Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 (2016, PS4/Xbox One)
Having spent years in FIFA’s shadow, Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 finally offered a genuine alternative to EA’s annual juggernaut. PES 2017 was a slower, more considered version of the beautiful game, with less emphasis on beating players for pace and more on patient build-up play, but when everything fell into place and you unlocked a defence the sense of satisfaction was glorious. Its lack of official licenses and a fundamentally flawed online mode still made it very hard to convince most FIFA fans to jump ship, and things seem to have gone backwards since then, but for one short year PES‘s glory days were back.
19) Kick Off (1989, Amiga)
Dino Dini’s 16-bit classic added an ingredient that hadn’t really been seen before in football games: speed. The little players darted about the pitch like they were dosed-up on something decidedly not allowed under FIFA’s code, and the ball was initially impossible to control, given that it didn’t remain glued to your feet.
But once mastered, Kick Off made every other football game suddenly seem dull and dated by comparison, even if it was at times the football game equivalent of juggling bars of soap while riding a unicycle down a hill.
18) World Cup 98 (1997, PS1)
EA’s FIFA series might now rule the football gaming world like some kind of digital Sepp Blatter (before all the dodgy payments stuff), but it wasn’t always thus. Back in 1998 it was merely one of several games vying for the hearts and minds of floppy fringed teens, and it was far from being the best.
The previous edition, 1997’s Road To World Cup 98, had marked a big improvement though – while FIFA had always had the official licences, it finally had the gameplay to go with them too. World Cup 98 built on that in some style, keeping the free-flowing football of the previous title and adding in-game tactical changes.
It was all wrapped up in a slick World Cup skin that no other game at the time came close to, complete with commentary and unlockable classic games. Shame we had to put up with Chumbawamba’s execrable Tubthumping every time it loaded though.
17) Football Manager (1982, ZX Spectrum)
Kevin Toms graced the front of Addictive’s Football Manager cover, enticing you to buy the game with his charm and beard. And what a game it was: on your little Spectrum, you could buy and sell players, pick a team, and watch highlights on pitches with comically large goals.
Today, it all looks a bit primitive (the C64 conversion was at least a bit prettier), and yet its simple gameplay remains surprisingly compelling in an era of over-complicated (micro) management sims. If you fancy a go on your smartphone, check out Toms’s remakes for Android and iOS.
16) Tehkan World Cup (1985, arcade)
Tehkan World Cup wasn’t the first overhead football game (that accolade probably goes to Exciting Soccer), but it was the first to make that viewpoint work. This was a fast game, in part down to the trackball controls, and decent goalies also ensured that matches were often frantic end-to-end battles.
The game very heavily influenced Sensible Software, and more or less came to the C64 in the form of Microprose Soccer, but its legacy was really being the grandfather to the outstanding Sensible Soccer series.
15) New Star Soccer (2012, iOS/Android)
In answering the question “How do you create an in-depth career-long football game for mobile devices?”, New Star Soccer said “You don’t!”, and instead served up a selection of mini-games draped over a basic framework that wasn’t a million miles from 1986’s Footballer Of The Year.
Although a touch IAP-hungry, it became a mobile classic, having you balance a kind of hyper-real version of a young footballer’s life (Buy a car! And now a TANK!) with pitch-based exploits and the demands of a boss, advertisers and a nagging partner.
Its successor, New Star Manager, is more in-depth, but lacks the addictive simplicity of the original.
14) FIFA 10 (2009, PS3/Xbox 360)
Like a footballing version of Rocky Balboa vs Apollo Creed, the FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer games slugged it out relentlessly throughout the ’00s without either landing a final knockout punch. Pro Evo was generally the better game, but FIFA retained a strong following by virtue of its proper team and player names and presentation nous. But with FIFA 10 that winning uppercut finally connected.
Both games introduced 360-degree player control for the first time in their 2010 editions, but FIFA 10 did it better, allowing you to expertly slide a pass through at just the right angle for your striker to run on to it. Or, more commonly, for you to expertly slide a pass straight to an opposition defender. Coupled with a wealth of game modes – from Be A Pro to Ultimate Team and Manager Mode – FIFA 10 was a more complete footballing experience than any previous title in the series and finally edged ahead of its rival too. And it hasn’t been toppled since.
13) Emlyn Hughes International Soccer (1988, C64)
A spiritual successor to Andrew Spencer’s International Soccer, Emlyn Hughes International Soccer was the last great side-on football game of the 1980s. Brimming with options, advanced players could utilise techniques such as ‘5-direction’ passing, sliding tackles and backheels, all from a joystick with only a single fire button.
The result was the first truly fluid football game, where you could string together some genuinely breathtaking moves. The goalies were still rubbish, though, natch.
12) Retro Goal (2021, Android/iOS)
Retro Goal is by the New Star Soccer folks, and has some similarities, in being a fusion of management and action. However, rather than veering towards management, much more of this game is played out on the pitch. Instead of full games, you play out highlights, using gestural controls (with the aid of Matrix-style slo-mo) to bury the ball in the back of the net.
We’ve seen grumbles that the game is pay-to-win, but we’ve won everything you can win in the game, without doing a Manchester City. You just need some patience, and to power up couple of strikers so they’ve got enough welly. If you’re not sure, you get ten games for free, whereaand even unlocking the entire game costs a pittance.
Retro Goal is a beautiful throwback to the SEGA days of football games and features such star names as Garrido, Hough and Frezza (not actual players, of course). The convenience of being handheld makes it all the better, too. The first 10 matches of Retro Goal can be played for free. Unlocking the rest costs a quid. Barg.
11) FIFA Street (2005, PS2)
There’s something beautifully nostalgic about FIFA Street. For those who played the 4-a-side street football game in 2005, the game conjures up memories of committing devastating flicks and tricks in favelas and English football pitches. It also came with a soundtrack that has seldom been beaten since, bringing the local sounds of soca, grime, jungle and more to global players.
FIFA Street’s newest form, VOLTA, hasn’t managed to live up to the heights of FIFA Street (that is a tough task to achieve, though). But even playing today, FIFA Street still impresses. Few things beat the feeling of nutmegging Ronaldinho before firing a screamer into the top bins, after all.
10) Virtua Striker (1994, Arcade)
Sega’s legendary AM2 team (also responsible for Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter) developed this groundbreaking title – the first football video game in history to use 3D player models. Being available only in arcades, Virtua Striker was designed for fast and furious action over serious simulation, but for those of us who crammed countless coins into the cabinet, it was the most realistic digital appropriation of the beautiful game we’d ever seen.
9) International Superstar Soccer (1994, SNES)
In hindsight, this SNES classic is a bridge between classic-era side-on fare and modern football titles. A predecessor to PES, the original ISS offered a stunning array of moves – everything from feints to shoulder charges – when various buttons were combined.
Visually, it was also leagues beyond the likes of Match Day and International Soccer. Yet for all its gloss and cleverness, what made ISS appeal most was its fun and frantic nature, retaining a very arcade sensibility, in that brief period before sports titles became totally obsessed with a kind of TV-style realism.
8) Football Manager 2011 (2010, PC)
In its divorce with Eidos, Sports Interactive lost the Championship Manager name but carried on creating the only management games still worth playing – and this edition is one of the greatest, adding a full 3D engine that, if you were so inclined, allowed you to watch every single pass, shot, tackle and horrendous goalkeeping error in a match.
Among the other innovations were press conferences – a small detail that served to add colour to an already frighteningly real football universe that featured no fewer than 117 playable leagues.
7) Kick Off 2 (1990, Amiga)
Kick Off 2 looked an awful lot like its predecessor, and it was really a combination of Kick Off and a couple of expansion disks, all carefully refined. But that attention to detail transformed an enjoyable but occasionally uncontrollable knockabout title into a product that demanded a lot more skill.
Along with tournaments, refs with varying moods and – crucially – fewer bugs, this Amiga sequel dropped the pace and boosted the controls, copious use of ‘aftertouch’ enabling you to fashion the kind of dazzlingly audacious shots of which even Matt Le Tissier would have been proud.
6) Sensible Soccer (1992, Amiga)
Sensible Software were fans of Kick Off 2 and football, but were irritated by the former’s shortcomings that didn’t – as they saw it – do justice to the latter. Sensible Soccer was their attempt to bring to gaming the feeling of how you imagined playing professional football would be, coupled with the kind of attention to detail only a true football geek possesses (including correct hair and skin colour for each of the players).
The game zoomed the viewpoint out, showing more of the pitch and enabling it to dispense with a Kick Off-style radar; passing and shooting was simplified and streamlined and everything was done on the frame, making the game extremely responsive. Until sequel SWOS arrived, this was the pinnacle of the genre.
5) ISS Pro Evolution (1999, PS1)
Ah, the Master League: just how many hours have we spent cocooned in your comforting embrace, steadily building up a team of honest pros and turning them into world beaters? Probably several thousand – and that’s no exaggeration. And it was here that it first appeared.
Although at this stage a relatively basic affair, the Pro Evo Master League still bolted a decent career sim on to an already superb football game. You could buy and sell players, but you used points earnt by winning games, rather than money, and there was none of the complicated day-to-day running of the club that you’d have to endure in Championship Manager. Instead, it gave you the chance to shape the team of your dreams, packing it with attacking midfielders if you chose, or instead making sure you had a Mourinho-solid defence.
While the Master League was a great addition to the series, it would have meant nothing if the gameplay hadn’t matched up to it. But in truth ISS Pro Evolution was already creeping ahead of FIFA by this time; it was more realistic yet also more playable – and that’s a winning combination in any game.
4) Championship Manager: Season 97/98 (1997, PC)
Sports Interactive’s series looms like a Colossus over all management games.
Despite being derided by small-minded dullards as a glorified Excel spreadsheet, Championship Manager‘s masterful tactical engine, reams of accurate data (this was the first instalment allowing you to run more than one league simultaneously) and giant player database wove together a rich, convincing football universe that sat parallel to our own – and it fired the imagination like no other game around.
And it was so, so addictive: the game’s official forums were full of tales of lives all but lost to Champ’s particular brand of “just one more game”-itis, or grown men so proud of taking a lower league team to the FA Cup final that they would don a suit for the occasion.
3) FIFA 21 (2020, PS4/Xbox One)
Recent FIFA games have been all about tweaking a winning formula rather than any major overhauls, but considering the series has been building from a leading position since FIFA 10, that’s no bad thing.
While FIFA 21 only makes very minor changes to its predecessor and certainly isn’t without its faults – defending is very much a secondary concern to scoring goals, there’s far too much showboating online, and goalkeepers punch so often they must all be wearing buttered gloves – it remains the best virtual approximation of the beautiful game. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for its proper next-gen debut.
2) Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (2005, PS2)
There are times in popular culture when a thing – band, TV series, game, whatever – reaches such a peak, you think it can’t possibly stay there. But then it does – for year after year after year. The Simpsons did that from about season 3 to season 9, for instance, but it’s pretty rare. Well, Pro Evolution Soccer managed the same feat.
That its standards did eventually drop was inevitable, but it doesn’t make the glory years from 2002-2005 any less special. We could have picked any of the four games from Pro Evo 2 to Pro Evo 5 and made a case for its inclusion. Frankly, we could have had all of them in this list. But that would be silly, so instead we’ve picked the probable highest point in a series of very high ones.
What made it so special? Just… everything. The Master League had by now developed into a proper four-division set-up, with promotion, relegation and a Champions League equivalent and there were even, finally, proper player names. On the gameplay side, it was as fluid and playable as football games get. Not quite as frantically insane as Sensible Soccer, not quite as gloriously detailed as FIFA 18, but instead a wonderful mid-way between the two extremes.
You could score screamers from 40 yards or tap-ins after a goalmouth scramble. You could waltz through five tackles, if you had a skillful enough player, but you couldn’t get away with just running the ball into the net. In short, it was beautifully balanced.
It couldn’t last, of course – but boy was it fun while it did.
1) Sensible World Of Soccer (1994, Amiga)
Almost 30 years young, SWOS is still top of the league. It took everything that was great about Sensible Soccer and just ran with it. You got the same fantastic arcade-oriented gameplay, but the title comprehensively acknowledged the rest of the world’s existence, with the kind of slavish devotion of a true footballing aficionado.
Management features and player trading were boosted by the inclusion of a whopping 1500 teams and 27,000 players. It should have been the start of something great, but SWOS was somehow allowed to be eclipsed by FIFA and PES. Still, dedicated fans keep the flame alive with leagues, events, and patched versions of the game that incorporate modern data – the wonderful, crazy nutters.
Can it compete with FIFA for realistic gameplay or Football Manager for exhaustive statdom? No, obviously not. And for many people, the classic mid-’00s era Pro Evo beats it as an all-round football game; it’s definitely split this office at any rate.
But for sheer “JUST LOOK AT THAT GOAL! THAT WAS LIQUID FOOTBALL!” joy, it will never be bettered. Go on, then, just one more game.
Additional words: Sam Kieldsen, Marc McLaren, Mark Wilson, Tom Wiggins