Video games are a relative baby compared to every other medium. A baby who, over the course of fifty years, has learned to crawl, walk, run, jump and fly. The rate in which video games progress is astonishing, with just five years feeling like an eternity. Movies from thirty years ago still look great but a game that is just a couple of years old has already dated. Making a list to accommodate every evolutionary sea change and groundbreaking title while also paying homage to the classics that laid the groundwork for everything that came after is no small feat. How would one for example rank an outdated game that introduced a major mechanic going forward, a great game who was surpassed by all its sequels or two completely unrelated titles? How do you compare Portal to Pong or God of War (2005) to God of War (2018)?
Firstly, I (to the best of my ability) eliminated personal bias and then focused on a set of objective criteria (importance, influence, etc.) that I used as a metric to give titles a numerical value. Historical importance was obviously a huge component but if no one plays it today (like Spacewar! or Hunt the Wumpus for example), it didn’t make the cut. Graphics were only ever a plus, never a minus (games date horribly, so I didn’t judge that against them but if a title had unique graphics, it certainly got a bump) and popularity and fun were major factors as well. It required a lot of math, some impossibly hard cuts and a ton of sleepless nights to whittle the entire history of video games down to just five hundred titles but it’s finally done.
These are the 500 Greatest Video Games of All Time.
75. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) | Xbox, PC
Set roughly 4,000 years before the birth of the Galactic Empire, Knights of the Old Republic is, as many fans have called it “the good prequel.” As good a dunk on those garbage ass movies as that is, I feel like it still would’ve earned that moniker even if the prequels were great. Because what this game has that those movies don’t (or any other piece of extended universe as far as I know) is presenting the player the choice as whether or not to go Jedi or Sith. I’m an aficionado of every piece of Star Wars media but outside of Anakin turning into Darth Vader over the course of three movies, I’ve never seen a character actually grapple with that choice before, especially in the games. In the games, you’re almost always one or the other. KOTOR let’s you choose, which automatically makes it far more interesting than any other Star Wars game and fits surprisingly well within the structure of an RPG. Player choice is at the heart of the best role playing games and light sabers are objectively the greatest weapon ever and make for the best fights, so to have a Star Wars game in which you have both as well as a a skill tree that unlocks more powers the more you level up, is a marriage made in heaven. And that’s not even mentioning the twist that rivals the one at the end of Empire. Bioware knocked out of the park with this one.
74. Inside (2016) | Xbox One, PS4, PC
Trading Limbo‘s monochromatic look for muted browns and greys and its mysteries hidden behind silhouettes for in your face nightmare fuel, Inside is a trip through a mechanical hellscape you won’t ever forget. A masterpiece in wordless storytelling, the game tells you everything you need to know through background events and weird puzzles. It’s still an enigma mind you, but it’s an enigma with an answer—just not one you’re entirely sure you’ve correctly pieced together. It’s a three hour journey into the bleak and the ugly that never stops being strange. In fact, it gets more strange as it goes until it hits an ending that ranks among gaming’s best. Trust me, you’re not ready for this game’s level of insanity.
73. Braid (2008) | Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Braid was the first art game to combine highbrow ambition with rock-solid gameplay. Like most pioneering works, it looks inward at its own medium, satirizing it in such a way as to effectively kill the genre in which it belongs to dead. It’s the first game to call out the conventions of a certain gaming icon and by simply asking the question as to “why?”, it shines a light on our acceptance of the familiar, while simultaneously using it to create a knockout punch of a twist. We are conditioned in platformers to go from left to right, jumping on any enemy’s head we see to kill them and to rescue the princess at the end of the level/game. Braid has all of those same mechanics but with an additional layer of logic added to it. Some would say it over thinks why we do what we do in a shallow genre aimed at kids but that’s why its brilliant. Every element of this game feels like it was workshopped to death, with each individual part laboriously crafted so that they all compliment each other. The time travel mechanic has to be perfect so that the puzzle design is perfect or is that the other way around? And when you add in the ending, it really starts to become the most convoluted game of chicken or the egg possible. Did Jonathan Blow design the game around the ending and work backwards from there or did he create a puzzle game with a rewind function that coincidentally lend itself to the perfect ending? The game answers only what it wants to answer and those answers are brilliant.
72. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) | PC
A dark and forbidding atmosphere, richly drawn and voiced character cast, and strategic combat refined an already engaging system over its predecessor made Baldur’s Gate II the definitive isometric RPG for millions of players around the world. The game’s success also set the stage for BioWare’s ascendance and evolution as one of the defining developers of RPGs in the subsequent decades. Few games have so thoughtfully captured the D&D aesthetic and rules. But even standing on its own merits, Baldur’s Gate II was a triumph of player choice, offering constant moments of discovery and magic fueled by the player’s interactions within the world.
71. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) | Sega Genesis
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 shipped with an additional cartridge that you had to connect with in order to play as Knuckles and it had a soundtrack that may or may not have been created by Michael Jackson. That’s how many resources Sega threw at the third game just to top what they did with this one. Admittedly the soundtrack was spectacular and Knuckles was cool but it lacked a key component that made this game an all timer great platformer — exceptional level design. The first game has the iconic Emerald Hills stage but that’s about it. Every level in this game is Emerald Hills great. Casino Night Zone and Chemical Plant Zone for example, are better than 80% of any other Sonic game combined. They’re great because the developers treated each level as if it was a race course, optimized to make the player feel like they’re going faster than a bullet. The original Sonic was a game that too often stopped you dead in your tracks, destroying any momentum you once had, Sonic 2 is a game wholly about retaining that drive. If they could recreate that feeling in 3D, Mario may have been dethroned years ago.
70. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000) | Various
Since gamers were so starved for a good skate boarding game, they treated any slice of bologna like skate. We all collectively convinced ourselves that Skate or Die and 2Xtreme were good, so when that’s the bar, of course Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is going to feel like a masterpiece upon arrival. That’s not to say it’s not good, it’s just incomplete. It had a solid soundtrack, classic levels, and a good roster of skaters. But a piece of the skating puzzle was missing. That was of course the manual. With this, players could connect combos across large sections of any map or skatepark without needing to hit a rail to keep their combo alive. Just like how the revert alone made the third one an all timer, the manual change skate boarding games forever. Throw in the create-a-skater feature, which let players make their own skateboarder instead of playing as one of the pros (a popular feature in nearly all future games) and the best soundtrack featured in any game in the series and you have the definitive skateboarding game.
69. Red Dead Redemption (2010) | Xbox 360, PS3
Seeing as they’re two of the most successful and critically acclaimed games of all time, I bet Capcom kicks themselves in the ass every single day for selling their incomplete version of Red Dead Revolver to Rockstar back in the day. But looking back, no one could’ve predicted that that game would spawn a series that rivals GTA. Taking the lessons they learned after decades of perfecting the open world sandbox genre and applying it to the old west, Rockstar made the definitive cowboy game. It’s not as if the genre was overflowing with quality titles (the fact that Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa was in the top five before this came along says everything you need to know about that genre) but now that this exists, the bar has been set astronomically high. The only cowboy game that has rivaled it is its own sequel. Which means that there simply is no market for these games, hence why no one is making them (which we know to be false since the sequel made all of the money in the world) or that everyone is smart enough to know to not even bother. You’re never going to top John Marston’s tale of redemption, I don’t care how good a writer you hire. His story, which culminates in the best video game ending in recent years, rivals the best of any western I’ve ever seen, period. He may be an archetype and his quest for revenge cliché but there are few examples of either being better utilized.
68. Half-Life (1998) | PC
This is where it all started. This is what allowed Valve to gain its reputation and what shaped first-person shooters into something we know today. They were no longer referred to as “Doom clones” after this. This is the demarcation point when shooters started embracing stories instead of an onslaught of bullet sponges. This is also the game that reinvigorated the mod community. This game is responsible for so many firsts, it’s kind of incredible. If Half-Life 2 was a breath of fresh air in the FPS genre, then Half-Life would be the reason it can breathe in the first place. Nostalgia has nothing to do with it, it still plays well today and the scripted events are still ahead of its time. The worst thing you can say about it is that fact that it’s responsible for that annoying Half-Life 3 meme that refuses to die.
67. Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes (2000) | Arcade, Dreamcast
Before Captain America: Civil War put all of your favorite comic book characters on the big screen and had them punch each other silly and way before Nintendo did the same thing with their characters, Marvel vs Capcom 2 was the most ambitious crossover of its time. You had Marvel’s stable of iconic superheroes clashing with Capcom’s catalog of video game titans. Of the 55 characters included (all of which are meticulously animated with beautiful 2D sprites), only a handful are relative unknowns. I still have no idea who the hell the fat green guy is with the sombrero or what the sexy lady pirate is from but the rest were big time fan favorites. If you ever wondered who’d win in a fight between Chun Li and Psylocke or If Venom could take Akuma, this game has got you covered. It’s a perfectly constructed combo machine that’s has only one flaw: that goddamn menu song. Just thinking about this game has put “I wanna take you for a ride” in my head and once it’s stuck in there, it’s stuck for good.
66. NHL ’94 (1993) | Sega Genesis, SNES, Sega CD, PC
Blades of Steel is amazing and I’m pretty sure there’s been some quality titles released within the last twenty years but they might as well not even exist because nothing will ever top NHL ’94. There are a ton of features that made the game amazing, but the following stand out: the inclusion of realistic organ music, the one-timer, dekes and other realistic moves that felt great to pull off as well as the inclusion of new game modes including regular season, playoffs, best-of-seven playoffs and a shootout mini-game. It looked great, played better and has stood the test of time in a way few other games of that era do.
65. The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) | PC
Steve Purcell’s cover art depicts a rousing pirate adventure that calls to mind the old films of Errol Flynn but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, The Secret of Monkey Island is a parody of those movies and games. The player assumes the role of Guybrush Threepwood, a young man who dreams of becoming a pirate but soon realizes that’s easier said than done. Among the various obstacles you’ll encounter are: insult sword fighting, voodoo priestesses, cannibals, ghost pirates and some of the hardest logic puzzles you’ll ever see. If you’re not operating on their logical frequency, they will drive you mad but like Guywood, you’ll persevere because the game is just too damn funny to put down. Labyrinth may have been the first LucasArts adventure game and Maniac Mansion the first funny one but this one truly feels like the beginning of a new trend. Every adventure game had impossibly hard puzzles who’s solutions were hilariously convoluted because of this. They also shifted from fantasy to funny because of this game’s writing. In fact, you could argue that this IS the first funny video game ever made. Even though putting that hamster in the microwave in Maniac Mansion is pretty funny though.
64. Team Fortress 2 (2007) | Xbox 360, PS3, PC
When I think about Team Fortress 2, I think of two things: 1) people getting absurdly rich off of making hats and 2) rock, paper, scissors. The first you’re going to have to Google if you didn’t already know but the second is kind of self explanatory if not a bit strange. The way each element works together, so that no one character has an advantage over another or that no level plays to why one particular strength is like the most advanced version of Rochambeau to me. The heavy is great at mowing people down but since he’s slow, a scout or a sniper could easily take him down. The spy can disguise himself as anyone but his only defense is a knife. Figuring out which character is right for the objective as well as working as a team is essential. The game does not reward lone wolfs, teamwork is the name of the game and if you’re team is great, you can easily sink hours upon hours into it in a single day.
63. Shadow of the Colossus (2005) | PS2
The first twenty minutes of this game should be shown in museums or taught in schools on how to tell a story in the most minimalist way possible. After a brief cutscene the player has to piece together themselves (there’s a dead princess and you’ve been tasked with eliminating 16 colossi to bring her back), you set off on your horse Aggro to find the first colossus. Guided by nothing but the light of your sword, you set off. You’ll eventually arrive at a cul-de-sac surrounded by jagged hills on either side and a cave in the middle. You won’t need to enter the cave to find the colossus, you can already hear and feel him. He’s so large, every step he takes rumbles your controller violently. You can tell just by looking at him, he’s ancient. Every part of his design is meant to invoke old and powerful. After starring at him in awe for a moment, you’ll remember your task and awe will be replaced with a question. How are you going to kill it? Using your sword to highlight his weak points, you begin climbing him like a mountain. He’ll try and shake you off but you’ll cling to him like a persistent flea. After a couple of minutes, you’ll reach his head where, after a couple of deep stabs, you’ll eventually pierce his thick skull. After a geyser of blood erupts, he’ll be dead. One down, 15 to go. If after slaying that colossus, you’re not immediately hooked, the game isn’t for you. For the rest of us, it was impossible to put down after that moment.
62. DOTA 2 (2013) | PC
A sequel to Defense of the Ancients, which was a community-created mod for Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, DOTA 2 is a massive improvement over the first one in every conceivable way. Valve’s MOBA is one of deepest, most mechanically complex games ever made, and though its base stays the same, mechanics are always being changed and added. The high barrier to entry will drive away new players, but those who crack the shell and get hooked have a very strong chance of rarely playing anything else again. Its 100+ heroes all play differently, and coming close to truly understanding one could take hundreds of hours. Even then, there’s always something new to learn. Every failed strategy, every death, every comeback is a chance to discover something new. Getting better isn’t just about making numbers go up – you feel the improvement, and every time you outplay an enemy feels as satisfying as the first.
61. Deus Ex (2000) | PS2, PC
Successfully melding together elements of stealth games, first-person shooters, and RPGs, Deus Ex took the gaming world by surprise with this inventive genre hybrid. It embraced player choice in a way few games had attempted. Set in a cyberpunk-themed dystopian world in the year 2052, the game follows JC Denton, an agent of an anti-terrorist organization who is given superhuman abilities by nanotechnology, who’s tasked eliminating hostile forces that include the Triad, Illuminati and the Majestic 12. Warren Spector filled his universe with every cyberpunk trope, conspiracy theory and player option he could think of. The dystopian, near-future setting empowered its players to approach missions in any way they saw fit, spending skill points to unlock new augmentations that complemented their play style. The cyberpunk backdrop proved fertile enough to foster several more Deus Ex games, but none come close to matching the inventiveness of the original.
60. Batman: Arkham City (2011) | Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Trying to pick which Batman game is the best is incredibly difficult since both Asylum and City are flawless masterpieces, so it really came down to which one was slightly better. I eventually gave the nod to City because the ending to Asylum was considerably weaker than this one (that last Joker boss fight is not great) and that exploring Gotham is just more enjoyable than walking around a decrepit nuthouse. Allowing players to explore a detailed open world chock full of content as an even more powerful caped crusader, City is the first game that made you really feel like the Bat. Gliding around the city, stopping crimes and punching thugs in the face is all the hallmarks of a Batman and while Asylum has most of that, it’s lacking that open space to really give the player the freedom of the Bat. The free flow combat was refined into a cathartic dance of death, turning every encounter into an engaging puzzle where the player must decide when and how to use their new gadgets to unravel the enemy A.I. Stringing together combos to take out a whole room of thugs without ever getting hit, is an experience the comics wish it could provide. Because the combat is so good, you could conceivably do it forever without getting bored but thankfully the game has an incredible story to unlock. Filled with top tier voice talent (Mark Hamill is back, baby), bountiful side missions and more Riddler trophies you can shake a stick at, Arkham City is The Dark Knight of Batman games.
59. Mortal Kombat II (1993) | Arcade
If you were a kid in 1993, you remember how insanely controversial this game was. There’s a reason middle aged white Karens are popping up all over the place all of a sudden and it’s because they haven’t had a strong target to bitch about in a long time. Bitching about something is their natural state of being but since the hive mind has collectively broken apart, they’re all by themselves, yelling at Starbucks employees or little girls running lemonade stands. They need a glue to keep ’em all together. Rock ‘n roll used to be that for a time, then it was comics and then it was video games. They need a target for their outage and there hasn’t been a bigger, more delicious target for the moms of America in the 90s than Mortal Kombat II. It was everything they were terrified about all rolled up into one package. It had violence, it had blood and guts, it has a rock ‘n roll like soundtrack and it was clearly filled with satanic imagery. The only thing it was missing was nudity but I guess that’s one small victory they can claim. They tried everything in their power to try and kill it but all they did was give the game free publicity, which is exactly what they did the first time around. The first Mortal Kombat gained notoriety for its over-the-top violence, but the sequel gave it credibility as a fighter. There were still plenty of shocking moments and gruesome fatalities, but it was all supported by more engaging combat mechanics. It was also stuffed to the brim with secrets, including tongue-in-cheek alternatives to finishing your foes, such as babalities and friendships, that broke players’ brains in arcades.
58. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987) | NES
A puzzle game masquerading as a sports game, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (later renamed Punch Out after Nintendo’s licensing agreement with Tyson ran out) is a high stakes game memorization and trial and error. Each of the stereotypical boxers Little Mac must contend with all have a tell that you have to figure out (some will wink before upper cutting you or others will psych you out before before they launch into a volley of haymakers for example) and all have their own weaknesses. Some have glass chins, while others hate getting punched in the face. Successfully figuring it out to get one step closer to Tyson is exhilarating because just getting in the ring with him is an accomplishment. Few can make it to Bald Bill and even fewer can beat him, so making it to Tyson is the closest any of us has gotten to a Donkey Kong kill screen. Because none of us ever beat him. If you say you did, you used cheats and/or you’re a liar.
57. Contra (1987) | Arcade
The box art for this game made it look like Dutch from Predator and Rambo were going up against a giant Xenomorph and the game almost lives up to that image. Normally, an almost wouldn’t be note worthy but since what I just described is an 80s kid’s wet dream, anything half that good, is automatically better than anything else. Contra is a run and gun shoot ’em up that has two muscle bound commandos fight their way through the Amazon to discover a secret alien plot. It’s Predator the video game before the officially licensed Predator video game. And just like that badass mofo, this game is hard as nails. The only reason you and your friend even made it 3 levels deep, let alone beat it, is because of the infamous Konami code. Without it, you’re as useless as Shane Black was in that movie.
56. Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (2005) | PS2
Since I included DLC with every game that included it such as Borderlands 2, The Witcher 3 and so on, I thought it only fair to include re-releases if they provided enough additional content. Even though Metal Gear Solid 3 is a perfect MGS game and a nearly perfect game experience overall, it has one flaw that Subsistence fixes. Which is its horrible isometric camera. We all tolerated it in those early games but it’s one of the things that have aged them the most. Subsistence moves the camera behind you so that you can finally see the guards coming. It’s a minor change but it fundamentally alters the gameplay. But that’s not the only new content available. This revamped version included an asymmetrical competitive mode (the original Metal Gear Online), along with tons of bonus material that included a goofy crossover with Sony’s Ape Escape franchise and the first official English-language releases of the series’ formative MSX releases. That’s a bunch of goodies on top of what is already a whole ass meal. A meal made up parts of James Bond, Rambo and Bear Grylls. The last one is in reference to the fact that you have to constantly be eating and healing yourself every time you’re wounded. It’s the first game in the series — which is known for stealth — that turns that into a mechanic. You have to change your camo with each new environment you encounter and can even adopt some of your surroundings as a disguise. Watching Snake run around with a severed alligator head on his head like it’s a hat is one of those wacky touches that only Kojima would include. If you’re a fan of the series’ brand of political intrigue, stealth gameplay and banana balls storytelling, this game might check those boxes harder than any game in there franchise. It’s a game in which you’ll hear a twenty minute monologue about nuclear disarmament and then fight a guy who can control bees. That’s Metal Gear Solid for ya.
55. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997) | PS1, Sega Saturn
As previously mentioned in the Castlevania write up, Dracula’s castle has always been the real star of this franchise, so the decision to make it one giant level you have to unlock incrementally, is a game changer. The lion’s share of that idea belongs to Metroid (hence Metroidvania) but SOTN brings enough new ideas to the table to earn it’s half of that portmanteau. It’s biggest contribution is the leveling system that makes the constant combat actually fun because you’re accomplishing something. Designed like an RPG, you can summon familiars, manage attributes like strength, defense, intelligence, and luck and the more you use certain attacks, the stronger they become. If that’s not enough, it also started the trend of mirror mode. Beating this game once isn’t enough. In order to see 100% of what this game has to offer, you actually have to unlock 210% of the castle. After you beat it, the castle then flips upside down and is now inverted. Which creates a completely different experience. It’s a wildly original idea I wish more games would try.
54. Space Invaders (1978) | Arcade
Is there a more iconic video game image outside of Mario and Pac-Man than the aliens in Space Invaders? Those squid looking aliens have been the go-to image for retro video games since the 90s. I would also argue that they’re at least 50% responsible for turning this into one of the ginormous successes of the golden age of arcades. Adjusted for inflation, this game made an estimated fuck ton of money. Depending on which sources you look at, it’s either more successful than Pac-Man or damn close. Either way, I think it sold more cabinets, which explains why those aliens are burned into our subconscious. They were everywhere for a good thirty years. Unfortunately arcades are basically dead, so they’re not as present in our lives as they once were but thanks to graffiti artists and graphic designers, the images live on.
53. Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) | PS1
Final Fantasy Tactics is singular in the sense that if you like it, there is no suitable alternative. If you’re looking for something to replicate that experience, you’re out of luck. There are no other turn based strategy games that offer this level of depth. There are tons of great imitations that offer similar experiences like Tactics Ogre, Disgaea and XCOM but none quite hit the spot. It’s like your grandmother’s meatloaf (replace with whatever specialty dish she never shared with anyone here), it has that one ingredient that makes it special. But the special ingredient in FFT is about a hundred different things. There’s the Game of Thrones-esque plot that takes hours upon hours to unfold and is filled with twists a plenty. There’s the FF class system that offers a gigantic tree of branching choices. You can have your knight become a monk to learn a special two handed attack and then equip him with two swords to unleash a devastating volley of blows or have everyone in your party become a chemist long enough to unlock the auto heal skill so that every time you get hit, you’ll use a potion. There’s also the hidden unlockable characters for you to discover (if you keep a certain character in your party and follow the correct steps, you can unlock Cloud from FF7) and classes the game doesn’t tell you about. There’s so much in this game, that it’s like a million different grandma meatloaves.
52. Resident Evil 2 (1998) | PS1
Its remake is unquestionably better but if you’re looking for the “definitive” Resident Evil experience, it’s this game. Much like how Toy Story 2 had to be drastically reworked from the ground up at the midnight hour, this game originally hewed much closer to the first until director Hideki Kamiya, who’s admitted to disliking horror and pushed to have more zombies, more creatures and more arenas, decided to do something radically different. He ditched one of the main characters in favor of Claire Redfield to help tie the two games together but that’s about the only connection they have. Surviving an H.H. Holmes-esque murder house filled with puzzles while trying to survive an onslaught of zombies is still present but this game does far more with with concept. There’s shifting perspectives (you have to beat the game twice, once with each character to see the complete game) and a enormous, persistent monster hounding you throughout the experience. For awhile, Nemesis became the face of the franchise (until the giant sexy thirst mountain from 8 broke the internet) but he owes his existence to Mr. X. He didn’t pursue you as much and he wasn’t as much of a threat but that concept originated here. In fact, the series’ foundation was solidified here and served as the bedrock for numerous sequels until 4 demolished it.
51. GoldenEye 007 (1997) | N64
Arriving two years after the movie its based on had already came out, GoldenEye proves that one is never late to the party if they themselves are the party. As good as that movie is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the popularity of the N64 title. Case in point: the movie is neither in any greatest movies of all time list, greatest movies of the 90s list or a greatest action movies ever made list but this game consistently ends up on lists of the best games ever made and it’s almost a quarter of a century old. That’s how powerful the nostalgia is for this title. Make no mistake, this game made it this high on nostalgia alone. Besides the iconic first level and the annoying boss fight on the satellite, can you picture any other level in the campaign? Of course you can’t because you beat the game once and then spent an ungodly amount of time on the multiplayer. Playing four player split screen deathmatch until the sun came up is an experience kids today just don’t have. Playing with people online, no matter how fun it is, can never compete with eating pizza and drinking Mountain Dew on the sofa with your friends. Who you then screamed at for screen cheating or for picking Oddjob.
What do you think of the list so far? What games are some of your favorite games?