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.
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.
Achtung! If Doom is the father of modern first-person shooters, Wolfenstein 3D is their granddaddy. Made by id Software and released shortly before Doom in May 1992, Wolfenstein 3D cast players as William "B.J." Blazkowicz, an Allied spy captured by Nazis in World War II. As Blazkowicz, your job is simple: Escape from Castle Wolfenstein and shoot a bunch of bad guys in the process, which was (and remains) the definition of "thoughtless catharsis"—words that to this day define so much of Wolfenstein 3D's progeny.
A sprawling Western that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Grand Theft Auto V as one of gaming’s greatest open-world achievements, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game of rare scope and even rarer quality. A beautiful ode to an ugly era, RDR2 combines Rockstar’s most authentic and lived-in open world ever with its most earnest storytelling to date, filling in the gaps with an astonishing array of deep systems and nearly endless emergent gameplay opportunities. Its slower pace allows us to binge on the world like a virtual museum but, when the lead starts flying, it puts the wild back in the west (and then some). Few games manage the level of uncompromising detail as Red Dead Redemption 2 does. Do we need to discuss the horse balls again?
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.
Pokemon GO in 2019 is a game I shouldn’t care about. When it launched in 2016 it was in a lot of ways a mediocre experience. Outside of catching the original 151 Pokemon the game itself relied heavily on the nostalgia of the Pokemon franchise and augmented reality gimmick of having them show up in the real world. If you didn’t care about the IP, the game itself was very lacking. In 2019, the game is flooded with a multitude of tasks, activities, and events that can involve anyone from yourself to a large group of people. These additions create an experience that incentivizes users to be more dedicated to daily play without feeling like a grind. Friendship has been introduced and allows users to now exchange gifts, trade or even battle each other. Quests (research tasks as they are referred to in-game) have been added that reward items and even special Pokemon. Events now fill each month’s calendar with new (and sometimes shiny) Pokemon, exclusive rewards and new ways to play the game. There is even a burgeoning competitive PVP scene which gave Pokemon GO its first-ever appearance at the Pokemon World Championships this year.
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.
Who can forget the moment they first shot the face off a possessed farmer in Resident Evil 4, only to conjure a lively Lovecraftian horror with tentacles squirming from its neck? This was Resident Evil reborn, its creaky fixed perspectives and klutzy directional controls supplanted by a freer over-the-shoulder, shoot-first perspective that felt at once elegant and intuitive. Instead of cheap haunted house scares in claustrophobic spaces, the story shifted to organic exploration of delightfully creepy areas, punctuated by frenzied scrambles to fend off the series' most inspired adversaries. Capcom's timely embrace in 2005 of action-oriented principles stole nothing from the game's cheerless ambience, and actually amplified the sense of trudging through a phantasmagoric nightmare.
Like Fallout 3 before it, Fallout New Vegas throws us into a harsh, post-nuclear America. But it very quickly becomes something greater than just more of the same thanks to some amazing writing and touches by some of the minds behind the original Fallout and Fallout 2. It’s not limited to mechanical tweaks like improved real-time combat and crafting. Several factions with deep, shades-of-gray characters populate the wastes with interesting moral decisions, making the conflict between the New California Republic, Caesar’s Legion, and the mysterious Mr. House feel like anything but a black-and-white choice between good and evil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This weird shift in tone, structure – it all worked beautifully, and with a poetic edge that is unrivaled in other Metal Gear installments. Snake Eater is arguably one of the most interesting love stories ever told in a game, one of the strangest and most exciting Cold War-era adventures, and one of the first games to truly make me reflect on my actions as a player. It manages to be tragic, sometimes devastatingly so, and yet still maintain that absurd comedic flair that I admire about this series.
“You have died of dysentery.” The Oregon Trail’s notorious proclamation of ultimate doom was only part of the software’s brutal charm. As a simulation of Westward Expansion consisting of choose-your-own-adventure strategy and hunt-to-survive gameplay, it was rudimentary. But in part because it was originally developed in 1971 by three student teachers at Carleton College in Minnesota as an educational tool, The Oregon Trail found a captive—and willing—audience in thousands of classrooms across the country equipped with Apple II computers in the 1980s. There, it helped introduce an entire generation (several, in fact) to video games.
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.
Swedish studio Mojang's indie bolt from the blue turns out to be that rare example of a game whose title perfectly sums up its gameplay: you mine stuff, then you craft it. At its simplest, Minecraft is a procedurally generated exercise in reorganizing bits of information—all those cubes of dirt and rock and ore strewn about landscapes plucked from 1980s computers—into recognizable objects and structures and mechanisms. Or put another way: part spreadsheet, part Bonsai pruning. Since its launch in November 2011, it's sold over 100 million copies, colonized virtually every computing platform, spawned an official "Education Edition" tailored for classrooms and inspired feats of mad grandeur, like this attempt to model staggering swathes of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. Has there ever been a game as impactful as this one?
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.