The video game industry has never been more dominant than today. Games cost millions to make, franchises spawn film and TV adaptations, and the focus on growth continues to ensure that gamers are on the frontline of innovation. But none of this would have been possible without a selection of titles that revolutionalised both how we play and why we play. Each genre began with a risk that bucked all else before it, yet still influences AAA titles releasing in 2023. Here are the 10 most influential games of all time.
Super Mario Bros.
To discuss influence and growth when it comes to the video game industry, there is no better place to start than with Mario’s first official title. While platforming games existed before Super Mario Bros. in 1985, the Italian plumber’s quest to save Princess Peach from Bowser’s castle launched the Nintendo Entertainment System – and with it, consoles in every household. The simplicity of jumping on enemies and side-scrolling through levels was challenging, but seeing Mario traverse different biomes with a jaunty soundtrack and wide enemy variety established the platformer as the core gameplay choice of the NES and SNES. Beforehand, games were focused on high scores in a single screen space. Many games would try to emulate this vibe, and many continue to do so, but Mario is still the mascot for gaming and the main influence for the platforming genre.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Zelda titles existed before OoT, but this is where one of the greatest games of all time perfected many of the dynamics and gameplay options that are considered norms of today. The changing open world, graphics, combat system and replayability were revolutionary for gaming in 1998, establishing the action-adventure type as the successor to platforming in popularity. Transitioning the industry from 2D to 3D had many fails, but OoT was a huge success and paved the way for games to use the enemy targeting system for more fluid battles. Few who lived through the video game boom of the nineties would be able to discuss their time without mentioning Link’s greatest adventure.
First-person shooters are most profitable games on the market, but they would all highlight Doom as an important foundational factor in design and genre. There would be no Call of Duty or Battlefield without Doom, and this may even extend to Fortnite’s functionality. Using 16-bits for a 3D style FPS was new, demonstrating how multiple players could be in the same field for a firefight. Aspects such as MODs became popular and encouraged, realistic gun physics were a wow factor, loot was everywhere, and blood splattered on screen. These were high risks that reaped high rewards, sending a ripple that is still felt on FPS titles to this day. Doom as a franchise is not as popular or dominant as other shooters in 2023, but few can deny its impact on the multiplayer phenomenon.
Open-world games have become a staple in the gaming market – for better or worse – but Grand Theft Auto 3 arguably opened the gate for all titles to try mature narratives in sandbox cities. With a clear approach to violence and freedom in general locations – not mystic lands or war zones – GTA is one of the most recognisable phrases in world gaming. Mission structure and open-ended gameplay provided gamers with more than just a set story, for they could create their own story while still completing tasks in environments most games have since copied (to a degree). Soundtracks with real songs and voice acting by actual actors also rose in popularity following this release, and the franchise has only become more successful since adding multiplayer. It is fair to say that Grand Theft Auto 6 is the most anticipated game of all time, because each release changes the industry.
The Last of Us
All games have a narrative but rarely was it the core focus before Naughty Dog’s magnum opus broke our hearts in 2013. Never did games explore such moral ambiguity and relationships while delivering film-level stories and production. The difficulty was often of emotional impact rather than gameplay challenge, and established 3rd person story-driven games as PlayStation’s core genre. Now, we have also witnessed a turn in video game adaptions to the screen with the success of HBOs show of the same name. Games were mostly viewed as a cash grab that would result in quality failure when transferred, but with such a strong narrative The Last of Us bucked the trend. Games like this ensure the industry is taken seriously, rather than a medium to spark random violence. And in terms of the second entry into the series, we saw a risk taken that perhaps no other title has been brave enough to attempt…
Take your pick from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls in terms of the game that launched the Souls sub-genre. Based on extreme difficulty and RPG elements that suit personal preference, Demon’s Souls influenced gaming so much that many players only seek this ‘type’ when choosing a title. According to the former president of PlayStation’s Worldwide Studios (Yoshida) the game’s messaging system and the ability to learn from other players’ mistakes helped inspire the Share button on the PS4 controller – which many would have seen reach near perfection with Elden Ring. Likewise, the saving system, loss of XP when dying and respawning mechanics have all been lifted from this series of games. The ultimate message from Souls games is to fail, learn and then succeed. Such a core message in gameplay is also beneficial in life.
The Pokémon phase was world-conquering in the nineties, and these two games were the core reason. Housing extreme depth for a Gameboy title, Pokémon was ahead of its time with the mechanics it implemented in exploration, turn-based duelling and fighting companions. Being a child often came with collecting bugs – most of us did it – and Pokémon built on this youthful hobby by placing all species on steroids. Pokémon demonstrated that a game could infiltrate every type of medium available – TV, film, cards and all in between. It hyped up connecting multiple Gameboys to battle and trade Pokémon, which is now done with ease via the internet. In 2023, Pokémon still has a legion of fans and new games aplenty. But it is the imitators that have reached a higher tally than the current Pokémon species count.
Street Fighter 2
The birth of the button-masher didn’t start with Street Fighter 2, but it may have been truly established with its release. Many may argue for Mortal Kombat in this space, but Street Fighter 2 had a full year on its biggest rival franchise. Street Fighter 2 was the first fighting game to allow players to choose their character from a roster of different fighters with unique attacks and abilities. That alone has influenced hundreds of games, with this core function extending into other genres. Mortal Kombat did the same a year later, and then Tekken and Super Smash Bros. became others that grabbed the option to ensure success. All have added to the genre, but here it was created.
Racing games owe multiple franchises for their popularity, but GT’s realism and finesse ensured the genre could be taken seriously. Competitive, unique, rewarding and focused on customisation, the first title was groundbreaking and every addition since has set the bar for racing. Emulating the appearance and performance of real cars is taken for granted, but Gran Turismo ensured it was possible and highly enjoyable. The graphics have always been cutting edge, as have the physics and the use of steering wheels to best capture realism. It is also a somewhat relaxing experience in an industry filled to the brim with fights, crashes and action. Every console now has a main racing franchise to market for gamers, aware of its importance, but Gran Turismo has consistently added features that dictate the way others are made. Few can forget seeing a horizon or the sun’s shine when racing for the first time, with developers understanding the need for immersive environments.
If you’ve heard of the Metroidvania sub-genre, you’ll understand why Super Metroid is on this list. It’s true that the first Metroid set the foundation, but here it became a must-have and a focus for others trying to capture its essence. Using backtracking as a focal point alongside tight controls and power-ups, simplicity was in its style and requirements. Game staples such as speedrunning and the expanding mini-map were thrust into the spotlight to ensure Castlevania could add RPG elements to the genre and become its own important half. Also, few female protagonists existed in gaming before the ass-kicking Samus Aran. Without Super Metroid, many of the open-world games we see today that utilise ‘dungeons’ would simply not exist in their current form, let alone almost-identical games such as Hollow Knight. It may have been leap-frogged by other franchises, but Super Metroid is a game that stands up to this day thanks to an eerie atmosphere that never fades.
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