For many decades, video gaming was a niche hobby. It started in the arcades, then it broke into our homes, then it slipped into our pockets. These days, gaming is more ubiquitous than it's ever been.
But some video game characters are so famous that even non-gamers know who they are. It's one thing for a gamer to recognize Steve from Minecraft; it's something else when mom knows Pikachu.
Very few video game characters can claim to be known worldwide and to be recognizable even by those outside the hobby. These are the ones who have transcended gaming altogether.
Here are my picks for the most famous video game characters of all time and how they've impacted culture at large.
15. Kratos (God of War)
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.
14. Ellie (The Last of Us)
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.
13. Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid)
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.
12. Master Chief (Halo)
Master Chief is the iconic face (or, I guess, helmet-face) of the Halo franchise. In many ways, he's the mascot for the entire Xbox platform, given that the mainline Halo games are Xbox-exclusive.
This massive supersoldier isn't your run-of-the-mill shooter protagonist. We rarely see him without his helmet, but we know his voice and his personality: reserved, stoic, with a preference to speak via action.
Halo is among the top 30 best-selling video game franchises worldwide, which means people all over the globe (even non-Xbox gamers) recognize him. As the face of one of the three main gaming consoles, Master Chief is as important as video game characters can be.
11. Spyro (Spyro)
The Spyro gaming franchise is basically one trilogy of games that was rebooted twice. The original series came out in 1998. The first rebooted series happened in 2006. The remastered original series came out in 2018, bringing it to modern consoles.
All this to say: for such a "small" franchise, it's surprising how many people can identify the character of Spyro. The purple-and-orange dragon with attitude stands out and punches above his weight.
Spyro is a masterclass in memorable character design. Even if the franchise itself wasn't revolutionary, the character alone has been carrying forward the franchise's legacy. Impressive.
10. Chun Li (Street Fighter)
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.
9. Mega Man (Mega Man)
Mega Man is one of the oldest video game characters who's still relevant today. Created back in 1987, this iconic blue-suited boy with an arm cannon is one of the most recognizable characters.
Most iconic video game characters are mascots of some kind, and Mega Man is one as well—in this case, the face of Capcom. In fact, he's frequently ranked by fans as Capcom's all-time greatest character.
To be fair, his popularity has less to do with his personality and more to do with his conceptually insane blaster and the vast array of enemies he goes up against across the series. Even so, it doesn't matter why he's known—just that he is known.
8. Kirby (Kirby)
Kirby was far from Nintendo's first mascot-level character, but once he arrived on scene with Kirby's Dream Land on the Game Boy in 1992, he quickly became a fan favorite.
To this day, inhaling and swallowing an entity to acquire its powers is something that only Kirby can do. Other games may have tried this kind of mechanic, but they've always been seen as Kirby clones—that's how iconic and enduring this ball of pink is.
His popularity exploded even further when he debuted as one of the main fighters in the original Super Smash Bros, and his continued presence in the series helped cement his status as one of the most famous video game characters ever.
7. Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)
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.
6. Link (The Legend of Zelda)
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.
5. Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong)
Did you know that Donkey Kong came before Mario Bros? That's right! Nintendo's flagship plumber mascot actually played second fiddle to Donkey Kong, who was the villain of Donkey Kong in 1983.
Once Mario spun off with his own series, Donkey Kong and Super Mario diverged to become their own franchises. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country arrived on SNES with DK as protagonist—and the rest is history.
These days, Donkey Kong has lost some favor despite his continued presence in the Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart series. Even so, no one can deny DK's legacy as a vintage video game character.
4. Sonic (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.
3. Pikachu (Pokémon)
Pokémon is the third best-selling video game franchise in the world and the Pokémon anime series has been on the air and unbroken since 1997. And Pokémon has one and only one mascot: Pikachu.
This cute mouse with electricity-based abilities won our hearts the very first time he uttered his "Pika! Pika!" catchphrase. He's so fundamental to the franchise's identity that it's hard to imagine what Pokémon would even be without this little guy.
He's so popular that he even starred in the live-action movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), which grossed over $400 million worldwide. How's that for popular?
2. Pac-Man (Pac-Man)
It's funny how one of the most famous video game characters of all time is really just a circle with a chunk missing.
Pac-Man is nothing special by today's standards—eating dots in a maze while running from ghosts is rather mundane—but it was revolutionary when it first came out in 1980.
And as is true for any new industry, the pioneers are most remembered. He got us addicted to arcades and, in doing so, he paved the way for so many other great games and characters to come after him.
Pac-Man starred in a simple game, but that game has transcended gaming and entered pop culture itself. Your mom knows Pac-Man and that alone qualifies him to take this rank.
1. Mario (Super Mario)
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.