Today we’re going to look at the top 50 most influential video game characters of all time, handpicked by game developers for having the biggest impact on the face of video gaming. Any game character is in the running to compete, but we’ve limited it to one character per game so as to encompass as many games as possible. It would be impossible to put them in ranking order, as they all have their place in the history of games, so they are in no particular order.
First Appearance – Donkey Kong (1981)
Highest Metacritic Score – Super Mario Galaxy/Super Mario Galaxy 2 (97)
Mario is so big at this point that he is basically the unofficial face of gaming. He’s so recognizable that people who have never played a game in their lives will often recognize him. He was part of some of the earliest popular arcade games and has since branched out to have games in practically every genre the game has to offer, followed around by his entourage of characters, even crossing over with other game universes with the Smash Bros series.
Mario is the main mascot of Nintendo and his games are often used as the main incentive for people to pick up the latest Nintendo console. The success of each console is partly due to the quality of the games produced for them. Mario has always been at the forefront of games, and most likely will for the foreseeable future.
Sonic The Hedgehog
First Appearance – Sonic The Hedgehog (1991)
Highest Metacritic Score – Sonic CD (93)
It’s difficult to mention Mario without his main gaming rival Sonic. Although the rivalry is mostly over, with them appearing side by side on Nintendo’s consoles, the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega, through Mario and Sonic respectively, defined an entire generation of consoles. Whilst Sega eventually stopped making consoles and Sonic has not quite had the staying power of Mario, they are still making new Sonic games and he continues to be an influencing force.
First Appearance – Mortal Kombat (1992)
Highest Metacritic Score – Mortal Kombat 11: Ultimate (91)
Although Mortal Kombat has a host of iconic game characters, the two most iconic have to be Scorpion and Sub-Zero, originally just recolors of the same sprites however they played very differently. Scorpion’s iconic ‘get over here’ wins him the top spot from the Mortal Kombat series though.
Mortal Kombat is known for its hyper-violence, and was one of the main series, along with games like Doom, which took the initial flak from the public and world governments for being too violent and a danger to the public as it made people violent. Although that is now mostly known to not be true, Mortal Kombat did a large amount of work in opening up the public’s eyes to ‘adult’ video games and paved the way for many of the violent games to come.
First Appearance – Doom (1993)
Highest Metacritic Score – Doom Eternal (88)
Doom Slayer or the Doomguy is the protagonist from the Doom games, from the originals to the reboots. The influence of Doom is hard to understate. Doom wasn’t the first FPS game as many think, although the first one was made by the same developers at Id Software. Doom, however, was most definitely the game that defined the FPS genre and really popularised it to become the behemoth that it is today, eventually leading to some of the biggest franchises in the world such as Call Of Duty.
The original game was incredibly ground-breaking and was released in a unique way, in small segments that could more accurately be compared to modern-day subscriptions. It took a while for any game to come close to being of the same quality and to push the boundaries as much as that until Epic Games came along and created Unreal and the Unreal Engine that is used as the framework for more games than any other engine.
First Appearance – Wolfenstein 3D (1992)
Highest Metacritic Score – Return To Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (90)
BJ Blazkowicz was the protagonist of Wolfenstein 3D, the very first FPS game ever, and whilst, much like the Doom Slayer, he wasn’t much of a character to start with, he has developed his own personality as time has gone on, however, he has become a much more fully rounded and realistic human being in comparison. Whilst the games are over the top and somewhat lighthearted in style, they tackle some heavy topics with surprising finesse. Every shooting game can trace it’s roots back to Wolfenstein and BJ Blazkowicz.
First Appearance – Assassin’s Creed II (2009)
Highest Metacritic Score – Assassin’s Creed II (91)
Whilst every Assassin’s Creed game has a different assassin that you play as, Ezio is probably the most influential and well-remembered out of the bunch. Whilst Altair might have come first, the original game had issues and didn’t see the popularity that the second game in the series did. So popular was it that it catapulted itself to one of the biggest games franchises out there. Only Assassin’s Creed and Call Of Duty have sales that match the more classic titles that have been running for much longer.
The Assassin’s Creed games reinvented stealth games, opening the world up to a ‘social stealth’ style of gameplay such as blending into crowds, rather than slowly crawling through shadows. The combat system has also gone on to influence many other third-person action games that involve fighting foes with skill whilst outnumbered. It’s even gone on to popularise ship combat in games which have spawned a whole new bunch of games.
First Appearance – God Of War (2005)
Highest Metacritic Score – God Of War (2018) (94)
Kratos first appeared as an angry demi-god, fighting his way through the Greek pantheon of Gods. God of War was a pure action game that specialized in big bosses and cinematic battles. It’s the definition of the power fantasy game with an edgy, angry main character and endless legions of baddies to brutally kill.
Not the first thing that comes to mind then, when you think of an emotional and heartwarming exploration of a father/son relationship that does an excellent job of breaking down the issue of toxic masculinity. But that’s exactly what they gave us with the 2018 reboot which instantly shot to being one of the best games out there.
First Appearance – Final Fantasy VII
Highest Metacritic Score – Final Fantasy VII (92)
Final Fantasy is such an iconic series, and one of the biggest in videogames. It was the first taste that most of us in the west got of the JRPG genre and has become beloved worldwide. As a series that features entire casts of likable and interesting game characters that change between every main title in the series, there’s no shortage of characters that could have made this list, but the main character of the game that first made it to the west, and has repeatedly been voted fan favorite, FFVII, has a special place in most people’s hearts.
First Appearance – Pac-Man (1980)
Highest Metacritic Score – Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (93)
Pac-Man is another one of those game characters that are so universal that even people who have never played a game know exactly who it is. Being one of the biggest arcade games during the arcade golden age. Whilst originating as not so much a character as much as a playable shape, he has evolved and stood the test of time and is still appearing in games to this day.
First Appearance – The Legend Of Zelda (1986)
Highest Metacritic Score – The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (99)
Link is another of Nintendo’s iconic game characters, able to sell consoles based on the fanbase that The Legend of Zelda series has. He’s proven that he is a timeless character, sticking around for decades and still being an industry leader. Many games have their original inspiration traced back to the legacy of The Legend Of Zelda. Not only is Link one of the oldest game characters on this list, but he’s also the current reigning champion for the highest Metacritic score ever given to a game.
First Appearance – Metroid (1986)
Highest Metacritic Score – Metroid Prime (97)
Samus is one of the shocking few female characters on this list. Thankfully the industry is slowly starting to becoming more inclusive, but even in the early days, Samus was repping for the girls. The games are so influential that the name of the game forms part of its own genre called ‘Metroidvania’. Another of the longest-running series on this list and another Nintendo fan favorite, Samus will be around for a long time.
First Appearance – Metal Gear (1987)
Highest Metacritic Score – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty (96)
The Metal Gear games were a masterclass in storytelling and the first Metal Gear Solid game really showed the world what was possible when it comes to story-based games on the new Playstation 1. Since then Hideo Kojima has become one of the most famous and well-respected game developers today. Not only that, but the Metal Gear series also helped to push stealth-action gameplay which so many games have come to copy today.
First Appearance – Devil May Cry (2004)
Highest Metacritic Score – Devil May Cry (94)
Dante is the main character of the Devil May Cry series and although he has undergone a few iterations, his style is still fairly iconic. The games helped define the quick hack and slash action game that specializes in building combos for a score which has been copied by countless games since.
First Appearance – Spyro The Dragon (1998)
Highest Metacritic Score – Spyro: Year Of The Dragon (91)
Spyro was one of the iconic characters that came along with the Playstation 1 that allowed Sony to compete with Nintendo and Sega for their cute and/or edgy cartoon mascots. The games have also, more recently, shown what’s possible with a high-quality remake of an old game, really pushing boundaries of what’s possible.
The Spyro games had a rather unique take on platforming and exploration in wide-open areas which hasn’t really been copied since. This was especially impressive giving the limited tech of the time and Insomniac has to develop techniques for rendering huge distances, some of which are still used today in modern games.
First Appearance – Crash Bandicoot (1993)
Highest Metacritic Score – Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped (91)
Crash Bandicoot is the other major Playstation 1 mascot that goes hand in hand with Spyro. Not only did their games contain demos and marketing material for each other’s games, but they have also both recently been remade at about the same time with the developers assisting each other. Crash is also the IP that catapulted Naughty Dog to success, having then gone on to produce groundbreaking technology in their Uncharted and Last Of Us series. Crash broke ground with their 3D platforming combined with 2D segments and set the stage for many future platformers.
First Appearance – Resident Evil 2 (1998)
Highest Metacritic Score – Resident Evil 4 (96)
The Resident Evil games have a host of main characters, and picking just one is difficult, and although Leon wasn’t the first, he’s probably the most well known, particularly thanks to Resident Evil 4, the highest-rated Resi game and the one that got a lot of people into the series. The Resident Evil games are famous for their fixed camera gameplay and their focus on resource-scarce action.
Resident Evil is another series on this list that has had some incredible remakes of their older games, as well as impressive recent installments. The series also has multiple spin-off games, really pushing the boundaries of the much-overlooked horror genre.
First Appearance – Pokemon Green and Pokemon Red (1996)
Highest Metacritic Score – Pokemon Y (88)
Although the Pokemon series is the first on the list to never have a game with a Metacritic score above 90, it’s impossible to overstate the size and importance of the Pokemon franchise, and as such its main mascot, Pikachu. Whilst everyone will have their favorite Pokemon, none are quite so iconic as the little yellow lightning rodent that is Pikachu.
Pokemon as a series popularized ‘monster capture’ type games and introduced many young kids to the goal of completionism with their focus on having to ‘catch ’em all’. It, alongside Dragonball, was one of the main driving forces for introducing anime to a western audience. All of this is, alongside its merchandise and card games is why Pokemon is the single highest-grossing franchise in the world.
First Appearance – Half-Life (1998)
Highest Metacritic Score – Half-Life 2 (96)
Gordon Freeman is the first PC-focused protagonist on our list and perhaps not quite as recognizable as some of the previous entries, but he makes the list for how the Half-Life franchise pushed gaming technology and helped develop many of the staples of modern FPS games. The openness of Valve’s Source Engine, which Half-Life was built in, was also one of the earliest available free game engines that many of us game developers started on.
First Appearance – Kirby’s Dream Land (1992)
Highest Metacritic Score – Kirby’s Epic Yarn (86)
Kirby is another popular Nintendo mainstay, having appeared in a large number of self-titled games. Whilst not having quite as much success as some of his counterparts, he has a loyal fan base thanks to his unique style of gameplay, most notably the ability to absorb other characters to take their powers.
First Appearance – Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
Highest Metacrotoc Score – Horizon Zero Dawn (89)
Not only is Aloy a fantastic female protagonist, but she’s also one of the newest characters on this list. Horizon Zero Dawn followed the tried and tested open-world action RPG formula but really pushed it with a focus on the story and incredible facial animation tech that brought a human element to an incredibly fleshed-out world.
First Appearance – Overwatch (2016)
Highest Metacritic Score – Overwatch (91)
Whilst there is a host of fantastically fleshed-out characters in Blizzard’s Overwatch that could be on this list, Tracer is perhaps the most iconic and could most accurately be described as the face of Overwatch. Not only is she helping bring more strong female characters to the forefront of games, but she is also one of the few LGBTQ+ characters in this list, a group that is shamefully underrepresented in games. The fact that she helped define the genre of squad-based FPSs, leading the charge in Overwatch, is the icing on the cake.
First Appearance – The Witcher (2007)
Best Metacritic Score – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (93)
Whilst it took a little while for the Witcher series to really gain success, but The Witcher 3 was such a huge success that it spawned its own TV series, really cementing Geralt’s position as a household name. Now The Witcher is a major series that has a huge number of fans eagerly awaiting what will come next.
First Appearance – Bayonetta (2010)
Highest Metacritic Score – Bayonetta 2 (92)
Bayonetta is perhaps one of the more controversial game characters on this list. Following Dante in the Devil May Cry style hack and slash combo builder but add more adult themes, Bayonetta is not for everyone. To some, she is the epitome of the overly sexualized game character designed to entice male gamers, to others she is a strong female character who uses her sexuality as a weapon. Either way, there’s no denying the impact she’s had on the industry, even joining Mario and friends in Super Smash Bros despite the very different target audiences.
After the success of Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog went down an entirely different route with their games, switching from cartoony platform games to realistic third-person climbing and platforming, and Nathan Drake was the face of this new direction. Inspired by the old Tomb Raider games, the Uncharted series brought that formula into the modern era, so much so that future Tomb Raider games actually ended up borrowing a lot of ideas back when they rebooted.
Not only was Uncharted a very important Playstation exclusive, used to help sell the console, it was also always pushing the boundaries of video game technology which, like Crash Bandicoot before, has helped push the quality of the industry as a whole forward.
First Appearance – Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Highest Metacritic Score – Halo: Combat Evolved (97)
Master Chief is the face of the Halo franchise, one of the most popular FPS games in history. The biggest impact he’s had on the industry, besides a series of great shooter games, is helping the Xbox to gain popularity to the point where it could compete with the Playstation, an incredibly impressive feat considering the first Xbox was competing with the PS2, which is still the best selling console of all time. Whilst the Microsoft console has a fair amount of big exclusives these days, in the early days the majority of that work fell on Master Chief’s shoulders, so without him, we might not have the tough competition that drives the console market to new highs that we have today.
First Appearance – Portal (2007)
Highest Metacritic Score – Portal 2 (95)
GlaDOS is our first non-organic game character on the list, being an AI in control of a testing facility. GlaDOS is the only real character in Portal, outside of the silent player character, so she does all the heavy lifting when it comes to the story. She is also very funny and provides entertainment as you play, bringing life to the otherwise fairly bland-looking environments of the testing facility.
Portal revolutionized the puzzle game genre, bringing a sense of story and world-building to a game that is primarily gameplay-based. Games such as Superliminal which, like Portal, started out with some interesting game mechanics and build a world around it use the Portal formula to wrap it up in a full gaming experience, rather than a tech demo.
First Appearance – Tomb Raider (1996)
Highest Metacritic Score – Tomb Raider (91)
Lara Croft, of Tomb Raider fame, is one of the original iconic female characters. Controversial for over-sexualization at times, seen as a strong independent woman at others, she has changed a lot of the years but has always remained as one of the most iconic game characters out there. She’s even been portrayed by multiple actresses across a number of movies.
As mentioned in the Nathan Drake segment, Tomb Raider really set the stage for cinematic action-exploration games such as Uncharted, as well as exposing the world to a new type of platforming game, one that knew how to utilize a 3D space to its advantage, rather than struggling to embrace 3D like many of the older platformer games did. It’s also considered by a large nuber of people to be the first third-person shooter, due to the influence it had over every third person game that came after it.
Commander Shepard is a unique entry into this list, as he/she is the only game character to not be set in stone by the developers and actually gives the player choices in how they want them to look, going so far as being able to change the sex of the main character. Whilst the Mass Effect series has some flaws with the system, it broke ground for multiple-choice interactions in a story-driven game, with many new games copying the groundwork that Bioware laid.
Although it’s becoming more common these days as games try to be more inclusive, Mass Effect really set the stage for being able to choose the sex of the main character, which at first doesn’t sound that impressive, but it requires a complete re-recording of all voice lines, animation changes, character models, facial animation and a whole host of other complications. Whilst games such as Assassin’s Creed added the option in later games due to fan pressure, Mass Effect was one of the first big AAA titles to accommodate the change.
First Appearance – Ninja Gaiden (1988)
Best Metacritic Score – Ninja Gaiden Black (94)
Ryu Hayabusa is an old game character, originally appearing during the arcade golden age and quickly switching over to home consoles. Even though old-school arcade games have a reputation for being incredibly hard to get the players to keep pumping in money, Ninja Gaiden was notorious hard among them. They were arguably THE face of unforgivingly hard action games until Dark Souls came and took the title.
Ryu then became a regular in Team Ninja’s arcade fighting game, Dead Or Alive where he appears as a playable fighter. Through this connection, he also gets a mention in the beach volleyball series Dead Or Alive Xtreme. If that wasn’t enough, he has also made appearances in other franchises such as the Dynasty Warriors games.
First Appearance – Hitman: Codename 47 (2000)
Highest Metacritic Score – Hitman 2: Silent Assassin (87)
Agent 47 of Hitman fame has been influential in a number of ways. Known for their open worlds and choose-your-own-adventure style of gameplay, the games drop you into what amounts to a sandbox environment with a mission, usually to kill one or more people and it’s up to you how you go about it. Levels will have a bunch of set-piece events and storylines you can follow or you can do it entirely your own way. As such the levels are designed to be played over and over, playing out differently each time. Hitman also revolutionized the stealth genre by making social stealth part of its core gameplay, taking other people’s clothes and items to disguise themselves.
Thanks to the deadpan humor and quirky style, Agent 47 got his own movie, making him one of a fairly small number of game characters to make the switch onto the big screen with some of the bigger names on the list.
First Appearance – Yakuza (2005)
Highest Metacritic Score – Yakuza 0 (90)
Yakuza has a huge cast including a number of protagonists, even in individual games, and while the series is now centered around Ichiban Kasuga after Kiryu has stepped down, none are quick as iconic. His serious, stoic nature is great for a mostly serious main storyline, but it really shines when it’s played off against the insane and silly minigames as he disco dances, races RC cars, or sings karaoke, all the while remaining his serious self. The Yakuza series took what gave the Shenmue series its cult following but improved upon it in every way, whilst not taking itself so seriously.
First Appearance – Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (2003)
Highest Metacritic Score – Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (94)
Sam Fisher dominated the stealth genre for the longest time, being a long-running series involving hiding in the shadows, climbing on pipes, and using your night vision and other gadgets to take out military targets. Although a few other games on this list are also stealth games they tend to be more modern, social stealth games, whereas Splinter Cell specialized in hiding in the shadows and silently taking out targets.
First Appearance – Gears Of War (2006)
Highest Metacritic Score – Gears Of War (94)
Whilst Master Chief in the Halo series defined the first Xbox console on its own, he soon had some company once Marcus Fenix came along in Gears Of War. He is the epitome of the direction that Microsoft wanted to go down with the Xbox 360; serious, hardcore games that appeal to adults rather than kids.
The Gears series created a system for cover-based shooting that was so successful that many games since have aimed to recreate it, with varying success.
First Appearance – Max Payne (2001)
Highest Metacritic Score – Max Payne (89)
Max Payne marked a breakthrough in videogame storytelling and wasn’t afraid the dip into some dark topics. Featuring the iconic face of legendary game writer Sam Lake, Max Payne was a no-nonsense guy with a bone to pick with some bad guys. Max Payne was the first game that truly implemented bullet-time combat, bringing cinematic action to a story-based game that, at the time, felt more like a movie that you are controlling than a game.
First Appearance – Duke Nukem (1991)
Highest Metacritic Score – Duke Nukem 3D (89)
Easily the most problematic of the characters on this list, nevertheless Duke Nukem still deserves his place on the list for being an iconic game character that had a huge influence on the face of gaming. An 80s action movie hero parody turned to 11, he is a gun-toting, misogynistic guy who kills his way through hoards of monsters. There’s an argument to be made that Duke Nukem is a satire of other action heroes, but it would be quite easy to read it as pandering to those who want exactly that. Either way, as Duke Nukem Forever has shown, there’s no room for Duke in the modern world, but that doesn’t take away from what he achieved.
Starting out as a 2D game platforming shooter, Duke really hit his stride with Duke Nukem 3D when it entered Doom’s territory and became a first-person shooter. The series produced some of the best shooters of the day whilst pushing boundaries all the time. He also dipped his toes into the 3rd person shooter genre to some limited success.
First Appearance – Batman (1986)
Highest Metacritic Score – Batman: Arkham City (96)
It’s an unwritten rule in games that movie/tv game tie ins are terrible, this is due to the very limited budget and tiny time scale leading to cut corners and unpolished products, so it’s unthinkable that a character is known best for movies (and comics, tv and everything else) will ever make the list of important game characters. But Batman’s history in games has been long and has been incredibly influential, especially in more recent times when Rocksteady has had the time to do him justice.
The Batman Arkham series created an interesting stealth-based system, but one that is specifically Batman-based, the real gem is the combat system. Somewhat similar to the Assassin’s Creed combat system of fighting large numbers of enemies in a way that is manageable and incredibly polished. Many third-person action games now have a system that is based on this one. Combined with a scoring system similar to the Devil May Cry games, it has arcade-like fighting with a semi-realistic theme.
First Appearance – The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (2012)
Highest Metacritic Score – The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (94)
Clementine may not be the main character in the original Telltale Walking Dead game, but she carried much of the emotional weight of the story, and eventually became the protagonist of the series in later games. The game was a masterclass in storytelling that explored the father-daughter relationship between player character Lee and Clementine, even though they are not related.
The Walking Dead was the first game that Telltale did using their now famous system of games which focuses entirely on character storytelling, using multiple choices to influence the story and bring greater emotional impact to the story. Many games have since done something similar, although Telltale maintained a stranglehold on this particular formula.
Prince Of Persia
First Appearance – Prince Of Persia (1989)
Highest Metacritic Score – Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time (94)
The Price of Persia, or The Prince as he is officially known, was one of the first protagonists to use time manipulation in a game, specifically in this case to reverse time. With groundbreaking platforming and action sequences, it was a popular series, so popular in fact that it was eventually made into a movie.
First Appearance – LittleBigPlanet
Highest Metacritic Score – LittleBigPlanet (94)
Sackboy is the completely customizable game character from LittleBigPlanet which became the face of the Playstation 3 for some time. Whilst many games, particularly PC games, came with level editors or other ways to create your own content, LittleBigPlanet introduced it to console gamers in a whole new way. Although the most obvious thing that you can do is create levels that follow the same formula as the main game, it was possible to make entirely new games within this game. Although that’s what made LBP so amazing it still had a great local co-op platforming game made out of the same tools they give you.
PaRappa The Rapper
First Appearance – PaRappa The Rapper (1996)
Highest Metacritic Score – PaRappa The Rapper (92)
PaRapper The Rapper is often credited as the first rhythm game, and one of the first music-based games in general. It set the stage for other huge franchises like Guitar Hero and Rock Band as well as arcade giants like Dance Dance Revolution. A quirky and unique style and animation won a lot of fans back in the day, although he has never managed to make a proper comeback after his first game.