Since the 80s, video games have become a beloved pastime for children and adults of all ages. Naturally, over the course of three decades, the video game has changed and evolved. For good or bad, the video game is here to stay. These are not necessarily the most popular games of all time – and many current Xbox/Playstation/Wii titles of epic awesomeness are not referenced, because those games would not exist without these brave pioneers of the gaming world that have been truly influential, to not only the gaming industry, but to the lives of the people who play them.
The first video game is, by definition, highly influential. Pong was not the very first of its kind, but it was the first arcade game to reach a massive audience, to make the format seem like something that might actually catch on. It was two paddles and a ball – literally a 2-D version of Ping Pong (hence the name) – but in 1972, it changed the world. In 1975, Atari released a home version of Pong that foreshadowed the day when kids would no longer need to beg quarters off their parents, or leave the house, to rot their brains playing video games.
What it got us: Pretty much every other game in existence, with a special shout out to the arcade classic Arkanoid.
2. Super Mario Brothers
Mario did more for video games and Italian stereotypes than any other single pop culture icon. There’s almost nothing about the original Nintendo game that isn’t memorable. I bet you’re humming the theme song right now. And the text that appeared at the end of every level, when Mario invariably failed in his ultimate mission – “But our princess is in another castle.” – is hard wired into the brain of everyone who ever owned the original NES. The game spawned numerous sequels that became the flagship of future platforms – they even busted out of their own genre, with the immensely popular Mario Kart series. There was even a point in the 90s where Mario became a doctor, but that’s best left in the past, where it belongs.
What it got us: Other than the billion sequel and spin off spawns of Mario, gems like the Sega Master System’s Alex Kidd in Miracle World owe their lives to that determined little plumber.
3. Pac Man
You can hear the wokka-wokka-wokka sound right now, can’t you? Also, have you ever gotten to triple banana? If the answer is yes – wow, you have not dated much, have you? Whether anyone else will admit it or not, you aren’t alone. Pac Man spawned a generation of little yellow half moon lovers and split people into two distinct groups: the type who try to hit the 1600 bonus number by chomping all the ghosts up before they stop flashing blue, and the type who try to make their way through as much maze as possible before the ghosts get pissed all over again. Choose your fate.
What it got us: Pac Man begat Ms. Pac Man, one of the first of many female heroines in video games.
Tetris became so influential that it was one of the first applications to be banned on PCs in offices because people were wasting so much time trying to stack those blocks just so. People who had never played video games before, played Tetris – and loved it. It was also one of the first games that actually excelled once it was shrunk down to a smaller format, such as the original Nintendo Gameboy, and later, the PC screen. Also, to date, that has never been a long line piece when you really needed one.
What it got us: Besides fired, Tetris is the blueprint by which most timed puzzle games are based. None have come close to capturing the spirit of the original.
5. Grand Theft Auto
GTA is one of the most revolutionary games of its time. It’s transcended just being a game – it’s a lifestyle. Realistic fantasy is the best classification – you get to be a criminal, carrying out tasks for the local kingpin. Multiple sequels and a legion of devoted criminals in training testify to the awesomeness that has all the fun of a racing game, the challenge of a mission task game, and the fun of a role play game. Plus, you know, who doesn’t want to smack a bitch when she be mouthing off?
What it got us: GTA: San Andreas holds the record as the most successful game in the history of Playstation 2.
6. Space Invaders
If you’ve ever enjoyed a game involving blowing things up in space, Space Invaders would like to give you a sincere you’re welcome with a special shout out to Galaga and Missile Defense. It is also possibly responsible for the movie “Alien” though that remains an unsubstantiated rumor.
What it got us: Galaga and Missile Defense, for sure, but Space Invaders was so revolutionary that nearly any game on this list owes at least a tip of the hat to the original invasion team.
7. Wolfenstein 3D
What, you may be asking, is Wolfenstein 3D, and how can it be on this list if I’ve never played it? Well, Wolfenstein 3D is the first game that ever allowed you to take on a POV without seeing your character on screen, yet still kill things. Sound familiar? First Person Shooter games are now so popular we take for granted that for a very long time the idea of playing a character you couldn’t see was unheard of. Wolfenstein 3D is the reason you’re playing Halo on Xbox Live right now. I’d say you’re welcome, but you’re in a trench with a 13 year old kid in Denver and aren’t really paying attention to anything I’m saying right now, anyway.
What it got us: If you’ve ever played a First Person Shooter, you should get down on your knees to Wolfenstein 3D. Halo, Doom, Max Payne, Half-Life – all Wolfenstein, baby.
8. The Legend of Zelda
Few games are able to sustain and reinvent themselves quite so thoroughly without sacrificing the integrity of what made the game so memorable in the first place. The original Zelda game was a simplistic puzzle game with limited action – its sequel, A Link to the Past, for the Super NES, remains, to this day, a template for what a game should be. Zelda is now so popular that Nintendo often launches new platforms with a brand new entry in the franchise. Enterprising fans even wrote a song about how awesome they are: Legend of Zelda on YouTube
What it got us: Popular titles like the Professor Layton series and even massive roleplay games like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft owe more than a cursory thank you to the Princess Zelda.
9. Resident Evil
RE is responsible for the “survival horror” genre taking off big time. You start off in a dangerous location have to make it out alive. There’s a mystery and lots of dead bodies, which may not sound like much, but the simplest games are often the most addictive. Resident Evil brought the survival horror genre into the mainstream. It also spawned a series of movies starring Milla Jovovich, who is, unarguably, super hot.
What it got us: Besides the super hot Milla Jovovich movies, it completely revived the survival horror genre, inspiring a host of sequels, among them Resident Evil 4, which re-revolutionized the way this genre was played, prompting mega-franchise Gears of War to adopt RE’s over-the-shoulder view.
10. Call of Duty
CoD is one of the earliest FPS success stories. It began as a PC game and as popularity grew, so did its availability. Soon, Call of Duty and its sequels were being prepped for their close-up on the Xbox and Playstation systems. Of all the spawns, the Modern Warfare series of CoD is the most powerful, and was the first of the series not set during World War II. Semper Fi!
What it got us: A gaggle of sequels, a comic book, and countless action figures. It’s also become the template for military games.