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I’ve been professionally writing about the game, film, and tech industries for six years. With a degree in 3D graphics for game art and design, I have seen, studied, and experienced every aspect of the 2D and 3D video game industry, and am currently working on my first Droid and iPhone game. After hunting down every forgotten chapter of gaming’s past and researching over a thousand famously influential games from every entertainment era, I gathered feedback from dozens of experts before deciding on the final hundred that made the cut. Games were judged on how influential they were on designers of their time, how they directed the industry’s future, and how they changed the gamer community and human culture itself.
Even a top 100 list wasn’t long enough to fit in all of the highly influential titles that I wanted to include, so keep an eye out for some of your favorite games earning honorable mentions along the way! Try to not get too caught up with my rankings, and instead appreciate all of them as a family that’s helped shape who we are as gamers today. I hope you enjoy this journey through the history of the game industry!
100. Phoenix (1980). Did you ever play that awesome Phoenix game on your TI-83 calculator in school? That’s actually a recreation of this classic arcade and Atari space shoot ‘em up. Phoenix was heavily influenced by Space Invaders (1978) – which will show up much later in this list – but Phoenix helped popularize one of the core mechanics of the game industry: a last boss battle. The first game to do this was arguably the PLATO game dnd back in 1975, but Phoenix cemented this concept into the minds of the masses and it feels fitting to start the list with a last boss!
99. OXO (1952). You know how we joke that computers used to take up entire rooms? Well the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) was one of them, and in 1952 it was used to create this Tic-Tac-Toe computer game. Being that the EDSAC was located only in Cambridge, it wasn’t as immensely influential as many other games deeper in this list, but it was one of the earliest computer games in existence. Fun Fact: In the UK they call Tic-Tac-Toe by a different name: Noughts and Crosses!
98. Oregon Trail (1971). The version most of us played was the 1992 release, and it’s one of the most influential educational games of all time. Because it was placed on the computers in most schools for millions of young children, it was automatically a huge influence on an entire generation. It proved to be the perfect balance of education and entertainment, and while it may not have been as educational as Number Munchers, it was far deeper and more memorable. Sure, id Software is responsible for the success of the FPS (First Person Shooter) genre, but for many of us we picked up the FPS bug from shooting 20 more buffalo than we could eat before drowning, starving, and dying of dysentery. SkiFree, Rodent’s Revenge, and Minesweeper also deserve shout-outs for the mass exposure that Windows computers brought them. If Wii Sports is the “bestselling” video game of all time after cheating and being bundled in with most Wii consoles for free, then Minesweeper might be one of the “bestselling” computer games of all time.
97. Burger King’s Sneak King (2006). With the birth of the next gen gaming consoles, suddenly “would you like fries with that?” was replaced with “would you like a video game with that?” It marked an interesting twist in the game industry where restaurant video game sales were rivaling Gears of Wars sales. Burger King realized that if Nintendo can milk(shake) its mascots then so can they, and with the added bonus of having millions of potential gaming customers every day. Big Bumpin’ and PocketBike Racer were the other two Xbox 360 games featuring the King character from Burger King, and I’m convinced we’ll see plenty more nongaming franchises dip into game industry in the future.
96. Metroid (1986). It was exciting to see Metroid and Castlevania (1986) made by two separate companies at the same time and released a month apart, with each game hoping to enhance the play styles of the 2D sidescroller genre immensely. Time has spoken, and the Metroid series’ influence over the Castlevania series has led to some gamers referring to Konami’s vampire sequels as “Metroidvania” games. Metroid also made the successful Samus leap to 3D while Castlevania games have only seen major success in its 2D sequels. Metroid was also influential in its time for having one of the most shocking game endings of all time: Samus was a woman!
95. Enter the Matrix (2003). You won’t find the infamous Atari E.T. (1982) game on this list; it was an awful game in an era when most games were awful baby steps and forgotten by time for good reasons. Enter the Matrix, however, had no excuses and still showed the industry everything that could go wrong when a franchise hopped to a different storytelling medium. Despite Matrix being one of the most successful and loved movies of all time, and despite the film creators being gamers themselves, the result was legendarily atrocious, and that’s not even including the game bugs that made it unplayable for many people who purchased it. Those of you who used to read EGM every month back in the day might even remember them saying “In more than 20 years of playing games, I have never seen a console game as obviously unfinished and rushed to market as Enter the Matrix.” Usually you hear about the gaming industry taking flak for bad game-to-film adaptations, but believe us when we say that we’ve also had a fair amount of painful pixels on our side from movie-to-game adaptations. With over 3 million copies sold, Enter the Matrix spread its terrible influence far and wide, and the lessons we learned from it won’t soon be forgotten even with fictional pills.
94. Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987). The original Zelda (1986) revolutionized the video game industry by changing what games could accomplish, and also what gamers should expect from game designers in quality and quantity. A year later, Sid Meier made a name for himself by basically making an unofficial Wind Waker NES sequel to Zelda. Not only did it take the open world exploration out to the high seas, but it also had several aspects of the main characters and storyline randomized so that players could get a new experience every single time they played the game. It’s truly heartbreaking that the vast majority of gamers still don’t know this game even exists.
93. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009). This sequel is the game that ensured the world that this series was here to stay, and that the industry was about to change in a big way. Cinema quality and cinema length in the industry shot through the roof exponentially with this series (the first game had two hours of cinematics, with the sequels each having three hours), and suddenly game experiences in our living rooms became much different. While Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) did everything the sequel did, Among Thieves did everything bigger and better, further proving that the film industry’s sequel stigma is far from the truth in the game industry, and its merging of the two industries on a console was expanded on by Heavy Rain in 2010.
92. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002). The Elder Scrolls is a series that most gamers didn’t even know about until this game fought Halo for the Xbox throne. Skyrim (2011), the fifth game in the series, dominated the gaming industry last year, and the fourth game, Oblivion (2006), was such a graphical advancement that many gamers bought new PCs just to prepare for its release. It’s all because of the success of the massive Morrowind RPG (Role Playing Game) and its unconventional races and worlds that followed their own tune instead of compromising with hot new gameplay trends. It’s also influential for being one of the first series to contract out some of its 3D objects to artists across the entire industry to help them bring their horizons to life.
91. Lego Star Wars: The Video Game (2005). The LEGO video game series is recreating the wonder of gaming for the next generation of gamers, and just as we talk about favorite games from our youth, you can count on your little cousins to reminisce about these games for many years to come. The big difference is that these games have also helped spread classic American film stories to today’s children, while simultaneously stimulating and challenging them with the interactivity element that only games can offer. Seven short years later, your cousins (or kids!) are starting to grow up and the series is just about to introduce a massive PG version of Grand Theft Auto III (2001) with their upcoming Lego City Undercover sandbox game. People of all ages agree that it was one of the best looking games at this year’s E3.