The quote to “stand on the shoulders of giants” is the perfect way to describe the video game industry. Games all build off of their predecessors, sometimes literally. It is strange to think now that we’re so many generations in, but many of the mainstays of video games were only first experimented with a few decades ago. These pioneering games played with mechanics, perspective, visuals, and ideas that had quite literally never been attempted before.
The earliest video games took inspiration from real-world games and sports, but the potential of the medium pushed creative developers to try new things that were not possible outside of games. Not all were a success, and not every unique idea caught on, but those that did shaped the industry in ways we can still see today. These games may not be the first to do what they did, but were the ones that caused some kind of shift in the gaming landscape. Without these influential titles, gaming as we know it would look very different today. Here are some of the most influential video games of all time, in chronological order.
Way back before games had much resembling graphics, text adventures were the hit among the small gaming communities. Taking cues from choose-your-own-adventure books, games like Zork felt like truly interactive narrative experiences. There were even other small attempts at networking computers together for very primitive multiplayer experiences, but Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD as it was more commonly referred to, was the first to create a Dungeons and Dragons-style RPG that could be played online. Players would be tasked with adventuring and gaining points by interacting with the game by typing in simple commands, with the goal of reaching the rank of Wizard. The concept of turning Dungeons and Dragons into a multiplayer experience is still a goal many developers have, and even back then MUD became so influential that it was coined as a genre all its own. MUDs would take on numerous forms, including social MUDs, Educational MUDs, and eventually graphical MUDs. The modern MMORPG is a direct descendant of what was once just a couple of computers networked together displaying simple text.
Arcades had plenty of hits that helped spread the appeal of gaming to a wider audience, such as Donkey Kong in 1981 and Space Invaders in 1978, but Pac-Man did things never seen before by the masses. This was one of the first games to feature something of a defined main character in Pac-Man. He might be nothing more than a yellow circle with a wedge cut out, but that put him way above most of the competition at the time, which were mostly ships or generic people. He was basically the first video game mascot that would be featured on products outside of his game, including apparel, lunch boxes, and even his own cartoon. That’s not even touching on how influential the game itself was, either. It wasn’t until Pac-Man that things like power-ups, items, and fully A.I.-controlled enemies became common. To this day, people still praise the unique behavior of those four ghosts and how they make Pac-Man exciting to play decades later.
What hasn’t been said about Tetris already? This simple, addicting, and massively popular game is just timeless. Puzzle game designers will forever try to match the perfect formula that one man, Alexey Pajitnov, struck with his game about falling shapes. Just like Pac-Man, Tetris was a hit beyond the traditional gaming audience of the time. This was a game that appealed to just about everyone, which makes it unsurprising that it is one of the bestselling games ever made. It was even used to coin the psychological term “Tetris effect” to describe the effect certain activities have on people’s brains after prolonged exposure to it. Technically, there is no such thing as a “perfect” game, but Tetris comes about as close as possible. Nothing exemplifies that more than the fact that the exact same game, with updated graphics, of course, is still being repackaged and sold today.
We had already seen Mario in the arcades, known as Jumpman at the time, but his console debut would shake the gaming world. We had experienced platformers before, but nothing like Super Mario Bros. For the first time, we got to explore a world that scrolled, instead of each screen transitioning to the next, and was filled with secrets, power-ups, shortcuts, bosses, amazing music, tight controls, and so much more. The level design alone has been studied, deconstructed, and praised despite being essentially the first attempt at designing anything like it. The impact Mario himself has had on gaming shouldn’t need to be stated. He’s among the most recognizable fictional characters ever created, not just in games. It would be harder to find a 2D side-scroller released after Super Mario Bros. that didn’t borrow concepts from this game than one that did.
Notoriously developed almost in tandem with Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda was made from all the ideas that Mario wasn’t. Conceptually, that might sound like a disaster waiting to happen, but this adventure may be even more influential than its platforming counterpart. Where Mario was linear, Zelda offered a, at the time, massive world you could explore at your leisure. Dungeons had an intended order, but you were free to break that progression and progress as you pleased. It felt like a real adventure, and one that wasn’t intended to be beaten in a single sitting. For that, Nintendo included an internal battery in the cartridge to allow you to save your progress. Before this, passwords were the norm for select games you could return to, but we have Zelda to thank for making saving a common feature. Combine that with all the different items and weapons you can use, secrets to find, puzzles to solve, and even a new game plus called the second quest that ramped up the difficulty, and you can see why some consider it the most influential game ever created.
Wolfenstein 3D ran so Doom could sprint. While Doom would undoubtedly be the more popular, and better-selling, FPS, it was only an improvement on the innovation that Wolf 3D introduced. Again, even this game wasn’t the first FPS game, but boy was it the first one to get it right. Thanks to the technical genius of John Carmack, players were able to explore fully 3D mazes at a lightning-fast pace and level of violence almost unheard of. Things such as ammo, health, lives, maze-like level design, and of course gore would not only go on to inspire Doom, but become the standard for all first-person shooters … at least until another influential game would shake up the formula. They may have been called Doom clones at the time, but they were really Wolfenstein 3D clones.
Speaking of blood and gore, what list of influential games could leave off Mortal Kombat? Outside of the actual game itself, the impact this game had on the world at large is arguably the biggest a single game has ever had. The digitized people punching, kicking, and murdering their opponent in various yet always explicit and gory ways caught the attention of the wider world … but not in a good way. This game alone is essentially responsible for the ESRB’s creation, introducing the age ratings every game is required to have. As far as the game itself goes, it managed to do a lot different from the hit Street Fighter 2. Fatalities, for example, would become a genre staple in terms of finishing moves that require specific inputs. Those secret moves, plus secret characters and Easter eggs, made people obsessed with discovering all the mysteries the game had. Many would turn out to be just rumors, but any game with incredibly cryptic (or should we say kryptic) secrets can thank Mortal Kombat.
Games started having real stories around the time of the NES, but even then they were almost always relegated to either a few lines of text at the beginning and end of the game, or held entirely in the manual. Most of the time you had to kind of create your own narrative for games as you played. That was until Hideo Kojima brought his love of film and storytelling into games with Metal Gear Solid. It was the most mature, cinematic, and narratively driven game most people had ever seen before that also had incredible gameplay that exploited the very medium of gaming unlike anything else. It was the first game people really compared to a film, with dynamic camera shots, full voice acting, and a script that went far deeper than a simple “go here, do this” premise. That’s not even touching on the actual game and stealth mechanics either, like knocking on walls to lure guards away, or being tracked by your footprints in the snow. Metal Gear Solid is unique in that it was influential both mechanically, almost birthing the 3D stealth genre by itself, as well as showing that serious narratives with deep characters and plot could not only work in games, but be amazing.
Building off of the foundation MUDs established, EverQuest was the first true modern MMORPG. Others had tried before, but none had the solid Dungeons and Dragons mechanics of a MUD and high production value of EverQuest. While World of Warcraft would come along and take everything this game did, slap on a familiar franchise, and inject an even greater budget to smooth out the experience, it does owe just about everything to the design of EverQuest. It introduced a host of classes to pick from, different combat roles, XP and leveling systems, teaming up with other players online, PvP, and even grinding. Sure, none of those systems on their own were new at the time, but putting them all together into a fully explorable world where players could meet and form long-lasting relationships was what started the entire MMO craze.
If we’re talking about single-player worlds to explore, there’s no competition. Grand Theft Auto III did to the open world what Mario did for 2D side-scrollers. The level of freedom, vehicles, A.I., weapons, mission structure, detail in the world — everything in this game played off the other to make Liberty City feel as close to a real place as any game ever had. From this point on, open-world games would strive to be as immersive as GTA. To this day, we still see the familiar structure of filling a map with main missions, side objectives, and some form of wanted system. The series would also cause a small stir in the wider world, but that mainly became relevant with the fourth entry in the series. This style of game would blow up into basically every genre, from JRPGs to even sports games, with a direct line of influence coming from this controversial series.
First there were Doom clones, then there were “Halo killers.” Shooters had struggled to find much success on any home console for years, despite their best efforts and a few hits like Goldeneye on the N64, but Halo was the game that proved the genre could not only work on a console but stand toe to toe with PC shooters. Developer Bungie obviously took advantage of the hardware, especially the dual analog controller, of the Xbox when designing the game, but that is only scratching the surface of Halo’s influence. Setting aside how it set the standard for basic controls of an FPS on a controller, Halo trimmed down the labyrinthine level design of PC shooters and focused on creating a world that players not only wanted to explore but had fun while doing so. Movement and aiming were tight and forgiving, enemy A.I. was dynamic and able to engage the player in interesting ways, and weapons and vehicles were fun to experiment with. This is also where two important shifts in FPS design began: The two-weapon limit and regenerating health. Love them or hate them, gone were the 10 or more weapons you could stash in your character’s back pocket and health pick-ups on consoles for years.
Despite releasing decades later, Minecraft is the only other game that can compete with Tetris in terms of all-time sales and popularity. Once again, simplicity wins out over everything else, especially graphics. And what is more simple than building? Yes, Minecraft has evolved into much, much more than a game just about building houses and statues out of blocks, but that part of the game has never gone away. Honestly, the reach this game has is almost unbelievable. It’s available to play on just about anything with a screen, remains among the bestselling games month after month, has a dedicated modding community creating new ways to play all the time, and is even used in schools. Combine all that with the books, clothing, toys, and basically anything else they can find a way to slap Minecraft onto and it is almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t know someone who knows about it, let alone has played it.
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