There's a reason first-person puzzle games far and wide are constantly compared to Portal — though a brief adventure, its gameplay, tone, writing, and structure so cohesively work together to create one of the most memorable, challenging, and fascinating puzzle games around. Arming players with the now-iconic Portal gun and the devastating - and lethal - wit of Glad0s, Valve guided players through a fantastically orchestrated and escalating set of physics-based puzzles. Learning to use the seemingly simple Portal gun in increasingly more complex, all culminating in perhaps one of the most memorable end-credits songs of all time.
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.
What can you say about the definitive fighting game, the game that has spawned countless imitators, acolytes, and sequels? Street Fighter II remains a classic in video game lore, making series mainstays Ryu, Ken, and Chun-Li as well as words like “Hadouken” part of the public lexicon. Everyone has a favorite character and that’s because of its diverse, fantastical character design.
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.
It was the kind of game you couldn't wait to discuss with your friends the next day. "Did you save that woman on the train tracks?" "No, but I found this cabin that had, like, 1,000 cougars in it," "That's cool, but did you kill Sasquatch?" Everyone had their own amazing tales to tell about their time in the old west, and you were constantly making new ones every time you turned it on. The only real downside to Red Dead is that it never came out on PC – which is mostly sad because my 360 died years ago and I really want to play it again.
Diablo II is arguably the best role-playing game of all time, the best dungeon-crawler of all time and the best PC game of all time. And that's before you get to everything it influenced. Released in 2000, Diablo II evolved the clickfest, hack-n-slash gameplay of its predecessor in numerous ways (all of which go into its best-of-the-best-of-the-best case file). Most important for future games—especially today’s widely popular free-to-play mobile games—was how Diablo II seemed to perfect the feedback loop of effort and reward to keep the dopamine jolts flowing through its endless, randomly generated levels.
In fact, it’s a game you have to replay just to appreciate how flexible and open it really is. I’ve done it so many times, experimenting with the ways in which different character builds and perks would dramatically affect the way events unfolded, from killing the final “boss” using stealth to playing all the way through with a character so dumb they can only communicate through grunts. Plus, you never knew when you’d stumble upon random events that would sometimes deliver game-changingly powerful items. Fallout 2 will surprise you again and again.
But its story was only half of its success. Halo was quite simply one of the best multiplayer shooters ever upon its release, thanks to its incredible complement of weapons (two-shot death pistol FTW!) that mixed seamlessly with third-person-controlled vehicles across a swath of classic maps like Blood Gulch, Sidewinder, Hang 'em High, and more. That it was all set to the chanting-monks theme song that, like the game itself, became legendary.
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.
In the 1980s, the years that led up to Nintendo's reign were dominated by PC titles, and of these none were better imagined than Sierra's. When honoring their adventure line, critics typically laud the original King's Quest. But it's the third installment released in 1986 that deserves the most acclaim, because it was also twice as big as the first two installments, and as clever as any in the series. Following the adventures of Daventry's 17-year-old Prince Alexander, the game hit closer to home with its primary players, who like it or not were pretty much boys. Yet despite the outmoded graphics (or maybe because of them), the keyboard-controlled adventure is still a joy to play (try it yourself). From amassing all the ingredients to make potions, to avoiding the wizard's evil black cat, to stealing the pirate's treasure, it's pure magic.
I know you can hear them too – the plucky strings accompanied by pleasant woodwinds that greeted us every time we opened Buy Mode. The Sims is iconic for so many reasons, from its soundtrack that is undoubtedly burned into our brains to cheat code prompts that live in the memory space right next door. This unique simulation game made day to day life exciting. We could concoct drama and design our own stories, complete with the tools to build dream living spaces. The Sims gave us an incredible playground to be creators and destroyers, and though The Sims' newer iterations make Sims far more complex, the original stands as a classic. Plus, it allowed us to drown our Sims in pools, which is, as we all know, an essential Sims experience. The new Sims are too smart for that.
As a kid, I played almost any game that had a cool character on the box or starred my beloved Ninja Turtles. But even then, although I lacked the vocabulary to explain it, I knew that Super Mario Bros. was special, and better than almost everything else. So when I received Super Mario Bros. 3 from Santa one year, and saw on the back of the box that Mario could fly, I knew I was in for something special.
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 title designed by Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto, 1981's Donkey Kong not only brought Mario into being, it also popularized the platformer—games in which a character has to climb or jump onto platforms. After dominating the golden age of arcades, Donkey Kong went on to have a massive influence on future Nintendo titles, ranging from the NES's Ice Climber to the Wii U's New Super Mario Bros. U. Even today, demanding expert timing and patience, it remains a timeless joy to play. (What's more, Donkey Kong was arguably the first game to feature hazardous barrels.)
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.