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.
In a universe where Everquest was king, and MMOs seemed like a dominated market, leave it up to Blizzard to turn one of their key franchises into the biggest MMO there ever was, and possibly ever will be. After six expansions, World of Warcraft has shown very little signs of slowing down. Of course, the player-base has always fluctuated, but the massive hype around a brand new expansion is always enough to bring even the most retired player back for more.
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.
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?
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe may be a re-release of the original Wii U kart racer, but its function as both a fantastic kart racer in its own right and a more complete package of an already great game. Its selection of classic and brand new tracks make for an excellent rotation of races that keeps things fresh no matter how much you play, with a thorough roster of racers and plenty of kart customization options.
Most of all, it was scary – like, actually scary: an exploration of the depths of human depravity and the effects it has on the people and places around us that few video games have handled with such a disturbing grace and maturity. As a hardened horror fan who’s tough to frighten, I appreciate Silent Hill 2’s ability to stick with me even a decade later.
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.
Symphony of the Night is much more than just a fun side-scroller with an awesome twist, though. Dracula’s castle has never been more varied, filled with gorgeous gothic pixel art and backed up by a fantastic soundtrack. Alucard and all of his monstrous foes are lusciously animated. It’s basically the entire package. Art, animation, sound, gameplay, design… even replay value, thanks to multiple playable characters. It all comes together perfectly.
Pushing the limits of the NES's 8-bit architecture, 1987's Castlevania was a monster of a game, with stirring graphics, sophisticated physics (for such an early platformer) and unforgettable music that perfectly matched the title's creepy feel. While nowhere as frightening as the yet-to-surface survival horror genre, it offered an experience in stark contrast to Nintendo's whimsical Super Mario games. Exploring Dracula's castle as vampire hunter Simon Belmont, players ran into some pretty haggard stuff. Bloodstained gates greet players off the bat, holy water and crosses were throwing weapons, and, oh yeah, you have to beat Death—and that's not even the final boss.
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.
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.
When I was younger, few games settled an argument like GoldenEye. Living in a flat with three other people, if we couldn’t decide like rational adults whose turn it was to do the household chores, it was decided over a game of GoldenEye’s multiplayer. The battleground was always the Facility and to truly sort out the men from the Bonds it was Slaps only. Anyone who picked Odd Job was instantly disqualified.
While it's not the marquee attraction, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe's suite of multiplayer options beyond racing are some of the best the franchise has had since the N64 days of Block Fort. But it's really the finely tuned racing of Nintendo's longstanding franchise that takes the spotlight — it's never felt better to race (even in the face of Blue Shells), while courses are beautiful, wonderfully detailed, and represent some of the best of the franchise both new and old.
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.
In this era of Trophies and Achievements, completing everything in a game is common. But when Yoshi’s Island came out, the reward for exploration was greater than a Gamerscore: for collecting all of the extremely well-hidden red coins and flowers and then finishing a level with 30 stars (which basically means you can’t get hit), you received a 100% rating. If you did this on every level in a world, you unlocked two more levels in each of the six worlds. And these levels were even harder than the others!
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.
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.
And as is typical of Blizzard as a studio, Diablo II can be played on countless different levels. I never even touched most of what the game had to offer, but ultimately I didn’t need to. The simple joy of wading through thick knots of enemies with my necromancer and his summoned brood of skeletons and mages, setting off chains of corpse explosions and painting the world red was an end game in itself.
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.
Influenced by the outer space-obsessed late 1970s, this early arcade shooter was a landmark in the early video game invasion. Designed in 1978, it rode the Atari 2600 into American homes in 1980, letting people blast rows of marching aliens from the comfort of their couches. In pop culture terms, it captivated a public weened on War of the Worlds, wowed by Star Wars and waiting for E.T. But as a game, Space Invaders' pixelated baddies moved closer and faster—with crazy-making sound effects to match—players' pulses kept pace. Playing the classic version today is like watching a 1950s monster flick, partly comedic reflection, seeing what once gave us thrills. But without Space Invaders, there'd be no Halo, making it a worthy quarter spent, even today.
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.
There’s a reason a snake’s skeleton, and not a snake itself, features prominently in the title sequence of Snake Eater. This was the game that stripped the Metal Gear formula down to its very core and proved that it could still function even outside our expectations. It forced us to take what we knew about espionage and infiltration and learn how to apply it in a new, unfamiliar environment, and it did so with a bold and elegant understanding of its own systems. You could have all the stealth know-how and military training in the world, but out there in the unpredictable jungle of the Russian wilderness, you were exposed, vulnerable… a Naked Snake. And it worked.
As you head out for a suicide mission, you’ll meet some of the best-written characters that feel original and have the power to evoke true emotions. Perhaps one of the best parts about earning the loyalty of each of the companions was discovering more about their respective species and seeing how they’re surviving in a violent galaxy. Maximum loyalty for my companions in Mass Effect 2 was not an option; for my heart’s own good, it was a requirement.
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.
Mining veins of content from Scarface, Miami Vice, and other seminal pop culture pillars of the era, Vice City had it all: a cast of larger-than-life characters and a rags-to-riches protagonist who builds his empire on the blood, sweat, and more blood of the sun-soaked, drug-addled, sex-crazed slice of beach city. And it's that ‘80s personality that propped up Vice City any time its open-world gameplay started to falter – much of that personality coming from the incredible soundtrack that is alone worth the price of admission. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a sexy, sour, excellent sendup of the decade that will never die.