There's a reason first-person puzzle games far and wide are constantly compared to Portal — though a brief adventure, its gameplay, tone, writing, and structure so cohesively work together to create one of the most memorable, challenging, and fascinating puzzle games around. Arming players with the now-iconic Portal gun and the devastating - and lethal - wit of Glad0s, Valve guided players through a fantastically orchestrated and escalating set of physics-based puzzles. Learning to use the seemingly simple Portal gun in increasingly more complex, all culminating in perhaps one of the most memorable end-credits songs of all time.
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.
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.
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.
Since the original launched on the Nintendo 64 in 1999, the Super Smash Bros. games have become no-brainers for Nintendo fans. The game, which borrows from Nintendo's stable of iconic characters, introduced something radical to the fighter genre: Rather than pounding the bejesus out of your opponents until they bow out, you're basically playing an elaborate variant of King of the Hill, trying to successfully knock your enemies off platforms in a given stage. What's more, players could romp through stages freely, expanding the canvas upon which to doll out whuppings. And unlike other fighters that require players memorize arcane buttons combos to execute a character's special maneuvers, Super Smash Bros. employs the same button template for everyone, making pickup simpler, and mastery about learning how best to synthesize all of the above.
Everything about DOOM was incredible. The graphics were colorful and convincing. Lightning was spooky. It felt like you were on a Martian moon. It's music was memorable. Weapon design was brilliant, and enemy design even more so. From the imps to the Cacodemons to the Cyberdemon, nearly every creature in DOOM was the stuff of nightmares – and in a then-unheard-of gameplay twist, they hated each other as much as they hated you.
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.
Where Mass Effect set the stage a futuristic Milky Way, Mass Effect 2 let you explore and experience so much more of it. As Commander Shepard, I traveled the galaxy on the best recruitment trip I could have wished for, and experienced possibly one of the most heart-wrenching stories – but whether or not the game ends in tears is entirely up to you.
In 1997, GoldenEye was a revelation. Not only was it a more-than-decent movie tie-in – I’m hard pushed to think of one that’s come close, even to this day – but it became the blueprint for console first-person shooters, serving up a wonderfully engaging single-player mode that made you feel like Bond, with split-screen multiplayer that quickly became a staple in dorm rooms across the world.
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.
I restore classic arcade and pinball machines and one of my favorite projects was bringing a Ms. Pac-Man cocktail machine back from the dead. With a rebuilt monitor, restored art, and of course the speed chip that makes it many times faster, Ms. Pac-Man made a popular addition to my homecade. We run an occasional high score competition at IGN and so I thought it would be cool to bring it into our lunch room for a bit. For a month, the machine was never left alone. We work in an office surrounded by the latest toys and games, but Ms. Pac-Man attracted crowds. People changed their commutes to come in early and stay late just to play. Frequently we'd be across the office in a conference room and the strains of the Ms. Pac-Man cutscene music would waft over and make everyone giggle. There are very few games which can create so much happiness after so many decades.
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.