Akin to Chrono Trigger in stunning art direction, mechanical simplicity, and musical significance, Suikoden II diverges from Square’s masterpiece in its sense of moral ambiguity and dark storytelling. For the longest time, Suikoden II was locked behind a near-impenetrable wall of scarcity that kept it out of the hands of most American gamers. Now that it’s finally available to a wide audience, it’s a must-play for any RPG fan.
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.
Arkham City’s heaping helping of infamous rogues let you experience them in their element, and found perfect ways for Batman to foil them via both brain and brawn – leading to some of the best boss fights ever conceived. Each supervillain added to the oppressive weight of trying to save the day with the odds stacked against you, and the story’s climax remains one of the most striking moments in video games.
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.
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.
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.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic almost single-handedly rescued Star Wars video games from purgatory. It was also one of the first times the beloved IP was handed to a world-class developer in BioWare. The result was not just one of the best role-playing games ever made, but one that helped legitimize Western RPGs on consoles and establish the fledgling Xbox as a destination for top-tier third-party games.
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.
The "Ms." may have gotten her start as a knockoff of the original pellet-chomping arcade cabinet, but she's got way more moves than her husband. An unlicensed modification of 1980's Pac-Man, this 1982 game was initially called "Crazy Otto"—until the developers sold it to Midway, which branded it Ms. Pac-Man to lure female gamers. But Ms. Pac-Man did much more than put a bow on an already wildly popular game. With four mazes (compared to Pac-Man's one), smarter ghosts and on-the-move fruit bonuses, it quickly obsoleted the original. The fact that it's still fun to play gives it a high perch on this list. Admit it—if you came across a Ms. Pac-Man cabinet in the wild, you'd drop a quarter in. Heck, you'd probably have to wait in line.
The improbable sequel to a fan mod for a Blizzard game that came out in 2002, Dota 2 stormed the e-sports scene in 2013 with its sophisticated twist on real-time resource management and turf control. Arguably the pinnacle of the multiplayer online battle arena genre (or MOBA, which is just another way of saying "competitive real-time strategy game"), it sees two teams of five jockey for sway over lush, jungled terrain beset by ever-spawning computer armies, locking horns at a river that cuts diagonally across a symmetric map. Difficult to master but thrilling to watch, Dota 2 matches unfold like frenetic attention-deficit sprees, camera views pinballing around battlefields flush with antagonists converging on dozens of flashpoints, as players battle to demolish the other team's "ancient."
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.
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.
If you've ever had trouble wrapping your head around the fact that e-sports is on pace to become a billion-dollar industry by decade's end, just spend half an hour watching world-class teams play Counter-Strike. Originally designed in 1999 as a modification of Half-Life, Counter-Strike and its modern incarnations are some of the top e-sports games in the world. Players are divided into two teams, "terrorists" and "counter-terrorists," then the former tries to bomb an objective or kidnap hostages while the latter labors to stop them. Watching the world's best Counter-Strike players is often more fun than actually playing yourself—hence the rise of game-streaming sites like Twitch, acquired by Amazon in 2014 in a roughly billion-dollar deal.
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.