For many gamers of a certain age (and now, thanks to the NES Classic, the children of same people), Super Mario Bros. was the first video game they ever played. Mario's move out of arcades, away from Donkey Kong, and into the Mushroom Kingdom changed our hobby and our industry as we know it, setting of a chain of events (Nintendo's rise from the game industry crash's ashes, the popularization of the platformer genre, etc.) that shaped gaming as we know it today.
In nearly three decades no game has supplanted Super Mario World as the best game ever made... Which is stupid. I’ll get to that in a bit. Super Mario World is a relatively simple game to describe. It’s a Super Mario game, and we all know what that means: Mushrooms; perfect running and jumping action; and a giant world to explore, crammed with secrets.
Say it with me: “UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A, START.” The most iconic secret in video game history became a litany for the millions of kids who joined Bill and Lance on their quest to destroy Red Falcon. While a truly skilled player can clear Contra on a single credit, the power of the thirty lives code gave all of us a fair chance to power our way through the gauntlet of alien invaders, or more likely die trying.
Although The Witness doesn’t offer a narrative in the traditional sense, that's not to say it does not have a story to tell. Philosophical metaphors and allegorical imagery are layered into the world, allowing the player to discover as much meaning as they care to. Unlike so many games that are desperate to hand-hold and drip-feed, The Witness has a refreshingly high opinion of its player, expecting them to think for themselves. It’s what makes The Witness so challenging but also deeply special.
Nearly every facet of Sony Santa Monica's Norse epic is working in concert with one another to craft a thrilling, memorable, and engrossing adventure. From its haunting score, to the beautifully written and acted story of Kratos and Atreus, to the incredible feel of the Leviathan Axe, God of War's impressive craftsmanship shines through at every step, honoring the past while forging its own path.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, Halo 2 was the killer app for Xbox Live. It brought the party system and matchmaking hopper concept to consoles, instantly making every other online console game look archaic in its infrastructure by comparison. Of course, it helped that the multiplayer gameplay was, well, legendary. The maps were almost all memorably brilliant, the match options were vast, and the ranking system kept you fighting night after night to try and move up. Halo 2 remains the gold standard for console first-person shooter multiplayer, despite the fact that it's been 15 years since its release.
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.
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. 

BioWare has built its reputation on classic RPGs, but it's unlikely that any will represent its legacy as well as the Mass Effect series, and the original ME was an astounding introduction to that world. Who can forget the first time they opened the galaxy map of their very own starship Normandy for the first time or the outcome of their standoff with Wrex? Mass Effect managed to create an intricate new universe and fill it with compelling lore and secrets to discover, and one of the most intriguing campaign arcs of a sci-fi game to date. While later entries in the series may have failed to deliver on the seeds planted in this first chapter, the momentous choices that ME1 offered us were - and remain - some of the most compelling branching plot points out there, ones that won't be forgotten any time soon.
Dishonored managed to breathe new life into a faltering stealth genre by invigorating players with a host of magical abilities and wickedly clever tools for every occasion. By allowing you to get creative with stealth (or a total lack thereof), players could slip through levels like a ghostly wraith, or slice up unsuspecting foes as a murderous spirit of vengeance. Dishonored revitalized the stealth genre with its approach to rewarding each playstyle: whether challenging yourself to remain unseen and getting your revenge without ever spilling blood, or springing deadly traps and disposing of targets in the most gruesome way possible. Its levels are impeccably designed to reward careful exploration and planning, and provide multiple ways to complete objectives with secrets crammed in every corner.
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.
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.
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.
To me, everything about Skyrim was a vast improvement over its predecessor, Oblivion. The craggy, intimidating peaks of the Nord homeland and the saga of the Dovahkiin were much more interesting than the relatively sedate happenings of their neighbors in Cyrodiil. But what’s more, there’s so much lying just around the corner, off the beaten path, that you could never even stumble upon it in a hundred hours as the Dragonborn. But the fact that such care for detail, for world-building, for exploration and for immersion was paid to every tome, tomb, and quest, is enough to cement Skyrim as one of the absolute best role-playing games we’ve ever seen, and one of the best games of all time.

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.
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.
As Microsoft Flight Simulator to the flight sim genre, so Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo series to hi-fi motorsport hot-rodding. Of all the Gran Turismo games, 2001's Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec for the PlayStation 2 remains the series' apotheosis, a madly ambitious encyclopedia of lovingly modeled vehicles and vistas surpassing the wildest gear nut fantasies. Here was a racing game to rule all others, that on its surface promised endless championship events framed by thrillingly realistic physics and painstakingly replicated visuals, but that also catered to armchair grease monkeys, who might spend hours fine-tuning then gawking at their drop-dead gorgeous rides.
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.
Playing the latest installment in a major gaming franchise like Madden, Grand Theft Auto or Final Fantasy makes it easy to get hooked on the story, style and general concept behind the game. Players who experience these video games are often left wanting more from the same franchise. If you're looking to dive more deeply into your favorite video game's backstory, you can browse by game franchise to see what you can find. This is also a great way to discover new game expansion packs and installments for a title you're already playing. Franchises like The Sims and Minecraft are particularly suitable options for this kind of add-on browsing. You could end up finding new ways to play the game you currently own by introducing new expansion packs to your existing setup. Discover new and old options for playing your favorite franchise titles, and stay on top of your preferred virtual worlds by periodically browsing to see what's new.
Red Dead Redemption's gorgeous high plains and scrub-filled landscapes, multilayered missions and sprawling story told with both the verve of a Leone and introspection of a Peckinpah, are just a few of the reasons Rockstar's 2010 open-world opus deserves top honors on this list. The player follows former outlaw John Marston through an imagined, at times hallucinatory version of the West (circa 1911), where sudden gun duels and galloping chases ensue, counterbalanced by less treacherous diversions like herding cattle or playing mini-games like five finger fillet. Yes, it was Grand Theft Auto meets a Western, but in a way that proved Rockstar's mettle as far more than mere mischievous satire-slinger.
When you walk into a room full of arcade games, something looks different about Donkey Kong. Its pastel blue cabinet is a bit shorter than the others; a bit rounder, more welcoming. The glowing marquee and art on the game depicts characters that belong on a 1960s pizza delivery box. This machine clearly doesn’t hold a Star Wars-inspired space battle – but what’s in it? When you put a quarter in, the machine shows you a little cartoon of an ape clambering up a ladder, mocking you. It asks “How High Can You Get?” and the instructions end there. Barrels and fire fill the screen while the characters’ intricate animations for every movement continue the illusion that you are playing this cartoon. You probably don’t get very high. Hopefully, you have more quarters.
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.
Designed by a Russian computer scientist, mass-distributed by a Japanese company and devoured by gamers—casual or compulsive—around the world, Tetris has been a global phenomenon since its arrival in 1984. In 1989, Nintendo put the legendary tile-matching puzzler on the NES and Game Boy, where it catapulted the latter to meteoric success. It's been available on nearly every platform since, a testament to our never-ending zeal for stacking blocks. However addictive, Tetris also appears to have modest health benefits, like cravings control and PTSD prevention. Devotees would probably nod and note how much a high-scoring, in-the-zone session can feel like meditation. And speaking of Zen, the game's also generated its share of life lessons, including this apocryphal truism: "If Tetris has taught me anything, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear."
When I was younger, few games settled an argument like GoldenEye. Living in a flat with three other people, if we couldn’t decide like rational adults whose turn it was to do the household chores, it was decided over a game of GoldenEye’s multiplayer. The battleground was always the Facility and to truly sort out the men from the Bonds it was Slaps only. Anyone who picked Odd Job was instantly disqualified.
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.
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.

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.
The original Fable, while very very good, never quite lived up to co-creator Peter Molyneux's lofty "plant an acorn and it will grow into a tree over the course of the game" promises. Fable 2, however, fulfilled an amazing amount of this charming, decidedly British-humored action-adventure. The world of Albion came alive on the Xbox 360, while Fable 2 was also one of the first games to give you a full-time canine companion. The dog was, in gameplay terms, rather straightforward, but for many players, the pooch tugged on your heartstrings and made you care about him/her in a way that you typically wouldn't above the average human or fantasy-pet RPG. Solid combat, a multiple-choice ending, great music and world-building, and a deft balance of action, adventure, and role-playing helped make Fable 2 both the pinnacle of the series and one of the finest bits of escapist fantasy ever coded.
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.
Portal's unexpected balance of wit, dark comedy and captivating, reality-bending puzzles made it a surprise hit in 2007. Its sequel, Portal 2, built on that success by adding additional polish and puzzles that were more involved and complex when it launched in 2011. 3 million copies of Portal 2 were reportedly sold within three months of the game's launch, proving that the franchise had turned into much more than just a casual puzzle game.

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.
Rovio’s debut 2009 mobile game, now one of the most recognizable franchises in the world, definitely benefitted from being one of the earliest titles for the iPhone. But the studio's quirky avian-flinging physics puzzler—players have to slingshot roly-poly birds at likewise rotund, entrenched pigs—also honed in on key elements of smartphone gaming's then-nascent purview: bite-sized levels for on-the-go play, easy to pickup (if grueling to master) gameplay, and eventually a free-to-play biz model built on micro-transactions. It's safe to say Angry Birds established the template for all the untold numbers of mobile games vying for our e-wallets since.
As Microsoft Flight Simulator to the flight sim genre, so Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo series to hi-fi motorsport hot-rodding. Of all the Gran Turismo games, 2001's Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec for the PlayStation 2 remains the series' apotheosis, a madly ambitious encyclopedia of lovingly modeled vehicles and vistas surpassing the wildest gear nut fantasies. Here was a racing game to rule all others, that on its surface promised endless championship events framed by thrillingly realistic physics and painstakingly replicated visuals, but that also catered to armchair grease monkeys, who might spend hours fine-tuning then gawking at their drop-dead gorgeous rides.
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.
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.
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.
Not only did RE4 totally redefine the 3rd person shooter, but it did so in the seemingly incongruent genre of survival horror. Turns out, it totally worked and led to some incredible set pieces battling against chainsaw-wielding maniacs, giant men, giant fish, tiny men in Napoleon costumes, and medium-sized centipede men. RE4 unlocked the true potential of the series in a way that hasn’t been matched before or since, and will probably always be the most universally beloved Resident Evil title.

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.
Influenced by the outer space-obsessed late 1970s, this early arcade shooter was a landmark in the early video game invasion. Designed in 1978, it rode the Atari 2600 into American homes in 1980, letting people blast rows of marching aliens from the comfort of their couches. In pop culture terms, it captivated a public weened on War of the Worlds, wowed by Star Wars and waiting for E.T. But as a game, Space Invaders' pixelated baddies moved closer and faster—with crazy-making sound effects to match—players' pulses kept pace. Playing the classic version today is like watching a 1950s monster flick, partly comedic reflection, seeing what once gave us thrills. But without Space Invaders, there'd be no Halo, making it a worthy quarter spent, even today.
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.
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