Mortal Kombat has always distinguished itself from the excess of fighting games that made their way from arcade cabinets to players' living rooms with its unapologetically sadistic violence. Gore isn't an afterthought to your blows in this 1992 brawler, it's the main spectacle. Mortal Kombat and the controversy it stirred were crucial in shifting the video game market from one that was evidently aimed at kids, to one that could appeal to teens and young adults. But it wasn't thanks to the game's bloodiness alone: Its smooth controls, rewarding combinations and imaginative roster of characters earn it a top spot on our list.
For many growing up in the 1990s, the Pokémon craze was unavoidable. And when Pokémon Red and Blue launched in 1998, those franchise-obsessed kids were given the chance to start a critter-filled adventure of their own--one they'd only to that point experienced through TV shows, toys and trading card games. Red and Blue also had all the hallmarks of a strong roleplaying game: addictive turn-based battles, a seemingly endless goal (to catch 'em all), plenty of attainable yet rewarding goals (earning gym badges, leveling up) and an expansive, uncharacteristically friendly world. The games also managed a feat all-too-rare in the games industry: a setup simple enough to appeal to children, but with layers of strategic depth sufficient to hook adults as well.
BioShock's gripping metaphysical plot, over-the-top art deco levels and motley cast of hauntingly broken personas intermingle to furnish an experience so riveting and simultaneously disturbing that it fueled (at the time perfectly reasonable) conversations about games as more than dopamine-fueled diversions. Studio Irrational Games' 2007 first-person shooter takes the player on an imaginative journey through the fictional undersea city of Rapture, built by fanatical industrialist Andrew Ryan (whose name references Atlas Shrugged novelist and self-described objectivist Ayn Rand). The game set new standards for video games on so many levels, from its horrifying forms of self-augmentation, to its ecology of intersectional enemy behaviors and its sublime ways of channeling what amounted to a withering deconstruction of extremist modes of thought.
Before you can catch all 151 Pokémon, Pokémon Yellow first teaches you how to respect and care for the sometimes temperamental creatures. Pokémon Yellow takes all the best elements from Pokémon Red and Blue and upgrades it to make it feel more like the anime. The best change to the originals, of course, was a Pikachu following you around on your journey. Suddenly, the Pokémon weren’t just creatures you summoned for battle; they become emotional creatures that accompany on your adventure. They’re no longer just fighters you bring along. The small story elements that link Pokémon Yellow back to the anime were a fun way to let the player relive the beginning of Ash’s journey, but ultimately, Pokémon Yellow is simply one of the best ways to experience the Pokémon universe – it's as simple as that.
Borderlands 2 elevated an excellent game to Legendary status. The original Borderlands captured the attention of gamers, seemingly from out of nowhere, and its sequel took everything that made the original great and expanded on it. From its seamless continuation of the Borderlands vault hunting lore, to its unmatched writing, Borderlands 2 remains the high point in the Borderlands franchise. Borderlands 3 is overflowing with improvements over its predecessor The Pre-Sequel, but Borderlands 2 still can't be beat for its awesome levels, excellent DLC, and series-best villain, Handsome Jack.
By marrying an open-ended approach to quest structure with the ability to freely explore a vast, beautiful, intriguing world with little specific regulation, the 3D Zelda game template was shattered about as fast as the average breakable weapon in Breath of the Wild. The result is a gorgeous, freeing open-world action/adventure experience that evokes the wonder and fear of exploring a bold new place with the empowering tangibility of becoming its hero.
Few games had more of a buildup prior to their release than Halo 2, and even fewer managed to live up to them in the way that Halo 2 did. Master Chief taking the fight with the Covenant to Earth was epic, action-packed, and visually stunning on the original Xbox. Sure, the campaign didn't so much end as much as stopped, but the shocking reveal of the playable Arbiter and his story that mirrored the Chief's was a twist no one saw coming.
Developer Riot’s initiative to reboot League of Legends’ lore has also made it more captivating on the narrative front as well. Each new Champion or Champion makeover is presented with such beautiful pageantry that it’s difficult not to get sucked into catching up on any lore you may have missed. With continuous improvement updates and a constantly changing roster, League of Legends stands as one of the best competitive games in existence.
It's 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System has invaded American living rooms, and brothers Mario and Luigi are running rampant through the Mushroom Kingdom. They're stomping on goombas, de-shelling winged turtles, bashing question mark blocks and lobbing fireballs—like this is totally normal plumber behavior. (Clearly the 1970s drugs worked.) Yet however bizarre this side-scroller seems at face value, it's also as insanely fun to play today as it was three decades ago. And in the wake of Mario's nonstop running, this platformer par excellence turned the NES into a must-have appliance, Mario into a beloved gaming franchise and Nintendo into a household name. Talk about grabbing the flag.
Pokemon GO in 2019 is a game I shouldn’t care about. When it launched in 2016 it was in a lot of ways a mediocre experience. Outside of catching the original 151 Pokemon the game itself relied heavily on the nostalgia of the Pokemon franchise and augmented reality gimmick of having them show up in the real world. If you didn’t care about the IP, the game itself was very lacking. In 2019, the game is flooded with a multitude of tasks, activities, and events that can involve anyone from yourself to a large group of people. These additions create an experience that incentivizes users to be more dedicated to daily play without feeling like a grind. Friendship has been introduced and allows users to now exchange gifts, trade or even battle each other. Quests (research tasks as they are referred to in-game) have been added that reward items and even special Pokemon. Events now fill each month’s calendar with new (and sometimes shiny) Pokemon, exclusive rewards and new ways to play the game. There is even a burgeoning competitive PVP scene which gave Pokemon GO its first-ever appearance at the Pokemon World Championships this year.
He may not be officially recognized by the new Star Wars canon, but there’s no Jedi I’d rather have in my corner than Kyle Katarn. Dark Forces 1 and 2 may have built up his character, but it wasn’t until Jedi Outcast that we really saw Kyle at his best (or worse, if you went down that path). More than just making choices about good and evil, Jedi Outcast allowed us to live out our force-using fantasies in a time where lightsaber battles were mostly relegated to the movies.
Pushing the limits of the NES's 8-bit architecture, 1987's Castlevania was a monster of a game, with stirring graphics, sophisticated physics (for such an early platformer) and unforgettable music that perfectly matched the title's creepy feel. While nowhere as frightening as the yet-to-surface survival horror genre, it offered an experience in stark contrast to Nintendo's whimsical Super Mario games. Exploring Dracula's castle as vampire hunter Simon Belmont, players ran into some pretty haggard stuff. Bloodstained gates greet players off the bat, holy water and crosses were throwing weapons, and, oh yeah, you have to beat Death—and that's not even the final boss.
It’s right there in the name: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is quite simply the ultimate Smash Bros. game. Purists will no doubt claim that SSB: Melee is the game that put the series on the map, but it’s impossible to ignore the sheer wealth of content that is present in Ultimate, from the insane roster size of 70+ characters that is still growing, to the enormous World of Light story mode, to the library of over 800 classic video game songs jam-packed within its cartridge.
Swedish studio Mojang's indie bolt from the blue turns out to be that rare example of a game whose title perfectly sums up its gameplay: you mine stuff, then you craft it. At its simplest, Minecraft is a procedurally generated exercise in reorganizing bits of information—all those cubes of dirt and rock and ore strewn about landscapes plucked from 1980s computers—into recognizable objects and structures and mechanisms. Or put another way: part spreadsheet, part Bonsai pruning. Since its launch in November 2011, it's sold over 100 million copies, colonized virtually every computing platform, spawned an official "Education Edition" tailored for classrooms and inspired feats of mad grandeur, like this attempt to model staggering swathes of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. Has there ever been a game as impactful as this one?
While the Tomb Raider reboot in 2013 kicked off a new direction for the iconic heroine that was more in line with modern AAA storytelling (read: Lara was given a deeper backstory and a personality), Rise of the Tomb Raider took it and ran a mile. It continued to flesh out Lara as a driven, wary character while upping the ante on what made the 2013 game so fun; fluid traversal, crunchy combat, and beautifully intricate puzzle tombs. Add a delicately told emotional throughline centered on Lara’s relationship with her father, and you’ve got what is currently the series’ apex.
This was one of those games you could easily lose hours playing, either alone or with friends. Among our nerdy cadre, there was no greater source of joy, sorrow, or white-hot rage than Burnout 3. Few things could ruin a friendship faster than wrecking someone's ride just before the finish line – though thankfully all was (usually) forgotten during the next round of Crash Mode.
Blizzard’s bracing 2004 fantasy simulation World of Warcraft introduced millions of players to the concept (and joys and frustrations) of massively multiplayer online worlds. Like so many influential products, it didn’t invent so much as refine and perfect—from the way gamers meet-up and socialize online to how to populate large digital worlds with satisfying stuff to do. It was one of the first games to render a landmass that felt “real” and un-gated, allowing players to run from one end of the continents in its fictional Azeroth to the other without seeing a loading screen. It also de-stigmatized and normalized online gaming by, over time, revealing that its millions of players (some 12 million at its peak in 2010) were no different from non-players. The massive revenue it generated for years also spurred legions of game designers to try to create similar online playgrounds.