Here at SYFY WIRE, it’s no secret that we enjoy celebrating the things that we love. Sometimes that takes the form of unranked lists. To us, that’s love.
Join us as our entire staff celebrates anything and everything in genre through our series of “25 Greatest from the last 25 years” lists. They are all unranked, because all of the people, movies, shows, comics, props (and so on) have equal standing for us.
The world of video games has changed drastically in the course of the last 25 years. The Super Nintendo was new, and the Sega Genesis was still finding its footing. Arcades were still common, and kids were doing chores for quarters.
Since then, we’ve had four or five new generations of consoles, most traditional arcades are long gone (unless you’re of drinking age, as barcades continue to grow in popularity), and video games are now often epic interactive experiences, more than simply a story of a plumber trying to save a princess from a giant lizard.
The Arkham Series
Many games have been based on Batman, and very few have been fun to play, let alone have provided a true Batman experience. The Arkham series (Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City, Batman: Arkham Origins and Batman: Arkham Knight) changed all of that. For the first time, gamers were able to fully step into the cape and cowl, and see what being Batman was really all about. Honestly? It’s not an easy life. Most of us make horrible Batpeople, but that’s fine. The storyline of each game is excellent, to say nothing of the voice talent, which includes Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Bats and Joker respectively. For the true Batman gaming experience, accept no substitutes.
It’s hard to believe Assassin’s Creed as a franchise is only 10 years old. This third-person action-adventure franchise about a secret struggle for thousands of years between the Assassins and the Templars was groundbreaking when it released in 2007. Telling a deep, twisty story that doesn’t shy away from religion, race, or … creed … it also reached into science fiction, political intrigue, and a flexible morality. The gameplay was also inventive, building off another Ubisoft franchise (Prince of Persia), to change the way people looked at adventure games. With the innovative and refined “parkour” style movement through expansive and vertical worlds, the game gave you a totally new way to explore an open environment. Other games – including many others on this list – would pull from Assassin’s Creed in worldbuilding, exploration, and action.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Valve’s Counter-Strike series started out as a mod for Half-Life before turning into a bona-fide franchise all its own. But it was CS:GO that truly broke free, as the multiplayer FPS became a trailblazer in eSports. Competition is fierce between teams playing as either terrorists or counterterrorist units, and today prize pools are over $1 million and feature teams with global recognition and sponsorship. Rather than develop a full new edition, because of its popularity in tournament play, Valve has continued to update and tweak CS:GO even now, unheard of in most video game markets. As competitive gaming continues to grow, CS:GO will be looked back upon as the source (pun intended) of it all.
The history of Dota 2 is a weird one; it’s a sequel to Defense of the Ancients, which itself was just a mod of Warcraft III. Valve liked the mod for a game they didn’t own so much that they hired the designer of it to make a stand-alone sequel. Strange background aside, Dota 2 has since become the industry leader in the MOBA space, an online, multiplayer-only battle franchise that’s still really in its fledgling years. The game would become so popular that it topped Steam’s charts in concurrent player count for four years. It’s also the biggest game in eSports, with the official yearly tournament The International, as well as many other tournaments for the game that pay out huge prize money. 2017’s event had a prize purse of $24 million. The prize pool for the NFL’s Super Bowl is only around $8.5 million, just to let that sink in. Dota 2, along with CS:GO on this list, made eSports a real, viable way for professional gamers to earn a living, and then some.
Final Fantasy VII
It’s hard to pick a best and even harder to pick a favorite Final Fantasy game. But there’s no denying Final Fantasy 7 broke the mold of JRPGs, becoming one of the most popular games in the genre – or at all. With an engrossing story and lovable characters, surprising twists (wait, she can’t DIE?!), and easy-to-play but tough-to-master gameplay, it also brought an incredible cinematic flair. Come on, you know you watched those full Summon animations repeatedly. The changes Final Fantasy 7 brought to JRPGs leaked almost instantly into other franchises, and that death was one of the first truly significant story deaths in video game history.
From one racing franchise to another. Gran Turismo is the exact opposite of Mario Kart. This series, known for its extreme realism, showed off not just a large selection of real-world cars to drive, but also real-life driving, tuning of cars, and intensely simulated physics. The first game brought 140 cars to the PlayStation and sold like crazy, partially thanks to a demo disc shipping with PlayStations during the holidays of its release. Each subsequent version would push its respective platform to the limit with huge selections of detailed cars. While other, more arcade-style racers have waxed and waned in popularity, Gran Turismo has always been there, pushing realism to another level. Other game franchises like Forza on rival Xbox have since sprung up to challenge it for the crown.
GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo 64 wasn’t just a great Bond game or just a great FPS; it’s largely credited with being the first truly successful FPS for consoles. The game was just plain fun, with an addictive, fast-paced play style that worked well with the controller and made you feel like you were Bond or one of the villainous henchmen. (No Oddjob! House rules!) Gamers played for hours at a time, all-night gaming sessions, four players at a time. They learned every inch of every level and every spawn point (in order). It directly paved the way for the Halos and Call of Dutys of the world. It also pioneered FPS technology, with hit locations on enemies that reacted to where they were shot (basically making the headshot an actual thing), and was one of the first shooters to include a zoomable, scoped sniper rifle.
Grand Theft Auto III
Sometimes sequels essentially start a new franchise, and that was definitely the case when Grand Theft Auto III hit the PlayStation 2 in 2001. The game gave you an open world with over-the-top and at times zany gameplay that was easy to pick up and play. Players can complete missions, sure, but they can also just run around committing various crimes – or various acts of murder – as they usually did. The gameplay, now popularized as “sandbox games,” came out of GTA III, and for a while, like Doom, any other games that did it were called “GTA clones.” Rockstar may have perfected the formula with Grand Theft Auto V, but they invented it with GTA III.
While Halo: Combat Evolved was a massive game on its own, it was Halo 2 that so instantly perfected the formula – and pioneered multiplayer FPS gameplay on consoles over the Internet. Released for the Xbox in 2004, it remained the most popular game on Xbox Live for two years. The gameplay, with the same hard-hitting and fast-paced shooting as the first Halo, kept single-player gamers happy, but multiplayer is Halo 2’s legacy. The matchmaking technology built for this game is the basis for every FPS’s multiplayer mode since. It made online gaming for the masses of console players a reality, and gaming would not be the same without it.
The Last of Us
Speaking of games that will give you nightmares, when Naughty Dog decided to branch back out from their Uncharted series, an action-adventure survival horror title was a natural way to go. Horror allows for instantly high stakes and emotional situations, and the third-person action in The Last of Us was well-balanced, using new tech for the enemies. The real story here, though, is the story itself! The Last of Us tells one of the most genuinely emotional stories, as players will go through a lot with Joel and Ellie. There’s real sadness, actual fear (not just jump scares), and a sense of accomplishment that’s then met with intense frustration. It’s impossible to go through this game without laughter and tears. That combination of emotional storytelling plus action that included real stakes, suspense, and vulnerability, and new tech that made NPCs more real-time responsive, is basically a holy grail of video gaming. This is the culmination of cinematic gaming, and we haven’t quite seen it matched yet.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The original Legend of Zelda launched an adventure that would span generations. As it turns out, gold can be struck more than once in the adventures of Link in Hyrule, as Ocarina of Time, pushing the limits of the Nintendo 64, brought Link into a gorgeous new 3D version of the world. As Ocarina was one of the earliest, if not the actual first, 3D action RPG or adventure games, basically every game in the genre (including other notable ones on this list) borrowed something from it. With the inventive music-based gameplay, the engaging level design, and the oversized bosses before that became a gaming cliché, Ocarina of Time is undoubtedly still influencing games today.
Mass Effect 2
While the first Mass Effect was an achievement of its own, bringing BioWare’s signature branching decision gameplay to a sci-fi RPG, it was Mass Effect 2 that truly broke through to the masses. The game’s sweeping story, with decisions that genuinely impacted everything you did (make sure to get those loyalty missions won or you’ll lose characters in the final mission!), along with fine-tuned gameplay, gave fans a fully comprehensive adventure. Mass Effect 2 retroactively made the first game better, too, as the tough choices you made in the first carried over; didn’t play the first? A special interactive motion comic let you make those choices while telling you the story, a brilliant concept more sequels should adopt. Perhaps the most lasting influences, though, come from the importance of the single-player DLC, which had new characters, returning favorites, and actual major story implications on the trilogy.
No game has so completely captured a generation in the last 25 years as Minecraft. With over 121 million copies sold as of February 2017 (making it the second best-selling game of all time, behind Tetris), the six-year-old game is played by kids of all ages on no fewer than 15 different platforms, a stunning feat all its own. What’s more, it has changed the way people even think about what makes a video game a game. In a 3D sandbox, players have no real goals except for those they set for themselves. With the bloxy pixel-art style, fans can, and do, make entire worlds all their own, or simply explore a world that procedurally generates as they explore. Creators have replicated real-life monuments and even entire cities, or made fictional worlds come to life. They’ve even programmed entire games within the game, and created countless mods that allow for new textures, maps, skins, items, and even new gameplay elements based on other popular games. This was also the first game that was truly of the YouTube generation, with creation videos, walkthroughs, and even full stories being told on the video platform. In the first six months of the game’s official release, over 4 million Minecraft videos were uploaded to YouTube. Told you it changed the way we thought about games as a whole.
Gore, intense combat, a high learning curve, and some dang catchy phrases made for the perfect combination when it came to Mortal Kombat. With plenty of blood and the brutal fatalities, Mortal Kombat was the game every kid wanted to play, and that every parent and 6 o’clock news report said they shouldn’t. A watered-down edition even hit the SNES with “sweat” instead of blood, and finishing moves replacing fatalities. But aside from launching an incredibly popular fighting game series that would eventually even spin out into the excellent Injustice series, Mortal Kombat’s legacy on video games comes from all that violence. The game, along with a couple of contemporaries, directly led to the formation of the ESRB, a much stricter video game rating system established in 1994.
While id’s Doom certainly paved the way for first-person shooters in general, it was Quake a few years later that directly affected the future of the genre. That’s because the technology used to create Quake, from the way it handled graphics to level design to mods, and its subsequent versions, have been the basis of the vast majority of first-person shooters since. The Medal of Honor and Call of Duty franchises wouldn’t exist without the Quake engines. Star Wars games, Bond games, Thief, Dishonored ... it’s harder to find an FPS outside of Bungie’s inventions that doesn’t use Quake than it is to name 20 games that do. While it’s since been changed to “id Tech,” the original Quake and the Quake Engine’s legacy branches into so many games that its development was a true turning point in all of gaming history.
Red Dead Redemption 2
The promise of the “sandbox game” that Rockstar began with Grand Theft Auto III is taken to a whole new level here. This is not so much an open world game, but a full-on simulation of the Wild West. Choices matter of course, but it’s how they change the story (and the open world around you) that makes it fascinating. Neglecting the story completely provides countless hours of fun, but when you really do get into the story of outlaw Arthur Morgan? Well, it might be the most powerful video game tale that we’ve ever experienced, with a soundtrack that makes us cry just thinking about it.
While there had been a couple games that tapped into the horror genre before it (Hi, Alone in the Dark, we didn’t forget you), Resident Evil was the first game to wear the genre badge of “Survival Horror.” When a game invents a genre, yeah, it’s gonna be on a list like this. Thanks to its mixture of horror, puzzles, and action gaming, '90s kids all have a memory of staying up all night with their friends, playing through Resident Evil for the first time. There were jump scares and slow burns, plot twists and intrigue, and two playable characters, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, who players would get to know while being scared out of their minds in an old mansion that hides a secret base. Again, this game launched an entire genre of games, one the franchise has been in and out of, and brought to a terrifying new level with the most recent edition, played entirely in first person and available in VR.
Super Mario 64
Like Ocarina of Time elsewhere on this list, Super Mario 64 was a benchmark and trailblazer for 3D gaming. Taking Mario out of his 2D platformer comfort zone was a risky proposition – until it turned out one of the best games in the genre of all time. Everything felt freer, and literally more open, in Super Mario 64, and while it was the first of its kind, to this day it did many things the best. Fans who love exploring expansive 3D worlds today owe it all to Mario 64 and Ocarina.
Super Mario Kart
The Mario Kart franchise is one of the most popular party games on the market, and it all started with Super Mario Kart. This first edition, for Super Nintendo, introduced the idea of the “Kart Racer” genre. With power-ups that were linked directly to the Mario franchise and a lineup of popular and recognizable characters, it even had some of the best graphics of the first couple years of the SNES. The initial edition only featured two players as far as multiplayer went but did introduce Battle Mode as well. Many others have tried to enter the kart-racer arena, but none has ever passed up the originator in Mario Kart.
Super Smash Bros.
Take your favorite characters from various Nintendo games and make them fight: It’s the easiest possible elevator pitch, and seemed so perfectly set up for success. And succeed, it did! Originally planned as a Japan-only release, the original Super Smash Bros. came west after its success in Nintendo’s home country. Fans could select from 12 characters to have four-player fights, taking down each other with powers and abilities pulled right out of the original games. Samus had her blaster, Kirby could eat his foes and take on their powers, and Pikachu had massive blasts of lightning. Like Mario Kart, Smash took recognizable Nintendo characters and put them in a brand-new situation, and fans loved it. The game has evolved over the years, with each edition adding new characters and modes – even characters from outside Nintendo’s realm, like Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog. Its lasting influence includes the creation of the four-player brawl, something other games have taken on, and starting with the second game, Melee, the Smash Bros. franchise moved into competitive gaming, with fans playing it for cash prizes.
In 1996, we met Lara Croft. She was everything an action star should be, daring, a little reckless, knew her way around climbing obstacles, solving puzzles, and handling a gun. But, she was a … dun dun duuuuun … woman! In a market dominated by male leads, especially in any game resembling any sort of action genre, it was startling to see a Lara doing all those things men do, and doing it amazingly well. She became a cultural phenomenon, appearing on magazine covers and music videos. She also kicked the third person action-adventure into high gear more than a decade before anyone heard of Altair or Nathan Drake. Lara’s 21st-century reboot helped bring her back to the top of the genre and the public eye once more, too.
It’s impossible to put just one of the Uncharted games on this list, because each one did something new for games as a whole. Like many others, the cinematic nature of its storytelling was at the time revolutionary as we followed the adventures of Nathan Drake. While the series absolutely borrowed some inspiration from Tomb Raider, it felt even more like Indiana Jones, thanks to the cavalier lead character. Uncharted just does so much so well, from gunplay (progressively better each game) to exploration to beautiful level design and of course the ever-engrossing story. While they’re making a movie based on the franchise, this was the first game that proved you really didn’t need to – every aspect felt like you were playing a movie already, and even more so because you were living it with the characters.
The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series
The point-and-click adventure game was an incredibly popular genre in the '80s and into the early '90s, with companies like LucasArts and Sierra Online building entire businesses on them. While they largely went away for several years in the initial console boom, they’ve made a comeback in recent years, and that’s thanks to Telltale Games. The Walking Dead from Telltale brought a deep story that wasn’t an adaptation of the comic or show, instead doing something unique. As you go through the early days of the zombie apocalypse, you truly grow with and fall in love with the characters, Lee and Clementine. The legacy of the game, though, is in its emphasis on story as well as on choices. Every decision you make, in conversation, in tense moments, lasts. It affects what happens, it affects how characters react to you, and it lasts from episode to episode, all the way through the story. Some of your major decisions even last into the sequel! This method of storytelling gave players so much more agency, and has been the basis of Telltale’s other hits since.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
How big can the mythology of an open world game possibly get? People may have thought that nothing could top the insane world building of The Elder Scrolls universe, but that’s because those games don’t have an array of established fantasy books to draw from. The Witcher series does, and it goes completely wild with it in The Witcher III, the finest game of the series, and possibly the best fantasy game of all time. The lore comes at you almost as fast as the monsters do, and once again, this is a game where your choices really do matter. They matter, and they will haunt you. This game earns a spot here for the Bloody Baron storyline alone, an extra-sized mission that will live forever in any player’s mind.
World of Warcraft
After the success of the Warcraft games, hits in the real-time strategy genre, Blizzard Entertainment reinvented the franchise in 2004 with World of Warcraft. While other MMORPGs, allowing millions of people to live in an online fantasy world, had been on the market, when WOW launched, it took hold almost immediately. The game saw subscribers skyrocket and started a whole sub-franchise for Warcraft that included multiple expansions and worldwide use and acclaim. At its peak in 2010, 12 million active subscribers were playing WOW, which would put it in the top 80 of populations for actual countries in the world. WOW made MMORPG gaming, and persistent online gaming in general, into a mainstream activity. It’s been memed, streamed, and has outlasted dozens of MMOs that have come and gone in its 13-year existence, and still goes strong today as the most-played/subscribed MMORPG on the market. Not bad for a franchise offshoot.
Those were OUR choices. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which game-changing video games of the last 25 years you’d put on your list!