Video games have become almost as important to the pop-culture landscape as movies and TV shows, and some would even argue that to a certain demographic they have become even more important. But games are important for several different reasons. Some change the way that video games are made, others the way that they are consumed. Still others make or break consoles, while some are just so damn fun that missing out on them means missing out on part of the cultural conversation. In the end, though, the one thing important video games all have in common is that without them, the entire video game landscape would look a lot different, and that’s what makes these the 50 most important video games ever.
50 ‘Mega Man’
You kind of have to look at Mega Man like a member of a basketball team. While Mario was always the LeBron James of the Nintendo franchises, and Zelda the Dwyane Wade, Mega Man was the Chris Bosh, that solid third superstar who couldn’t carry things on his own, but was integral to the overall success of the team. You know, just without Bosh’s epic weirdness.
49 ‘King’s Quest’
King’s Quest was the, well, the king of the golden age of simple adventure games. It basically made Sierra as a company, and helped pioneer the use of animation in games as well as rudimentary 3D concepts. It’s not exactly going to blow your mind today, but once upon a time, playing King’s Quest was pretty much the best time you could have sitting at a computer. At least without your hands down your pants, but then again, I won’t judge how you played the game.
48 ‘Angry Birds’
Yes, it belongs here. You’ll get no arguments from me if you want to complain that the game is dumb, but there’s no denying its extreme popularity, and that means that it’s important. Sorry, nerds.
See Angry Birds, lather, rinse, repeat.
One day, Minecraft will probably be a lot higher on this list, and that’s because it is one of the most addictive games ever made. From a development standpoint, it’s important because it shows that you can still be tons of fun without dazzling cut scenes and tons of writers and developers pulling the strings, and it proves that people will still flock to an open-world environment without running over pedestrians or killing hookers. I mean, they have to save something for the inevitable sequel.
45 ‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’
The Tony Hawk series is important because it’s really the king of the hill when it comes to the cross-over between video games and extreme sports, which let’s face it, is a natural demographic match. It’s one of those franchises that is embedded in the pop-culture, and its existence has fostered a sort of weird symbiosis between its two worlds, as neither Tony Hawk nor video games would quite mean the same thing without it.
44 ‘Sid Meier’s Civilization’
There’s addictive and then there’s sitting at the computer for 15 straight hours and playing Civilization, which an old roommate of mine once admitted doing. But aside from being addictive, Civilization also added a cerebral element to gaming, and helped popularize the world-building genre now dominated by Minecraft and completely took over the turn-based strategy genre. It was a landmark game by any definition.
43 ‘The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’
Ocarina of Time brought Zelda to the Nintendo 64 and gave the franchise new life. It also gave the N64 a strong foothold and a powerful draw. But beyond that, it helped show that the 3D model wasn’t just a fad, and was here to stay. It’s one of those rare franchise games that actually adds something and doesn’t feel like just a lame cash-grab.
42 ‘NHL ‘94’
If you are a fan of either hockey or sports video games, then you have played NHL ’94 and speak about it with an almost holy reverence. I’m pretty sure it’s required in the Constitution. Really, though, it’s because the game is just ridiculously fun, and belongs to the ‘90s in that unique cultural way that made it a natural to be included in one of the most memorable scenes in that most ‘90s of all movies, Swingers.
41 ‘Football Manager’
There are obsessive, addictive games, and then there is Football Manager, which takes being a soccer fan to delirious levels of nerddom. It was one of the very first games to realize that there was a market out there for sports fans who didn’t really want to play the games, but just wanted to simulate the experience of actually running a team, which honestly sounds kind of strange when you really think about it, but thanks to Football Manager, it’s now a pretty universally accepted concept.
40 ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’
Sure, it’s basically a poor man’s version of Mario, but you can’t deny that Sonic gave Sega a franchise to build around. Look, there’s not a ton to say about Sonic – it was a decently fun game that probably would have been lost in the shuffle if Sega didn’t choose to make it its golden boy. But Sega did do that, and the result is that Sonic will forever have an important place in video game history.
39 ‘Oregon Trail’
Mike died of dysentery. Sue drowned trying to ford the river. You have cholera. You can drop any of these lines in casual conversation and people will know immediately what you’re referencing, and that’s because Oregon Trail was played by everyone back in the day. Hell, people played it at school.
Myst is important for a few reasons – first, it was visually gorgeous, and pretty much blew away everything else in its day, second, it was one of the first games that let people get lost in an entire world, rather than just scrawling back and forth across a one-dimensional board, and third, it’s immense popularity helped make CD-ROM gaming a viable alternative to consoles. It might seem kind of quaint today, but people used to get into Myst deep.
37 ‘Dance Dance Revolution’
Dance Dance Revolution was really the game that integrated the players themselves in the game. To put it a little more succinctly, the players were the game. It was a concept that by itself was novel enough to warrant inclusion here, but you can argue that the concept helped inspire the basic idea behind the Nintendo Wii, which is, uh, kind of important. Plus, you can thank Dance Dance Revolution for opening the door to every single drunken party video game you’ve ever played.
36 ‘Tomb Raider’
Not only was Tomb Raider important because it spawned a highly lucrative franchise, but it was perhaps the first to establish that a woman could be the central character of one of those franchises. It obliterated the old canard that dudes wouldn’t want to play as a woman – mostly because nerds got off on playing as a big boobed chick, but still – and it gave girls their first real video game hero. Lara Croft: feminist icon? Sure, why not?
35 ‘Resident Evil’
Resident Evil helped take video games beyond its normal boundaries and took them to a place more associated with Gothic horror cinema. It was one of the first games that felt genuinely creepy, and showed that you could do more with the medium than just run across a one dimensional board, breaking blocks with your head. A lot more.
StarCraft started out as just a cheap cash-grab on the back of the WarCraft franchise, and ended up a vitally important game that kicked things up a notch in the real-time strategy genre. Really, how can you argue against a game that was so popular in South Korea that they used to actually have televised tournaments?
SimCity is the OG of the open-ended world-building genre. It was massively popular back in the day – everyone’s played it at least once – and without it, games like Civilization and Minecraft simply wouldn’t exist. Its importance is inarguable.
32 ‘Gran Turismo’
Gran Turismo was basically porn for car-loving video game fans. Besides that, it also probably remains the gold standard when it comes to racing games. But really, it was all about the cars, man.
31 ‘Super Mario Kart’
This is one of those games that has to be on here just because it was so much fun. It didn’t necessarily have a huge influence – the fact that it was shamelessly ripped off by Crash Bandicoot aside – but what it did have was a cultural cachet matched by very few games. You either loved this game, or you are a liar.
Look, the Pokemon video game series is pretty dumb, and in that respect it’s kind of the spiritual precursor to today’s dumb time-wasters like Angry Birds and Farmville. But it was also incredibly, incredibly successful. Five of its titles rank in the top 25 of the best-selling video games in history. That’s kind of mind-boggling. It also means that it’s kind of important.
29 ‘Metal Gear Solid’
People would play this game for hours and hours and hours. Trust me, I saw it with my own eyes. I’m pretty sure I have roommates who still suffer from sleep deprivation from playing this. And that’s because for its time, no game felt cooler than Metal Gear Solid. It featured top-notch cut scenes and was one of the first games to really make voice acting a premium. It resulted in a truly immersive experience that upped the ante for all future games.
28 ‘Call of Duty IV: Modern Warfare’
Call of Duty IV could have ranked much higher had the game managed to take the first person shooter genre forward with new innovations, but even though it failed to really do so, nobody cared that much, and that’s because the game was simply so much fun. It’s basically become the de facto symbol for every clichéd gamer joke out there, which speaks to its enduring popularity, which is enough all on its own to make it one of the most important games ever.
27 ‘Guitar Hero’
If you need an explanation for why Guitar Hero is an important video game, just search for any of your favorite guitar-heavy songs on YouTube and marvel at page after page after page of weird dudes playing shitty versions of said song on their plastic guitars. It’s important simply because it fused the worlds of video games and music like nothing before it, and weird dudes obsessively trying to nail “Freebird” on YouTube aside, it also created the ultimate party game for drunks. Now that’s important.
26 ‘Final Fantasy VII’
This is another one of those games that people would play for hours and hours, neglecting their health and flunking out of school because they just couldn’t stop. It took the Final Fantasy genre to a whole new level, and forced every single person who played it even for a minute to get in touch with their inner nerd. Plus, you can argue that it’s the one game that really made the relatively young Playstation when it was released in 1997.
25 ‘Space Invaders’
Space Invaders is one of those arcade hits synonymous with an entire era. I mean, how many video games show up in “Tom Sawyer” by Rush or were a critical part of the climax of an episode of Futurama, or… you get the point. The game went beyond the arcade and became embedded in pop culture as a whole.
24 ‘Donkey Kong’
Donkey Kong is one of the godfathers of the video game world, and while it was never really the game like some of the other giants, back in its day, it was always a solid number 1b to, say, Pac-Man’s 1a. That alone makes it an important game, but its enduring popularity over a multitude of consoles and platforms over the decades is unrivaled by any other franchise, and hey, technically the game gave us all Mario.
23 ‘GoldenEye 007’
It can be argued that GoldenEye 007 brought the first person shooter out of the basement of the trench-coat and black hair dye types and into the living rooms of frat boys everywhere. In other words, it took it mainstream. But all that aside, GoldenEye 007’s importance boils down to one thing: it was one of the most fun games ever created, as its death match feature provided one of the most community-oriented gaming experiences in history. Sure, it was an experience built on faux-murdering your best friends, but that’s just how we do it in America.
22 ‘Tecmo Bowl’
Tecmo Bowl is one of those cultural touchstones that goes beyond video games. It served as a rite of passage for kids of a certain generation. You had to play it just to know what everyone else was talking about. Forget all the highlight reel plays or the thousands of commercials back in the day, to millions of people this is what made Bo Jackson the man.
21 ‘Mike Tyson’s Punch Out’
Similar to Tecmo Bowl, this is just one of those games that sits right in the cradle of favorite childhood memories for a lot of people. You had to play it. I can still remember the entire lineup of dudes you had to fight to get to Tyson, from Glass Joe all the way to Super Macho Man. Hang on a minute, I have to go hunt for an emulator…
20 ‘Wii Sports’
Serious gamers will probably scoff at Wii Sports finding itself so high on this list, but here’s the thing: it’s the number one selling video game in history, with more than double the sales figures of the runner up. Uh… that’s kind of important, you guys. It also gave the Wii its tent pole to build around, and let’s be honest here, it’s the perfect game for the Wii. Even your middle-aged mom has probably played this at some point.
19 ‘The Sims’
You can see elements of The Sims in lots of top games today, especially in the Grand Theft Auto series. It was one of the first games that didn’t really have a point other than letting you run wild and do pretty much whatever you wanted. Of course, it was mostly PG, but the fact that people quickly became addicted to creating and taking care of their little computer dudes and lady dudes was a revelation for the industry as a whole, and nothing’s really been the same since.
Everquest belongs here for one simple reason: it was the first game that really brought the MMORPG experience to the mainstream. And that changed the gaming industry, from the way games are made and marketed to the way that they’re consumed, as much as anything ever has. The only reason it’s not higher is because it didn’t last long as the king of the genre, but you can’t deny its importance.
17 ‘Super Mario 64’
For the most part, I’ve decided to not include multiple games in each franchise, otherwise we’d end up with a top 50 comprised solely of games from about 7 or 8 different franchises. But like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64 has to be mentioned separately because of its impact on the video game world, only on a bigger scale. It was the game the Nintendo 64 was initially marketed around, it continued the Mario franchise for a whole new generation, and it was the game that really took the mainstream plunge into the world of 3D for the first time. It definitely belongs here.
Everquest popularized the MMORPG genre. World of Warcraft made it into a phenomenon. But Ultima invented it. Sure, it will never get the press those other games get, but never forget, it was the first, and that makes it very, very important.
15 ‘Street Fighter II’
This is probably the most popular one on one fight game of all time. When I was a kid, this was the game that made me whine and whine and whine until my mom finally broke down and bought me a Super Nintendo. They will be making new versions of this as long as there are video games to make, and they will always sell better than other games of the same genre just because of its name. Plus, it got Jean-Claude Van Damme some work, and what could be more important than that?
14 ‘The Legend of Zelda’
Zelda was the D-Wade to Mario’s LeBron, the Pippen to its Jordan, the… you get the point. Nintendo without Zelda is almost impossible to imagine, and if that universe somehow did exist, there’s a good chance that Nintendo wouldn’t have become nearly the Goliath of the gaming industry that it was, and that thousands of emo weirdoes would have to find new cosplay costumes. But that’s a different and far more disturbing story.
13 ‘Mortal Kombat’
I think Street Fighter II is slightly more popular, and only by a hair, and that popularity is probably just a reflection of Nintendo’s popularity advantage over Sega back in the day. The truth is that the two games’ relative popularities are so similar, that any advantage is probably insignificant. But what is significant is that Mortal Kombat brought something to the table that gives it the advantage in importance over its Nintendo cousin: gratuitous, over-the-top violence. It helped ignite a furor over violence in video games as a whole, but more importantly for the industry and for fans, it normalized the sort of cartoonish violence common in games today.
Half-Life changed everything by seamlessly integrating the game’s story – previously confined to tedious cut-scenes – with the gameplay itself. The result was the first truly immersive game that made you feel like you were part of a movie. In addition, Half-Life stands as one of the most influential games ever in the first-person shooter genre. Add it all up, and you have a game that created the blueprint for most of today’s top games. Take it away, and the video game world would look a whole lot different.
Speaking of first-person shooters, Doom was the game that really popularized that genre amongst gamers. It was also notable for its ridiculous levels of violence – sure, it was against monsters, but monsters bleed too, you know – which brought it notoriety right at the time when that became a hot-button issue in Washington. To a lot of people, it will always be the “Columbine game,” but to the video game world, it will always be the game that made violent first-person shooters the genre of the future.
Tetris is one of the best-selling games ever, across a variety of platforms, and it never really gets old. The reason? It’s addictive as hell, easy to just pick up and play for five minutes or five hours, and it doesn’t matter where you were born or what language you speak, you’ll still get it. I’m pretty sure this is the game that proves we’ve all got a little Asperger’s in us.
9 ‘Wolfenstein 3D’
Doom may have been the game that brought first-person shooters their notoriety, but Wolfenstein 3D is the game that created that genre in the first-place. It defined the look and the feel of the genre – not to mention the violence – for years to come. And, oh yeah, you get to shoot Hitler.
Halo defined the culture of modern gaming perhaps more than any other title. It’s the game that really kick-started the, uh, unique language of gaming, and turned the whole thing into one big degenerate clubhouse rather than just a quiet evening alone in front of the TV or computer with your joystick in your hand. When you close your eyes and picture the stereotypical gamer, what you’re really seeing is the world created by Halo. Uh… thanks?
7 ‘Madden NFL’
Madden NFL is the golden god of sports games. It’s so popular, it’s almost a sport all its own, with tournaments and even professional Madden players. Yeah, I know. Madden NFL almost seems like a part of the actual NFL, doesn’t it? The announcement of its yearly cover-boy is treated with as much fanfare – if not more – than the announcement of its MVP. It is completely embedded in the culture.
6 ‘World of Warcraft’
Ultima created it, Everquest popularized it, but World of Warcraft showed up like the goddamn Borg and assimilated everything about MMORPG’s, becoming almost synonymous with the genre. There are very, very few games in history that have that kind of brand dominance, and everything else – even its predecessors – now feel like discount brand soda-pop or something. World of Warcraft is Mountain Dew, and everything else seems like dollar-store Mountain Holler.
5 ‘Grand Theft Auto’
I’m just including the entire franchise here, because each new version that comes along is just bigger and better than the last one, but I have to give a special shout-out to Grand Theft Auto III, which took the franchise 3D, introduced hooker killings and a lot of the depraved nonsense so near and dear to your heart that you associate with the game today. It is an absolute giant in the video game world, and it absolutely transformed the landscape when it came to both the open-world free-form style of gaming, and the sort of shit video games were allowed to get away with – and the kinds of things fans would come to demand from their games.
Pac-Man was really the first iconic character in video game history. Before that, it was all monotonous faux tennis paddles and blocky looking aliens dropping out of the sky to be blasted. But Pac-Man gave the video game something real, a tangible image and logo to carry it into the hearts and minds of people who needed that sort of thing, and let’s face it, if we know one thing about the mainstream American public, it’s that they absolutely do need that. Pac-Man is what made video games an everyday part of American life.
3 ‘Super Mario Brothers’
The Mario franchise is the most successful video game franchise in history. It’s iconic, the symbol and face of the most successful and important console ever – Nintendo. But Super Mario Brothers will always be the most important member of the Mario family, because it was the game that sold the Nintendo, that gave life to it – and to the video game world as a whole – when the industry was in genuine risk of being dismissed as just another fad. Atari had collapsed, and there wasn’t a guarantee that anything could come along to replace it. But then Mario showed up, and video games were here to stay.
Pong is where it all began. Well, there were video games before, but Pong was the first to really penetrate the marketplace in a real way. This is where the idea of home-gaming was born. Sure, it was just two flat paddles and a dumb ball being batted back and forth in a manner that would put a cat to sleep, but back in the day, people went wild for Pong, and nothing was ever the same again.
Spacewar! was created in 1962 by a team of geeks who wanted to see if their giant computers and brains could do something more than create a program that played tic-tac-toe, or chased a mouse through a maze. The result was this hilariously rudimentary game, which had less power than your girlfriend’s vibrator (probably less memory too…), but which created the framework for everything that was to follow. It’s basically the video game version of the first chimp who fell out of a tree and decided to walk upright, and that makes it the most important video game ever.
(Previously published on November 27, 2013.)
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