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The 100 Best Video Games of All Time

Greatness is about the way a game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or canonical status.

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The 100 Best Video Games of All Time
Photo: Nintendo

Two years doesn’t sound like a long enough time to justify updating a list, but as a medium, video games move in bounding strides. Trends come and go, hardware changes, and brand-new games emerge as towering influences on the medium. When we published our initial list of the 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time in 2014, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were only a year old. The same can be said with the Nintendo Switch and our 2018 iteration of the list. If four years is just about an eternity, two years is only slightly less so. The medium continues shifting, regardless of when we decide to stop and take stock.

Some games from the two prior iterations of our list have shifted positions, while others are absent entirely; old favorites have claimed the spots of what we treated as new classics, and vice versa; and some of the ones that vanished have triumphantly returned. Those changes speak to the fluidity of an evolving medium as well as to the broadness of experiences to be had within it. How can the same narrow handful of games, the accepted canon that looms large over every games list, hope to represent that diversity? How can a list of the greatest ever be anything but constantly in flux?

When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact and influence. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife

Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original incarnation of our list on June 9, 2014.


Ico

100. Ico (2001)

Single-player video games are lonely. Ico made loneliness feel magical by giving you a companion, even as it constantly reminded you how alien her mind must be. Just like Princess Yorda’s gnomic utterances imply a story that she just can’t share with you, so does the game’s environment imply a vast narrative of which this story is only a part, creating a potent illusion of context through the very act of withholding backstory. While the gameplay itself is basic puzzle-solving and crude combat, it’s the mood that makes it special, the constant sense that there’s something vast just outside the frame. Daniel McKleinfeld


The Talos Principle

99. The Talos Principle (2014)

The Talos Principle articulates the conflict between skepticism and the order of God. This juxtaposition comes in the context of a series of puzzles, implying that human and deity have a natural interest in making sense out of chaos. Without moralizing about sin or catering to secularist values, the game implies that inquisitiveness mechanically binds humanity to a common fate. This conflicted but life-affirming perspective trumps the adolescent nihilism that oversimplifies player choice as an illusion. Even if the philosophical angle in The Talos Principle didn’t exist, the game would still be outstanding. The world design allows you to bounce between puzzles while also requiring a certain degree of completion to try higher challenges. Developer Croteam’s gradual integration of several puzzle types is as accessible as it is shrewdly brain-twisting. Jed Pressgrove


Spec Ops: The Line

98. Spec Ops: The Line (2012)

The ever-shifting sands of Dubai make for a good setting in Spec Ops: The Line: It’s an unreliable environment that matches what turns out to be the game’s unreliable narrator. The military, squad-based action also fits with the theme of responsibility, frequently forcing players to choose between two equally unsavory options. The game’s “Damned If You Do” and “Damned If You Don’t” achievements, earned from killing either a soldier or a civilian, make it clear just how blurry that titular “line” is. Spec Ops: The Line never permits players to rest easily in the distance or abstraction of a long-range war or the novelty of a video game. Players can only focus on the beauty of a blood-orange sandstorm for so long before it dissipates, revealing the gruesome consequences of your violence within it, just as the bird’s-eye view from a dispassionate drone eventually gives way to the revelatory moment in which your squad must wade through the charred bodies of the innocent civilians they just mistakenly dropped white phosphorus upon. The horror, the horror indeed. Aaron Riccio


Hitman 2

97. Hitman 2 (2018)

In the exclusive VIP room of the Isle of Sgàil castle, the five members of the Ark Society council gather to discuss their plans to hold power over the world. During this Illuminati-esque gathering, the members of this privileged elite wear masks to conceal their identities—to discuss how they will profit from fixing the climate change disaster they created. But unbeknownst to them, one member isn’t who he seems. The elusive Agent 47, having earlier tossed member Jebediah Block over a balcony, has infiltrated their ranks, and he sets out to murder them all, dishing out his unique brand of darkly comedic justice. Hitman 2, a fusion of escapist wish-fulfillment and satire, has the player deploy its familiar and new stealth mechanics across inventive scenarios. Whether in an exotic jungle or a Vermont suburb, 47 exploits the hyper-detailed nature of his surroundings to complete his executions, and frequently in hilarious disguise. The game gives players the tools to make their own amusing stories within various open worlds, from choking an F1 driver while disguised in a flamingo outfit, to blowing up a Columbian drug lord using an explosive rubber duck, to reprogramming an android so it can gun down an MI5 agent turned freelance assassin played by Sean Bean. Ryan Aston


Conker’s Bad Fur Day

96. Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001)

Considering the reason so many of us play video games, it’s odd how often most titles follow a very specific set of unspoken rules. Not so with Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a recklessly unfiltered romp through a parody of inanely inoffensive titles like Banjo-Kazooie. Conker cursed and solved puzzles by getting drunk enough to extinguish flame demons with his piss, blithely sent up pop culture as diverse as A Clockwork Orange, Saving Private Ryan, Alien, and The Matrix, and still had time to lob rolls of toilet paper down the gullet of a giant operatic poo monster. For sheer balls, lunatic ingenuity, and crass charm, there’s never been anything like it. Riccio


Star Fox 64

95. Star Fox 64 (1997)

The N64 was an awkward era in Nintendo’s history, as the company was getting its sea legs as it was transitioning into 3D gaming. And because of that weird third leg protruding obnoxiously from the center of the system’s controller, it wasn’t exactly easy to play the second title in the Star Fox series. But the controls were responsive, meaning it was at least easy for players to endure Star Fox 64’s steep learning curve. Reminiscent of games like 1985’s Space Harrier and 1995’s Panzer Dragoon, this compelling on-rails space shooter gave us anthropomorphic animals piloting what were ostensibly X-Wing starfighters in a galactic battle against Andross. The game featured local co-op, which made it even more enjoyable because of the multitude of additional explosions on screen. And though it came out toward the end of the 20th century, Star Fox 64 was very clearly inspired by cubist art, making it a perturbing and exciting departure from the vibrant and richly detailed worlds players were exploring in other Nintendo titles. Unsurprisingly, we’re still doing barrel rolls to this day, so we can thank Peppy Hare for the tip all those years ago. Jeremy Winslow


Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

94. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017)

Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is unusually sensitive for a horror game, rejecting as it does the trend of using mental illness for cheap scares. As disturbing as the contradictory voices in the titular protagonist’s head might be, her fractured psychological state doesn’t exist to leave players feeling frightened, but to serve up a philosophical inquiry with universal resonance. Between fights with scores of mythic beings (the one-versus-all war in the Sea of Corpses is among the most ominous action spectacles in gaming history), the player learns that Senua loathes the voices within her as much as she does anything else—and that self-hatred must be recognized and managed in order for her to attain some form of peace. This dark but life-affirming parable amplifies its emotional power through mesmerizing audiovisuals, where hallucinatory whispers argue over whether you’re ever going the right way and motion-capture graphics ironically seem like reality when juxtaposed against full-motion video. Pressgrove


Cart Life

93. Cart Life (2010)

Video games usually de-personalize business management. They shift the perspective upward, letting us look down on workers and customers as they go about the mechanical tasks we designate from on high. Designer Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life keeps things street level, building a life sim around its business management. Its monochrome characters barely scrape by, stretching cash as far as they’re able while making time to feed cats or pick daughters up from school. Though the game can easily wear you down, it also gives weight to the small victories, like selling enough to keep going. Video games have considerable power to communicate experiences to the player, and it’s used most often for saving worlds and amassing collectibles and jacking cars. Cart Life is a reminder of the humanity the medium is capable of. Scaife


Ikaruga

92. Ikaruga (2001)

The standard shooter tasks players with dodging enemy fire and collecting power-ups while unleashing a steady torrent of bullets at one’s foes. Ikaruga masterfully bucks that trend by introducing a polarity system, wherein your ship can only be damaged by bullets of the opposite color of your ship. The game stands apart from other titles in the subgenre of shoot ‘em up known as bullet hell by, well, leaning into the hell of gunfire. This bold choice, which turns like-colored bullets into tools, stylishly revitalizes the genre, forcing players to unlearn old habits and adapt to new ones that see them boldly flying into a stream of white lasers, swapping polarity, and then releasing a barrage of fully charged black homing missiles on one’s foes. Everything in these often claustrophobic corridors becomes an elegant puzzle, one where players must, judo-like, turn the enemy’s barrage against it. High-score runs and harder difficulties require even more elegance and precision, as these modes now also expect players to pinpoint foes so as to kill identically colored targets in combo-creating sets of three, or to recharge ammunition by bathing in enemy bullets. Every single bullet is an opportunity in Ikaruga, assuming the player is bold enough to make them count. Riccio


Xenoblade Chronicles

91. Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)

Xenoblade Chronicles, like fellow 2012 JRPG revivalist (and Chrono Trigger-indebted) Final Fantasy XIII-2, cleverly uses the thematic components of shifting destinies and humankind versus higher powers as ways in which to depict the oscillating mental states of its central characters. You won’t be likely to find a more fleshed-out batch of heroes than 18-year-old sword-swinger Shulk and his ragtag group of Mechon-battlers. Creator Tetsuya Takahashi clearly understands that a great RPG starts and ends with its cast, and how well players can identify with their specific, often extrinsic, ambitions and dreams. Monolith Soft’s ambitious epic is beautiful, challenging, emotionally gripping, and, above all, effortlessly transporting. Mike LeChevallier

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