After over 3 years running this blog, it was finally time for me to wade into the highly contested waters of choosing the greatest games of all-time! This was an absolutely grueling exercise that I imagine is akin to the sort of emotional trauma I will one day feel when asked to pick my favorite child. But, alas, it had to be done.
Before we get started, let’s establish some ground rules. First, there can only be one entry from a given series to help spread the love. Now, there is one important caveat to this limitation; series that have a range of distinct 2D versus 3D games (think Mario, Zelda, and Metroid), can, but won’t necessarily be featured for both. Additionally, these are my indisputable games of all-time and, as such, will be extremely biased and not based on any objective measure of greatness. Maybe it’s intense nostalgia for experiences past, or maybe it’s just how revolutionary something seemed to be when it released, or maybe it just really hit me in all the feels. While aging well can definitely help, I won’t necessarily dock points from games for some elements that haven’t aged so smoothly. Based on how much I managed to surprise myself, I imagine you’ll find some of these interesting, too.
While this list bloated from 10 to 25 because I was driving myself insane trying to narrow things any further, there are some all-timers I had to leave off. Others that were up for consideration but were ultimately removed included Katamari Damacy, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Mass Effect 2, Dark Souls, Jet Set Radio, Shadow of the Colossus, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Return of the Obra Dinn, Rocket League, God of War (2018), Metal Gear Solid, Hades, Mario Kart 8: Deluxe, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario World, and Persona 5.
It appears nostalgia for my childhood and recency bias are likely the two biggest determiners of my list as 11 games came from my growing up in the 90’s, and another 10 are from the past decade. Still, 2 come from the 80’s, and the 00’s round out the list with the final 2. In determining the greatest year in gaming history, 1998 comes out on top with 3 entries in the list, and that magnificent run from 1997-1998 holds 20% of the total list.
My Indisputable Rankings
25) Streets of Rage 2 (1992)
Quite simply the greatest beat ’em up of all time and the best thing to come out of the Sega Genesis. Even 28 years later with the release of Streets of Rage 4, the indelible mark left by the second entry in the cleaning up the streets and fighting corrupt cops epic is evident. Just try not to smile while doing cartwheels into the face of a thug as Blaze or introducing a hooligan’s teeth to your roller blade as certified 90’s badass kid, Skate.
24) Punch-Out!! (1987)
The only game on this list which I haven’t beaten remains one of the most perfect games to get lost in over a weekend. There’s a very indirect path from this punishing set of boss boxing matches to games like Dark Souls, but this original boxer still manages to test our reflexes and pattern recognition skills nearly 40 years later in ways that modern games can only hope to approach. You just have to make sure not to lose focus due to rolling your eyes super hard from some of the more problematic opponents (read: Hella racist).
23) Tecmo Bowl (1987)
If I were only allowed to play one sports game for the rest of my life, I’d probably have to pick the ultra-pixelated, 4 play masterpiece, Tecmo Bowl. As a kid, I may have been drawn more to the flashier and officially licensed Tecmo Super Bowl, but nothing beats the thrill of destroying your competition with Bo Jackson in the original.
22) Celeste (2018)
Sometimes, games don’t initially come across as one of the top games of all time, but you realize years later that they’re the ones you still think about. Upon first glance, Celeste was an extremely charming and welcoming death-filled platformer about overcoming your anxiety and making friends. The leaf on the wind-like mountain ascension only gets better with every subsequent playthrough. The mastery and flow are just unmatched, and this is a title that I hope to revisit on a nearly yearly basis moving forward. I even have it set for my list of games to play when baby number 2 arrives, so I have something familiar and warm to help wind down with after sleepless nights. Who knew something so punishing could feel like a hug or a big mug of hot cocoa?
21) Outer Wilds (2019)
From learning the theories of quantum mechanics to carefully charting out the unsolved mysteries of the universe in each 22 minute time loop before the world explodes, Outer Wilds features the most satisfying exploration of any game on the list. It’s definitely one of those titles you need to make sure you have a friend playing at the same time because there’s a lot you’re going to want to talk about. But while you wait, just pretend you’re sitting back and relaxing at a campfire enjoying a marshmallow while that killer soundtrack plays.
20) Goldeneye 007 (1997)
Once a week during the summer of 1998, my friends and I would get together to play Goldeneye non-stop from about 9 am until 5 pm. Mainly, we would set up remote mines in The Facility and see who could emerge victorious in a weird king of the hill style game we created where someone would try to hold onto this one particular area of the map for the longest. 100s of hours into this, it simply never got old. While we do reminisce the most fondly about the multiplayer aspects of the game, the single player campaign was also an absolute banger, being one of the first games to encourage us to take up speed running to unlock secrets like paintball mode and special guns. As a 13 year old, I had every single nook and cranny and enemy location memorized, and as a 35 year old, I often find myself looking at Nintendo 64’s for sale online and agonizing over whether or not to pull the trigger.
19) Banjo-Kazooie (1998)
When you think about the brave new frontier that was 64-bit 3D platforming, Mario 64 probably jumps to mind first. While still a classic, and the standard-bearer, the true greatest 64-bit platform hopping adventure features a bear – errr… Releasing two years after the plumber hit the third dimension, Banjo-Kazooie seems to have polished everything into the perfect package. Replaying it two decades later, I was shocked at how well it all held up and how it mainly avoided the camera and floaty jankiness that plagues other games of the era. It’s just a colorful, immature yet heartfelt bit of gaming joy.
18) Mega Man X (1993)
After destroying the gaming confidence of every child with an NES, the Mega Man series made some “extreme” changes for the 16-bit era resulting in the ideal balance of difficulty, secrets, and fun. Each stage is exactly the right length and features a ton of replayability thanks to incredible hidden secrets like the Hadouken from Capcom’s other classic series, Street Fighter, and a wealth of Metroid-esque energy tanks and gear upgrades to find. Half of the fun is figuring out the order to tackle the bosses in so you can use their weapons to exploit others’ weaknesses or fundamentally alter a stage to make transversal far simpler. Plus, the big bad has a freaking lightsaber, which absolutely made my 8 year old self scream with glee when I saw it turn on for the first time.
17) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Skyrim is basically the closest video games will ever get to the choose your own adventure books we loved as kids. My personal favorite escapades involved seeking out vengeance for my beloved horse, Horsey Fantastico, who was killed defending the area of Winterhold surrounding the Wizarding College. I then spent several hours embarking on a John Wick style mission of pure vengeance culminating with destroying the wizard at the heart of my betrayal and becoming the newly minted dean of the College. This was just one of countless little tales that masterfully and organically played out during my 50 or so hours in the world, and I know that if I went back to replay it, the ensuing 50 hours would be completely different yet still marvelous.
16) Street Fighter 2 Turbo (1992)
The sweeping motion from down to forward followed by the punch button remains the most beautiful execution of button presses in any fighting game. I may be extremely basic and in love with Ryu and his Hadouken throwing, Hurricane Kick-ing ways, but there really is a fighter for everyone here from the rapid attacks of Chun-Li, E. Honda, and Blanka, to the power of Zangief and Balrog, to the trolling length of Dhalsim and the precision of Guile. The Turbo edition gets the pick here because that added speed, which seems quaint by today’s standards, was like a blow torch in 1992. Also, M. Bison is unassailable as one of the toughest bosses ever all these years later and is guaranteed to give even the most skilled Street Fighter fits.
15) Bloodborne (2015)
While not technically the best Soulsborne game (more on that distinction further down the list), Bloodborne is perhaps the most memorable. The gothic setting with its unsettling enemies and disturbing rituals is the most fully realized and painstakingly executed world of any game that From Software has given us and the most deserving of a sequel. The bosses in this game are the largest and most imposing around, but what really helps set this apart are the trick weapons that provide innumerable opportunities for unique builds and are endlessly fun to switch back and forth from their open to closed states in between dying thousands of times.
14) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
One of the more difficult choices I had to make was which Metal Gear game belonged up here. I absolutely devoured the original Metal Gear Solid back in 1998, and I could play that game from memory if needed. Even revisiting it a year ago, it remains revolutionary. But then I finally played Snake Eater, and well, it’s simply better. This prequel centered on the creation of Big Boss turns everything from conspiracy to bat shit bosses to the sandbox elements up to 11 and never relents. From having to burn leeches off your crotch with a cigar to triple-crossing secret agents, it’s Kojima operating at his absolute peak. When a game makes you say “oh shit” in a post credits sequence, you know it has the goods.
13) Shovel Knight (2014)
The team at Yacht Club Games set out to expertly recreate the feeling of the 8-bit adventures of Castlevania crossed with Mega Man, and absolutely nailed it. Not only did they make a near pixel-perfect world, they also provided us with one of the most endearing heroes of the past 10 years. Even with the smashing success of the digging-est knight around, they didn’t stop there. Thanks to some lofty KickStarter goals, they spent the next 5 years delivering almost equally amazing expansion games built off the of the misunderstood villains. With 4 outstanding games in total, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove might just be the best value in all of gaming.
12) Tetris (1984)
The puzzle game to define all puzzle games is clearly deserving of a spot on the list. While I think an argument can be made that either Tetris Effect or Tetris 99 is the best version of the tetromino dropping phenomenon, I decided to go with the original that was released on the NES exactly one year before my birth. Pretty much any gamer can hear Korobeiniki, the Tetris theme song, and instantly feel like the pressure is building as the lines get closer and closer to the top. I may have never made it past level 9 as a kid (It’s ok. I lied to myself and was convinced it was the final level), but those early pressure filled runs set me on the path of decades worth of clearing lines.
11) Hollow Knight (2017)
By merging the crushing difficulty of a Soulsborne game with the exploration and skill building of a Metroidvania, Team Cherry crafted one of the deepest, most rewarding games of all-time. Much like how it just feels right jumping as Mario or swinging your sword as Link, wielding your needle as the unnamed Knight never gets old. As long as I’m playing games, the memory of that first awful time falling into the Deepnest and having to slowly make my way back to safety in the dark will haunt me.
10) Stardew Valley (2016)
Has your experience with a game ever been so perfect that you don’t want to replay it? That’s my current conundrum with Stardew Valley. My initial playthrough of Kennair Farms was just too good that I don’t want to ruin it by starting something new. What began as a humble little inherited family farm eventually blossomed into a wine and cheese empire. But the real highlight, though, were all the relationships built along the way from rescuing my future wife from her alcoholic mother to the actual tears that were shed when I finally rebuilt the community center and dealt the final blow to the evil, soulless Jo Jo Mart. I never knew 16-bit sprites could make me feel this much.
9) Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019)
The most breathtaking combat in any game can be found in the sword-clashing, reflex-testing action of Sekiro. Whereas others Soulsborne games let you effectively cheat the system by leveling up as much as you want to get overpowered, there’s no recourse to advance in Sekiro other than to “get good”. Each battle is a mesmerizing dance, and every death is both a learning experience and a plague upon the world. Finally defeating Ishiin, the Sword Saint, after countless hours at 2 a.m. while carefully balancing the amount of bourbon I was ingesting to keep me loose but not impair my reflexes will forever remain one of my proudest gaming accomplishments.
8) Resident Evil 2 (1998)
You could possibly argue that the remake is a better game, but that does a disservice to all the wonderful things that RE2 brought at the time. For starters, it had the marvelous “Zapping” system where decisions you made in one character’s playthrough affected the other’s, and the introduction of the hulking Mr. X lumbering through the halls and causing your unsanctimonious death repeatedly still scares me to this day. What really makes it stand out from its remake, though, is the wonderful cheesiness inherent in 90’s action games with crazy over the top stories and horribly delivered lines that just aren’t as fun when done properly.
7) Super Metroid (1994)
The Metroidvania to rule them all – Super Metroid has yet to be surpassed 27 years later. That iconic shot of Samus atop her ship is one of the most dazzling screens in all of gaming history and instantly makes me feel at home when I see it. The gradual descent through the planet and discovering the story told through atmosphere alone plays out brilliantly every time. And let’s not forget the brave sacrifice of the baby metroid to save you from Mother Brain, which endures as one of the saddest video game moments of all-time.
6) Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
Serving as the climax of the cinematic masterpiece, The Wizard, likely would’ve been enough to earn this a spot on the list, but it doesn’t need such a high profile boost because 31 years later it’s still the most pure 2D incarnation of a Super Mario game. The addition of the overworld was a huge leap up from simply spending 4 levels in each kingdom, but the true marvel comes in the delivery of the most quintessential power-ups ever ranging from the aquatic hopping frog to the legendary Tanooki suit all the way to a fun-ass shoe.
5) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Galloping through the fields of Hyrule atop your trusty steed Epona felt like the epitome of the endless possibilities games could open up to us. While the world may feel a little empty compared to today’s games, the charm of Link’s journey remains untarnished. There’s nothing quite like fundamentally changing the world by pulling out your trusty Ocarina and playing the exact right tune much like this adventure of Link changed gaming. Of all the games that are deserving of a Switch port, this is the one I am most hopeful to get. Now if you’ll excuse me, the score for The Lost Woods has once again become stuck in my head.
4) Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)
The greatest movie ever played – the sophomore outing of gaming’s most charming thief, Nathan Drake, set a new standard for how cinematic and action-packed a game could be. Featuring huge leaps in set pieces, storytelling, puzzles, and graphics, Uncharted 2 continues to inspire awe in those who play it today and has managed to stay atop the series despite 3 subsequent entries.
3) Super Mario Odyssey (2017)
I don’t think any game makes me happier than Super Mario Odyssey does. There’s just such pure and unparalleled joy experienced while heading through the retro 2D worlds on your way to the big concert celebrating saving New Donk City that will always put the biggest smile on my face. With 880 unique stars to collect and vast sprawling levels waiting to reveal their secrets to you, Odyssey is the fulfillment of the promise shown over two decades earlier in Mario 64.
2) Final Fantasy VII (1997)
As a kid, I probably spent as much time searching the internet for ways to bring my beloved Aeris back to life as I did playing the game. Now, two full playthroughs and two decades of aging later, this is still pure JRPG comfort food for me, and it is the game I chose to help me wind down during those first few weeks of fatherhood.
1) The Last of Us (2013)
The Last of Us, quite simply, hurts so good. Even prior to having my own daughter, the tragic story of Joel shepherding Ellie across the Zombie-laden United States really did a number on me, and now it resonates even stronger. Sure, the combat and sneaking are a terrifying good time, but the true reason this is the greatest game ever lies purely in that surrogate father-daughter relationship between the game’s two main characters. It’s the moments in between fighting for your life that stick with me like when Ellie reads a dumb joke from her horrible book or when Joel explains some piece of pop culture from before everything went to Hell. Upon finishing the game, I immediately started up a New Game+ because I wasn’t ready to leave Ellie and that relationship behind. Here’s hoping the next entry does more justice to her going forward, but even if it doesn’t there’s no denying the impact of her first outing.
I hope my rankings only inspired mild rage in you as you read them. Let me know what your favorite games of all-time are. Unfortunately, I must be going before I adjust the rankings for the 5001st time.