If you’re a football fan who also enjoys video games, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the madness that comes with the annual release of EA Sports’ Madden NFL franchise.
As the calendar switches to August, gamers begin to count down the days until Madden‘s release, and subsequently flood physical and virtual stores to buy their copy of the game.
Much like football itself, the game’s release and annual success is built on a longstanding tradition, basically representing the virtual equivalent of the leaves changing to represent the start of fall.
Madden NFL games have been around for decades at this point, dating all the way back to the release of John Madden Football in 1988.
Dozens of Hall of Fame-caliber players have graced the game’s cover over the years, leading up to a dual cover featuring Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes for Madden NFL 22.
But, with so many different releases over the years comes a lot of trial and error on EA Sports’ part, all in an effort to continuously adapt and improve one of its most popular franchises.
Some games are massive hits. Some are big whiffs. Others just fall right into the middle of the pack.
Similar to the NFL, however, someone has to come out on top when the dust clears. So, we put our thinking helmets on to pinpoint the six best Madden NFL releases in the franchise’s history.
6. Madden NFL 09
This one may be considered a “hot take,” given the amount of change that this release brought to the Madden NFL franchise. But, it opens things up in the top six of all-time Madden NFL releases.
This game swapped out the classic announcing team of Al Michaels and John Madden for Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth, and even had to swap out covers when Brett Favre, the release’s featured athlete, returned from retirement to join the New York Jets.
Those polarizing topics aside, this game was great. It was the last release before the Madden Ultimate Team era, meaning EA Sports was still able to focus wholeheartedly on the gameplay and the installment’s Franchise Mode.
The graphics began to improve, the overall presentation was solid, and the weather elements were arguably the best they have ever looked.
It wasn’t the greatest release of the bunch, hence how it ended up in the sixth spot, but it seems deserving of a seat at the table when discussing the best Madden NFL installments.
5. Madden NFL 16
The lone Madden on this list to have a PlayStation 4 and Xbox ONE release, Madden NFL 16 was one of EA Sports’ last great products before the franchise took a bit of a turn.
Capitalizing on the momentum from then-New York Giants star Odell Beckham Jr.’s iconic catch against the Dallas Cowboys, EA Sports put the wide receiver on that year’s cover and added some new catching animations to match the occasion.
While fans will complain about how much use those animations got in actual games, this Madden release truly had something for any type of gamer.
If you wanted to dive in on a singular game, the graphics and overall gameplay were amazing. If you wanted to go through more of a grind in a competitive setting, you could dive in on Ultimate Team, which had become a fan favorite.
If you wanted the fun of Ultimate Team in a quick game or two, you could take advantage of a new “Draft Champions” game mode, which could basically be summarized as picking a fantasy football team that you can actually play real games with.
The game still had some drawbacks as EA Sports continued to adapt to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox ONE, but the developers really hit their stride with this release.
4. Madden NFL 10
It’s fitting that, ahead of Madden NFL 22‘s release with a dual cover, we honor the franchise’s first, and only other, dual cover for Madden NFL 10.
Featuring Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, each representing the two teams that played in Super Bowl XLIII earlier that year, Madden NFL 10 really nailed it.
Hammond and Collinsworth showed up on every platform for the first time ever after a limited takeover the year prior, and the game’s presentation remained sound (no pun intended).
The level of talent in the league was at an all-time high, giving gamers endless options to work with from a gameplay perspective in singular games or full seasons in Franchise Mode.
Plus, Madden NFL 10 represented the first year of EA Sports’ Ultimate Team mode, which has since become a fixture of games for the NFL, NHL, and FIFA.
This release really came at a prime for the Madden NFL franchise, and is well-deserving of a spot in this list’s top four.
3. Madden NFL 2003
It’s time to take a trip down memory lane for one of the most iconic stretches of releases in sports video game history. First stop? Madden NFL 2003.
With St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk on the cover, EA Sports dropped this installment on six different platforms, including the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, original Xbox, Game Boy Advance, GameCube, and on Windows.
Of course, with that fact in mind, it’s easy to understand that the graphics aren’t all that great for this one in comparison to more modern releases. But, the overall gameplay made up for all of that.
Some argue that the physics in this game are better than the ones that are used in releases on the newer PlayStation and Xbox consoles, even with nearly two decades separating the releases.
It led to one of those peak football games that was straightforward, simple to pick up and play, and easy to enjoy.
Whether you wanted to play against a friend or play through a full season against the computer, this was a quality game that kicked off an important era in Madden NFL history.
2. Madden NFL 2004
Two words are all that are needed to describe Madden NFL 2004: Michael Vick.
A year after a high-quality release in Madden NFL 2003, EA Sports struck gold with the Atlanta Falcons quarterback as their cover star for their next installment. In the process, developers created one of the most powerful characters the world of sports video games has ever seen.
Vick’s speed out of the backfield and arm strength made for endless fun when playing as the Falcons, and created an incredible challenge for players to defend against.
Away from the on-the-field gameplay, players were also treated to all-time franchise elements, led by a new “Owner Mode.” Gamers could relocate their favorite team, take control of prices for food and merchandise, and have total control over the organization’s coaches.
It kicked off a transition to a more in-depth Madden NFL franchise, and set the tone for the greatest release in the game’s history a year later.
1. Madden NFL 2005
While fans are likely nostalgic about Madden NFL 2004 because of Vick, Madden NFL 2005 takes the cake as the best release in EA Sports’ long history of NFL games.
Take everything that was great about the previous year’s game, and add in new elements to take the franchise to the next level. That’s a formula for success for anyone in the game development scene, and it’s the exact approach that EA Sports opted for with Madden NFL 2005.
The gameplay was perfect as usual, and even added in the notorious “Hit Stick” to allow players to deliver bone-crunching hits with some of their favorite NFL stars. To celebrate that addition, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis earned cover honors.
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The release’s Franchise Mode is among the best in the game’s history, as well, complete with newspapers that recap the previous week’s events, and a full-on radio show that played in the menus between games.
The game was also very customizable, with “Create-A-Player,” “Create-A-Team,” “Create-A-Playbook,” and “Create-A-Fan” modes letting you take control of just about anything you could imagine.
Add in the online multiplayer that was a newer concept at the time, and you have yourself a near-perfect game.
While it’s tough to think about the fact that an annual franchise’s best release came out before the Xbox 360 was even a thing, Madden NFL 2005 takes top honors on this monumental list.