Video games have come a very, very long way from the nascent early days of the medium. In the beginning video gamers were the social outcasts, confined to dark, dank basements with an Atari 2600 and grungy arcades were they sharpened their skills on rudimentary games like Pong, Frogger, and Tetris. As time passed the young men and women that had been branded outcasts from popular culture were gradually accepted into the fold. The rise of video gaming from being an activity for the socially awkward, to being the dominant form of entertainment for many members of the current generation of adolescents – even more so than movies or television – is nothing short of remarkable. It’s demonstrated just how quickly the focus of pop culture can shift with the arrival of a new medium with entirely new possibilities.
Today, video games are a pillar of modern popular culture and the famous brands and characters are ubiquitous. Just as everyone in the 1970s knew who Scooby-Doo or the Flintstones were, people today can instantly recognize Super Mario or the Master Chief. Different characters and franchises are representatives of particular games or eras in video gaming history, and for that reason they can lay claim to being legitimate cultural icons – just as any famous movie or television character can.
Of course, some characters elicit more of a response than others. There have been characters in extraordinarily famous video games from the past that are virtually unknown today. A character that has staying power in the collective memory of popular culture is one that can truly claim to be iconic. Although there have been a plethora of famous characters over the few years, today we’re going to try and narrow it down just to 10; these are the 10 most iconic characters in video gaming.
Pikachu can boast being not just a video game icon, but also a television and movie icon to boot. The Pokémon franchise that Nintendo created in the mid 90s went to become a global phenomenon that was franchised into a popular kids show, several movies, and – most importantly – millions and millions of games sold. In total the Pokémon franchise has sold over 200 million copies of games, the 2nd most of any video game franchise in history. After all these years, little Pikachu is still the most famous Pokémon of them all, and is the unofficial mascot of the franchise.
When Sony launched the original PlayStation in 1995, they were breaking into a domain that was ruled by Nintendo and Sega with an iron fist. The upstart console would go on to sell over 100 million units and pave the way for the success of the PS2, PS3, and PS4, cementing Sony as a heavy hitter in the video game industry. One of the first ‘killer app’ titles for the PlayStation was Final Fantasy VII, which at the time was hailed as possibly the best RPG video game ever made. The cast included memorable playable characters, but perhaps the most memorable of the bunch was the villain of the game, Sephiroth. He left an impression everywhere by being evil enough to actually kill one of main characters in the player’s party – permanently. This was quite a big deal in 1997, and the emotional damage done to those who played the game never fully healed. Since then Sephiroth has gone down as one of the all-time best villains in video gaming, a true icon of evil.
Just don’t call him Zelda. Although the star of the Zelda franchise may not have his name up there in the title, there’s no one else gamers associate with the franchise more than our lovable, silent protagonist, Link. He debuted in the very first game in the franchise, The Legend of Zelda in 1986, and hasn’t looked back since. He’s saved the world – and the princess – many times since, and seems destined to keep battling his arch nemesis Ganon over and over again throughout various incarnations of the Zelda world. He’s one of Nintendo’s most popular stars, and the Zelda franchise is arguably Nintendo’s very best.
#7 Solid Snake
For those who believe that video gaming can’t offer a compelling storyline, look no further than the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Hideo Kojima’s epic story of military espionage, cold war politics, and the mechanization of modern warfare presented a mature and thought-provoking story for adult gamers. Solid Snake, the protagonist, is part-spy, part-special ops soldier, and part mercenary. The image of Solid Snake sneaking around and using his tactical and weapons skills to surprise enemies is the main vision one conjures up when thinking about Metal Gear Solid gameplay. The tagline for the series, ‘Tactical Espionage Action’, is perfectly descriptive of the franchise that Solid Snake represents.
#6 Master Chief
When the original Xbox was launched in 2001, Microsoft was in need of heroes. Nintendo has its legendary cast of all-stars, Sony had developed a handful of young franchises to build off during the PS1 years, but Microsoft had no exclusive franchise to bring to the table – besides Halo. Halo: Combat Evolved became more successful than Microsoft could have hoped, and the game’s protagonist, Master Chief, became the unofficial mascot for Microsoft’s new gaming console. The continued success of the Xbox 360 and Xbox One can be at least partially credited to the Master Chief, which Microsoft has never forgotten.
#5 Lara Croft
The first lady of video gaming was the first female video game star to not be a damsel in distress, but instead was a bonafide badass that was part Indiana Jones and part Bruce Willis in Die Hard. The star of the Tomb Raider series, which debuted in 1996 for the PlayStation, has gone on to become one of the most recognizable characters in video gaming. There were 2 movies produced about the adventures of Lara Croft – portrayed by Angelina Jolie – and she has been celebrated as one of the most important video game characters ever, breaking the unspoken gender barriers in video games where the star of all the action was typically a male. She remains the star of the Tomb Raider series, so gamers can enjoy her adventures for years to come.
Before Sony and Microsoft entered the arena, video gaming was a war fought between Nintendo and Sega. Nintendo had all its familiar Nintendo stars, but Sega largely focused on one character as the brand’s mascot – Sonic the Hedgehog. The wildly popular 2D platforming games catapulted the world’s most beloved blue ball of speed into video gaming history. The Sonic franchise was, and remains to be, Sega’s bread and butter intellectual property. Since his debut in 1991, his games have sold 80 million copies, created a TV show spinoff and released various kinds of merchandise. The tension between Nintendo and Sega has cooled since Sega stopped making consoles, and Sonic was even a playable character alongside Mario in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, fulfilling the dreams of every early 90s gamers.
#3 Gordon Freeman
Mr. Freeman. The silent, mysterious protagonist of the Half-Life series – indisputably the greatest single-player first-person shooters ever made – has been blasting and crowbar smashing his way into our hearts since 1998. Gordon Freeman’s character is a theoretical physicist who must transform himself into a gun-toting badass to save the world after he’s involved in an experiment that accidentally opens a trans-dimensional portal that monsters come spilling through. There are no cut scenes or dialogue involving Freeman in Half-Life – the player experiences everything through Gordon’s eyes, making him the ultimate blank slate. Regardless, he’s still become the modern face of PC gaming and is beloved by fans everywhere.
Online gaming, consoles, the upcoming virtual reality future of gaming; forget about all that. Let’s take it back to a dirty arcade with a Pac-Man machine in the corner. That hungry little yellow circle was the first real icon of arcade gaming. The first Pac-Man machine was produced in 1980, and its mascot went on to become a cultural icon of that decade. Pac-Man was so ridiculously popular that by the 1990s it had grossed an estimated $2.5 billion in quarters – which is 10 billion quarters. That’s a lot of pocket change going in to feed the little guy.
#1 Super Mario
Realistically, could it be anyone else? The famous Italian-American plumber from New York City has been Nintendo’s mascot since 1983, and has gone on to become the most recognizable character in all of video gaming. Mario and all of his friends – his brother Luigi, Princess Peach, Wario, Waluigi, Yoshi – have all gone on to be household names thanks to multiple generation of gamers who grew up playing the games. Games starring Mario have sold 262 million copies – making it the most successful video game franchise in history. The future of video gaming isn’t a certain thing, but you can guarantee that it’s going to involve Mario in one way or another.