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.
By no means the first city-builder, SimCity 2000 undoubtedly influenced all those that succeeded it. The 1994 game established a near-perfect balance between the inputs and outputs of running a (virtual) metropolis. Graphics that rendered the corner-view of each building, bridge, road, hill and valley made the series look more true-to-life. And the constant chatter from policy advisers as well as feedback from the local newspaper—precursors to modern notifications—made players’ roles as mayors feel particularly realistic.
An RPG with enough complexity to satisfy the urge to tinker, but enough character never to feel impersonal, Wild Hunt is a staggering achievement no matter how you look at it. Its story deftly balances cosmic threat and family drama, its choices feel truly meaningful and world-changingly effective, and it looks gorgeous in its own grubby way. Even its two DLC expansions are among the best ever released. Geralt’s final journey might be built on the mundane, but that makes it nothing short of magical.

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.
Since the original launched on the Nintendo 64 in 1999, the Super Smash Bros. games have become no-brainers for Nintendo fans. The game, which borrows from Nintendo's stable of iconic characters, introduced something radical to the fighter genre: Rather than pounding the bejesus out of your opponents until they bow out, you're basically playing an elaborate variant of King of the Hill, trying to successfully knock your enemies off platforms in a given stage. What's more, players could romp through stages freely, expanding the canvas upon which to doll out whuppings. And unlike other fighters that require players memorize arcane buttons combos to execute a character's special maneuvers, Super Smash Bros. employs the same button template for everyone, making pickup simpler, and mastery about learning how best to synthesize all of the above.

Quick, name your favorite modern first-person shooter. Maybe it's Call of Duty, or Halo, or Counter-Strike. All of those games—and dozens, if not hundreds more—owe an immense debt to Doom. Developer id Software's 1993 classic pit an unnamed space Marine against the forces of Hell, plunging gamers into a high-intensity battle for Earth. Another id title, Wolfenstein 3D, may have arrived a year earlier. But Doom became a true phenomenon, introducing millions of gamers to what have become bedrock principles of the genre, from frenzied multiplayer deathmatches to player-led mods that can alter or completely overhaul a game's look and feel.
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.
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.
Sorry, Madden NFL fans, true football gaming fanatics know this is the best gridiron game ever made. Released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, ESPN NFL 2K5 featured a standout franchise-building mode and in-game on-air talent from the eponymous sports network. It also marked a watershed moment in sports gaming lore: Publisher Sega priced the game at just $19.99, a fraction of what EA was charging for Madden NFL at the time. A frightened EA later scooped up the exclusive rights to the NFL and its players, making Madden the only name in town.
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.
Since the original launched on the Nintendo 64 in 1999, the Super Smash Bros. games have become no-brainers for Nintendo fans. The game, which borrows from Nintendo's stable of iconic characters, introduced something radical to the fighter genre: Rather than pounding the bejesus out of your opponents until they bow out, you're basically playing an elaborate variant of King of the Hill, trying to successfully knock your enemies off platforms in a given stage. What's more, players could romp through stages freely, expanding the canvas upon which to doll out whuppings. And unlike other fighters that require players memorize arcane buttons combos to execute a character's special maneuvers, Super Smash Bros. employs the same button template for everyone, making pickup simpler, and mastery about learning how best to synthesize all of the above.
Mega Man 3 took every lesson that Capcom learned from Mega Man 2 and expanded, refined, and remixed it. The third game in the seminal series brought Mega Man into the 90s in true Blue Bomber style, retaining the challenging platforming (though, not the tough as nails version seen in the original) and incredible boss battles the series had become known for. While taking on new enemies like Snake Man and Magnet Man, our plucky robot hero managed to learn a few tricks that would become mainstays for future games in this, and the Mega Man X, series. The slide ability gave Mega Man a much mobility upgrade, and his friendly robot pooch, Rush, allowed him to explore greater heights and find more hidden secrets than in any of his previous outings. Mega Man 3 also marked the appearance of Proto Man who’s short arc established him not only as Mega Man’s older brother but also a series mainstay and occasional foil. There’s a long running debate as to whether Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3 is the definitive NES Mega Man game, but for our money it’s the third installment, hands down.
Cutscenes were one of the driving forces behind the success of PC gaming in the late '90s and Blizzard was regarded as the king when it came to jaw-dropping visuals. They took things to an entirely new level with StarCraft and the Brood War expansion in 1998, though. Not only were players treated to an excellent RTS experience, but their reward for completing sections of the campaign were evocative visuals that further immersed you in a world where humans are losing a war against brutal space aliens.
However, where Metal Gear Solid was truly groundbreaking was its emphasis on narrative and cinematic presentation. Hideo Kojima's love of Hollywood action movies was readily apparent through slick cutscenes, and Yoji Shinkawa's character and mechanical designs added a heavy dose of anime sensibility, and the whole experience sounded amazing thanks to the musical contributions of Harry Gregson Williams and a stellar voice cast including Cam Clarke, Jennifer Hale, and *OF COURSE* David Hayter. Metal Gear Solid looked like a movie, sounded like a movie, and felt like a movie, but still played like a video game, striking a delicate balance that the medium is still striving for over twenty years later.
Super Metroid’s minimalistic environmental storytelling set a bar, way back in 1994, that I believe has still yet to be eclipsed. The planet Zebes is atmospheric, oppressive, and extremely lethal. At first glance, there doesn’t even appear to be any story. But then you start to look more closely. The parasite-riddled dead soldier outside of an early boss room. The crashed, half-submerged alien spaceship that may or may not be haunted. The techno lair of the space pirates hiding under your nose the entire game. It’s brilliant and confident. It doesn’t explain to you what each new area is all about. It’s all there, for you to figure out (or ignore) on your own.
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