By Joshua DeLung
First, a bit of a disclaimer:
As you read this list, you might think, “But duuuuuuuuuude, what about my favorite, Video Game X?!”
Yes, your favorite games of all time are just as valid as mine, and personal favorite lists are exactly that. We all experience media at different times in our lives, which contextualizes how we think about which ones are our favorites. This is by no means an objective list. If it were, it might view the top 25 games through a lens that includes objective measures such as sales data, critical reception and previous awards. But those data are available online from plenty of sources and aren’t nearly as fun to debate. That’s why you won’t see objectively great games like Tetris or the Grand Theft Auto series on my list — I recognize the undeniable impact they’ve had on the industry and just how many people like them, but they don’t personally resonate with me in terms of story, artistic value, gameplay mechanics or some combination thereof.
So, I present to you my personal definitive top 25 video games of all time. (Feel free to debate away.)
Thankfully, I’m not one of those sites that makes you reload the page every time you want to see the next item in a list. I’m going to make my case here for these top 25 games as concisely as possible in a true list format. I’ll link to more information about each game in case you’re interested in diving in a little deeper. I’m going to present the list in reversed order, so the top item is #25 and the last item revealed in the order you’re reading is #1 — however, if you’re using an older browser version or Internet Explorer, this newer HTML5 feature may not be supported and you may see the list in the incorrect order.
Note: There may be very minor spoilers below, such as the names of things or a reference to an event in a particular game. There are very few recent games on this list, and even the newest one is almost a year old at the initial time of writing. So, I’m not apologizing for spoilers, but be aware if you must be 100 percent unsullied.
- The Last of Us (PS3/PS4): Many gamers put this Naughty Dog masterpiece at the top of their list. I was turned off by the zombie tropes and predictable gameplay in many areas of the game. I think the game would’ve been stronger had it leaned harder on The Road, which was clearly its dystopian inspiration. The puzzles always felt tedious (how many times must I push around a pallet?), and the human vs. human combat was much more fun than the other stuff. Still, there’s no denying how amazing the storytelling and some of the heartpounding gameplay moments are. Oh, and giraffes, anyone?
- Final Fantasy VII (PS1/Other): At one time in my life, FFVII was what I touted as my favorite game of all time. It had a compelling story with ridiculously interesting characters and an awesome turn-based JRPG battle system unlike anything else. I loved the limit breaks and materia system, and I thought it was so cool to have creatures like Cait Sith or Red XIII as playable characters. And no baddie is as bad as Sephiroth. FFVII really had it all. But as I was making this list, I tried asking myself, “Would you want to play this right now, today, more or less than something else on the list?” And it’s by that criteria that FFVII slid so far down my list. I still believe it’s the best Final Fantasy and a wonderful game. But the random encounters and JRPG grind just don’t hold up against so much that has come after it. I also find that turn-based battles leave me a little bored in a world where real-time elements have permeated the RPG landscape. I’m looking forward to the FFVII Remake, which is rumored to have a totally revamped battle system.
- Uncharted 4 (PS4): The Uncharted games are undeniably action movie set pieces that you experience more than play. However, I found Uncharted 4’s combat enhancements to be pretty fun as well, and to date I can’t name a game with better visuals on any platform by any studio. The hyper-realistic environments and swashbuckling tale that’s a little Indiana Jones and a little James Bond all drew me in from start to finish. This is my favorite Uncharted because it experiments with new gameplay elements for the first time, such as an open worldesque stage set in Madagascar.
- Rise of the Tomb Raider (XO/PS4/PC/360): I never liked the original Tomb Raider games much. The exploration was interesting, but the combat always felt clunky to me and turned me off. Later iterations of the franchise just lacked any real personality or interesting gameplay. But the more recent reboot of the franchise, starting with “Tomb Raider,” has been absolutely wonderful. Rise of the Tomb Raider, the second in the new series, continues to deliver a Naughty Dog Uncharted-like quality of game. I even give RotTR a slight edge over even my favorite Uncharted game, though, because of its much deeper RPG and combat mechanics.
- Darksiders (360/PS3/Other): There was a time where we didn’t get much in the way of good Zelda games, and Darksiders came out and not only filled that void but also showed all of us old-school Zelda fans what a darker, mature Zelda with more RPG elements and God-of-War-style combat could be like. This game had puzzling dungeons, expansive worlds, interesting combat and fun characters. It delivered what even some of the Zelda games cannot when it comes to pure enjoyment. Though the sequel felt like a step backward for me, the original Darksiders will always hold a special place in my heart and be a game I consider ridiculously overshadowed by lesser games. I can’t say Darksiders is underrated because it reviewed very well, but it’s definitely not a game that enough people are aware of given its lack of name recognition, limited marketing budget at release and the fact the franchise has changed hands since its original developer went under.
- Shadow Complex (XBLA/Other): Shadow Complex reinvigorated interest in the 2-D Metroidvania genre, and it did it better than any game before it ever had, including Super Metroid. An Orson Scott Card-world story (which is an interesting world, regardless of how you feel about the writer) and that addictive explore-loot-then-expand-the-map gameplay make for an outstanding experience I’ll never forget. This game sucked me in during the summer between grad school and starting my first real job, and it was the perfect distraction while sending out hundreds of applications during the great recession.
- Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4/XO/PC/Other): I don’t even like Tolkien, so I can’t imagine how much higher this game would be on my list if I cared about or understood the story of Shadow of Mordor even a little bit. But rarely do you see true innovation in games these days, and the Nemesis system employed by Monolith is absolutely genius. Quite literally an ever-adapting world where the smallest enemy can rise to power either through your influence or by killing you enough times. I remember the first time I came across an orc who remembered a previous encounter I’d had with him, and I was blown away that a game was doing that. Even still, that’s just one piece of the pie. The combat of Mordor is Arkham-style, but turned up to eleven with a multitude of upgradable RPG skill tree abilities to bring even more mayhem to Sauron’s forces. Nothing is better than pulling off a 30-kill chain using stealth, ranged, melee and wraith attacks for a blinding blur of violence.
- Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition (XO/PC): I’m a sucker for a good Metroidvania game, and there’s no question in my mind that Ori is the absolute best one ever created. Time and time again, whether through franchise neglect or weak development, we’ve seen small teams outdo the core Metroid and Castlevania games in their titular genre. The beautiful art style of Ori combined with its brutally challenging gameplay and fun exploration (plus an interesting non-narrated story) kept me engaged until completion. It’s a game that you instantly want to go back and play again once you’ve finished it, and you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you’ve ignored it.
- Far Cry 3 (PS3/360/PC): I have such great memories of playing this game. I found the crazy-teens-trapped-on-an-island story to be very fun, which of course then gets turned on its head to become a much darker story filled with sex, drugs and violence. But what really sold me on Far Cry 3 is just how fluid the combat feels once you unlock a certain number of skills and begin to plan out and take down fortresses in mere minutes with chain kills. This game also managed to make open-world exploration feel more fun and rewarding than most others ever have. I think the franchise has been trying to chase down this magic ever since, and I’m not sure they will ever recreate such pure bliss.
- Rocket League (PS4/PC/XO/Switch): Rocket League is the e-sports game I just can’t put down even years later. Every time it expands to a new platform, I buy it and play it some more. No two games are ever alike, and even though it’s a game that can be played at a professional level, the controls and rules are so stupidly simple that it’s always fun to just pick up for 10 minutes. Of course, those 10 minutes can quickly turn into hours because every match leaves you with that great feeling of “just gotta play one more.” If you’ve stayed away from Rocket League because you think sports, racing or e-sports just aren’t your thing — I hear you, but I implore you to play Rocket League. I’ve never been so addicted to a game before (aside from, maybe a real-time strategy game we’ll talk about later), thanks to its just-right formula of competitiveness, fun and nonstop action.
- Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (360/PS3/PC): This is one of the most underrated games of all time, in my opinion. I still long for a sequel, or at least a game that copies everything that Amalur did so well! This open-world RPG had a mostly dull and throwaway story (despite R.A. Salvatore’s involvement with creating the lore), but the Todd McFarlane art and superb battle mechanics are so, so good. I can’t name another RPG that better nailed character skill customization and fluid, fun combat. There are just so many options, regardless of the class of your character, to choose from — magic missiles, shields, stealthy assassinations, all-out brute force sword strikes — you imagine it, Amalur probably has it. The exploration and quests in Amalur are also quite compelling. Although it has plenty of your typical RPG fetch quests, it has a lot of other stuff that’s more sticky and interesting. And quite honestly, none of it matters as much as how much fun you will have constantly learning and trying out new skills. It’s a shame that Curt Schilling (yes, the baseball legend) ran 38 Studios into the ground, which ultimately ended with the State of Rhode Island owning the Amalur IP. We may never get that sequel, but hopefully another studio will someday embark on furthering this concept of God of War meets Elder Scrolls.
- Portal 2 (360/PS3/PC): Portal 2 is a relatively bite-sized masterpiece, full of whimsical dialogue and interesting story hooks, all wrapped in mind-bending puzzles. Portal 2 does everything the first game does, just much, much better. Nothing feels better than when you finally nail a puzzle in a way you hadn’t thought of before, especially when one of the characters has a witty comment in store that makes you laugh while doing it. The pacing of the story and the speed at which you are presented with new challenges and tools for portal-transporting your way through the environment is absolutely perfect. The Portal games are one-, or maybe, few-trick ponies, but those tricks are really, really good and extremely memorable.
- Mass Effect 2 (360/PS3/PC): The Mass Effect franchise is a rollercoaster of good and bad decisions, but no decision was better than to focus Mass Effect 2 around the lovable and unique characters of Commander Shepard’s squad. Without a doubt, Mass Effect 2 is the strongest game in the franchise. Though later versions iterated on the third-person shooter combat and tweaked it to be better, it was Mass Effect 2 that really solidified the series’ focus on great cover-based shooting. But most importantly, the compelling science fiction story from the first game expanded to draw the player in even more, and the squad-building, relationship-enhancing focus of the game served to really make you care about what you were doing. As you assemble your squad and head to the final missions of the game, there’s a real sense of camaraderie and accomplishment, and I can’t think of any other game that achieved that alongside such fluid shooting gameplay and interesting RPG elements.
- Infamous Second Son (PS4): There have been some X-Men games, but none of them made me feel like an X-Man in the way Second Son did. This game is not only beautiful from a graphical standpoint, but also it has open-world traversal that works so well, blended with superhero-style combat and a fun comic book story. The characters are easy to relate to and fun to be around, and the dialogue is full of wit. But nothing is as important about this game as just how fun it is to play, zipping around the world with neon powers, calling down angels and demons, leveling up your fireballs — you get the point. Powers. Lots of them. Upgrade them. Wreak havoc. It’s very, very enjoyable.
- Halo: Reach (360): Weird that my favorite Halo game isn’t one where you play as Master Chief? Maybe. But who is Master Chief? A faceless character in armor who mostly says nothing. This game still has that. And it was the peak of Bungie’s work on the Halo franchise before peacing out to go make Destiny and leave things in the hands of 343 Industries. To me, Reach is the pinnacle of first-person shooters and not much has ever come close. I also really have not found myself as compelled by the push-a-button-now-push-another-button campaigns of the newer 343 Halo games. And, hate me or love me for it, the armor lock ability in Reach’s multiplayer is still my favorite Halo power-up to use.
- Bastion (XBLA/Other): Whenever someone asks me what my favorite video games are, I inevitably always talk about Bastion. It’s crept up my list over the years because it’s a game that I can come back to and enjoy playing through from start to finish every few years. It helps that it’s also available on nearly every platform known to man, although I originally played it on the Xbox 360 during the glory days of Xbox Live Arcade. Bastion is the best of the amazing games that studio SuperGiant has released, and it’s also the studio’s first. They’ve been chasing the moon ever since, but turns out they hit it on the first try. In Bastion, you get isometric action-adventure combat akin to the old Gauntlet-style arcade games, but the combat has been tweaked to allow you to experience a wide range of melee and ranged options. It’s like Diablo with prettier colors, more simple (but still super fun) skill customization and weapon selection, and narration. That’s right, your every move in Bastion is narrated by a disembodied voice, and it makes for a compelling and sometimes hilarious jaunt through the game world. One other great thing about Bastion is it lets the player control difficulty by turning idols on and off. The more you enable, the better the rewards you get as you play. But you can turn some or all idols off to make the game easier and still experience all it has to offer. I personally love the challenge of turning on all the idols and playing some of the wave combat modes in the game.
- Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4): The newest game on my list also makes my top 10. This is hands-down the best video game in the current Xbox One/PS4/Nintendo Switch console generation. It all starts with a story that’s way more interesting and mysterious than just about anything I’ve ever experienced in a game. In fact, the story competes with some of my favorites in other media as well. What looks like a post-apocalyptic story about primitive tribes hunting strange dinosaur-like machines becomes something much more, connected to our own humanity. The experience is very emotional for the protagonist, Aloy, and thereby the player. Additionally, the game is a graphical masterpiece. The only game I’ve ever seen with better art and character models is Uncharted 4. But all the aesthetics aside, at its core, Horizon is an absolute pleasure from a gameplay perspective. It’s virtually free of any bugs or mechanical issues (in 70+ hours I don’t recall ever experiencing a glitch or a problem controlling my character). And it allows the player the freedom to approach situations any way he or she chooses. Want to sneak past those enemies? Fine. Want to do some sidequests in a totally unexplored area of the map? Do it. Want to set traps, meet enemies head-on in all-out combat or ride into battle atop a powerful beast? It has that too. And so much more. Many open-world games feel overwhelmingly drenched in tedious, repetitive side quests and rigamarole. Yet, Horizon manages to mix up the pacing to the point where every kind of mission feels fun, different and meaningful. There are just so many options, so much player agency and quite a large array of enemy types (both human and machine) that keep the game feeling fresh from start to finish. I can’t get enough DLC for Horizon because, unlike many other games (even great ones), it never seems to get old. Horizon is a bucket of fun every time you fire it up.
- The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Game Boy/Other): Technically, I prefer the “DX” version on Game Boy Color, but whether colorized or not, Link’s Awakening is an important and memorable game. As a kid, I was absolutely blown away that such a lengthy, interesting adventure to wake a Wind Fish could fit on my tiny Game Boy cartridge. I think this game is special because it diverges somewhat from the rest of the Zelda franchise and incorporates fun nods to other Nintendo IP (chain chomps, what?!) while maintaining challenging dungeon puzzles and engaging exploration. To me, Link’s Awakening is one of the most ‘pure’ Zelda games in existence. If you prefer 2-D Zelda to 3-D Zelda, you owe it to yourself to play this game once every few years.
- StarCraft II (PC): At the risk of spoiling my own list, I have to say that while I don’t have the same special memories of StarCraft II that I do of the original, it still ranks very highly on my list. Because, if I really like the original, then there’s no way I couldn’t also like a game that improves on the formula in nearly every way while adding more real-time strategy units to control and finishing the story that fans of StarCraft had been left hanging onto for more than a decade. I especially enjoyed the lengthy episodic releases of the three StarCraft II campaigns and how much love Blizzard put into each race’s unique combat approach. However, I don’t think that Blizzard was ever truly able to build up an online community that was as fun to be part of as the original game’s, nor were they successful in balancing the three races for fair multiplayer matchmaking. I grew tired of the multiplayer’s constant nerfing and buffing, causing players to relearn races time and time again to no long-term result. For that, I give the nod to the original (so keep reading for more on that).
- Super Mario World (SNES): I just don’t think there will ever be another platformer or another mainline Mario game that will compare to Super Mario World. This game is a true achievement in level design and art direction. The controls are perfectly tight, and there’s plenty of challenge, discovery and whimsy to go around. This is the game that introduced us to riding Yoshis. The Star Road. Multiple exits from haunted houses. Epic boss battles with the Koopalings. Swapping background and foreground on fences. Super Mario World was just packed with new experiences and fun levels that constantly revealed something interesting to the player. There have been a lot of good Mario games since, but so many of them try to be something Mario isn’t. To me, Super Mario World took everything learned from its predecessors and did it in the most polished way possible. Everything since has been trying to make Mario into something that has the same flavors but with all wrong texture.
- Nox (PC): Yes, there’s this obscure isometric RPG you’ve never heard of in my top five. But hear me out. You know how Diablo is like, really popular? Nox did Diablo better than Diablo. You can still get this game on GOG if you don’t believe me. I’m bummed that nothing has come along to reboot, remake or reinvigorate this IP. The story was dark but more humorous and fantastical than that of Diablo. The combat mechanics were more nuanced and fun. And it had a multiplayer mode that somehow inexplicably worked on my dial-up Internet connection growing up, and it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. It was basically PvP Diablo, which made for a fast-paced chaos that was somehow still strategic. I’ve never stopped thinking about those multiplayer matches and how much I wish someone would make something like it in a modern game engine.
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES): On any given day, this could be my no. 1 game of all time. I’ve certainly played through it from start to finish more than any other game in my life. The only reason it’s not higher for me is because it lacks much in the way of an original, compelling story, and it is relatively thin on content (which, maybe is a reason why I find it so easy to pick up and play through at any given time). But the light world/dark world dynamic combined with interesting and magical weapons and items — and the best dungeon puzzles ever put into any game — make A Link to the Past a game that I think just about anyone can easily fall in love with. To me, it’s the best Zelda game because it masters the 2-D, top-down classic Zelda formula while still managing to make you think and encouraging you to explore.
- Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (SNES): What if I told you that the makers of Final Fantasy partnered with Nintendo in the 1990s to make an RPG based on the Super Mario universe, and you can play as Bowser or Peach, and there are brand-new characters never before seen in any other Mario game such as Mallow and Geno (both badasses, trust me)? Well, it’s true. All of it. This oft-forgotten gem is quite possibly the best JRPG ever made. I love its unique timing-driven, turn-based combat mechanics, its endless party customization options, its whimsical worlds, its HAM enemies, its joyous music, and its once-in-a-lifetime story. This game is very different from the Mario & Luigi RPGs on the Nintendo handhelds or the Paper Mario RPGs. In it, you build a party of characters who all have various motivations for taking back the Mushroom Kingdom from the evil clutches of a villain known as Smithy. You’ll experience worlds both familiar and new to the Mario universe. And the humor along the way keeps you constantly wanting to get to know these characters even better. The game combines RPG combat scenarios (thankfully, the battles are purposeful encounters and not random) with lighter versions of Mario platforming and world traversal. There are plenty of secrets to find along the way, too. If you missed this game, it’s definitely a must-play for every gamer.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (360/PS3/PC/Other): Strangely enough, I hadn’t managed to play an Elder Scrolls game prior to Skyrim. But the trailer alone sold me, and I picked the game up on day one for my Xbox 360 back in the day. To date, aside from my no. 1 game, this is the game I have spent the most time playing in my life. I put well over 100 hours into Skyrim because the world was so compelling and enormous and full of wonderful, interesting things to discover. Although the story of the main campaign is just so-so, building my own story of my character’s adventures through Skyrim was memorable and filled with joy (and the murdering of some gods, demons, undead and the like). I’ll never forget the time I saw a mountain in the distance, decided to go to and climb that mountain, and then discovered the entrance to an ancient dwarven temple of some sort that sprawled across the underground landscape of the mountainous region of Skyrim. I spent days, days, exploring that temple and those mountains. That had nothing to do with a mainline quest. I was never told by the game to go there. I just explored, and boy was I rewarded for doing so. Moments like that, dozens of them, are why I loved Skyrim. Plus, the unique skill trees for each class and the way the developer made leveling tied to the actions you perform the most was absolutely genius and made it feel as though I could play the game any way I want and yet still be rewarded.
- StarCraft (PC): This is it. Yes. StarCraft, including its Brood War expansion. I guess you could consider the remastered version with updated visuals as well. It doesn’t really matter. The point is the core gameplay of StarCraft never, ever, after countless hundreds of hours in my middle and high school years ever got boring. It was exhilarating and fun every single time to go online and do battle against other players in a real-time strategy RPG where I was responsible for managing resources, construction and tactical orders. But in addition to that, StarCraft has one of the best science fiction stories ever written. At the time, its cutscenes were the most polished and realistic things in gaming. Its custom modes allowed for limitless possibilities in what the StarCraft engine could deliver to players. And its map editor allowed me to express my creativity and experiment with game design and learn to code triggers and write story beats at a very early age. I also have tons of stories about StarCraft matches. There’s the one where I un-allied with my best friend after dropping dozens of lurkers in his base to “help with his defense.” Or the one where I trolled some guy whose username was “DaBeerMan” for hours after humiliating his army. StarCraft was more than a game. It was a community, and it’s one of those experiences that will stick with me for a lifetime and that probably no other game will ever be able to touch (largely because I’ll never have that much free time again).