These are the 35 most influential video games of all time

The stone cold classic, crazy or groundbreaking titles that made the gaming industry what it is today

By Michael Moran

What do we learn from the coverage of E3 that's saturating mainstream news media as well as the gaming press? That videogames are a big deal. As big as movies. Perhaps one day as big as books.

Every year around 200 million games are sold at retail in the US alone. Roll in all the other territories worldwide, and that’s a hell of a lot of imaginary golf balls thwacked, mushrooms collected and aliens vanquished.

More to the point, over 500 game titles were released in 2012. And that’s just across PCs and the three main consoles. If we factored in mobile gaming, if we even tried to, we’d probably still be counting when all of the lovely things that have just been announced at E3 have been released. And what kind of game is Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole anyway?

But, with all appropriate respect to the coders and designers who slaved long hours to bring us all this entertainment, not all of these games are wildly original masterpieces. Just as in the worlds of film or books, there are an awful lot of ‘me too’ properties that try to expand on, improve on, or just plain rip off great games of the past.

It would be folly bordering on madness to try to pick out those rare games in history that actually did something new. The games that made the gaming industry what it is today. Guess what we’re going to do…

35. Devil May Cry (PS2, 2001)

Devil May Cry was a key early title for the PS2. Sure, it may have lifted a few cues from God Of War but it added a lot more than giant lava scorpions and flying laser dudes. It was a state-of-the art 3D platformer that reinvented a somewhat moribund genre.

The law of diminishing returns afflicted later entries in the series but the original DMC is still a go-to game for anyone that feels the need to jump up and down in front of an angry god, while waving a sword.

34. Street Fighter II (Arcade/SNES, 1991)

Sequels are often pale imitations of their progenitors: sterile cash cows forced out of the studio’s doors to capitalise on earlier successes. But Street Fighter II was markedly more groundbreaking than its predecessor. The perfection of combo attacks and special movies, the intuitive controls: SF2 was the most perfectly judged beat ‘em up of its era. You’ll still see bits of Street Fighter DNA in any game where strong men are required to throw punches (and occasionally fireballs) at one another.

33. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PC/X360/PS3, 2007)

It wasn’t that Modern Warfare did anything new. It was the near perfect synthesis of standard shooter tropes and cinematic storytelling, sprinkled with a little RPG fairy-dust, that gave it blockbuster appeal. The multithreaded single-player campaign, which like its WW2-based antecedents flipped through different characters in varying theatres of war, offered genuine surprises alongside the pulse-quickening action. Even though its best friends would concede that the individual levels could be terribly linear.

The online multiplayer mode set new standards for balance and map-making variety. The COD franchise has signed up for a couple more tours of duty in that near-future war, and even the notionally-retro Black Ops strand has been lured into that dark tomorrow, but I doubt whether any of those games will quite have the emotional impact of Modern Warfare.

32: Gran Turismo (PS1, 1997)

A car sim more than a racing game, Gran Turismo’s appeal lies in its obsessive attention to automotive detail. It’s pure digital wish-fulfilment for petrolheads. And it seems like there are a lot of them. The Gran Turismo series has collectively racked up over 60 million sales so far. The game’s secondary arcade mode has been more influential on subsequent racing games, GT set a new standard for sim fidelity that left rival titles racing to catch up.

31: Pokémon (GameBoy, 1996)

Pokémon is one of those rare games whose name is as readily recognised by non-gamers as it is by the obsessive Japanese teenagers who first made it a success. The ‘battling pets’ franchise has spawned films, card games, TV series, lunchboxes, you name it. It’s a concept that has been shamelessly imitated by competitors; Monster Rancher, Fighting Foodons, Magi Nation, Medabots, Fossil League: Dino Tournament Championship, Dokapon, Robopon and particularly Digimon all owe a debt to Pikachu and his fierce-but-cuddly gang.

30. Half-Life (PC, 1998)

There are two ways to handle a videogame protagonist. You can either create (or co-opt) a character that players love so much that they want to keep them alive: Lara Croft, Mario (or Batman). Or you can develop a character that is neutral enough that the player can see themselves in the game. Gordon Freeman, despite technically ruling out 51% of humanity by dint of gender alone, is the classic example of that second type. Not given to speechifyin’ but quick to action he is the quintessential strong and silent hero.

Despite the taciturn nature of its hero the Half Life saga boasts one of the most compelling narratives in videogame culture. And yes, I have played the Marathon games. Half Life was one of the games that helped expand gaming from just ‘pew pew’ to interactive fiction. And the underlying engine has helped drive more than one hit game, too.

29: Farmville (Online, 2009)

Part ‘The Archers’ simulator, part virus, Farmville has run rampant through Facebook, infecting every timeline with requests to visit imaginary smallholdings. Its appeal is now on the wane, but through its long reign Farmville has inculcated the gaming habit in millions of virtual sharecroppers. The Farmville model has been re-used by originators Zynga and myriad imitators to flood social networks with casual games.

On the one hand nobody likes Farmville, and everyone you talk to you about it complains about the pester-power of game requests in their timeline. On the other hand, somewhere in the world, 63,370,436 people every month are planting hypothetical tomatoes and praying they don’t wither.

28: Wing Commander (PC/Various, 1990)

Wing Commander was one of those turning points where videogames grew beyond their pixellated origins and started becoming something more like an interactive movie. While its Space Opera setting owes something to predecessors such as Elite, the branching story structure and (from Wing Commander III onwards) elaborate, cinematic cutscenes took things to a whole new level.

27. Virtua Fighter (Arcade/PS1/Saturn, 1993)

Just how exciting can a side-on view of two cartoon characters punching one another in the head be? Well, if it’s done right, very exciting indeed. Such is the reach of the Virtua Fighter franchise that its characters pop up all over the gaming universe. Jacky Bryant and Akira Yuki compete in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Akira makes another guest appearance, along with Sarah Bryant and Pai Chan, in Tecmo's Dead or Alive 5.

Virtua Fighter was the first of the 3D fighters, the arcade cabinet version earned itself a place in the Smithsonian Museum for technical innovation. It was also ported to the first Playstation, where its unique attributes encouraged Sony’s designers to focus on 3D gaming — a decision that ironically helped the fledgling Sony console compete agains Sega’s Saturn. That battle has arguably shaped the entire history of console gaming.

26: Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (X360, 2005)

The what now? You’ve heard of most of the games on this list. Chances are you’ve played a fair percentage of them. Now what’s with this frankly trippy-looking Geometry Wars caper? This little extra side-project from Project Gotham Racing scores its much-coveted place on this list by dint of of its pioneering delivery system.

Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade points the way to how most games will be bought in future. Not through high street stores or even anonymous cardboard-box-sending conglomerates. The games of tomorrow will be delivered through our broadband connection. Better for manufacturers because as well as cutting down on down on dead inventory and transportation costs, it ups the difficulty level for game pirated considerably. Better for us because…um…we like getting our games from happy manufacturers.

25: Dance Dance Revolution (Arcade, 1998)

Before Dance Dance Revolution, there were games that tested your reactions. There were games that tested your intelligence. But DDR was the first game to test your groove. Players stomped on a huge button-studded mat in response to musical cues, much in the manner of Tom Hanks in Big. I’m reasonably confident that Dance Dance Revolution was the first choreography-based game. And today, smash hit games that demand choreography from your fingers — such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero — are essentially trading in the same formula.

24: Mortal Kombat (Arcade, 1992)

Mortal Kombat’s most far-reaching influence is not so much in its visceral, bone-crunching gameplay or convincing (for the time) graphics. It’s in the artwork. The sheer murderous brutality of the deadly bout-ending combos hastened the implementation of the ESRB ratings that now adorn the box art of every videogame sold. There are dozens of Mortal Kombat clones, but none have quite emulated its colossal sales, reportedly over 30m across the series to date.

23: Everquest (PC, 1999)

The huge, persistent, world of Everquest really launched the MMO idea. It’s altogether possible that one day, in the far future, humans will spend as much of their life in a virtual world as they do in the real one. Second Life notwithstanding, it all started here.

The game was launched in 1999 and it has past its peak of popularity now. But in 2002 the imaginary land of Norrath was calculated to be the 77th richest nation on Earth, with a per capita GDP to rival China. Brad McQuaid, Steve Clover, and Bill Trost, the creators of Everquest, had got pretty much everything right: consequently every significant MMO since has operated along more-or-less Everquest lines. Banned in Brazil, essentially for being too addictive, the influence of Everquest’s class-based, highly co-operative game structure is almost universal.

22: Resident Evil (PS1, 1996)

Today, with zombies popping up in everything from blockbusters to board games, it’s easy to forget that the shambling brain-munchers haven’t always been this ubiquitous. Alone In The Dark would probably qualify as the first in the ‘survival horror’ genre, but Resident Evil picked up the bloody, rotting ball and carried it over the goal-line.

Originally conceived as a sequel to Capcom’s horror RPG Sweet Home, Resident Evil soon took on an infectious pseudo-life of its own. Its perfectly claustrophobic, spookily-lit environments and unsettling camera angles helped, but it was the borderline-sadistic paucity of ammo and equipment that made Resident Evil the most nerve-fraying game of its era. A total of 20 games and five feature films later, we’re all part-time residents of Raccoon City.

21: Wii Sports (Wii, 2006)

Some of the entries on this list pushed creators or audiences in different directions. But few can lay claim to having been as massive a game-changer as Wii Sports. Over 80 million people bought the cartoony suite of sports simulations that exploited perfectly the Wii’s innovative control system. Along with the Wii Fit game / balance-board bundle Wii Sports redefined the gaming demographic.

Nans and toddlers who would never have been tempted to assault a Covenant base armed with a Magnum and a Gravity Hammer overnight joined the gaming community. Alongside a well-judged ad campaign, gleeful tabloid stories about hapless Dads spearing a poorly-secured remote through 48” plasma screens spread the word of Wii far and wide.

20: Halo (Xbox, 2001)

As a lifelong Mac owner, I’ll probably never get over my bitterness about Halo. Originally conceived by Bungie as a followup to their superb (Apple-centric) Marathon trilogy, Halo – and the studio that created it – was bought up by Microsoft as part of their launch strategy for the Xbox. It was a master-stroke. Retooled as a console shooter, Halo benefitted from a simplified control set, enhanced by subtle auto-aiming, that give it instant playability.

Add in the recharging shield, now effectively standard in shooters, and a restricted weapon carry limit and you have a formula for success. The shield reduced the amount of times a player would need to respawn and start again, and the two-weapon limit encouraged strategic thinking and lent the game more replayability as armchair Spartans tried levels again and again with different loadouts. Those ideas that Bungie introduced are still with us today. Not only did the game sell in the millions and launch a huge franchise, it helped sell Xboxes too. I called my original Xbox ‘the Halo player’ and I suspect I’m not alone.

19: Road Rash (Mega Drive, 1991)

One of the first racing games to introduce roaming livestock and civilian traffic as a hazard, and the first to implement in-race combat as an added attraction, Road Rash was much more than just another racing game. The superbike racer’s crude graphics look almost comical by today’s 3D modelled, ray-traced standards: but that bland green vista, with a two-lane blacktop snaking away into the distance, somehow provided enough adrenaline for a whole generation of would be street racers.

More after the break...

18: Kinect Adventures (X360, 2010)

Microsoft’s Kinect takes the Nintendo Wii’s migration of gaming into the real world one step further by dispensing with a physical controller altogether. The 24-million selling Kinect Adventures is a pathfinder for this Brave New World of capering like a maniac between your sofa and your telly and hoping that the neighbours aren’t looking.

Kinect Disneyland Adventures pleased the critics more, but Adventures ended up in more homes. The suite of mini-games that make up Kinect Adventures aren’t especially innovative in themselves. Rally Ball is essentially the 1976 videogame standard Breakout retooled for the new technology. What’s special about Kinect Aventures is its integration with the hardware, and the auguries of where gaming is headed.

17: Metal Gear Solid (PS1, 1998)

As far as you can get from the early days of blast ‘em ups such as Space Invaders, Metal Gear Solid was all about silence, stealth and subtlety. Protagonist Snake might carry a pistol and a variety of grenades, but his real weapons were patience and the 3D radar that betrayed his enemies’ fields of vision.

Practically every first- or third-person action game now features a level where stealthiness is the secret of success. That’s directly traceable to Hideo Kojima’s reinvention of the genre, with its compelling storyline and addictive, often infuriatingly frustrating gameplay.

16: The Sims (PC, 2000)

The Tamagotchi craze, SimCity and (especially) Sim Tower showed the way, but Will Wright’s The Sims crystallised the ‘digital dollhouse’ formula. Arguably The Sims isn’t a game at all. There are no objectives as such, you can’t ‘win'. But millions were soon hooked by the antics of the tiny jabbering community inside their PC.

Like a lot of games on our list, The Sims wasn’t the first of its kind. For that you’d probably have to go back to 1985’s Little Computer People, but the synthesis of creativity and design made The Sims the most popular game of its type. And while today’s game designers have a long history of ‘God Games’ to draw on, it’s the enduring success of The Sims that they most want to emulate.

15: BioShock (X360, 2007)

Sure, we had seen multi-branching game stories before. We’d played through games with compelling stories before. I think there might even have been a game vistas of retro architecture in beautiful decay. But I challenge you to find a first person shooter made before 2007 that explored philosophical themes such as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism in such depth. Or at such depths.

BioShock was the game that taught us about philosophy, it showed us what kind of people we were, and it single-handedly popularised the use of the somewhat abstruse biological term plasmid.

If you haven’t played through BioShock and were wondering what all the fuss was about, Rand described Objectivism as "a philosophy for living on Earth that was grounded in reality, and aimed at defining human nature and the nature of the world in which we live." Happy to help.

14: Elite (BBC Micro, 1984)

The space exploration and trading game that inspired an entire genre. Or multiple genres. Effectively the first open world ‘sandbox’ game it also sparked the idea for MMORPGs such as Eve Online.

Elite is a masterpiece of coding, hand-crafted by David Braben and Ian Bell to fit inside an almost comically small memory footprint. The UK punches well above its weight in the world of videogame design — despite meagre encouragement from government — and that success can be at least in part ascribed to the success of games such as Elite showing the way.

And maybe, one day, Elite will return…

13: Final Fantasy VII (PS1, 1997)

You need to be a lot more than just pretty to make this list. In fact I can think of at least one example that’s downright ugly. But there is a level of graphical and musical excellence that can raise the bar for everything that comes afterwards. And Final Fantasy VII did that.

The series found its early popularity in Japan and Korea but by its seventh instalment , it was the hottest RPG of its day worldwide. That success was driven partly by its story, partly by its memorable characters but largely, it has to be said, by its utterly ravishing visuals. You need to be a lot more than just pretty to make this list, but when you’re that pretty, no-one’s going to refuse you a slot.

12: Football Manager 2005 (PC, 2004)

There are plenty of games that simulate real-world activities we might never hope to actually enjoy. We’ve already touched on the Underground driver sim but there’s a sim for practically everything: Fighter planes, submarines, rollercoasters, tractors: pretty much anything you can think of.

But the sheer nerdy depth and detail of Football Manager kicks the simulation game into another dimension. Azerbaijani student Vugar Huseynzade actually scored a job managing FC Baku’s reserve team because he was so good at Football Manager. No matter how good I get at Myth II, no-one’s going to offer me the leadership of a huge Dungeon & Dragons-style army. Football Manager, among the myriad sports games out there, might be the first one that you can put on your CV.

11: Grand Theft Auto III (PS2, 2001)

Before Grand Theft Auto III, games tended to be oppressively linear. Ask any Call Of Duty player today and they’ll tell you they still are. GTA III introduced the ‘go anywhere, do anything’ sandbox game to the masses. Its success came with a fair chunk of controversy. The amoral world of Liberty City was a brutal place, and commentators worried about the influence of some of the more questionable side missions on impressionable young minds.

If anything, the outcry helped sales, and GTA III was one of the biggest commercial hits in the Playstation 2 armoury.

Its depth and replayability, especially as GTA III introduced unlimited respawns to the series, meant that players could be lost in Liberty City for weeks, even months. The Rockstar North game was widely imitated. Some of the copycats themselves became huge hits; Red Dead Redemption is GTA III in the Wild West, Batman Arkham City is GTA III in a cape. From a purely personal perspective, they’re both better games. But they couldn’t have existed without Grand Theft Auto III.

10: Civilization (PC, 1991)

The sheer scale of Civilization’s ambition is hard to beat. Shaping an entire nation while simultaneously jockeying for world domination with a bunch of rivals is definitely a step up from London Underground Simulator. Over the eighteen or so game and expansion packs very little changed. But that’s because Sid Meier got it so right in the first place.

The simple grid-marked playing area and turn-based structure meant that a player could learn the basics in minute but take months, if not years to achieve mastery. The fact that there are dozens of Civilization imitators, you can barely log on to Facebook without being invited to play one, is testament to the game’s enduring appeal.

9: Starcraft (PC, 1998)

It’s impossible to overestimate the influence of a videogame so popular that matches are even televised. OK, that’s only in South Korea, where the levels of bonkersness about videogames are some 138% above our own, but still…

Starcraft also pops up in the Guinness Book Of Records under the "Best Selling PC Strategy Game," "Largest Income in Professional Gaming," and "Largest Audience for a Game Competition" headings and, perhaps most surprisingly, in US Air Force training courses. Not because the USAF honestly believes that future conflicts will take the form of a tripartite war between alien races: it’s just that the game’s sci-fi setting enables players to concentrate on pure tactics without bringing any baggage to the table.

While Warhammer fans will point out that Starcraft itself didn’t spring de novo from Blizzard’s research team, its popularity means that every real time strategy game since lives in Starcraft’s shadow.

8: Super Mario 64 (N64, 1996)

We had to roll the entire Mario franchise into one entry - the sheer proliferation of titles featuring the moustachioed plumber would fill most lists like this twice over. Since 1983 Mario and his brother Luigi have capered through simple 2D platform games, cartoon racing simulations, 3D platformers, pinball games — they’ve even turned up at the Olympics once or twice.

But if we had to pick one outing for the little pixellated Ron Jeremy lookalike that set the tone for what came afterwards, it’s Super Mario 64. In that 1996 title for the Nintendo 64 Mario was liberated from the pyramid-paintings of the past and set loose into a wider, and deeper, world. And not just in terms of dimensions.

Martin Hollis, who produced and directed seminal shooter GoldenEye 007, told the 2004 European Developer’s Forum that a number of the ideas for that game you’re cross with me for not including “came from Super Mario 64".

7: Tetris (Various, 1984)

The venerable box stacker is more than just a game. It’s part of our collective psyche. Play anyone over 30 that mad little tune that accompanies the game and they’ll instantly start seeing tumbling polygons.

There’s a version of Tetris for virtually every computer, games console and smartphone in existence. You can play it online. It even pops up as a secret game on some calculators and oscilloscopes. There have been 8 million copies of Tetris sold on NES alone.

Further, its shape-matching challenge concept pops up in too many games to count. Now, 30 years after it first challenged the minds, and thumbs, of devoted players, Tetris has lost none of its playability. In fact, I’ve got a game paused on my phone right now. Pray for a ‘long yellow.’

6: Tomb Raider (Saturn, 1996)

A lot of games take their cues from hit movies, rather than other games. James Cameron’s Aliens is still popping up in shooters nearly three decades after Hudson screamed “game over, man!”

Derbyshire outfit Core Design had an idea for a game inspired by the Indiana Jones flicks. In fact they had more than one idea; they’d already made a platformer called Rick Dangerous that owed a little to Harrison Ford’s adventuresome archaeologist. But, wary of straying too close to Lucasfilm’s intellectual property, Core made a few adjustments. Instead of a middle-aged American man, the hero of Tomb Raider was a young British woman.

While the story about the 150% increase in her bust size is probably apocryphal, it’s undeniable that her feminine appeal helped drive interest in what was to become one of the most iconic games in history. And not just among hormone-addled young boys. Today 42% of gamers are female.

That’s not just because of Lara Croft. But few would deny that gaming’s first heroine (unless you count Ms. Pac-Man) had a lasting impact on how videogames were popularly perceived. 

5: Spacewar! (PDP-1, 1962)

It’s hard to think of a game with more far-reaching influence than Spacewar! It really was the daddy of them all. Starting in around 1959 researchers at MIT began to experiment with coding games on the wardrobe sized PDP-1 computer. After three years of spare-time tinkering Spacewar! was born.

The hardware had a shade less working memory than one of those birthday cards that plays a tune when you open it. Somehow, with those limited resources, Steve Russell managed to code a two-player space combat game that featured a lot of the tropes (artificial gravity, missile dodging, hyperspace jumps) that would make Asteroids such a coin-gobbling smash in the early 1980s.

Ever wondered what the first video game was like? Grab a friend and play it here.

4: The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time (N64, 1998)

A game so influential that it repopularised the humble ocarina as an instrument, the Zelda series is one of the biggest ever. Its hero Link does that trick of showing up in dozens of other peoples’ games that only digital megastars can pull off. Ocarina Of Time, in particular, garnered some of the most consistently impressive reviews of any game to date.

The sheer depth of gameplay fostered an online community of hint-swappers almost before online communities were invented. The delicately nuanced, context-sensitive music track has been much imitated too.

The Zelda series is an excellent rebuff to critics of videogames who suggest that gaming promotes violence, and short-term thinking. To do well in the Zelda series, players must learn to play the long game, to undertake side-quests where the eventual reward is not altogether clear, and of course to memorise tunes that horses might like.

A game series of near incalculable reach, it’s one of those rare properties that parents might feel safe letting their kids play, if they could only put down the controller themselves.

3: World of Warcraft (PC, 2004)

World Of Warcraft is big. Very big. As the first of the Superstar MMOs it has a virtual ‘population’ of around 8 million, as well as an economy that puts some real nations to shame. The active population actually peaked in 2010 at somewhere over 12 million.

Like quite a few of the entries here World of Warcraft wasn’t the first of its line. Just the best realised. World Of Warcraft’s near-perfect, and widely-imitated, control system means that citizens of Azeroth can pick up virtually any other Real Time Strategy title and be playing in moments. It’s such a perfect imitation world that WoW has already had its first crime-wave, and its first pandemic.

Besides. World Of Warcraft is the game that gave us Leeroy Jenkins. There’s a legacy that will never die.

2: Pac-Man (Arcade, 1980)

What did Pac-Man ever do for us? Well, apart from anything else, it inspired Marcus Brigstocke to coin the a classic joke about the influence of videogames on young minds: “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.”

Pac-Man was the single most successful arcade game ever and the revenues it generated encouraged investment in early consoles. It sold over 7 million copies on the Atari 2600 and was one of the key titles of that first big wave of videogames. Pac-Man still sells as a mobile game today. The lesson? Graphics can come and go, but a good addictive gameplay mechanic never dies.

1: Doom (PC, 1993)

Ask someone who doesn’t play computer games what a computer game looks like, and they’ll probably describe Doom. It is by no means the first First-Person Shooter. There had been experiments in that direction since the mid-70s. Videogame aficionadi will point to Wolfenstein 3D in particular as having done most of Doom’s tricks before Doom did. But Doom’s the one that people remember.

If all it had done was add the word ‘deathmatch’ to gamers’ vocabularies, it would have earned a place on this list, but Doom did so much more. It was more than just a predictable shooting gallery of pop-up cacodemons. The dynamic, treacherous environment gave a real sense of place to those anonymous corridors.

There were slicker shooters to come. Doom 3, notably, rebooted the property and retrofitted a coherent plot and some terrifying lighting. But nothing will ever quite achieve the original Doom’s impact. At least 10 million people played that first shareware chapter of Doom. Many of those players went on, through Doom’s add-on WAD files, to become games designers themselves. Doom was the Sex Pistols of videogames.

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