We often recommend products we like. If you buy anything via links on our site, we may earn a small commission.
A game can be great without making an impact, but truly great games tend to influence games that come after them. That’s why we decided to put together an article mentioning influential games, but also point you toward where you can play them now to see first-hand how they influenced what would come after.
This was not an easy article to put together, and we’re not trying to say these are the only influential games. Yet at the same time, we do believe these games had some of the most pivotal and longest-lasting impacts on game design and the gaming industry. While you could justify a list than only runs from Pong to Space Invaders to Super Mario Bros—none of which are included in this article—it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to read the obvious, would it?
1. Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
Released in 1981:
Many popular modern RPGs owe much to the Ultima franchise as a whole, and it all started with the first game in the series. While its scope pales in comparison to today’s massive games, this was very much the open world RPG that kicked off the whole craze, and it started way back on the Apple II.
You can buy Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness along with the next two games in the franchise ridiculously cheap. They’re dated but still worth playing if you’re interested in video game history.
Released in 1984:
This one might be the most self-explanatory game on this list. Tetris not only popularized many of the conventions we still associate with modern puzzle games, but it introduced puzzle games to the masses in a way that hadn’t been done before. The franchise’s enduring popularity throughout the years shows just how well this formula works.
The original PC versions of Tetris are hard to find, as is the NES version. The best modern version to seek out is Tetris Effect, which keeps the gameplay but gives the visuals a major upgrade.
3. The Legend of Zelda
Released in 1986:
While Ultima I introduced the idea of the open-world RPG, it was fairly dense and hard to wrap your mind around. The Legend of Zelda took that same idea, simplified it, and made it easy for everyone to play. More than 20 years later, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did the same thing, only this time for games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
The original Legend of Zelda is available on the Nintendo Switch at no additional cost if you have a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. It’s also available as a Virtual Console release on other Nintendo platforms.
4. Super Mario World
Released in 1990:
You could argue that any one of the earlier Super Mario games belong here, but while they were also influential, Super Mario World may have been the most influential. It built on the overworld map in Super Mario Bros 3, adding hidden routes and more variety with switch palaces. Plus, the variety of the platforming made this the best game in the series to date, and one that many developers still try to imitate.
The best way to play this is still the original SNES version via the recently released SNES Classic, but you can also play it on the Nintendo Switch if you have a Nintendo Switch Online subscription.
Released in 1993:
There were first-person shooters and other games in the first-person perspective before Doom, that’s a known fact. The thing that made Doom different is that after it came out, nobody cared about those other games, at least for a while. Doom introduced the FPS as we know it, and nothing has been the same since.
No matter what device you prefer to play on, from your PC to the Nintendo Switch, Doom is available on your platform of choice. This is probably the easiest game to find out of all the ones on this list.
6. Super Mario 64
Relaesed in 1996:
This is the second time Mario shows up in this article, and arguably the most important. Super Mario 64 was a revelation when it was released. Not only did it effectively introduce the 3D platformer, but it did it in a way that no game would surpass until Super Mario Galaxy years later. In the meantime, games from platformers to action-adventure games took inspiration from the way the game handled its camera and movement.
For a long time, the only way to play this would have been the original Nintendo 64 cartridge or the less-than-stellar Nintendo DS or Wii U ports. Now you can get it as part of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection on the Nintendo Switch!
Released in 1996:
In many ways, Quake was an extension of what id Software had done in Doom and Doom II. The 3D engine was miles ahead, but technological advancements in id games was nothing new. What was new was QuakeWorld, which came sometime after release, but nearly singlehandedly kicked off the online shooter boom that still influences some of the most popular games we see released now.
While it’s obviously not as popular as it once was, you can still play the original Quake online to see just what drew people to it.
8. Final Fantasy VII
Released in 1997:
Earlier entries in the Final Fantasy series were great RPGs, but that had been done before. Sure, Final Fantasy VI is still the favorite for many, but Final Fantasy VII changed games forever by opting to make them cinematic in a way that hadn’t been done before. While this may have been a curse in some respects, games took a turn after this game and never looked back.
Released in 1999:
MMORPGs existed before EverQuest–look no further than Ultima Online for proof of that. Still, EverQuest largely introduced the MMORPG format as we now know it, and while that formula would be further tweaked and perfected by World of Warcraft, it’s hard to imagine how that game would’ve ever happened without EverQuest.
EverQuest is still going, by the way. If you want to check out the game that kicked off the MMORPG craze, it’s easy to do! And it’s free-to-play these days.
Looking for More Seminal Games?
This may not be the only time we visit this topic, but assuming it is, that doesn’t mean we haven’t covered similar topics before. If you came to this article looking for some classic games to play but didn’t find anything you’re in the mood for, don’t worry, there’s plenty more where this came from.
If you’re also looking for games that had an impact on modern games, we’ve covered that too. Be sure to check out our look at early games that led to massive hits in major franchises.