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.
So often action exists for action sake – to look cool – but Uncharted 2: Among Thieves uses it to reveal more about its central character, Nathan Drake, and his relationships with a strong cast of supporting characters. That’s not to say the action isn’t spectacular. From being pursued by a helicopter on a moving train to being harassed by an angry tank in a Himalayan village, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves set a new benchmark for cinematic action, graphical fidelity, and established Nathan Drake as one of the great video game characters of his time.
The story of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo's journey across a strange, slanted version of America was such a vast departure from previous RPGs I'd played like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. It wasn't drenched in fantasy tropes and pathos, but rather brimming with color, humor, and some of the weirdest characters and events I'd ever seen in a game. Simultaneously, it knows how to pack an emotional punch.
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.
I came to the Diablo II party incredibly late. The first time I actually played it properly was in 2011, more than ten years after its initial release. Could this iconic game possibly live up to my lofty expectations that late in the day? Absolutely. In fact, I was surprised by just how good it was. After all, Diablo II doesn’t exactly go out of its way to be user-friendly. Even choosing a class and build is daunting, let alone learning the quirks of its many systems.
Journey is the closest a video game has come to emulating the effects of poetry. In terms of structure it’s so simple: you must reach a snowy mountain peak visible in the distance. Along the way, your character surfs across glistening deserts, hides from flying creatures made entirely from cloth, and occasionally meets other players embarking on the same pilgrimage.
L4D2 - developed in-house at Valve - has more creative levels in its campaign, more special infected to kill (or play as, if playing in Versus Mode), a bigger variety of weapons, and protagonists with some actual personality. Even the Source Engine, though already showing its age with L4D1, looked - and most importantly, played, - just fine, considering the dozens of ravenous zombies the game could throw at you at any moment.
But it’s Super Metroid’s ability to consistently invite the player to be curious – and then rewarding that curiosity – that makes it one of the greatest video games ever made. It’s not just that there are secrets hidden everywhere (although there are, and it’s awesome) – it’s that the game teases you with tantalizing clues – items, always just out of reach. An energy tank embedded in a seemingly impassable wall. A pair of missiles only obtainable from the collapsing blocks above, leaving you no idea of how to get up there, just with the knowledge that you can get up there.
While the Tomb Raider reboot in 2013 kicked off a new direction for the iconic heroine that was more in line with modern AAA storytelling (read: Lara was given a deeper backstory and a personality), Rise of the Tomb Raider took it and ran a mile. It continued to flesh out Lara as a driven, wary character while upping the ante on what made the 2013 game so fun; fluid traversal, crunchy combat, and beautifully intricate puzzle tombs. Add a delicately told emotional throughline centered on Lara’s relationship with her father, and you’ve got what is currently the series’ apex.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So yeah, I rented it. Obviously, it didn't come with the pack-in player's guide, so I only made it so far before I had to return it. Then I rented it again. And again. And again. Eventually, my parents noticed that my college fund was being given to Blockbuster, so they nipped the problem in the bud and bought it for me. It's been my favorite JRPG ever since.
For all its inter-dimensional threats, monster hunts and magic powers, I’ve always thought The Witcher 3’s key achievement is in how it nails the mundane. Geralt’s fantasy world is one of mud, thatch and metal, his main quests are freelance work, and he loves a game of cards down the pub. That sense of reality is what helps you empathise with Geralt, understand the world, and really understand how bad things have gotten when the crazy shit starts popping off.
Though there'd already been two official entries in the Metal Gear series (not counting Snake's Revenge, which we don't talk about) it wasn't until Snake covertly slithered his way onto the PlayStation that this franchise cemented itself as a big deal. Though often lauded for its contributions to the "stealth" genre, it was billed as a "Tactical Espionage Action" game. The moment-to-moment gameplay was about being sneaky, and players were rewarded for outsmarting the defenses of Shadow Moses quietly and cleverly, but things frequently got loud during iconic boss fights and over-the-top action setpieces.
This iteration of Hyrule was more than just moving between enemy-filled screens, it encompassed everything an immersive experience should be: a vast open world that teased you with secrets hiding just beyond your reach, begging you to come back with new and inventive tools. Each zone – whether in the cheerful overworld, dimly lit caves, or the intimidating Dark World – was brought to life through a culmination of details like the sound of the Tempered Sword cleaving the air, the catchy jingle of a puzzle well-solved, and the ambient tunes of Koji Kondo’s score. This version of Hyrule more than any other before or since, is the one I fell most in love with.
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.
X-COM’s magic is how it makes the war to defend Earth from a vastly superior alien invasion force feel so intensely personal, even with its extremely dated (but expressive) graphics and spreadsheet-like interface. Part of this comes from the way that every decision you make, from where on the globe you place your bases, to which alien technology to research, to whether to spend your soldier’s last few time units to reload his weapon, crouch, or take a Hail Mary shot at a distant alien, has enormously high stakes. Choose right, and your team of alien hunters will gain a leg up on the battlefield from advanced weapons (like the guided Blaster Launcher missiles), armor, or tactical positioning; choose poorly and literally everyone could be slaughtered – or worse, transformed into drooling zombies to serve as incubators for horrific Chryssalids.
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.
The key here is in how Blizzard looked beyond simply making a good shooter – it made an interesting one. Its backstory is PG-13 Pixar, its characters are diverse and lovable, and its community engagement is… well, it’s Jeff Kaplan. Pro gamers, cosplayers, fanfic writers, ARG detectives and everyone in between have all been given a reason to play a single game – no mean feat.
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.
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.
What hooks you in, however, is just how perfectly measured the core gameplay loop of killing, looting and upgrading is. Whether you’re just starting out or wading through Hell with a hardcore character, Diablo II has a momentum that’s impossible not to be swept up in. The odds are always overwhelming, the atmosphere always malevolent, and the reward always worth the risk.
When Monkey Island 2 came out, we knew who Guybrush Threepwood was, so we knew what to expect. Or so we thought. Somehow, creator Ron Gilbert threw everyone for a loop, ending Monkey Island 2 in a carnival, leaving us to wonder if everything we'd played in the first two games took place in a boy's imagination, or if the ending itself was simply another LeChuck voodoo spell. Regardless, the story, jokes, and pacing were all tightened up for the second Monkey Island, making it arguably the best of the incredible run of LucasArts adventure games.
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.
Mortal Kombat has always distinguished itself from the excess of fighting games that made their way from arcade cabinets to players' living rooms with its unapologetically sadistic violence. Gore isn't an afterthought to your blows in this 1992 brawler, it's the main spectacle. Mortal Kombat and the controversy it stirred were crucial in shifting the video game market from one that was evidently aimed at kids, to one that could appeal to teens and young adults. But it wasn't thanks to the game's bloodiness alone: Its smooth controls, rewarding combinations and imaginative roster of characters earn it a top spot on our list.
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.