When Pong made its introduction in 1972, nobody could have predicted that the tiny game in which a circle went from side to side would be the advent of a seismic cultural shift.
It took time, but video games eventually invaded our daily lives—first by driving children to the arcades to play their favorite titles, then moving into our homes, then moving into our pockets.
The narratives became more complex, the graphics got better, and the industry that had broadly started with one circle going side to side is now worth over $100 billion every year.
Through the countless adventures that have seen the light of day, some characters have become ingrained in the fabric of video game history—and some even in the fabric of pop culture itself.
Here are our picks for the most iconic video game characters of all time and how they’ve impacted culture at large.
8. Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic has been entertaining us since 1991 across all kinds of media platforms. From the Sega Mega Drive to the Sega Game Gear, the lightning-fast hedgehog defined early home gaming. He’s driven us crazy with his hardest levels and defeating Dr. Robotnik.
Everybody loves Sonic because Sonic has always stayed close and made our lives so enjoyable for over 30 years. He’s been a comfort on long drives home in the back seat, and we’ll never forget that.
While the masses will always cry out for Ryu or Ken, Chun Li represents something far better to the industry than they do: she was the very first playable female character in fighting games history.
In some ways, Chun Li was the one who encouraged women everywhere to finally pick up the controller and compete with their brothers and friends for digital superiority.
Her story as a vengeful Interpol agent chasing down the bad guys who killed her father is a widely known tale in gaming history, with audiences exacting her revenge for decades in Street Fighter.
Chun Li has been so iconic for so many years that it’s hard to think of the gaming industry as a whole without her.
Who would have thought that a game based around an Italian plumber would have become such an important and iconic figure in mainstream culture? Well, Nintendo saw the potential, which is why they’ve been continually giving us new Mario adventures since 1981.
Mario is the everyman. The guy who steps in when nobody else can. He’s there to save the day and the princess. There wouldn’t be a modern gaming industry without him.
Mario’s adventures formed the base for children everywhere to buy gaming consoles and sit in front of the TV for hours because they’d known him from their arcade days. Simply put, Mario is as much part of the industry as Nintendo itself.
Kratos is the mighty and feared God of War, the being that conquers all that stands before him with a unique sense of brutality.
The first three God of War games introduced the audience to something special: a journey through all kinds of ancient mythology, playing as a character who couldn’t ever accept defeat.
In the hands of the gamer, Kratos’ power flowed into the controller and gave the player a lust for war similar to that of Kratos himself.
Kratos isn’t the first hardcore gaming character, but he’s the one that sticks longest in the memory. His adventures have entertained millions, his journey plays out like a piece of ancient mythology itself, and everybody recognizes him the moment they see him.
Gaming forever changed the day we first met Ellie. The Last of Us felt like a place that gaming had been longing to reach for decades—and when we finally got there, we entered a new era.
Ellie is our girl. She’s the one we must protect and the one we can’t give up when the fate of humankind depends on it. The Last of Us and its sequel play out like a beautiful auteur movie, and it’s for that reason Ellie becomes as influential as she is to the video games industry.
She’s a fully-rounded woman. She’s more than a character—a realized person understood by everybody at every level. Her pain is ours, her losses are ours, and her love is ours. She isn’t just a gaming icon, but a true cultural landmark.
3. Solid Snake
Solid Snake is the ultimate warrior, the ultimate soldier that’s central to the ultimate gaming saga.
Metal Gear Solid is the gaming world’s version of a David Lynch movie, featuring plenty of surrealist events and characters, all of whom play an integral role in the life of Solid Snake.
As the clone of the world’s greatest soldier, Solid Snake managed to surpass his “father” during his life, becoming an even greater warrior. He was the savior of nuclear war on more than one occasion, and delivered the world from countless threats.
Playing as Snake is all about sacrifice and being willing to do whatever is necessary for the greater good—a gaming cliché that Snake practically invented. There are many other soldiers in gaming, but none come close to being as great as Solid Snake.
Link is the one who defends all that is right in the world of Zelda’s Hyrule. In many ways, Link is more like family to gamers who know him since he’s been around for over 30 years, giving generations of people the chance to enjoy his epic journeys.
The Legend of Zelda series is one of gaming’s most revered franchises. The stories that have come and gone, and the adventures that Link has undertaken, have defined the lives of millions from when they were just children.
Now, as adults, we continue to follow Link wherever he goes—such is the pull of the franchise. Link represents what we wish we could be: an unsung hero who fights for a noble cause. The Legend of Zelda has shown us, in Link, what it means to be a true hero.
1. Lara Croft
How does one begin to discuss Lara Croft? She’s the first lady of gaming and has since evolved into one of the most well-written and hardcore characters in gaming history.
She’s been entertaining audiences since 1996 and has seen three movies made about her in the 25 years she’s been around.
Her role in society has changed over the years, too. Initially, she was a sex symbol and the focus of female gaming. Nowadays, she’s better known as an intrepid and ruthless character who does what she must in her daunting and sprawling quests.
As far as iconography, Lara Croft is unbeatable. Her look and name are known all around the world. She’s a clever and witty woman who’s as lethal as anybody when she needs to be, and gamers have enjoyed playing through her adventures because of the character she is.