The best bit about Christmas Day family reunions: repeated hammerings of your upstart little bro on FIFA or PES. Yet such events becoming as traditional as turkey-flavoured rows and Boxing Day hangovers isn’t necessarily a good thing. Great as that pair are, their dominance over the past two decades has seen a number of talented rival games earn free transfers to Obscurity United.
With that in mind, we've put together a World Cup-squad’s worth of the sport’s greatest videogames, many long-forgotten yet forever praiseworthy. To prevent the list – like 25 December – from becoming a FIFA/PES/Football Manager blowout, we’ve limited entries to the best within a particular series.
Exceptions are when a game was a clear spin-off (e.g. EA’s World Cup and Euros efforts) or developed by separate studios or publishers. (For instance, PES is a Konami Tokyo creation, while International Superstar Soccer was made by Konami Osaka.) All clear? Let’s boot some pretend balls around…
23. LMA Manager (2002)
Kicking us off: the pinnacle of Codemasters’ made-for-console dugout sim series. This PS2 edition gave us a 3D match engine long before Football Manager was able to, typically wry post-match analysis from Alan Hansen, and the ability to save your team to a memory card and then face off against a mate’s. Oh, and the option of barking orders from the touchline, even if in-game you sounded like an overly competitive sad dad watching his boy’s under-11s.
22. FIFA Street (2012)
Long criticised as shallow and gimmick-reliant, the PS3 reboot of EA’s five-a-side panna-thon finally nailed the intensity and intimacy of close-quarters football. Ridiculous tricks were still de rigeur, but nifty footwork and sharp passing were necessary tactics too. The thinking man’s futsal game? It genuinely wasn’t far off.
21. Microprose Soccer (1988)
The first football game made by Jon Hare and Chris Yates, who’d go on to refashion the genre in spectacular style with follow-up Sensible Soccer. To this day we miss the C64 version’s moreish six-a-side mode and science-flouting banana kicks, but are relieved to have moved on from the ball appearing superglued to players’ feet.
20. Euro Boss (1991)
Budget Spectrum and Amstrad coaching sim with a demonic twist: incoming cash could be siphoned off to purchase players, but if you didn’t set aside enough to finance stadium upgrades you’d be fired without ceremony after Season Two. Presumably Arsene Wenger played this a bunch.
19. Super Soccer (1992)
A SNES launch game, and favourite, with customary Nintendo quirks. Players only had first names, based on famous counterparts (Diego for Argentina’s Maradona), while the vertical perspective meant the pitch got narrower as you attacked its far end… lending a massive space advantage to the competitor playing towards the TV screen.
18. World Championship Soccer 2 (1994)
This little-known Mega Drive effort is now one of the most sought-after football games ever, after it emerged that Jon ‘Sensible Soccer’ Hare had a secret hand in its development. No surprise, then, that it plays like a sped-up, side-on Sensi… albeit perhaps not one worth forking out £752 for.
17. Emlyn Hughes International Soccer (1988)
While the late-‘80s saw home computers inundated with management simulators, few developers dared to provide total control on the field of play. C64 standout Emlyn was the spirited anomaly, enabling you to pass, dribble and shoot (and trigger deft changes of pace) using a joystick. Editable names and shirt colours added to the notion of realism.
16. Mario Strikers Charged Football (2007)
No, not Balotelli – this off-its-rocker Wii kickabout instead took its name from Nintendo’s ‘tached toilet-fixer. Super-powered shots, comical power-ups and zany environments – such as pitches fenced with electro bolts – made it unlike anything else on this list. Family game? Not when you’d just gifted Toad a last-minute winner, it wasn’t.
15. UEFA Euro 2008 (2008)
The PS3 and Xbox 360 FIFA spin-off that helped transform EA’s footballing fortunes, introducing popular series mainstays such as individual player celebrations and pitch-affecting weather. Slower on-pitch tempo than the club games which sandwiched it also had fans cooing, but it’d be a frustratingly long time – seven years – before the publisher would apply the brakes within FIFA proper.
14. Top Eleven (2010)
Finding a good social media sports game is tough like finding an Arsenal defender who can defend, but Nordeus’s tactics-based treasure is the exception. Its layout recalls the golden years of Champ Man, with instantly rendered results enabling you to whip through seasons in a weekend. Oh, and it’s free. No wonder 15 million played it every month on Facebook in 2014.
13. Virtua Striker (1994)
Long pass. Short pass. Shoot. Tackle. Granted, in-match control options in this arcade favourite were limited, but its ground-breaking 3D graphics kept you thrusting 20p pieces at its innards anyway. Eighteen international teams featured, and we’ll pay actual money to anyone who can prove they ever won a match as Saudi Arabia.
12. Multi-Player Soccer Manager (1991)
Amstrad, Spectrum and C64’s best management emulator, and not only because up to four mates could take it in turns to play. Squad-wrecking injuries, players turning down unsuitable moves and proper in-season stat tracking were lifelike touches that kept it afloat amid the late-‘80s/early-‘90s flood of tracksuit sims.
11. Actua Soccer (1995)
Mentioned in the same breath as FIFA and PES back in the PS1 days, thanks to the first 3D match engine on console. Actua was also before its time in that it used real players for motion capture: Chris Woods, Graham Hyde and Andy Sinton were drafted in for this exercise, with developer Gremlin based just down the road from Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough HQ.
10. Kick Off 2 (1990)
The high point of Dino Dini’s revered series, which paved the way for Sensible Soccer with its top-down perspective and ingenious design decision to treat ball and player as separate entities. Still so beloved by those who possessed an Amiga that a virtual World Cup is played on it annually.
9. Football Manager (1982)
No relation to Sports Interactive’s identically monikered colossus, but a major influence upon its creation – Kevin Toms’ Spectrum classic represents the birth of the management game. It’s best remembered for the matchday highlights engine. Stick men played out every goal, miss and save in a manner which looks crude now, but at the time was considered just like Match Of The Day. Truly a simpler, yet some might argue happier, time.
8. New Star Soccer (2012)
Blending elements of Sensible Soccer (overhead perspective), Football Manager (club negotiations) and numerous RPGs (the ability to level up your player and participate in extra-curricular activities), NSS is an essential buy for any tablet owner. Little-known fact: released for iOS in 2012, it’s actually been kicking around on various formats for 12 years, making it a true Jamie Vardy-like late bloomer.
7. Rocket League (2015)
Swap players for cars and turf for boost-pod-covered arenas and you have a recipe for the sort of addiction that sends D-list celebs to rehab. PS4’s near-flawless sports/driver hybrid is the ultimate game of risk vs reward, where one unlucky bounce or jammy deflection can torpedo the oversized ball into your own net – turning deserved victory into pad-slinging defeat. (But when the opposite happens: ooooooh yes.)
6. International Superstar Soccer Deluxe (1996)
Not, as many assume, the direct precursor to ISS Pro and PES – those games were made by Konami Tokyo, this Super Nintendo effort by Konami Osaka. Even so it marks the mid-‘90s’ cyber-footy peak, with recognisable sprites (Valderrama! Ravanelli!), speedy side-scrolling action and memorably hammy commentary. “Down the wing! It’s a biiiig kick! England win the shootout!” Alright, we made that last one up.
5. Football Manager 2014 (2013)
While the complex user interface can baffle to begin with, what’s underneath is a staggeringly detailed and supremely authentic management sim. Sports Interactive's fabled series improves year upon year – but this is where things all went a bit Minority Report.
Improved AI in this edition meant opposing managers were far better switched on to your tactics, forcing you to switch up and think faster in every game. Then there were the managerial interviews you could sweet-talk your way through, setting out your aims and ambitions in a more refined way and sometimes allowing you to land bigger jobs than your CV deserved (that, or just pissing off your chairman-to-be).
4. FIFA 98: Road to World Cup (1997)
Sure, the newest version is as flash as football games can get – but this list is about more than pure perfection. Many remember EA’s series most fondly on Sega’s Mega Drive; in retrospect, though, its isometric viewpoint looked flashy, but limited passing options and goal variety.
Instead, let's fondly remember the absolutely belting production that was FIFA 98: the intro music of Blur's Song 2, Des Lynam's "Yes, hello" opening gambit to every single match, 3D graphics that took things to a new level, and yes – oh yes – indoor five-a-side football. If you wanted to slide tackle the goalkeeper, you could (well prepared for the automatic red card); if you wanted to play as Malawai, you could; and if you wanted to edit players, teams or kits? No problem. Did we mention indoor football already?
3. Championship Manager: Season 01/02 (2001)
Cherno Samba. Mark Kerr. Tonton Zola Moukouko. Just three of the pro footballers who achieved little of note in their real careers, yet remain hall of famers among those weaned on Sports Interactive’s succulent managerial teats.
It’s impossible to distill CM down to one or two key elements; this was a PC sensation that perfectly recaptured every high and low of being a real boss. Hours and days and weeks were lost scouting little-known nations for bargain signings, devising unbeatable tactics, and rejoicing (or uttering every swear under the sun) at the drama-packed text commentary. If you were a student during SI’s wonder years, it’s likely that your guaranteed 2:1 turned into a fortunate 2:2 thanks to months lost to CM. And certain that you don’t regret it one bit.
2. Pro Evolution Soccer 6 (2006)
The main reason for limiting entries to this list to one-per-series is that the entire top ten would otherwise have been an extended Pro Evo party. From ISS Pro ’98 on PS1 to this PS2 legend, Konami revolutionised virtual sport on a 12-monthly basis.
This entry was the momentous culmination of that decade-long process. It wasn’t just that it nailed the basics of passing and shooting in a lifelike manner, but its nuances too: fabulously intelligent off-the-ball movement, unique running styles for stars such as Beckham and Henry, the addition of quick free-kicks, and so much more. The one downside to its close-to-faultless approximation of real football? The weight of its excellence has become an unshiftable albatross around the neck of modern-day PES.
1. Sensible World Of Soccer (1992)
End-to-end footy viewed through God’s own eyeballs, with heavenly results. There’s a strong case for PES to be in top spot, but the single factor propelling Sensi above it is timelessness. While the necessary evolution of annual titles hasn’t been kind to mid-noughties Pro Evo, SWOS plays as wonderfully today as when it first graced Amiga.
It’s the impeccably tailored grandchild of every top-down game to precede it, delivering an endless array of banana-shaped thunderstrikes, physics-defying tackles and Schmeichelian saves, all at a brilliantly breathless pace.
At launch it packed in 24,000 players and 1,500 teams, and even today there’s a bustling community devoted to keeping it up to date. The fantastic Mega Drive version also warrants a doff of the cap – but much like every friend and foe, before or since, it’s simply no match for this pixel-perfect title winner.
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