7 of the Most Influential Video Games of All Time

Some video games are so important, the word “classic” doesn’t encapsulate the effect they had on the industry. We’re talking about games that played a pivotal role in the history of the medium, casting ripples you can still feel in games today. Long before the Wii U, PlayStation 4, and Xbox 360, there was the Atari 7800, Sega Master System, and Nintendo 64. Without these seminal titles from some of these original gaming systems, entire genres might not exist. Here are some of the most influential video games of all time.

1. Ms. Pac-Man

Ms. Pac-Man running from ghosts

Ms. Pac-Man is one of the most influential video games of all time | Namco

Ms. Pac-Man is one of the best games of all time, but it’s not innovation that makes it influential. Mechanically, it doesn’t veer far from its predecessor, Pac-Man, but thanks to a number of smart tweaks, Ms. Pac-Man is a much better game. What Ms. Pac-Man brought to the world of gaming was iteration. It takes everything that was great about the original Pac-Man and evolves it to perfection.

For one thing, it contains four stage layouts, which adds a lot more complexity compared to Pac-Man’s one. Each new layout offers a new challenge to players, making the difficulty ramp up as you play. In Pac-Man, the ghosts follow predictable patterns, so once you get a feel for them, you know how they’ll react. Their predictability is why a handful of high-level players have managed to get a perfect score in the game. Ms. Pac-Man introduces a bit of randomness to the equation, meaning your same old moves don’t work reliably. Lastly, the food items that appear in each stage now move around, making them tougher to catch.

None of these changes are big on their own, but when put together, they make for a sequel that’s much more fun to play than the original. This kind of iterative improvement can be seen in nearly every video game series today. Some games change more between installments than others, but Ms. Pac-Man showed them all how it should be done.

2. Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo Entertainment System

Super Mario Bros. influenced all future side-scrolling games | Nintendo

When it came out in 1985, there wasn’t anything like Super Mario Bros. on the market. It was the biggest, most ambitious game ever on a home game console. With 32 stages, a variety of enemies and environments, a killer soundtrack, and an obsessive attention to detail, it blew just about every other video game in history out of the water. This game was the future, and it set the standard for all side-scrolling action games to come.

3. Halo: Combat Evolved

'Halo: Combat Evolved' cover art

Halo: Combat Evolved influenced the evolution of the dual-stick control scheme | Microsoft

Prior to Halo’s release in 2001, first-person shooters simply didn’t work very well on consoles. Nobody had quite figured out how to keep the movements of the characters and shifting camera perspectives feeling natural. It was Halo that pioneered and popularized the dual-stick control scheme that every first-person game uses today.

Shooters prior to Halo have not aged well. But if you go back and play Halo right now, you’ll find that it feels just as easy to control as any new game on the market. That’s innovation.

4. Grand Theft Auto 3

The antihero of 'Grand Theft Auto 3'

Grand Theft Auto 3 had major influence on the open-world gaming concept | Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto 3 may seem primitive by today’s standards, but when it launched in 2001, it was the biggest action game around. There was no shortage of dangerous adventure here — from driving cars and running from cops to collecting weapons and flying an incredibly unwieldy airplane, the action never stopped. Upon its release, it was packed with more content than just about any other game on the planet, and it gave players an unprecedented amount of freedom to do what they wanted in the game world. Grand Theft Auto 3 pulled back the curtain on what open-world games could do, popularizing an all new genre that still thrives to this day.

5. Super Mario 64

The cover of Super Mario 64, a very influential game for its time.

Super Mario 64 pioneered three-dimensional gaming | Nintendo

Just as the original Super Mario Bros. expanded and defined what a 2D game was, Super Mario 64 did the same for games that take place in three dimensions. Despite the new dimension, controlling Mario onscreen felt just as natural as it ever had in previous games. In Super Mario 64, developers found an ideal template for how to make games in three-dimensional space.

6. Half-Life

Gordon and Alex living it up in Half-Life.

Half-Life told a compelling story through its gameplay | Valve

Until the Half-Life series came around, shooters weren’t exactly known for their gripping story lines. Sure, you’d run around and shoot demons in Doom and punch aliens in Duke Nukem 3D, but no one really cared to question the character’s motives. Then Valve, the maker of Half-Life, figured out that you could tell a compelling story right from within the game, no cut scenes needed. The formula worked great, and this led to all of the narrative-driven shooters you play today.

7. Dragon Quest

Promo art for 'Dragon Quest'

Dragon Quest is an older JRPG with a dynamic hero | Square Enix

Many gaming features that have stood the test of time and reoccur year after year in modern games first started appearing in Japanese role-playing games. JRPGs were some of the first games to feature characters who became progressively more powerful throughout the course of the game. Dragon Quest — renamed Dragon Warrior in the U.S. — helped pioneer this idea in 1986 with the creation of a hero who earned experience points, purchased powerful new gear, and learned spells as he progressed. It sounds like an obvious gameplay hook by today’s standards, but it was totally fresh back then.