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.


As you head out for a suicide mission, you’ll meet some of the best-written characters that feel original and have the power to evoke true emotions. Perhaps one of the best parts about earning the loyalty of each of the companions was discovering more about their respective species and seeing how they’re surviving in a violent galaxy. Maximum loyalty for my companions in Mass Effect 2 was not an option; for my heart’s own good, it was a requirement.
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.
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.
League of Legends exists in a magical place that lies somewhere between intense competition and fun and enjoyable strategy. Though there’s a lot to master with a roster of nearly 130 playable Champions, League of Legends is equipped with great modes that make the MOBA easy to learn, yet is still incredibly challenging as players scale the competitive ladder. While the excellent Summoner’s Rift stands as the primary battleground for competitive play, the other modes like ARAM, or All Random All Middle, also provide a great means for a fun chance to practice with Champions for when things get too tense.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic almost single-handedly rescued Star Wars video games from purgatory. It was also one of the first times the beloved IP was handed to a world-class developer in BioWare. The result was not just one of the best role-playing games ever made, but one that helped legitimize Western RPGs on consoles and establish the fledgling Xbox as a destination for top-tier third-party games.
Myst is a perfect example of a monumentally influential game that would be almost excruciatingly painful to play today. The 1993 graphical adventure famously let players loose—sort of, since it consisted of a slow-loading series of beautifully rendered photos—on a mysterious island. Despite its now-clunky mechanics, it established an entirely new kind of fiction whose influence can be felt in everything from mythic sci-fi novels to the ABC television show Lost. Its vast popularity also helped establish the then-nascent CD-ROM format.
We were justified in doing so. Rock Band literally invented a new form of multiplayer – one that was not only cooperative, but also one where four of you could share a physical energy in the room. It remains a feeling that no game has replicated, and the very act of learning the "language" of the game – teaching your hands to work the guitar neck, or your hands and feet to work in concert to "play" the drums – was a game in and of itself. Even once you learned that language, moving up the ranks, from Easy to Expert, was an adventure with a tangible payoff: you could see and feel the results. And dominating a classic song you and your friends all know and love as a four-player "band" playing on the highest difficulty made memories that last long after the console turned off.
Playdead's bleak, gorgeous puzzle-platformer builds on its predecessor Limbo in all the right places – hello, colour palettes; goodbye, boring gravity puzzles. It leaves us with a game that sleekly, wordlessly pivots from brain-teaser to body horror, until hitting an ending that ranks among gaming’s best, a masterpiece of animation, design and outright strangeness.
BioShock will likely always be remembered for its game-changing “Would You Kindly?” twist, but the first adventure in Rapture is so much more than a dressed-up dupe. From first encountering a splicer caring for a gun the way a mother cares for her baby to the still-enrapturing Andrew Ryan twist toward the game’s end, BioShock delivers one enrapturing setpiece after another. That’s largely in part thanks to one of the most memorable locations in gaming history. So much story is embedded in the dilapidated hallways and shuttered rooms of Rapture, a decaying underwater labyrinth that demands to be investigated. The mark of a good experience is one that you keep thinking about long after you’ve finished it. And I still haven’t stopped thinking about BioShock, its incredible location, and those awesome Plasmids, over a decade later.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic almost single-handedly rescued Star Wars video games from purgatory. It was also one of the first times the beloved IP was handed to a world-class developer in BioWare. The result was not just one of the best role-playing games ever made, but one that helped legitimize Western RPGs on consoles and establish the fledgling Xbox as a destination for top-tier third-party games.
Final Fantasy VII is a landmark JRPG for a variety of reasons, but many of its achievements have now been lost to the winds of time and technological progress. Yet, its age has done nothing to change its status as the series' most popular and beloved entry, which has come about thanks to its wide cast of detailed, emotionally-driven characters that journey through one of the most memorable worlds to emerge from Japan's development scene. Fundamentally a story about dealing with loss and grief, Final Fantasy VII features troubled heroes fighting against the corporate might of the Shinra company, which is rapidly causing planetary devastation in the name of profit. The pacing of this continually timely tale is its masterstroke; Square allows you to slowly fall for its rag-tag bunch of eco-terrorists before introducing its main villain - the forever chilling Sephiroth - and then focussing the story on much more personal stakes, despite the looming apocalypse. While overall the story is heavy and sombre, the world thrives on its idiosyncrasies - a variety of bizarre incidental enemies, comedic minigames, and increasingly absurdly sized swords. It's this combination of light and dark that makes Final Fantasy VII such an enduring JRPG classic.
The series’ A.I. Director, which in the first game handled how many zombies pounced on you depending on how well you’re doing, got an upgrade. It not only controlled the flow of zombies, but would try to force players to take more difficult paths in a level, and reward players with extra health packs and ammo if they were doing well. Though the original development team went on to create the asymmetrical multiplayer shooter Evolve, nothing has quite matched the visceral thrills and scares of Left 4 Dead 2, which stands as one of the pinnacles of modern co-op gaming.
The seven-year gap between A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time saw Zelda fans eagerly anticipating Link’s next adventure, and they weren’t disappointed. Garnering nearly unanimous critical praise and fan adoration, Ocarina of Time was quickly regarded as one of the most important and groundbreaking games of all time, and for good reason. A sweeping, epic tale that introduced new characters, new lore, and an ever-expanding timeline theory, this version of Zelda took what was great about its predecessors and expanded on those themes and ideas exponentially.
Taking it a step further, those cutscenes were paired with some truly talented voice acting and narrative design. As I played through the storyline I learned to love the different little characters I interacted with and felt genuine anger when the Zerg managed to capture Kerrigan and bend her to their will. This character had been with you through thick and thin and after she's captured you, of course, begin the mission to rescue her.
Journey is the closest a video game has come to emulating the effects of poetry. In terms of structure it’s so simple: you must reach a snowy mountain peak visible in the distance. Along the way, your character surfs across glistening deserts, hides from flying creatures made entirely from cloth, and occasionally meets other players embarking on the same pilgrimage.

History buff Sid Meier had played and admired both Maxis’s SimCity and Bullfrog’s Populous when he set out to design something grander that intermingled warfare, exploration, diplomacy, city-building and elements of political philosophy. 1991’s Civilization launched a series of widely played, deeply loved turn-based strategy epics in which players lead a society from the stone age far into the distant future. Civilization IV, released in 2005, was the apotheosis of the series, and universally acclaimed for its many innovations—from its 3D graphics to its much-improved artificial intelligence. It's arguably the greatest strategy game ever made, and remains a reference design for developers today.
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.
The first four Silent Hill games will always be dear to me, but Silent Hill 2 holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Silent Hill game to establish the town itself as a character – in a genre oversaturated with run-of-the-mill killers, zombies, aliens, and other more conventional adversaries, Silent Hill 2’s focus on horror in architecture, in the layout and personality of a space, of the human psyche turned tangible, was vastly more interesting to me.
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.
As full battles ripped across huge, open landscapes, waged from land, air, and sea, the realization of being able to command a capital ship, lob tank shells from one point to the next, or changed the tide of the war with one well-placed bomber payload was intoxicating. There was simply nothing like the size and scale of Battlefield 1942, and its legacy has only gotten bigger over the last 15 years since.
If you’re doing it right, you’ve named each of your very mortal soldiers after your friends and family, making the inevitable casualties you’ll take in combat sting far more than losing nameless fodder. Randomly generated maps ensure you never quite know what might be lurking around the next corner, and destructible terrain means that knocking down a building is always an option. The unpredictability makes the feeling of going from scrappy underdog to elite alien-butt-kicking futuristic super soldier squad incredibly rewarding, every single time. Except when you lose horribly.
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.
It gave us a deeper look into the wonderful world of Aperture Science without completely dragging all of its mysteries out into the light. It also mixed its “thinking with portals” puzzles up even further by weaving in gel mechanics that felt entirely fresh and completely natural at the same time - while simultaneously and subtly using them to tie gameplay mechanics into the story, patiently waiting until its incredible finale to pay off those setups with one of the weirdest and most spectacular video game endings around. Couple that with a seriously good co-op campaign and even a full-on custom level builder and sharing systems added post-launch and Portal 2 has stayed the high bar by which all first-person puzzle games should be measured, even nearly a decade later.
Jonathan Blow's elliptical time-bending 2008 side-scroller was for many a tale of heartbreak and disruption that touched on various cultural grievances. Blow pushed back, suggesting such interpretations were too simplistic. Whatever the case, Braid plays like nothing else, the act of a mind capable of magisterially subverting conventional design ideas and player expectations while embedding concepts as grand as the nature of reality in the gameplay itself. No Man's Sky co-creator Sean Murray compares Braid to a time machine: "It’s like Blow went back to the aesthetic of the late ‘80s and created a rift in time, like an alternate universe where we’d have gone in a different direction. Because Braid could have existed on the Amiga, and at the time it would have blown people’s minds. It would have completely changed how games developed."
With its expansive environments and crafty puzzles, this 2015 installment of Crystal Dynamics' vaunted Tomb Raider series is easily its best (read TIME's review here). It transcends the tired run-and-fight mechanic that dominates so much of the action-adventure genre by instilling genuine feelings of wanderlust and peril. Here, players might dangle from grappling lines tenuously tethered to shimmering walls framing glacial cathedrals, or explore optional booby-trapped tombs, each a study in the art of not repeating puzzles or level design. It's survivalism at its best, and a stunning exemplar in the studio's reinvention of an iconic 1990s franchise.

Few games have ever inspired the same sense of awe that Shadow of the Colossus does within its first 10 minutes. Climbing that first ledge and coming face to face with the first Colossus is among the most impactful, and almost terrifying, experiences in all of gaming. From its beautiful, crumbling ruins to the hulking, ancient Colossi, Fumito Ueda’s sun-soaked action/adventure game is drenched in a muted, melancholy aesthetic that has become synonymous with his, admittedly limited, works.


But, personally, Baldur’s Gate II was a truly digital representation of the world and rules of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D video games have historically been hit-or-miss, and as a kid I was enamored with games like Eye of the Beholder, but these virtual dungeon-crawling adventures were a far cry from the real thing. Baldur’s Gate II changed that for me, finally making good on the digital promise of its tabletop ancestry. And though it may be a little dusty, it’s still as good today as it was when the saga of the Bhaalspawn first unfolded. 

Resident Evil 2 Remake redefined what a ‘remake’ could be. For players new to the game, this was a meticulously crafted survival horror experience that felt completely in step with the genre in 2019, while veterans got to enjoy a lovingly crafted piece of nostalgia that vitally, felt like the game they remembered from 1998. It trod a brilliant tightrope, capturing the inherent weirdness of the original - the baroque architecture and labyrinthian environments that flipped the bird to logic - while updating the control scheme to a fluid over-the-shoulder camera far more suited to the way we play games today. The result was uneasy but never frustrating, subversive but familiar. All remakes should learn from this one.
Chrono Trigger is widely regarded as the greatest RPG of all time, and for good reason. What begins as a typical “day-in-the-life” adventure, quickly spirals into a sprawling, epoch jumping romp that is equally exhilarating and endearing. Created by a “dream team” at Squaresoft including Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii, and character designs by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, Chrono Trigger’s pedigree was only outshined by its universal praise upon its release in the spring of 1995. Even at the twilight of the SNES’ lifespan, Chrono Trigger’s branching narrative, colorful characters and unforgettable soundtrack were are more than enough to earn it a place on our list in this timeline or any other.
The Call of Duty franchise epitomizes everything a modern first-person shooter ought to be: A game with a compelling, story-driven single-player campaign along with a multiplayer mode that can steal hours of your life. The newer incarnations are more complex and prettier, of course. But they owe a great debt to Call of Duty 2, which in 2005 took what made the original title great and doubled down. Grand cinematic sequences gave players a sense of scope, while the realism—fallen soldiers would sometimes try fruitlessly to crawl to safety—drove home the horrors of war. Iron sights on the guns, meanwhile, made this a favorite of hyper-accurate PC gamers.
When I was famished for Dungeons and Dragons, Divinity: Original Sin 2 filled that void for me. It gave me the freedom to cheat, steal, kill, or persuade my way with kindness through the campaign with a friend (or three!) just like in D&D. Creative play is not only allowed, but encouraged and intentionally made possible by the developers. It felt liberating playing a huge RPG that rewards “cheating” the system, and encountering NPCs and opponents that acknowledge and react to it. I’ve since recommended it to all of my real-life D&D parties, and they’ve all come back with the same opinion: This is the best D&D experience you can get from a video game. DOS2 even has a Game Master mode, which lets you build your own campaigns. But, the built-in story is decidedly plenty and nearly infinitely replayable. The premade characters all have their own special storylines, and the numerous way things pan out depend on player actions, backstory choices, race, and more. Whether playing on an easy or hard difficulty setting, as an Elf Ranger or an Undead Conjurer, as a helpful adventurer or a murderous thief, DOS2 is a fun fantasy world to get lost in no matter what.
Before Grand Theft Auto III, game levels were essentially designed as a series of boxes. Rockstar’s crime epic broke that pattern in 2001, ushering in a golden age of go-anywhere, do-anything open worlds. Designers since have been trying to recapture the sense of freedom and possibility created by GTA III’s gritty take on New York City, which allowed players to amass a criminal empire—or simply manage a mundane day job, like schlepping citizens around in taxis or putting out fires.
The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link laid the foundations Link’s quest, but it was A Link to the Past that built the land of Hyrule into a world. From it’s unforgettable beginnings guiding a swordless Link through the rain, to the final showdown with Ganon and utilizing mastery of sword and bow to defeat evil, Link to the Past measured out a perfect pace of dungeons, exploration, and a gripping narrative that was almost unheard of at the time. It’s open landscape was always inviting but never felt aimless – striking the perfect balance of freedom and purpose in your quest to save Princess Zelda.

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.
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