The 80 Most Influential Video Games of All Time


Back in 2011, I had the chance to count down the most important games of all time for 1up, not too long before it closed its doors. The article is still up, but who knows for how long? So in the interest of preserving some of the ideas and turning it into a kind of living document.

Here’s my list of criteria, which I think is a good start to the conversation:

  • Did the game change our understanding of what games were capable of? The Legend of Zelda’s free exploration was a major change from the linear levels of previous games.
  • Did the game establish or change a major game genre? Dune II is widely recognized as the progenitor of the real-time strategy genre.
  • Did it change how the industry and the rest of society viewed games? Grand Theft Auto III became the single most-referenced game in society when it became a hit.
  • Did it create or popularize a new technology? Quake and Mario 64 both pioneered the effective use of 3D characters and environments, one of the most important technical changes in game history.
  • Did the game change how we played games? Wii Sports and the Wii in general represented a massive change in the interface of gaming. Now every major console has some manner of motion control. (Note: so much for that, eh?)
  • Did it change the business of games? I assigned less weight to this than others might, but it still needs to be taken into consideration. Tetris was an important enough game on its own, but it also almost single-handedly created a market for the Game Boy.
  • Is it still relevant today? Certain games were extremely important in their genres, but less relevant today. Flight sims, for example, used to be one of the most popular computer game genres, but only Flight Simulator makes this list.
  • How old is it? When in doubt, I preferred the early version of games to their sequels. You could make an argument that Halo 2 was as important as Halo, but Halo came first. Likewise SimCity and The Sims. On the other end, only one game on this list is less than five years old, and I think its influence on the industry is self-evident.
  • Is the game considered great? This is the least important aspect of influence, but it still counts a tiny bit — perceived quality makes people keep talking about games and revisit them. Still, I would never argue that Ultima III is the best of its series, nor that Farmville (#22) is better than Civilization (#26). Influence is not the same as quality. (Note: I’m leaving that argument text in even though in the past four years, Farmville’s influence has faded a WEE BIT.)

What this criteria should do is present a list of games that manages to provide a somewhat idiosyncratic and personal but still comprehensive easy-to-read history of games.

Off the list:

One on One (55)

Initially included as a nod to licensed sports games, I felt like that was covered by the ranking of NHL ‘94.

Original Text: The licensed sports game got its start here, with Erving vs. Bird, and its sequel, Jordan vs. Bird.

Command & Conquer (56)

Between StarCraft, Dune II, and C&C, I’d perhaps overrepresented RTS, a relatively niche genre in overall popularity outside of its esports appeal.

OT: While Dune II invented the RTS genre, Command & Conquer refined the formula (alongside the Warcraft series), turning it into a commercial juggernaut.

Maniac Mansion (47)

Having both this and Secret of Monkey Island was an odd decision. I’ve merged them and given slight priority to Monkey Island for its role in turning Tim Schafer into Gaming’s Ambassador.

OT: This was the first game to utilize LucasArts’ SCUMM engine, which moved adventure games away from text parsers and towards a mouse-based interface.

Last game off: Candy Crush Saga

80. BioShock (NR)

Given its popularity and acclaim, it’s somewhat surprising that BioShock isn’t more important. But its main claim to fame at this point is the subgenre of violent-games-about-being-games.

79. Canabalt (NR)

The rise of mobile gaming has included the endless runner genre as a major player.

78. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The emblematic game of the bombastic mega-series has both some of its most-remembered single-player missions (nuke!) and the leveling up systems that have become commonplace in shooter multiplayer.

77. Assassin’s Creed

The free-movement parkour-style action adventure has become a set subgenre, and the Ubisoft Game of collect-everything takes up a lot of space in the gaming discourse.

76. Jet Grind Radio (59)

Maybe it was a stretch when I posted it initially. Maybe it’s still a stretch. But I can point to Sunset Overdrive and say “WELL SOMEBODY REMEMBERED!”

Original Text: While its gameplay was sadly not influential, Jet Grind Radio was the first game to use cel-shaded graphics, and its superb, quirky licensed music helped to instigate that trend.

75. Gears of War (NR)

Gears didn’t invent the cover-based shooter, but the way it utilized its mechanics and designed its levels around the concept popularized and solidified the concept, which has been important for shooters ever since.

74. Brain Age (NR)

The Nintendo DS was the device that proved that touchscreen interfaces could work for a mass audience, paving the way for tablets and phones and so on. The biggest benefit — the touchscreen allowed non-traditional gamers an easy way in. Hence Brain Age, a game aimed specifically at older players, became a mega-hit in the early days of the handheld.

73. Snake (NR)

The biggest story I missed in my 2011 piece — the importance of mobile gaming. What game demonstrated the viability of phones as a game platform more than that 1990s cell phone staple, Snake?

72. RoboTron 2048 (NR)

This was the last game off the list in 2011. It’s my favorite “classic” arcade game, so that was not my preference, but at the time, I couldn’t justify it for making the twin stick shooter alone. So thanks, Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne, (and thanks, expansion to 80 slots) for letting me put a fav in.

71. Dwarf Fortress (NR)

The rise of the survival strategy game recently — games like Banished, Clockwork Empires, Spacebase DF-9, and RimWorld can be traced back to Dwarf Fortress, and can be seen as attempts to update the famously impenetrable game. Dwarf Fortress, along with Minecraft, also serves as an example of a different kind of indie mega-hit.

70. Elite (NR)

Elite, like Robotron 2048, was one of the last games left off the list, basically on the grounds that it hadn’t had relevant new games of its genre released in years. One Star Citizen and one Elite: Dangerous later, it’s back!

69. League of Legends (NR)

Here’s the explanation: $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$. (See DOTA, below.)

68. The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (NR)

In 2011, I don’t think I even considered an Elder Scrolls game — something of an oversight with Skyrim’s dominance over the latter part of that year. Their importance in pushing forward a model of open-world gameplay is fairly evident, but I picked Daggerfall specifically for its importance in remaking the role-playing genre in the middle of the mid-1990s collapse. What came out of that, alongside Diablo and Fallout, was a focus on intricately created and developed single characters. Arena could easily have been just a fluke, but Daggerfall made it a theme.

67. Depression Quest (NR)

I can’t decide if I feel weirder about having Depression Quest on the list or not having it. On the one hand, it’s probably the most famous of the personal games and Twine games which have grown increasingly important critically in the past four years. On the other, its fame is in large part because it was chosen as a symbol by harassers who wanted to destroy it. But that’s part of the history of gaming now.

66. Braid (NR)

No game illustrated the rise of the “indie” label of the 2000s and the surge of clever pixellated platformer puzzlers more than Braid.

65. Metal Gear Solid (54)

Do I have anything new to say about the MGS series? I don’t think I do.

OT: A brief trend of critically beloved stealth/action games was kicked off by Metal Gear Solid, which also became arguably PlayStation’s most important game franchise.

64. Indianapolis 500: The Simulation (49)

Still incredibly important at a technical level for bringing 3D models into vogue, but when was the last time a racing sim had mainstream appeal?

OT: Racing sims were among the first games to realize the benefits of 3D polygonal graphics and collision detection, and Indianapolis 500 laid the groundwork for hardcore racing sims in the future.

63. Mortal Kombat (NR)

As with World of Warcraft, I didn’t include this initially because of a similar earlier game in the genre, namely, Street Fighter II. But commenters convinced me of its importance tonally and culturally. For years it was the dominant image of video games to their critics.

62. Secret of Monkey Island (60)

I’m combining this one with Maniac Mansion as the LucasArts Adventure on the list, and moving it up. Part of the reason I went with Monkey Island is that it’s the game that launched Tim Schafer’s career as a gaming ambassador. His Double Fine has proven increasingly important in the game industry with their switch to smaller games instead of AAA blockbusters, and their embrace of Early Access and Kickstarter.

OT: The first Monkey Island eliminated death in adventure games, and accented the character-based one liners that have become the most common form of humor in games.

61. World of Warcraft (NR)

Another one I was talked into by commenters. At the time, I hadn’t played EverQuest at all, but having done so now, I can see the polish and design that World of Warcraft popularized, especially in terms of cooldown based combat as something increasingly important in both multi- and single-player games.

60. Goldeneye (53)

I discovered, when searching for the original list, that my ranking of Goldeneye is included on its Wikipedia page. I’m not sure how many of these made it Wikipedia, but I hope that one of them is for a game I’ve actually played. (There are only nine that I haven’t played in some form or another.)

OT: The earliest first-person shooter to succeed on the console, it paved the way for the later popularity of Halo, Call of Duty, and more.

59. Dance Dance Revolution (52)

Essentially the only games keeping motion sensor-based gameplay alive are Dance Dance Revolution’s successors, Just Dance and Dance Central.

OT: In addition to helping create the rhythm game genre, DDR also gave arcades a new business model as fighting games lost their mass popularity.

58. Super Mario Kart (51)

At this point, can you say that Mario Kart is the most consistently important franchise for Nintendo consoles and handhelds? Regardless of anything else, one of these will come out, and it will almost single-handedly make the system worthwhile.

OT: Helping to popularize the simple, fun kart racing genre for those who wanted to race without getting technical, this was also one of the earliest and most popular Mario spinoff titles.

57. Wing Commander (48)

Chris Roberts has made a rather triumphant return to viability since the 2011 list came out. But I wish there were more single-player campaign-based space sims like Wing Commander as opposed to the open-world Star Citizen. I am clearly in a minority here.

OT: Wing Commander brought the language of film into gaming, making the idea of the “interactive movie” seem like a good idea. It wasn’t, but that wasn’t Wing Commander’s fault.

56. Angry Birds (NR)

Mobile games! Kind of a big deal now. Angry Birds was the biggest deal of all of them. Still is, Candy Crush aside.

55. Knights of the Old Republic (57)

The BioWare model of high-production, single-player character with chatty party members is not going away. Dragon Age: Inquisition’s consistent game of the year awards in 2014 justify an improvement.

OT: KOTOR solidified the BioWare RPG model, and successfully transitioned the PC-style RPG to consoles.

54. Sonic the Hedgehog (50)

I’m honestly not sure if the widespread online exposure of the, ah, robust fan community for Sonic in recent years helps or hinders its status as an important video game. So I’m keeping it in roughly the same place.

OT: Mario’s careful, exploratory tension was the most common model of platforming, but Sonic’s wild speed provided an exhilarating alternative. Also, with Sonic, Sega showed that sales-inflating mascots weren’t Nintendo’s alone.

53. Battlezone (43)

I honestly can’t remember why I rated Battlezone initially.

OT: One of the earliest and most popular games designed around militaristic combat, BattleZone even gathered interest from the armed forces as a potential training simulator.

52. Counterstrike (NR)

I’ve separated Counterstrike out from Half-Life thanks to DOTA, but it honestly deserves its own slot regardless. Nearly two decades later, Counterstrike is still one of the most-played games on Steam, and has become/remained the dominant esport first-person shooter.

51. Deus Ex (58)

Cyberpunk and RPG/shooters are not declining in popularity at all — and this one-time cult hit even got a big-budget sequel. Up the list you go, Deus Ex.

OT: The Fallout model of RPG character development, both pragmatic and moral, transferred beautifully to a first-person shooter, spawning a small but important subgenre of shooters about more than just action.

50. Microsoft Flight Simulator (40)

The longest-running series in gaming history, cancelled in the past four years. RIP.

OT: The progenitor of the once important, now niche flight sim genre, as well as arguably the longest-running series in game history.

49. Spelunky (NR)

One of the big stories of the past four years is the rise of the roguelike, or rogue-like-like (ugh) or the procedural death labyrinth (better). Regardless of the terminology, Spelunky, the procedurally generated platformer, was one of the key games in the movement, and gets the nod above Binding of Isaac and Desktop Dungeons.

48. Metroid (46)

Metroid’s spot on the list is safe; my only real debate is whether Super Metroid might be the more influential game in the series.

OT: Metroid is an almost perfect example of a game model, the lone explorer, whose success in one area opens the door to the next, if you can remember it. Though it demonstrates an idea of environmental narrative more than anything, it’s spawned its own subgenre, the “Metroidvania” exploration game.

47. M.U.L.E. (42)

M.U.L.E. remains more of an influential idea than a direct gaming influence — but the release of Offworld Trading Company suggests the idea still has power.

OT: M.U.L.E. combined the simplicity of a boardgame for four players with the mathematical complexity and real-time decision making only video games can provide.

46. Eastern Front (41)

Did I intentionally have Eastern Front 1941 in the 41 slot? That was perhaps a little too cute to maintain.

OT: Computer wargames used to be quite popular and influential, and Eastern Front was one of the first to use the potential of the computer in making a deeper, more complex game.

45. Diablo (45)

The release of Torchlight 2, Diablo 3, Path of Exile, and Borderlands have only solidified Diablo’s influence.

OT: Diablo brought online multiplayer to the masses, thanks to Blizzard’s effective use of first-party servers on Battle.net.

44. Wii Sports (21)

Really not sure what to do about this one. Sure, motion control games that aren’t dancing games have almost totally collapsed, but does that mean we ignore that for a long console generation they were important?

OT: As Sony and Microsoft turned their competition into a technical arms race, Nintendo wisely went in a different direction, preferring to improve its interface instead of specs. The result was the Wii, and most people’s introduction to the system, Wii Sports. Its simple controls and well-known sports and games like bowling and tennis provided a perfect gateway for new gamers

43. Team Fortress (NR)

There are stories of the id team looking at their stats for Quake multiplayer and noticing that more people were playing the class and team-based mod Team Fortress than the deathmatch Doom and Quake were so associated with. But the Team Fortress modders hit upon a different idea: people wanted to play multiplayer that pushed them into different roles, so working as a team brought success. This was basketball or football, instead of tennis or golf. This didn’t just change multiplayer conceits in first-person shooters, but eventually led to team-based dynamics in massively multiplayer RPGs and games like DOTA with their rigid class dynamics.

42. Medal of Honor: Frontline (44)

Military shooters: not going away.

OT: The military first-person shooter has become one of the most popular gaming styles today, and Frontline is an early, important example of the form.

41. StarCraft (39)

The burgeoning esports market is built in part on the still-updating StarCraft II as one of its pillars, and that’s built on the original StarCraft.

OT: StarCraft made Blizzard-style RTS the kings of the genre, as well beginning their influential trend towards epic, tragic storytelling. It also provided the basis for a decade of competitive strategy gaming.

40. Resident Evil (NR)

Somehow, Resident Evil fell off my original list during the process of editing and honing, which was an embarrassing omission. Survival horror, you have a proper home now.

39. Street Fighter II (38)

Street Fighter II remains in roughly the same spot thanks to fighting games stabilizing as a steady esport, though niche in the wider population.

OT: The progenitor of the fighting game genre, it also helped keep arcades relevant for much of the ‘90s.

38. Guitar Hero (37)

Has Rock Band totally supplanted Guitar Hero as the most important instrument-based rhythm game? Rock Band 3 was so good and so dominant that it basically shut the genre down for three years. It’s back now, though. I’m still giving the nod to Guitar Hero for its initial importance…but only barely.

OT: Guitar Hero brought the rhythm game home and, together with the later Rock Band, became the new face of party games.

37. Tomb Raider (36)

A well-received reboot has Lara Croft back on the map, albeit in the slightly surprising role of feminist hero in the representation wars.

OT: The third-person action genre popularized by Tomb Raider would eventually become one of the biggest in gaming.

36. FarmVille (22)

Not many games have plummeted in importance like FarmVille, now more notable for popularizing F2P mechanics than the genre-defining event it once seemed to be. And I’m okay with this.

OT: It’s still too soon to measure the full effect of Farmville on the industry, but what it’s done so far is impressive. It’s changed Facebook gaming from an afterthought to a major platform for the industry. Social game companies are luring major designers like Brian Reynolds and John Romero to develop games for browsers. “Microtransactions” are now considered a valid method of funding a game. Maybe it’s a bubble. Maybe it’s the future of gaming

35. Dragon Quest (33)

The popularization of a distinctly Japanese RPG style — still important.

OT: The first big Japanese RPG hit, it set a standard for simple, grind-based RPGs that, amongst others, its hugely popular series still follows to this day.

34. Dune II (20)

The near-collapse of any real-time strategy game of the conventional sort not made by Blizzard over the last four years has illustrated that the once-dominant genre may have lost its luster.

OT: It’s rare that you can find a single game that spawned an entire genre. Usually the situation is more complex. Not with Dune II, a game whose base-building multi-unit combat set the template for the bulk of real-time strategy games to follow. Warcraft, Command & Conquer, and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War all spring directly from Dune II.

33. The Sims (35)

When medieval grand strategy games like Crusader Kings II cite The Sims as an influence, it’s fair to say that its importance hasn’t disappeared.

OT: The Sims became the best-selling PC game of all time, once again teaching the game industry that having violence and villains was not necessary to create a hit game.

32. Bejeweled (32)

Wanna match some 3s?

OT: The first puzzle game to step out of Tetris’s shadow, Bejeweled created a cottage industry of “Match Three” games and also a new model of independent game sales and distribution.

31. Myst (29)

As traditional adventures, a genre that Myst helped put off the shelves, are making a major comeback, I kinda wanna know what Myst’s The Walking Dead might look like.

OT: While “hardcore” gamers derided Myst when it was released, new gamers flocked to it. Its gorgeous graphics, simple interface, and slow pace struck a chord with people who weren’t necessarily into jumping cartoon characters or reenacting D-Day. More importantly, Myst filled a necessary niche for burgeoning new technology forms, becoming a “killer app” for CD-ROM drives in home computers, a trend which would spread to home consoles quickly enough. Finally, and perhaps less appealingly, Broderbund’s aggressive rerelease strategy showed how a single game could exploit the way video games were sold in stores, helping Myst stay on best-seller lists for months and years after its release.

30. SimCity (24)

For several games on this list, having a sequel in the last couple years has helped raise awareness of their influence. For SimCity, well, it didn’t turn out quite so happily.

OT: SimCity embodies the concept of emergent narrative, where the story comes from the gameplay itself, as opposed to an externally imposed tale. You build a city, and that’s all — no plot, no missions, nothing other than the internal motivation of improving your city to motivate you. In addition to demonstrating that conflict didn’t have to drive player motivation in gaming, SimCity also showed the power of real-time gaming even in strategic titles, and spawned a genre of economic management simulations. It showed up everywhere, becoming one of a small handful of games that gamers put on their hard drives and educators put in their schools’ computer labs. It also made a star out of Will Wright, who has gone on to become arguably the biggest celebrity game designer outside of Japan.

29. Wolfenstein 3D (30)

Another series whose sequel didn’t necessarily enhance its original influence. It’s cool that it’s found a niche as a bizarrely awesome alternate history World War II shooter, but its importance remains in genre and technology.

OT: We take some aspects of gaming for granted, like full-color graphics with freedom of movement. This wasn’t the case before Wolfenstein 3D (and Ultima Underworld, demoed before, but released just afterwards). Its smooth scrolling through three dimensions was technically dazzling, but the speed at which the game could be played also made action games viable on the home computer, instead of being segregated on consoles. Finally, Wolfenstein 3D’s technical prowess and popularity made it clear that the PC and MS-DOS were capable of besting the previously more powerful Amiga systems.

28. Pokemon (28)

Not much movement from Pokemon here, but the next time I do this, with Nintendo’s movement into mobile gaming, things might change.

OT: The Pokemon video games were at the center of a Nintendo marketing blitz, which saw the Pokemon brand suddenly appear everywhere. The cartoon and the card game were important as well, but it was a multimedia gestalt effect. In terms of gameplay, Pokemon codification of collection, “Gotta catch ‘em all!,” helped to create a new aspect of gameplay, where finishing the storyline wasn’t enough — you had to try to achieve everything the game placed before you.

27. NHL ’94 (27)

Sports games are still an underdiscussed but essential part of gaming.

OT: Game writers often like to ignore sports games, but they’re a massively important aspect of the business and popular awareness of video games. EA Sports holds such dominance over much of the genre that I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss their games. Singling out a particular game is difficult, but I chose NHL ’94 as the game which established that EA Sports was a multi-sport brand, willing and able to make a great game — and franchise — in whatever arena they put their mind to.

26. Rogue (31)

Everyone wants to make a roguelike these days, it seems.

OT: The rare game so influential that games in its genre have taken its name — “roguelike” refers to games with a combination of random levels, character progression, and permanent death.

25. Civilization (26)

If anything, grand strategy games are even healthier today than they were in 2011.

OT: In the early days of computer gaming, strategy games and wargames were combined as “strategy/wargames,” and the strategy side of that combination was the weaker one. That all changed with Civilization, which created the form of the 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) strategy game that would come to dominate turn-based strategy from there on. If anything Civilization was too dominant over its genre (unlike Dune II and real-time strategy) — everything that came after had to be compared to Civ, and nothing else lived up to Civilization’s model.

24. DOTA (NR)

How important is DOTA? Well, it single-handedly made me need to separate mods from their original games, thus shaking up the top of the list. This little single-map mod spawned an entirely massively popular esports and regular multiplayer genre. This is where the money is.

23. Pac-Man (34)

I definitely had Pac-Man too low originally. For years, it WAS video games in the wider culture.

OT: Pac-Man was the first video game that indicated that a game character could become a cultural icon, demonstrating that mascots and cross-media branding of game properties was possible — Mario, Link, Sonic, Lara Croft and more owe him thanks.

22. Halo (23)

While the Halo series has stalled a bit post-Reach, its influences on shooters in general remain strong, for better or for worse.

OT: Halo was the most important first-person shooter to transfer the total experience from PC to console. The dual analog sticks that became industry standard on consoles allowed for far more precise control than previous console FPS games. It also included a robust multiplayer suite, leading directly to the explosion of console-based multiplayer on platforms like Xbox Live (especially with its sequel, Halo 2) and the PlayStation Network.

21. EverQuest (13)

Since I added WOW to this list, EverQuest takes a slight hit. The lack of staying power for non-WOW MMRPGs has also hurt its standing.

OT: Ultima Online had demonstrated the MMORPGs were possible, but its reach far exceeded its grasp. Everquest, released just a few years later, utilized the more stable, rigid mechanics of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) combined with AAA production values. Everquest brought in classes with specific roles, limited numbers in groups, the choice of PvP or not, and strict leveling and progression mechanics. The result was a narrowly-focused game that encouraged grinding and grouping with others, the basis for most other massively multiplayer games — including the megahit World of Warcraft — since.

20. Final Fantasy IV (17)

I think that, in the last few years, we’ve finally moved past “JRPGs are terrible/dying now.” But it’s probably better to be controversial than it is to be forgotten. Handhelds still going strong, though.

OT: Final Fantasy IV made RPGs smooth. Prior to FFIV, games in the genre were typically built around grinding, with the occasional plot point tossed in to tell you where to go next. Final Fantasy IV built the plot and characters into the core of the game, establishing a “town-dungeon-boss” sequence that has become popular with many RPGs since. Go to a town, find out the problem, go to a dungeon to fix it, fight a boss, and come closer to finishing the overarching plot. This combination of story and gameplay made RPGs the driving force in innovative video game storytelling.

19. Fallout (19)

The recent rise of Kickstarted classic-style RPGs serves as a continued conversation with the Fallout model of RPG.

OT: Tabletop gamers always used to sneer at computer RPG players by saying that you couldn’t actually play a role like the name suggested. After Fallout, that became so much harder to do. Fallout helped to push the RPG genre from multi-character parties to a single, dominant, dynamic character. You could play the game using intelligence and charisma, or you could be a sneaky thief, a melee master, or a heavy weapons expert. You could even finish the game without firing a shot in anger. You could also choose your morality. The game allowed for good actions and evil actions, as well as a few grey areas in-between. Before Fallout, freedom in most games meant simply an external freedom to explore. After Fallout, you were free to internally develop your character, giving you freedom of play style.

18. Pitfall! (18)

Is this low? I feel somewhat unconfident about Pitfall!

OT: The popularizer of the platform game, Pitfall! demonstrates many or even most of the tropes of the genre. You play a strong, silent male protagonist whose goal is to get from one side of the screen to the next. There are animals who try to stop you, traps to avoid, ropes to swing on, and treasure to be found. Instead of destruction of antagonists, the goal is avoidance of danger, thus giving the hero a kind of underdog role — the world is out to get you, but if you’re good enough, you’ll beat the world.

17. Mystery House (16)

I thought to myself “really?” when I saw Mystery House so high, but then I remembered that the combination of graphics and text is REALLY IMPORTANT.

OT: We think of games having text and graphics on the same screen as the natural state, but Mystery House was the first game to include pictures and words at the same time. It also helped Roberta and Ken Williams start Sierra Inc., one of the dominant publishers of computer games in the ‘80s and ‘90s, particularly Mystery House-descended adventure games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, and more

16. Pong (25)

Like Pac-Man, I underrated the sheer power over the culture of “what is a video game?” that Pong represented from its appearance.

OT: A simple, abstract table tennis simulation may be the most influential game ever in a business sense. At the arcade level, it was a massive enough hit that it helped to create the impression that there was money in gaming. Porting Pong to home consoles also helped to create a boom in home consoles.

15. Tetris (15)

A rock-solid continued presence in the top 20 should be no surprise whatsoever.

OT: The pinnacle of abstraction as game design, Tetris’s simple perfection provided an unparalleled example for all games to follow, let alone puzzle games, which took over a decade to crawl out of Tetris’s shadow even a little bit. Tetris was also big business, a game that anyone could enjoy on any platform. It was most important for the Game Boy and the fledgling portable gaming industry — the killer app needed to make portables anything more than a gimmick.

14. Half-Life (7)

Part of the reason I’d rated Half-Life so highly was its mods, particularly CounterStrike. With it separated into its own spot in the list, Half-Life falls a little. Still critically important in its pioneering use of in-game storytelling, AI, and being associated with Team Fortress Classic.

OT: While other games had attempted to ape the forms of film or novels, Half-Life was one of the first and most successful at utilizing the new technology of the day to create a narrative that could only be done as a game. The first-person shooter brought excitement and narrative momentum and the graphics made everything seem that much more immersive. Half-Life also minimized the artificial restrictions of the common video game form, eschewing levels and cut-scenes.

13. Adventure (14)

Adventure is SO IMPORTANT that it’s the only video game to spawn a genre title after itself that’s not embarrassing. Sorry, (Roguelikes and Metroidvanias.)

OT: “You stand in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike” is one of the most famous sentences in gaming, from the birth of the adventure game genre. Initially, as text adventures, they were like playable books, but with the addition of graphics and mouse control, the genre flowered into one of the most important in gaming until its collapse in the late ‘90s. Adventure demonstrated that writing could be as important an aspect of gaming as graphics or sound.

12. Dungeon Master (4)

I still find Dungeon Master important for all the reasons mentioned, but it was my most iffy high choice, and a slide was pretty much inevitable. Still, thanks to Legend of Grimrock, it’s back!

OT: Before Dungeon Master, games were either simple and direct (shoot, run & jump) or complex and abstract (solve puzzles, roll characters). Dungeon Master’s engine allowed for the game to be complex and direct. You didn’t open locks by pressing ‘U’ for ‘Use’ then ‘5’ for ‘Key.’ You clicked on the key on the ground, your cursor became the key, you clicked that key on the lock, and it opened. It is impossible to overstate how important this elimination of abstraction was for the future of gaming. It directly inspired first-person RPGs like Lands of Lore, Ultima Underworld, and The Elder Scrolls, but indirectly, much of the immersion in many styles of gaming, especially first-person shooters, can be derived from Dungeon Master.

11. Minecraft (NR)

Even in 2011, I probably should have included this one. Its popularity has only skyrocketed since. Crafting is everywhere now. Blocky graphics, everywhere. Minecraft has helped turn streaming into a phenomenon. And if you think it’s important now, just wait til the generation of kids that’s grown up playing it grows up and starts making games like the 80s generation brought platformers back a few years ago.

Minecraft is the only game that has a chance of breaking into the top 2 next time I do this.

10. The Legend of Zelda (10)

I feel like Zelda has stalled somewhat in the last four years, with excitement built around rereleases, and Skyward Sword’s initially positive reviews sinking over time with the growing disdain for the WiiMote.

OT: Zelda’s apparently haphazard collection of various game mechanics was so popular that it helped to create an entire genre of action/adventure games. But more than that, the open-world exploration was a revelation. Zelda showed that gaming wasn’t necessarily just about going from point A to point B, and could be just as great at letting you try to figure out where you were supposed to go next.

9. Spacewar! (12)

Brendan Keogh dug up this Rolling Stone article about Spacewar! competitions in the 1970s. Very cool.

OT: Widely considered the first video game, Spacewar! is essentially impossible to ignore on a list like this. Some MIT scientists wanted to use their computers for a science fiction space battle instead of mere mathematics, and the rest is history.

8. Quake (5)

Just like Half-Life, Quake falls slightly thanks to the separation of its most famous mod, Team Fortress. But still, increasing multiplayer, mod support, and 3D-polygonal graphics make it one of the most important even without that.

OT: Quake was a monumental step forward in two important areas. Technically, it was a masterpiece, the first fully 3D first-person shooter. Before Quake, you couldn’t look straight up or down. It was the PC’s answer to Mario 64 in that sense, but there were more important, non-techinical aspects. Socially, Quake allowed for mass Internet play and comprehensive modding. The Team Fortress mod for the game introduced team-based multiplayer, instead of the chaos of deathmatch, which is now by far the most common form of online multiplayer in action games.

7. Ultima III (11)

I have since written on how the Ultima series as a whole is the most important of all time. Separating it out would make for a longer list, but probably also include Ultimas IV, VII, Underworld, and Online. Not even Mario could match that.

OT: The idea of having helpful non-player characters in their own world, who you can talk to for clues or for history, seems obvious. It is obvious, really. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give credit to Ultima III, the first game which felt like you were a character within an inhabited world. Later games in the Ultima series dramatically expanded and improved upon the concept of creating an open, living world filled with living characters, and are well worth mentioning, but Ultima III gets the nod for being first.

6. Grand Theft Auto III (9)

The ridiculous sales numbers for GTAV illustrate the series’ continued viability.

OT: “Did you hear about the game where you can have sex with a prostitute and then kill her?” was a consistent refrain of the early 2000s, which gives some idea of the social impact of GTA3, for good or for ill. Less controversially, it brought open-world gameplay outside of the fantastic realms of RPGs and action/adventure games and into more gritty action games, while also making Rockstar a studio that finally lived up to their name, becoming one of the most dominant developers in all of gaming over the next decade

5. Wizardry (8)

Role-playing games: still kind of a big deal.

OT: A computerized version of Dungeons & Dragons was the dream of many an RPG and tech geek. Wizardry was one of the earliest and most successful applications of D&D-style gameplay in a computer game, helping to establish the CRPG as an important genre in gaming. Moreover, it was exported to Japan, providing the filter through which Japanese designers understood D&D and role-playing games in general, making it the grandfather of the JRPG as well.

4. Mario 64 (6)

Mario gets to double-dip with multiple games in the same series because, well, it’s friggin’ Mario.

OT: Although games prior to Mario 64 had used polygonal graphics and three dimensions in a technical sense, it was Mario 64 that made them relevant. The three dimensions and collision detection made possible by the graphical engine were at the core of Mario 64's gameplay. Mario’s leaps, punches, and even his camera are fully integrated with the graphics. This effective reinvention of the form also helped Nintendo and its mascot stay relevant, while competitors like Sonic and Sega floundered trying to recreate the magic. Mario never needed to recreate the magic; he just created new magic wherever he went.

3. Space Invaders (3)

I have nothing new to say about Space Invaders. Still essential.

OT: Most early games were attempts to simulate already-existing things. Spacewar! wanted to be a battle from a science fiction story. Pong tried to be a virtual game of table tennis. Space Invaders was the first major game to utilize its own logic, instead of an external simulation logic. In a sense, it’s the first video game as a video game, instead of merely a playable electronic representation of something else.

2. Super Mario Bros (2)

Go on, hum the theme song with me.

OT: Bundling Super Mario Bros. with its new NES systems was a stroke of genius on Nintendo’s part. Mario wasn’t just arguably the best game for the early NES; it had the most personality. From this came the idea that game systems should have mascots, and those mascots should be involved in the best games. Nintendo has survived and thrived based on that, while its competitors occasionally tried without as much success. At a technical level, Super Mario Bros. was also extraordinarily important, as it popularized the side-scroller — the background moved along with the main character as he ran. It so popularized the side-scoller that it became perceived as the default mode of gaming. Even now, every other indie game trying to play with the form of video games seems to start as a side-scroller.

1. Doom (1)

I have not grown any less confident in putting Doom over Mario at the top in the last four years.

OT: By every major metric of influence, Doom is tremendously important. Its technology was stunning, with its smooth first-person perspective and incredible sound effects. Its visceral, gritty presentation created a template for future games. It helped to solidify the first-person shooter as a tremendously important genre. It demonstrated, at least briefly, that a shareware business model could still create a massive hit. It became the new default reference for video games among non-gamers, either as the cause of all society’s ills or to illustrate the power of the medium. It helped to create a model of online play, popularizing the term “deathmatch.” It began the use of mouse-and-keyboard as an action gaming interface. And it was great enough that it became the standard by which all similar games were judged for years afterwards.