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.
Super Nintendo players knew Final Fantasy VI as Final Fantasy III for years after its release in 1994, because no one expected this Japanese series to become so popular stateside that the original II and III would be localized and the series renumbered. What made Final Fantasy VI one of the exemplars—not just of console roleplaying, but the genre in general—was how pitch-perfectly it synthesized so many different tangents: real-time battles, summonable magic-bestowing creatures, indelible characters, party-swapping, heartrending plot twists, an unforgettably iniquitous villain, a four-minute play-along opera and its artful inflection of dark fantasy steampunk.
This action-adventure game from Nintendo for the Switch and Wii U consoles came out in 2017. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild takes place at the end of the Zelda storyline: The player controls Link, who wakes up from a 100-year sleep and tries to save the kingdom of Hyrule from Calamity Ganon. This version sold nearly 18 million copies by 2019, to make it the best-selling Zelda game.
But for as great as its puzzles are, and the way they take the simplicity of two portals you can shoot almost anywhere into such fascinating territory, it's also Portal's world-building that equally makes the game such a memorable touchstone. From secrets and scrawlings hidden within the walls of Portal's testing facility, to the way it slowly uncovers the mystery of who Glad0s is offers environmental storytelling at some of its finest. Players learn just enough to paint a vivid picture while Valve leaves enough blank space in its story to let the player fill in their own details. The cake may be a lie, but it's not a lie to tell you to play Portal if you haven't already.
Mario's brick-breaking, Goomba-stomping antics were enough to mesmerize the world's gamers in Nintendo's idiosyncratic side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. games. But 1996's Super Mario 64 transported Nintendo fans into Mario's universe as no other game in the series had, simultaneously laying out a grammar for how to interact with 3D worlds (and in its case, divinely zany ones). At more than 11 million copies sold, it was one of the bestselling games for the Nintendo 64, but its real impact was arguably off-platform, where it tectonically shifted the design imperatives of an entire industry. As Rockstar co-founder and Grand Theft Auto V cowriter Dan Houser put it: "Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda [on Nintendo 64] is lying."
When Tony Hawk Pro Skater came out, it was like nothing anyone had ever played before. It just felt so insanely intuitive, it had great music, it just felt… cool? Gamers, skaters, heshers, posers, there was not one demo that wasn’t drawn into the cultural singularity of gaming and skateboarding like a rent-a-cop to a skate video shoot. When Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 came out, and improved upon the original in virtually every single way imaginable (even more flexible controls, an expanded soundtrack, more unlockable secrets, custom skaters, even a park editor!), the popularity of the game just exploded in a way that could only have ended in steadily diminishing annual releases. But for one shining moment, we all collectively agreed that THPS2 was, and still is, the perfect skateboarding game.
As the second 3D game in the now mega-series Grand Theft Auto, Vice City had enormous shoes to fill coming off the groundbreaking statement that was Grand Theft Auto III. And did it ever deliver. Set during the 1980s in Rockstar’s facsimile of Miami, the violence, sex, and excess of this defining decade was slathered across a fully playable world of wannabe gangsters, sports cars, mountains of drugs, and briefcases full of bills.
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.
Still, the highlight of StarCraft is easily its multiplayer. Few gaming moments are as satisfying as defending your base against a Zerg rush as the Protoss or successfully sending in a fleet of Terran to decimate an enemy's base. StarCraft is still played competitively in parts of the world, making it remain relevant for longer than almost any other video game in existence. There's a reason too. It's because the gameplay is so expertly crafted and balanced that players can continually go head to head with a different result each time. It's those near losses and photo finish victories that keep you coming back and have kept the series alive all these years.