5. ISS Pro Evolution (1999, PS1)

The best football games ever

The best football games ever

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 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)

The best football games ever

The best football games ever

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 14 (2013, PS4)

The best football games ever

The best football games ever

Modern day FIFA games aren't to everyone's taste. Some despair that they prioritise über-realism over arcadey fun, that they look like a Sky Sports marketing man's wet dream of carefully packaged ultra-commercial 'content'. In short that they're less of a game, more of a simulation.

These people are right of course - but that doesn't make the games any less brilliant.

The thing with the latest FIFA titles is that they really are like football. And football isn't always fun; any fan of Coventry city or Leeds utd can tell you that. Like the real thing, FIFA can frustrate you with its painstaking realism, with the way your weedy winger gets pushed off the ball by a hulking full back. But it can also delight you when your exquisite chip puts your forward clear on goal. Or when your 30-yard free kick curves and dips over the wall in just the way you told it to. Or when your defensive midfielder, covering for an out-of-position defender, blocks a goalbound effort.

Anyway, if FIFA had already cemented its position at the top of the modern football pile over the previous four editions, 14 is by some way the best yet. The leap to next gen consoles was immense - not just graphically, but also in terms of realism. So while it may not always be fun to play, it's never anything less than essential. Again, just like the real thing.

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 14, 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)

The best football games ever

The best football games ever

Twenty 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 24,000 teams and 15,000 leagues. 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

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