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Madden has been around for three decades and pumped out over 32 titles across various console generations. Despite the regularity of those releases, the sports sim consistently tops the charts in the US. But which one is the best Madden game?

Over the years, the series has gained some yards and lost a few others, and it’s been on the decline in terms of quality and innovation for a while now. So let’s look back across the series as a whole and pick out the Madden games that outshine the rest.

10 - Madden 12

An attacking player dodges a tackle in Madden 12.

This is the most modern Madden game on the list. While other recent titles have played better, none of them match the sheer breadth of content on offer here. Franchise Mode was deeper than the Mariana Trench, allowing you to do all kinds of things that just don’t exist in the series anymore, including the ability to create a team from scratch or take advantage of the free-agent bidding war.

9 – Madden 10

A player readies a throw as attackers are pushed back by defenders in Madden 10.

Madden 10 was the first game to introduce Madden Ultimate Team (MUT). And while there are obvious downsides to adding the quasi-gambling feature, there’s a reason it’s the section of the game that people keep coming back to. In its first form, MUT wasn’t quite as predatory, either. Outside of MUT, Madden 10 gave us the rating adjustment, which helped make the game feel alive and prevented it from going stagnant as the seasons progressed.

8 – Madden 2003

A player looks a bit polygonal in Madden 2003.

This game will always be remembered as Madden’s maiden voyage into the world of online play. A major milestone. On top of that, a lot of the quality-of-life additions and fresh options across various modes acted as the bedrock for games to come.

7 – Madden 2002

Three polygonal players jostle to catch the ball in Madden 2002.

In some ways, Madden 2002 isn’t as good as 2003. I mean, where’s online play? Still, it’s an easy one to look back on with rose-tinted contact lenses (glasses are way too risky in the NFL) because it embraced the fun. Madden cards allowed you to unlock wacky cheats and historic players in Franchise Mode. It’s a shame they were phased out a few years later.

6 – Madden 06

Players get ready on the line in Madden 06.

It’s funny because this one launched on the – at the time – next-gen console, Xbox 360, but that version of the game was vastly inferior to the PS2 and GameCube edition. Several of the game’s best features were missing on next-gen, but at least it looked shiny, eh? Madden 06 ranks so highly on this list because it gave us Superstar Mode, which let players take control of a rookie and lead them to the Hall of Fame. Looking back, the mode still outshines Face of the Franchise. It’s a shame about the introduction of the QB Vision Cone, which really pooped in everyone’s soup.

5 – Madden 99

Players form a circle and prepare their play in Madden 99.

It might not be as polished or have to wow factor of a lot of the other games on this list, but we have Madden 99 to thank for Franchise Mode. Most of the series’ greatest moments wouldn’t have been possible without the innovations implemented here.

4 – Madden 08

A player does a little hop with the ball in his hand in Madden 08.

Madden 08 introduced the new branching animation system, which allowed for more lifelike player movements in more situations. It added a retooled fatigue system that got across the wear and tear players feel as a match progresses. It added “Weapons”, which made star players stand out on the field. On top of all that, it had arguably the deepest Superstar Mode there’s even been in the Madden series. Not bad.

3 – Madden 07

The start menu for Madden 07, featuring a player with the bull tucked under his shoulder.

Much like Madden 06, it was the GameCube and PS2 versions of this game that stood out. It took everything good about the previous entry and improved upon it, introducing new features like the Highlight Stick, which made agile players feel even more snappy and light on their feet.

2 – Madden 2005

Two teams face off at the line in Madden 2005.

The mid-2000s was when the competition between EA and 2K to dominate football was at its peak, and this forced EA to be at the top of its game. The Tony Bruno show in Franchise Mode made it really feel like you were leading an NFL team through the ranks, and the addition of Hit Stick improved the defensive game immensely.

1 – Madden 2004

Players just kind of stand around on the pitch in Madden 2004, as one lays on the floor injured.

Madden 2005 was great, but it couldn’t quite beat the game that came the year before. You might remember 2004 best because of how powerful Michael Vick was, but the introduction of Owner Mode here really took Franchise Mode to the next level. Adjust the price of your hot dogs, coach your staff, and take part in almost every facet of the day-to-day running of an NFL team and stadium. A new level of depth for Madden, and still the high water mark for the series.