“Pound-for-Pound” is a popular phrase in combat sports, used to compare fighters across different weight classes. The idea is that while a featherweight fighter might not be able to beat a heavyweight in the ring due to strength, size, or reach reach, the lighter fighter may in fact be more skilled – or in other words, a better “pound-for-pound” fighter.
Video games find themselves in a similar situation. Games from the 80s and 90s may be groundbreaking works of art, but given the differences in technology, genre, graphics, and other elements, it can be difficult to fairly compare these trailblazers to more modern games.
We decided to try a “pound for pound” ranking of the best video games ever, based on: how they impacted culture in and outside of the gaming industry, how they influenced the games that followed them, the longevity of their fan bases, and how well they still hold up to play – giving extra credit to games who did so in earlier eras with tighter technological constraints.
(1) Super Mario World (SNES)
Super Mario World is the sixth game in the Mario Bros. franchise, but it is arguably one of the most important entries in the series. In addition to introducing fan-favorite character Yoshi as well as being the inspiration for the cartoon series of the same name, Super Mario World remains one of the best-selling games of all time, with over 20 million copies sold. Additionally, as the first Mario game to be developed for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, it showed that this franchise could adapt to evolving gaming technologies.
Super Mario World benefits from a replay-ability that has kept fans engaged since it was released in 1990. The gameplay is easy to understand, with a wide variety of delightful features. One of these was the cape power up, which allowed Mario to fly and glide. Fans immediately gravitated to Mario in a cape, flying like a superhero.
However, it’s the visual and audio elements of the game that really make this game a beautiful world that players can get lost in again and again. Witness the warm earthy tones and bright reds and greens, plus elements like the haunted house and ship in levels like Valley of Bowser.
Moreover, the SNES enabled the game’s composer, Koji Kondo, to make eight sounds at once. Kondo used this as an opportunity to redo Mario’s title song with more instruments. The beloved music in this game is yet another element that serves to immerse the player into this fantastical world.
Not only do fans love playing the game as it was originally intended, but Super Mario World has a strong presence in speedrunning communities and continues to influence modders.
(2) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)
With 1993’s The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening being a commercial and critical success, the team behind the Zelda franchise had a massive challenge in front of them to top this entry. Five years later, Ocarina of Time – the fifth game in the franchise – would be released with near universal praise. As a matter of fact, as of 2019, Ocarina of Time was the only game to have a score of 99 on MetaCritic.
Ocarina of Time was the first Zelda game to utilize 3D graphics while continuing the franchise’s traditions of merging adventure with puzzle solving, learning gameplay with worldbuilding, and in-game accomplishments with narrative and character growth. The game’s story as well as the character developments within deeply benefit from the use of time.
Like other Zelda games, Link is tasked with saving Hyrule. Ocarina of Time breaks away from the mold by having Link lose to the villain Ganondorf early in the story, putting him into a deep sleep. The game begins with Link awakening after seven years of sleep. Things have gotten worse for Hyrule, but Link is now able to wield the sword he needs to defeat Ganondorf, and so the adventure begins.
The story allows the player, as Link, to shift back and forth in time and use different weapons while uncovering more of the narrative, making the game particularly satisfying on both a gameplay and story engagement level. We won’t spoil the ending.
The game was also groundbreaking in how it addressed problems new to 3D games. Navi was not just another character to be turned into merchandise. This helpful fairy guided players in the game’s 3D world. Ocarina of Time also got help from Mario 64’s development team and normalized new camera angles so that players could better understand a level’s space from a third-person perspective.
(3) Tetris (several)
The beauty, efficiency, and longevity of Tetris stems from its simplicity. Falling blocks of various shapes that players have to arrange to create straight horizontal lines is a simple concept that Tetris excellently executed. As a result, this game that was created by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 on a Electronika 60 computer has officially and unofficially been on almost every new gaming platform in the following decades.
Birthed in Soviet Russia, Tetris also marked a unique period of gaming in which businesses outside of Russia had to negotiate with someone in Russia for rights to a game; at a time when intellectual property really wasn’t a thing in Russia. In addition to its unique place in the history of international commerce, Tetris is one of the few games that is documented to invade the dreams of its players. As has been documented in several academic articles, the Tetris effect / syndrome is a phenomenon in which Tetris repeats in the thoughts of players long after they have stopped playing.
A key part of the fun that Tetris provides is that while there are only seven blocks in the game, those blocks create 5,040 possible permutations. This has been enough variety to keep people engaged with this game for nearly forty-years. In short, Tetris remains a monument to brilliance in simplicity.
(4) Final Fantasy VI [Final Fantasy III in the US] (SNES)
It is difficult to imagine a time in which Final Fantasy wasn’t part of the pop culture landscape. Since 1987 sixteen FF games have been released with Final Fantasy XVI currently in development, as well as dozens of remakes and spin-offs. (And this does not include the various films, shows, and printed materials that Final Fantasy has been adapted to.)
Of this pedigree, Final Fantasy VI rises above other franchise entries to such an extent that it is not only considered the best Final Fantasy game, but one of the greatest games ever made.
Initially released in North America under the title of Final Fantasy III, the sixth entry in the Final Fantasy pushed the SNES to its absolute limits when it came out in 1994. (When Square Enix began working on the seventh game, they realized that they would have to focus on non-cartridge systems because standard cartridge technology would no longer be able to contain the developer’s ambitions for pushing future Final Fantasy games to the limit.)
Still, FF 6 was not only a masterpiece of software, it also successfully built characters, plots, and various choices into a one-of-a-kind player experience. The game had fourteen playable characters, but fan favorite – and arguably best character in the game – was Terra Branford, a character who transformed from brain-washed pawn to a half-human half-magic character learning how to emotionally connect with others.
FF 6 was one of the few games at the time that dealt with issues of dictatorships, chemical weapons, personal redemption in the face of apocalyptic violence, and teenage pregnancy. Years later, Yoshinori Kitase, the game’s director, would be asked about these bold plot points. Talking to Game Informer, Kitase said: “Back then, video games were not widely recognized and were more or less perceived as children’s entertainment. I believe we had a strong desire to appeal to the public with sensational, mature themes (in hindsight, it was done in the rashness of youth).”
Even though its elements of the game seem constrained by the technology of the mid-1990s, much of Final Fantasy VI remains ahead of its time.
(5) Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (NES)
The Punch-Out!! franchise started life as an arcade game released in 1984, and was so popular that Nintendo almost immediately began the work of adapting it for the NES home console. During this process, changes would be made to Punch-Out!! that would turn the 1987 version into one of the most popular games of all time.
As the dev team realized that they would have to overhaul the game because the NES was nowhere near an arcade’s processing power, the then President of Nintendo of America Minoru Arakawa became a huge fan of Mike Tyson. This meant that as the game changed the player’s avatar from a wire-frame being to a short and skinny character named Little Mac, Nintendo made a deal with Tyson to use his name for the game and make him the final boss.
Now titled Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, the game was one of the first games to be attached to a real-world athlete. Additionally, the NES version had a plot, unique background music, cutscenes, more characters than the arcade version, and a save-progress system. In short, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! transformed the narratively simplistic arcade game into a journey in which the players, as Little Mac, fought people all over the world in order to gain the confidence and respect needed to beat Tyson. All of these changes were small on their own, but combined to create a game that was fun and incredibly replayable.
In addition to setting a high bar for how games incorporate real athletes, it remains relevant in many speedrunning communities.
(6) Diablo 2 (PC)
In a landscape dominated by Mario Bros., Pokémon, and similar child-friendly games, Diablo was a franchise that stood out like an oncoming storm on a bright day. But while 1997’s Diablo proved to Blizzard that there was a market for games that scared people, it was Diablo II that revolutionized the franchise.
Like many groundbreaking sequels, Diablo II didn’t just build on Diablo, it used the first game as a launching pad because Diablo II was bigger and better in almost every way. For instance, while Diablo only had sixteen similar levels, Diablo II started off near a fort surrounded by plains and forests, followed by an Egyptian-inspired desert, and then a jungle, with the final space being set in a hell landscape.
Diablo II was responsible for the expectation of standard levels being different environments, where players could explore a world. Further, players got to select from five characters instead of the previous game’s three. The game is also remembered for its incredible soundtrack, creating an immersive soundscape.
Diablo II not only benefited from having a team of 40 people (as opposed to Diablo’s 20 people), it also benefited from being part of Blizzard’s Battle.net service. This not only turned Diablo II into a multiplayer experience, but it gave the game near-infinite replay-ability. As a result, Diablo II remains such a joy to play that Blizzard still provides support for this game over twenty years after it was released in 2000.
(7) Halo: Combat Evolved
Few gaming franchises will ever be launched with the pressure that faced Halo: Combat Evolved. The home console wars had Playstation and Nintendo battling it out, while Sega had stopped making its own gaming system, after Dreamcast sales were so disappointing. Despite this, Microsoft greenlighted the development of a gaming system.
Of all the games Microsoft could have selected as Xbox’s launch game, it was surprising to some that a Halo – a first person shooter – would be selected. As Kevin Bachus (who was Xbox’s Director of Third Party Relations from 1999 to 2001) told Bloomberg, “We’re not going to even ship Halo because as we all know, as an immutable law of physics, first-person games don’t do well on console.”
And yet, Halo blew everyone away. The game not only introduced the world to Master Chief (a character who quickly became a pop culture icon) in his battle against the Covenant Empire, it showed the world just how powerful the Xbox was as a gaming system, while its multiplayer feature created a new standard for multiplayer experiences and modernized the first-person shooter for the 21st century.
It is also difficult to convey just how cinematic and epic it felt to first play Halo in 2001. The ring worlds each level was set on gave players a sense that they could at any moment fall into the infinite of space. Further, the use of music inspired by Gregorian chanting gave Halo a sense of religious importance.
Outside of standard game play, Halo inspired a variety of fan content – such as the hilarious Red vs. Blue – that allowed the game to benefit from early internet fan communities. And while esports events were still fairly small, Halo events energized this field and helped it grow.
In short, Halo wasn’t it just a game, it was a sign of what gaming in the millennia would become.
(8) Street Fighter II (arcade)
Initially released for arcades in 1991 before being converted to home consoles in 1992, Street Fighter II was released just when the industry needed it the most. Arcades were beginning to struggle and home console gaming needed more hits in order to solidify its place. Street Fighter II was not only the financial success the industry needed, but it set a foundation for games to come.
By improving on first Street Fighter’s special moves and adding combos as well as improved gameplay, Street Fighter II invigorated head-to-head battles between players that would become pivotal to the development of fighting game esports. Additionally, its inclusion of Chun-Li added a layer of inclusion that has only helped the specific game and franchise as a whole age well.
Outside of the gaming industry, Street Fighter II set Guinness records such for being the first fighting game to use combos, being the most cloned fighting game, and being the best-selling coin operated fighting game. To date, few games come close to Street Fighter II’s popularity. In other words, Street Fighter II not only impacted the industry, it left a mark on the world outside of gaming.
(An in-depth overview of Street Fighter II’s impact and legacy can be read here)
(9) Wii Sports
Released in late 2006 as part of Nintendo Wii’s launch, Wii Sports was a collection of five sports games: golf, boxing, baseball, bowling, and tennis. Similar to Halo, Wii Sports was set to be the flagship game for a brand-new system. Unlike Halo, Wii Sports also had the extra burden of proving to consumers that motion detection software and hardware could be successfully incorporated into gaming. And it tremendously succeeded.
Wii Sports proved to be widely fun. While it was never like playing these games IRL, its physicality inspired genuine competitions in households. And because players also had to move around instead of just pressing buttons, Wii Sports enabled players to embody the experience in ways previous games didn’t allow.
Over 45 million copies of Wii Sports were sold, and it was featured on popular TV programs such as Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, the 80th Academy Awards, and many more. Additionally, Wii Sports found gaming consumers in demographics the industry typically ignored. While gaming at the time focused on young men, Wii Sports became a family friendly experience and was even used by senior citizens to stay active. Research even showed that the game encouraged people to exercise more.
Wii Sports is another example of a game transforming the industry by not only developing a new interface, but by being bold enough to appeal to people the gaming industry typically ignored.
(10) Resident Evil
Given how popular the zombie genre is now, it’s difficult to imagine a time when zombie media wasn’t an ever-present part of pop culture. This was the case in the early 1990s, until Resident Evil came along.
As the first game to use the term “Survival Horror,” Resident Evil helped name and uplift an entire genre of gaming. While it has traditional gaming elements of collecting items and killing enemies to level up, the narrative and atmosphere of 1996’s Resident Evil immersed players into a nightmare with zombies. It was so terrifying that it was one of the first action games to be given an M/17+ rating. It was also the first game to use tank controls. Resident Evil made players feel as if they were living in a horror movie.
Like many of the greatest games, Resident Evil has a legacy outside of gaming. According to the BBC, “Simon Pegg, the star and co-writer of Shaun Of The Dead, traces the zombie revival back to the release of Resident Evil, a video game that terrified and transfixed PlayStation users in 1996.” Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later, credits the first Resident Evil game with inspiring his zombie movie; telling the Huffington Post “Sometimes 28 Days Later is credited with reviving the zombie genre in some respect, but actually, I think it was Resident Evil that did it because I remember playing Resident Evil, having not really encountered zombies for quite a while, and thinking: oh, my god, I love zombies! I’d forgotten how much I love zombies. These are awesome!”
Beyond these influences, Resident Evil has inspired its own movie franchise, animated films, upcoming televisions shows, novels, comic books, merchandise and nearly two dozen video games.
Resident Evil might be about the undead, but it appears the franchise is unlikely to ever die.