Some may balk at even the mere idea of “influential video games,” perhaps believing that video games in and of themselves are hardly influential. Yet as they continue to generate millions upon millions of dollars in revenue, advance their technology, and establish a now decades-long history, video games are an unquestionably significant part of modern society. Video gaming has become one of the most popular hobbies, across ages and genders and backgrounds, and will continue to remain relevant.
When examining influential video games, though, we have to acknowledge two different types of influence: Cultural and industry. Cultural influence is attained when a video game becomes newsworthy and affective even outside of the gamer audience, whereas industry influence is when a video game marks a notable achievement or innovation within the realm of video gaming as a whole. Typically, if a game achieved cultural influence, it must have first gained industry influence. In either case, there have certainly been some great examples.
There may have been earlier video games, based on crude computer programming whether completely in text or crudely rendered on cutting-edge graphics with “moving” pixels. However, popular opinion decrees that Pong was the first true video game, not only in its creation but in its push to arcade availability and, eventually, home console play as well. Pong, somewhat obviously, achieved both cultural and industrial influence, since it was the forerunner to all future video games and made the entire subculture possible to begin with. As long as discussions continue concerning influential video games, Pong must be included in the mix.
Super Mario Brothers
The flagship cartridge release for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System at a time when the home console video game market was in dire jeopardy because of Atari’s mishandlings, Super Mario Bros. represented not only a creative advancement in the field, but also a bold risk, as Nintendo sought to revive the home video game market. And revive they did: Super Mario Bros. went on to become one of the best-selling video games of all time, and has spawned dozens of direct and indirect sequels, with Mario becoming a more recognized character worldwide than Mickey Mouse. Like Pong, it achieved relevance both within the inner gaming circle and on a worldwide recognition level, infiltrating pop culture and being one of the most influential video games for carving a bright future for Nintendo, not to mention reviving the home market almost single-handedly in the process.
This Russian import puzzle game broke the threshold into popular consciousness, but also made an industry leap when it answered the question: Could there truly be a video game more aptly suited for portable gameplay than home console? Enter the Nintendo Game Boy portable system, and the explosive awareness of Tetris as an addictive phenomenon. When you say “Tetris,” people know exactly what falling-shape contest you are referring to, and often because they snuck in a play in an opportune moment. Tetris and its sequels proved popular on home consoles, but it was the inordinate quantities of Game Boy cartridges sold that showed portable systems were here to stay.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog was influential in the industry, primarily, for the rather big reason that it proved someone could compete with Nintendo in the home console arena. In the 16-bit era with Super Nintendo, Sega provided gamers with the Genesis console, and their mascot answer to Mario: Sonic, a blazing blue hedgehog with attitude. For a while, Sega’s promotional strategy was to establish itself as the edgier, more mature, cutting-edge alternative to wholesome, family-friendly Nintendo. It was a ploy that worked well for a while, with Sega gaining a foothold in the market and, in a way, opening the door for later significant competition like Sony and Microsoft. The game itself also showcased new concepts in gameplay experience in hardware limits, with lightning-fast play now possible and showcased in spectacular fashion. Sonic would star in a number of sequels, and would appear in adventures decades later, even teaming up with Mario at select points.
Although Kombat undeniably had an affect on the industry, contributing to a rise in fighting-game popularity, it truly paved the way for opening video games up for discussion on a cultural level, with its in-game depictions of gory violence becoming a hotbed issue for years to come. This effect would still be seen in later releases like Grand Theft Auto, but the idea of a rating system similar to movies, video games being unhealthy for children, etc., all began with Mortal Kombat.
Arguably, Pokemon is one of the very few video games to form a bigger imprint on culture than it did on the industry. Sure, it was an innovative role-playing game with tight development, rampant imagination, and pure high-quality enjoyment. But could anyone have foreseen the movies, television shows, trading card game, and knick-knacks forging a billion-dollar market all of their own brand? This was the single most red-hot childhood fad and trend for a while, even as the video games themselves were not, in themselves, anything incredibly revolutionary.
As the console market advanced, the personal computer gaming scene was inventing and reinventing itself as well. It was thought that certain genres, like turn-based strategy games, were definitely best delivered on gaming computers. One of these genres was thought to be the first-person shooter, with such hits as Wolfenstein 3D, the phenomenally successful Doom series, and Quake, among others. However, with the release of Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64, it was proven that first-person shooters could play on a console as well, and even thrive, as evidenced by the blockbust smash Halo: Combat Evolved when it landed on the XBox. Goldeneye was a huge step forward for the industry, and will likely remain one of the all-time best games based on a movie license.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Although we just mentioned Halo in the Goldeneye entry, the industry impact of Halo was that it, arguably, became the first true “killer app” video game. In other words, it was the first game to have a level of prestige so high that people bought the console, the XBox, just so they would play Halo. This was a complete reversal of usual thinking, and an intriguing blueprint for future games to aim for, albeit rather lofty. For becoming such an overwhelming sensation in massive popularity, Halo must be recognized as one of the most influential video games.
Nintendo took another risk with the release of its Wii console, a video game system that relied on motion-tracking technology in its controllers, opening up an entirely new dimension in gameplay possibilities. One of its launch titles, Wii Sports, proved to be popular to an iconic extent, with dozens of millions of copies sold. After definitively showcasing that such a motion gimmick was legitimate and reproducible, the Wii became a success, millions now go bowling virtually instead of in reality, and the rest will someday be viewed as history.
Honorable mentions: Super Mario 64 for its cutting-edge depiction of three-dimensional gameplay using polygons instead of sprites, Crash Bandicoot for helping Sony lift itself into prominence as the new player on the home console line, and Final Fantasy for jump-starting American fascination with Japanese-style role-playing video games.