Plug in your controller, get your snacks, and stretch your thumbs. It’s time for the 30 best video games ever made, from the medium’s beginnings to now.
These titles made us play harder, better, faster, stronger. Did your faves make the list?
One ball. Two paddles. A scoreboard. And video game history was changed forever.
Pong was originally developed by computer scientist Allan Alcorn as part of a routine training exercise. Execs were so impressed, they used the game to springboard the company we now know as Atari.
While Pong originally existed just as an arcade cabinet game (the first one being installed in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California), Atari released a home version just in time for Christmas 1975. And with that, they invented the home video game business we all know and love.
If the world ever gets invaded by aliens, leaders shouldn’t go to the military. And they shouldn’t go to scientists. No — our best and brightest need to find our best and brightest high scoring Space Invaders players. For only this influential game has truly trained us against extraterrestrial invasion.
One space gunner tracks back and forth at the bottom of the screen, blasting away endlessly cascading rows of aliens that intensify in speed. A few structures are the gunner’s only protection. It’s high-octane, wrist-injuring action at its finest — and it was all inspired by a dream about Santa Claus.
In 1980, Pac-Man stole “Wocka wocka” from Fozzie Bear. That infectious sound effect plays whenever you move Pac-Man around, chomping up those white dots and cherries, avoiding those dang ghosts. Like the best video games, Pac-Man starts simple enough, then ramps up in intuitive intensity as it goes.
Game director Toru Iwatani was interested in a more inclusive game, as most games at the time centered around ultra-masculine depictions of violence. Iwatani’s design for Pac-Man, the most recognized video game character in North America, came from a hockey puck. In fact, his original name in Japan was Puckman.
We love a game that teaches real-world skills. If you’ve ever successfully packed a car within an inch of its available space, you have Tetris to thank.
The puzzler descends colored shapes down from the sky. It’s up to us to stack them in a satisfyingly efficient matter.
Are you humming “Music A” as you read this? That super-catchy Tetris theme tune is an electronic adaptation of a traditional Russian folk tune called “Korobeiniki.” In fact, Tetris itself was designed by a Russian engineer named Alexey Pajitnov, who went on to create lots of other casual puzzle games.
Super Mario Bros.
Mario is a plumber who hits blocks with his head, jumps on creatures, and saves a princess from a dinosaur.
Mario also symbolizes the beginnings of video game trends we now take for granted: side-scrolling platforming action, iconic mascots, and the cultural value of a little company called Nintendo.
Super Mario Bros.’ first level, the simply dubbed World 1-1, was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka to function as a subtle tutorial on how to play video games without any pesky instruction manuals. After a player finishes this now-iconic level, Miyamoto said that the game “becomes their game.”
Wanna revisit some retro video games? Do some strength training before tackling Contra.
Even in the era of hard modern games like Cuphead and Dark Souls, Contra is still uncompromising in its difficulty. It’s also one of the first games to boast simultaneous multiplayer, making it an instant sleepover staple.
Two dudes run across side-scrolling levels, blasting everything in their way with a bunch of guns.
And if you need any help blasting everything in your way, try inputting this at the title screen: “Up up down down left right left right B A.” You’re welcome.
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior
In the early days of video games, technological limitations meant that characters could only speak for a small amount of time. So when they did, those noises had to count quickly. And in 1991, Street Fighter II blasted a “Hadouken!” into all of our eardrums and brain boxes.
“Hadouken!” is what characters like Ryu shout when they blast blue energy balls at each other. Beyond its special moves like this, Street Fighter II revolutionized the fighting game genre, boasting unprecedented speed and multiplayer action.
Also, its bonus rounds feature characters beating up a car, which is very satisfying.
Super Mario Kart
In the early ‘90s, racing games like Formula One Grand Prix prided themselves on a highly realistic experience. By leaning into the stylized and cartoonish, Super Mario Kart lapped them all. It throws its now well-known cast of Nintendo favorites into a genre it invented and perfected: kart racing.
Nothing about Super Mario Kart feels real. Its levels feature boosts, jumps, and roads made out of actual rainbows. Your characters pick up items and hurl them at each other, adding an element of combat. And yet, this game is more addictive than any of its more literal-minded brethren.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Nintendo was king. But Sega could do “what Nintendon’t.”
With that bratty, effective advertising campaign, Sega swiped at the video game throne. Oh, and they also had one of the best video games ever made to back them up: Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Kiss the rings, Mario.
Beyond the game’s quality, Sega’s release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was also revolutionary. They picked November 24, 1992 as the worldwide release date in every single market — normally, publishers rolled titles out slowly. They called the experiment “Sonic 2sday.” And now, it’s how every video game publisher operates.
While the perception was perhaps unfair, video games in the early ‘90s were often still seen as kids’ toys. Mortal Kombat destroyed that boundary with blood-shetting, bone-breaking depictions of over-the-top violence and cutting edge graphics.
It was, to borrow a relevant term, a flawless victory.
But the resounding success came at a controversial cost. Parental groups and publishers alike balked at putting such a wildly explicit title into childrens’ hands, with Nintendo eliminating the blood altogether. In response, Sega let the blood fly, and their version outsold Nintendo’s.
“He’s heating up!” “He’s on fire!” “Boom-shacka-lacka!”
If modern basketball announcers had half the swagger of the NBA Jam announcer, they’d have the highest rated shows on TV. He’s the perfect encapsulation of the basketball game’s blend of over-the-top antics with pure fundamental gameplay.
If you’re looking to play as the ‘90s Chicago Bulls, you’re not gonna find Michael Jordan. He bought his own likeness from the NBA and put out his own game, Michael Jordan In Flight, the same year.
Joke’s on him — Jam is the superior title. Take that, Michael Jordan!
These days, horror video games are a widely popular subgenre. Even if you’ve never played one, you’ve watched someone stream one on Twitch and cackled at their reactions to the jump scares. With its literally Satanic creature design and aggressively gory visuals, Doom helped write this playbook.
It’s still a marvel just to take in how surreal the 1993 game is. The 2D attempts at 3D exploration, coupled with your character’s deteriorating face in the lower half of the screen, coupled with the VERY SCARY MONSTERS all add up to a game that gets under the skin.
Have you played and enjoyed an RPG recently? Then you better pay your respects to Chrono Trigger, a revolutionary JRPG for the Super Nintendo.
Despite its complicated, time-traveling narrative, the game is accessible, and was a critical and commercial smash upon its release.
So many facets of modern video games we take for granted were invented and perfected by Chrono Trigger.
Side quests that are more fun than the main plot? Check. Moments of pure character development? Double check. Multiple endings based on character choices? Triple check.
What a game!
Female representation in the early days of video games was a bit pitiful, to the point where Samus revealing her gender in Metroid was considered a twist.
But in Tomb Raider, the world got a new icon by the name of Lara Croft. And her reverberations are still felt today.
Tomb Raider skyrocketed the PlayStation to success, crafted the perfect template for 3D action-adventure titles (what is Uncharted if not Tomb Raider with a white guy?), and blended traditional shoot-em-up gameplay with satisfying puzzles and exploration.
It’s very fun to raid a tomb, is what we’re saying.
Pokemon Red and Blue
“Gotta catch ‘em all” isn’t just a fun slogan. It’s a way of life. The path to becoming a master. And in 1996, two nearly-identical Game Boy titles set the world on this path.
Pokemon, introduced in Red and Blue cartridges, was a rocketing phenomenon, inspiring an entire media empire.
Find pocket monsters. Catch them in your Pokeball. Train them to battle each other. Repeat until you get all 150 (or more?). It’s the recipe for addictive, spiraling-yet-accessible fun. And brilliantly, you can’t catch them all with just one cartridge, unless you traded with someone who owned the other.
If Doom is Metallica, Resident Evil is the Pixies. It stays quiet until it needs to get loud — and when it does, look out.
The groundbreaking survival horror title puts you in a mansion with a bunch of zombies, and not a bunch of ways to deal with them.
Resident Evil is built on a foundation of suspense. Case in point — every time you open a door, the game abruptly stops and gives you an eerie animation of a door opening in total darkness. It makes you sit in your own dread, wondering what fresh horror will greet you.
Super Mario 64
The Nintendo 64 was launched with two games: Pilotwings 64, a neat skydiving game with funky music. And Super Mario 64, an enormous jolt of pure fun that perfected the open-world platformer and brought the most iconic video game mascot into a new dimension.
But still — Pilotwings 64 is fun!
Shigeru Miyamoto started work on Super Mario 64 three years prior to its 1996 launch, after Star Fox came out for the Super Nintendo. And his thoroughness shows — from the first star to the last, the game is packed to the gills with discovery and joy.
When you make Mario triple-jump? Mamma mia!
Video games licensed from movies get a bad rap — usually deservedly so. But to paraphrase Casablanca, we’ll always have GoldenEye 007 (Also, no one make a Casablanca video game, please).
Its multiplayer FPS action changed everything, making video game playing a high-octane, friend-teasing party.
What were your house rules? Slappers only? DK mode? Paintball mode? No Oddjob because his shortness is cheap?
Beyond its technical achievements (contemporary dual-stick shooters owe a lot to GoldenEye), the Bond adaptation cemented the video game as a conduit for customizable friendships.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
By 1998, we had already seen four entries in the Legend of Zelda franchise, all of which were various levels of unmatched quality. But the franchise’s premiere bow on the N64 blew them all out of the water with the blow of an idiosyncratic musical instrument.
Ocarina of Time is a masterwork. Playing it is like playing a classic silent film adventure (well, silent beyond Navi’s omnipresent “Hey, listen!”). Its world is large yet inviting, its combat thrilling, and its music? Not just unprecedentedly beautiful, but essential to the gameplay’s DNA.
Metal Gear Solid
We tend not to think about video game creators the same way we think about movie directors. But Metal Gear Solid, with all its sprawling, fourth-wall breaking, box-hiding eccentricities, made gamers take notice of its creator: Hideo Kojima. His bonkers-but-brilliant vision shines through every moment of the game.
You control Solid Snake, special ops soldier, on a series of stealth missions that solidified how to use stealth in the often over-aggressive video game medium. At one point, to defeat a boss, you have to plug your controller into the second port.
You crazy for this one, Kojima.
At the dawn of the new millennium, video games became more and more prevalent, but were still considered by some as fodder for, well, special interest nerds. The Sims changed all that. It democratized the medium, inviting everyone to play in the virtual sandbox.
Make a person. Put them in a home. Have them live their life. And… that’s it!
The Sims shines in its simplicity, letting the player play God with goofy charm. It helped invent the idea of the “casual gamer,” welcoming everyone to the wonderful world of video games.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
Have you been to a Journeys lately? Or any clothing store in any mall where teens with gauges are hanging out? All of these vibes have Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 to thank. The game 360 kickflipped skateboarding culture into the mainstream — and is hella fun to boot.
With an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master control scheme, THPS2 made a hard-to-learn, hard-to-master sport belong to everyone. Chaining together trick combos to an iconic-upon-impact soundtrack just feels good, setting a benchmark for fluidity in video games. Every piece of this thing is still felt in all facets of modern pop culture.
Grand Theft Auto III
The first two titles in the Grand Theft Auto franchise were top-down “car carnage” games. In the third installment, our perspective changed.
Rockstar Games shifted to third-person and opened up the world. If you never complete a mission in Grand Theft Auto III, you can still have a good time.
If you love Skyrim, thank GTA: III.
It proved that sandbox games that give the player an unprecedented amount of aimless control feel just as satisfying as a linear narrative, if not more. Causing mayhem in Liberty City is morbid, cathartic bliss — just watch out for those police stars.
World of Warcraft
How do you know if something has penetrated mass culture? Look to South Park.
The Emmy-winning episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft” ruthlessly satirized how addictive World of Warcraft had become. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. At the ‘berg’s core?
Over a hundred million users, still playing.
The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG if you’re into acronyms) is highly customizable, rewarding players with equal parts imagination and determination. Parties can join forces from across the world, going on quests via headset and office chair. It globalized games forever.
So many acclaimed games (including many on this list) are marked by a dogged pursuit of darkness and punishing violence. This makes Katamari Damacy all the more refreshing.
It’s whimsical, strange, and downright silly, inspiring the current generation of game designers to sprinkle some lightness in their creations.
How to describe Katamari Damacy? Let’s try: You play a little guy on a big ball, rolling around bizarre worlds and sucking up what you run into to make your ball bigger, all for the service of the King of All Cosmos.
Got it? Doesn’t matter — you’ll love it.
In GoldenEye, players gathered on a couch to blast each other to bits. With Halo 2, players blasted each other to bits across the globe.
A benchmark of the Xbox Live network, a system that allowed console players to easily compete online, Halo 2 brought FPS multiplayer to the masses.
Halo 2’s single player narrative was criticized for its rushed development, but it truly didn’t matter. Its multiplayer was so addictive, it reframed how everyone developed and consumed shooters. From Call of Duty to Fortnite to Overwatch, every online multiplayer-based shooter is in the shadow of Halo 2.
Guitar Hero: We’re the best way to play music video games!
Rock Band: Hold my plastic instrument.
Rock Band swept the nation with its immediately understandable, party-ready gameplay. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star, without the pesky “learning to play an instrument” part?
In the franchise, your four-piece band features a guitar, bass, drums, and lead vocal track, and you do your best to play along with your favorite tunes. The game crossed over even wider with its 2009 Beatles-centered spinoff, giving everyone the chance to be the Fab Four.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Coming hot off the heels of The Dark Knight, Batman: Arkham Asylum takes the “gritty superhero” ball and runs with it. While it uses the same voice cast as the memorable ‘90s animated series, it’s bound to no recognized Batman adaptation, crafting its own story from the general mythology.
The fluid combat and self-contained narrative blew the roof off of what folks expected from superhero games. It even inspired the actual authors of Batman comics to create new works. Arkham Asylum is a confidence-booster — after playing it, you know what it’s like to be Batman.
The Last of Us
It’s the weekend. Would you rather spend your hard-earned bucks on a new video game, or an equivalent amount on a night out at the movies?
The Last of Us, a horror game with a blockbuster scope of action and narrative, closed the gap between the two mediums even further.
From its invigorating combat to its beautifully performed characters, The Last of Us raised the bar with its surprising story choices: A giraffe! A button prompt we can’t get out of! That abrupt ending!
It’s like playing a high-quality film, and it will be discussed as such.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
In 1999, Super Smash Bros. invented the idea of franchise-crossing fighting action. In 2018, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate perfected it.
If you’re interested in seeing video game icons like Mario, Pac-Man, and Sonic pummel the crap out of each other in a Pokemon gym, this is the game for you.
This title is the Avengers: Endgame of video games.
It combines every single piece of content from every Super Smash Bros. game, while managing to add new, instantly enjoyable characters, too. It’s a stunning achievement, a new peak in gaming.
We can’t wait to see where the medium goes next.
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Hollywood Stars Who Drive The Most Expensive Luxury Cars
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