Contra was one of the few cooperative video games of the 8-bit era where player two didn’t feel like a burden dragging you down with every step. With plenty of weapon drops to go around and hordes of enemies coming from every direction, a partner’s firepower was a welcome addition in most situations. And if a friend couldn’t keep up the pace on the waterfall level, you could easily incentivize them to improve their skills by scrolling the screen upward and killing them, which I did whenever my little brother lagged behind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn was very much a leader of the pack during the RPG renaissance of the early 2000s and is still an excellent example of that genre’s strengths. From its fantastically written characters and story to its vast arsenal of weapons, armors, and magic, Baldur’s Gate II was an adventure that you could not only get lost in, but that could be lived in, spending hundreds of hours exploring every hidden secret and mystery.
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.
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.
Next time you're on a commercial flight, ask your pilot if they ever played Flight Simulator growing up. Odds are the answer will be "yes." The hyper-realistic series puts players in the cockpit of everything from tiny Cessnas to massive jumbo jets. Obsessed flight simmers have built gigantic, multi-screen rigs in basements worldwide to better imitate the real thing. 2006's Flight Simulator X, meanwhile, let players into the control tower, giving birth to a diehard community of simmers who to this day spend hours flying and directing mock routes.
We’re introduced to Alyx Vance, a supporting character with a rare warmth and intelligence. We’re transported to an iconic city, where Combine barricades loom with grim authority, and Striders stalk the streets with an otherworldly menace. We get to set Antlions on our enemies and in which we play fetch with a robot Dog. In short, it is a truly memorable piece of game design.
Counter-Strike is the game that’s been with me the longest, in one form or another, but for me, it all started here. Many of the things I value most in skill-based games, I value because of Counter-Strike: good level design, team-based dynamic, the dedication required to master it, a friendly sense of competition, and a solid sense of community. It taught me the joy of earning my victories in a game, but also the importance of learning from my failures. It’s the reason I love first-person shooters and the reason I stuck by PC gaming at a young age, and I owe it all to its earliest iterations.
Borderlands 2 elevated an excellent game to Legendary status. The original Borderlands captured the attention of gamers, seemingly from out of nowhere, and its sequel took everything that made the original great and expanded on it. From its seamless continuation of the Borderlands vault hunting lore, to its unmatched writing, Borderlands 2 remains the high point in the Borderlands franchise. Borderlands 3 is overflowing with improvements over its predecessor The Pre-Sequel, but Borderlands 2 still can't be beat for its awesome levels, excellent DLC, and series-best villain, Handsome Jack.
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.
BioShock's gripping metaphysical plot, over-the-top art deco levels and motley cast of hauntingly broken personas intermingle to furnish an experience so riveting and simultaneously disturbing that it fueled (at the time perfectly reasonable) conversations about games as more than dopamine-fueled diversions. Studio Irrational Games' 2007 first-person shooter takes the player on an imaginative journey through the fictional undersea city of Rapture, built by fanatical industrialist Andrew Ryan (whose name references Atlas Shrugged novelist and self-described objectivist Ayn Rand). The game set new standards for video games on so many levels, from its horrifying forms of self-augmentation, to its ecology of intersectional enemy behaviors and its sublime ways of channeling what amounted to a withering deconstruction of extremist modes of thought.
After Arkham Asylum laid the groundwork for a superhero game that hit all the right beats, Batman: Arkham City took everything to the next level by letting Batman loose in the streets of Gotham (sort of). Not only did it nail the feeling of stalking and beating down thugs with an impressive array of gadgets, it raised the stakes of what a caped crusader could deal with in a single night.
Mario's brick-breaking, Goomba-stomping antics were enough to mesmerize the world's gamers in Nintendo's idiosyncratic side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. games. But 1996's Super Mario 64 transported Nintendo fans into Mario's universe as no other game in the series had, simultaneously laying out a grammar for how to interact with 3D worlds (and in its case, divinely zany ones). At more than 11 million copies sold, it was one of the bestselling games for the Nintendo 64, but its real impact was arguably off-platform, where it tectonically shifted the design imperatives of an entire industry. As Rockstar co-founder and Grand Theft Auto V cowriter Dan Houser put it: "Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda [on Nintendo 64] is lying."
Halo didn't invent the first-person shooter. Not by a longshot. Nor was it even the first console FPS. But it was the first FPS to finally get it right on a console, and the industry hasn't been the same since. Halo: Combat Evolved simply felt at home on a gamepad, and the fact that it had a likeable and heroic protagonist, a rich sci-fi universe that felt fleshed-out despite this being the first game in the series, and Halo became an instant smash hit.
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.
Mario games are synonymous with fun and innovation, and perhaps Mario 64 is the best example of the latter. It gathered the core elements of Mario’s best 2D, side-scrolling adventures and worked out how to translate them into a groundbreaking 3D world. It was still recognisably Mario – he collected mushrooms and ran and jumped his way to success, but he was forever changed. He could now long jump, triple jump, and backflip. While the underlying challenge remained the same and the locations were reassuringly familiar, the shift in perspective changed everything.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Interplay's original Fallout arrived like a cloudburst after a PC roleplaying drought in the mid-1990s. But it took IP newcomer Bethesda's application of exhaustive, obsessively traditional roleplaying ideals tempered in its fantasy Elder Scrolls games to craft an experience in 2008 that surpassed the original in virtually every way. Both vast yet densely textured, packed with unforgettable characters and ethical nuance, sonically bleak yet whimsically tuneful once you found the right radio station--Fallout 3 showed us what a haunting and freewheeling post-apocalyptic masterpiece could look like.
The first title designed by Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto, 1981's Donkey Kong not only brought Mario into being, it also popularized the platformer—games in which a character has to climb or jump onto platforms. After dominating the golden age of arcades, Donkey Kong went on to have a massive influence on future Nintendo titles, ranging from the NES's Ice Climber to the Wii U's New Super Mario Bros. U. Even today, demanding expert timing and patience, it remains a timeless joy to play. (What's more, Donkey Kong was arguably the first game to feature hazardous barrels.)
SimCity 2000 may not be the most complex or original of the city-building series, but it’s definitely the most iconic. The sequel to the original SimCity is a beautiful, funny, detailed sandbox that gives players control of a huge, customizable map that they can manage how they see fit. You can build the perfect metropolis – see little sailboats in your marina and cars on your streets, get a statue built in your name, keep your advisors happy by building mass transit and hospitals. Or you can burn it all to the ground with catastrophes like earthquakes and alien attacks.
Sam Fisher's third adventure is actually three masterpiece games in one. In the campaign, a stunning real-time lighting engine and open mission design allows you to play in countless different ways: total stealth, full gunplay, or a gadget-fest (shoot a Sticky Shocker into a puddle as an enemy walks through it, anyone?). Memorable locations like the lighthouse, bank, Hokkaido (with its "anti-ninja flooring"), and more made every mission memorable. Game 2 is the four-mission two-player co-op campaign, in which two young agents work together in a side story that runs parallel to Fisher's adventure. You literally have to play together, from boosting each other up to high ledges to going back-to-back to scale elevator shafts, the co-op mode committed to cooperation in a way no other action game had. And then you had Spies vs. Mercs, which took the asymmetrical multiplayer mode introduced in Pandora Tomorrow and refined it into something truly unique in the gaming world. Agile, non-lethal spies playing in third-person view faced off against slow-moving but heavily armed mercs that saw the game through a first-person helmet. It was tense, riveting, and brilliant.
While some would vote Final Fantasy VI the better game, 1997's Final Fantasy VII is arguably the bolder one in this anything-but-final roleplaying series. Laying complex polygonal graphics over beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds, Japanese developer Squaresoft took advantage of the PlayStation’s compact-disc drive to craft an experience Sony rival Nintendo—who’d rejected Sony’s pitch for a disc-based add-on to the Super Nintendo—simply couldn’t. The operatic, labyrinthine and often wonderfully weird tale of ecologically minded heroes out to save their “living” planet from corporate energy raiders proved the most popular in the series, selling over 10 million copies worldwide and prompting perennial cries for a remake (that's finally happening).
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.
Snicker all you want about its two-dimensional graphics, Pong deserves a slot on this list because, as the first arcade cabinet to catch fire with the mainstream, it's arguably most responsible for the modern video gaming phenomenon. A table tennis simulator developed by Atari and first released in 1972, the multiplayer game consisted of a pair of dial-controlled paddles and a bouncing ball—just enough to qualify it as the first sports video game. The popularity of the arcade version led to an in-home setup that was sold by Sears in 1975. And when imitators including Coleco and Nintendo followed, the first shots were fired in the console wars. Sure, by today's standards it's not as riveting as others on this list, but then that largely depends on who you're playing against.