John Madden: The Best 'Madden NFL' Games of All Time, According to Critics

While he is best known to sports fans as a Hall of Fame coach for the Oakland Raiders and a prolific commentator, the late John Madden also left his mark on the world of video games.

For the past thirty years, his name has been synonymous with the National Football League (NFL), given that it has been attached to all of their officially licenced games. For those who want a true simulation experience, with up-to-date playbooks and teams, authentic commentary, and the ability to play as real life athletes, there is simply no alternative to the Madden NFL franchise.

The Electronic Arts (EA) series has been going strong ever since 1988, when John Madden Football was released for the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS). Featuring an unmatched level of customization, it allowed you to tweak everything from the match conditions to the teams and the game rulesets. Madden himself was keen to be involved with this first project and gave his endorsement when he saw the potential for it to be used as a modern teaching tool.

The franchise quickly became annualized and, since 1990, there has been at least one entry released every year. Speaking of which, the most recent installment, Madden NFL 22, came out in August and was heavily criticised for its abundance of glitches and the outdated-feeling game engine.

While the series has been going through a bit of a rough patch lately (having been subjected to poor reviews and meta-bombing) it still holds a special place in the hearts of many fans and has delivered some classics in the genre.

With that in mind, and to commemorate the passing of a sports legend, Newsweek has rounded up the high points in the Madden NFL catalog. According to the Metacritic aggregate ratings, here are the franchise's top 5 entries.

Madden NFL 22 Screenshot
Image shows a screenshot from "Madden NFL 22". The most recent entry in the franchise has not been especially well recieved. EA Games

5. Madden NFL 2001

Sitting at a 90 meta score, this PS2 outing was the subject of near-universal acclaim at the turn of the millennium. One of the reviews listed on Metacritic, published by GameSpot, called it "the best iteration" of the sports game yet, praising its wealth of new features, the polished visuals and realistic simulations (although they did find fault with the sluggish controls).

The write-up concludes with the following recommendation: "Madden 2001 is the most realistic and complete video game interpretation of the sport of football ever. The level of detail in the game's presentation and feel is so dramatically superior to previous football games, it's unbelievable."

Echoing these sentiments, IGN contended: "This series is the granddaddy of virtual football and for all intents and purposes, this version of the game is the finest of the entire bunch."

While Madden NFL 2001 was generally agreed upon to be the franchise's greatest outing at the time, the next few years would only see things improve even further.

4. Madden NFL 2005

Madden NFL 2005 is certified as a "Must Play" title on Metacritic, with an aggregate score of 91 out of 100.

GameSpy awarded it a perfect 5-star rating, citing the improved artificial intelligence (A.I.), state of the art animations, and online mode. On that note, Madden NFL 2005 has the distinction of being the first entry in the series to feature Xbox Live functionality, which obviously became a huge part of the brand in the latter half of the noughties and into the future.

GameSpy was particularly fond of the innovative "feedback system" here, which let you evaluate others and incentivized everyone to play nice. If somebody exhibited poor sportsmanship, rage quit out of matches that weren't going their way, or were otherwise unpleasant to interact with, then you could essentially give them a thumbs down for the world to see.

It was a bit like an Uber Star rating (albeit 5 years before those existed), and it helped to foster a more enjoyable online community.

Summing up Madden NFL 2005, GameSpy wrote: "There's very little not to like [...] Its amazingly deep, well thought out franchise mode is the best I've ever seen, while the basic gameplay still can't be beat [You] won't be disappointed."

3. Madden NFL 2002

Madden NFL 2002 Box Art
Image shows a screenshot from "Madden NFL 22" overlaid with the "Madden NFL 2002" box art. The latter is the franchise's third highest rated game on Metacritic. EA Games

You might detect that a bit of a pattern is emerging here, as Madden was clearly on a roll in the early noughties.

Continuing that trend, the 2002 iteration boasts a staggering 94 score on Metacritic, based on a sample of 23 reviews. At the time, journalists were impressed by its detailed graphics, deep customization options and addictive local multiplayer offering.

IGN noted that EA admirably refused to rest on their laurels with this sequel (which is not what you would expect from the company nowadays) and made "key improvements in every single facet of the game".

Specifically, the outlet praised the developers for adding new content (like the fun drill mode) and refining the campaign. There was also an enhanced create-a-player feature, a better fantasy draft option and various quality of life improvements.

Overall, IGN claimed: "Whether or not it's the best football game ever released is debatable [but] we're going to go ahead and give it our vote for 'Best. Madden. Ever." Of course, with this only being third place on our list, it was eventually surpassed.

2. Madden NFL 2004

Madden NFL 2004 also has a 94 rating but, given that this is based on more reviews than the previous outing (29 to be exact), it comes in a little higher. As you will expect by now, most of the articles focus on how the release utterly trounced the competition and deserved to be held up as an industry standard.

Dedicated gaming journalists and sports pundits alike were taken with Madden NFL 2004. It has 11 perfect scores listed on Metacritic, coming from a diverse range of outlets like Playboy, the official PlayStation Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. In their review, the latter wrote: "Still going in its 14th year, the latest edition of this classic football sim ups the ante again."

The piece referenced the Owner Mode as a particular highlight, noting that it added "a mind-boggling level of depth" to proceedings. With this innovative feature, you were able to take on the managerial responsibilities for an entire team, by negotiating salaries, building stadiums, hiring coaches and even setting the price for hot dogs at the concession stands. It was something completely new for the series at the time and it really shook things up.

1. Madden NFL 2003

Madden NFL 2003 Box Art
Image shows a screenshot from "Madden NFL 22" overlaid with the box art for "Madden NFL 2003". The latter game is the highest rated in the series on Metacritic. EA Games

According to Metacritic, Madden NFL 2003 is the 59th most acclaimed video game release ever. Hailed by many as being the complete package, it had refined gameplay, authentic integration with the NFL, and a suite of extras.

However, the game's defining attribute was its trailblazing online multiplayer component, which was a revelation for the series. Maxim cited this as a key strength in their 5-star write-up, as did GameSpot. For the first time in Madden history, you were able to play with your friends without having to organize an in-person get together and it totally changed everything about sports games from then on.

Reflecting on this ground-breaking innovation the time, IGN said: "The idea that you can finally sit in front of the television and play some other guy a thousand miles away is awesome."

Elsewhere, they also praised the game for its unparalleled realism, like the way it included halftime shows, its authentic commentary and the use of official uniforms. Summing this all up, they wrote: "You won't find [another game] that has more authenticity from top to bottom."