34 Formative Video Games That Everyone Should Play

Two people playing a video game in a living room.
Pixel-Shot

Every video game you like today owes thanks to the games that came before it. The games that you grew up with taught you new concepts and new ways to play, creating your digital palate, as it were. Some games rise above the others to truly inform your tastes, and change the way you look at and approach games. Everyone should play a game like that at least once in their lives.

As long-time gamers, the crew at Review Geek have encountered multiple formative video games. They’re the games we can’t stop recommending to others, because of the perfect story, gameplay, or a change in how a genre works.

And, because the video game industry changes so rapidly, it’s easy to have missed out on a foundational game simply because of age, platform, or bad luck. So, we’ve compiled a list of games that changed how we approach gaming so much, and we think everyone should play them. Without further ado, here are those games.

Andrew Heinzman, Review Geek Staff Writer

A screenshot of Zelda Majoras Mask.
Zelda Wiki

My co-writers managed to scoop up some of my favorite formative games before I had the chance to start writing. But it’s probably better that way, because I had to think extra hard about some of the games that I played when I was younger, and I managed to remember a few items that I had totally forgot about.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64/3DS): I think that Majora’s Mask was the first game to scare the hell out of me. I played it a lot when I was a kid, and I was always fascinated by the music, the characters, the story (this is the only Zelda game with an actual story) [Editor’s Note: LIES], and the apocalyptic mechanic where the world is destroyed after three days. Majora’s Mask is genuinely stressful and disturbing, partially because of the primitive Nintendo 64 graphics and the soft CRT televisions that we had at the time. I couldn’t afford the Majora’s Mask 3DS remake when it came out, but I’ll play the game again if it comes to the Switch.
  • Super Mario Bros 3 (NES): Of all the classic Mario games, I think that Mario Bros 3 has aged the best. It’s tough as nails, but it’s still fun to play and has all the weird quirks that I loved as a kid. You know, the frog suit, the magic wands—that kinda thing.
  • Animal Crossing (GCN): I don’t want to know how much of my life has been spent playing Animal Crossing.  If you haven’t played the Gamecube version, it’s worth picking up. It feels a lot smaller, less forgiving, and more time-sensitive than newer iterations. At least that’s how I remember it.
  • Castlevania: Symphony of The Night (PS1): What a weird Castlevania game. It’s very similar to Metroid, where you’re stuck exploring one giant map. There’s RPG elements, transformation spells, and cool-ass boss battles. This is another game that freaked me out as a kid (check out the game over screen), which is probably why I remember it so well. Either way, I replayed it recently (after watching some of the Castlevania anime) and it still holds up, minus some repetitive parts.
  • Destroy All Humans (Xbox, PS2, PC, Xbox One, PS4): Maybe you’ve heard of Destroy All Humans. It’s an exciting little game where you play as a brain-eating alien with various psychic abilities. I don’t remember the story from this game, but it’s pretty vulgar, and you get to blow up a lot of cars and tanks. There were also a lot of funny glitches—cows and cops getting stuck in walls, that kinda thing. A remake of Destroy All Humans is in the works now, and it’s set to release on July 28th.
  • Excitebike (NES): I always sucked at Excitebike. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Still, I played it a lot when I was little and always really enjoyed it. Would I suggest playing Excitebike to someone who’s never experienced it? Hell nah, but I had to throw it in here.

Most of these games have been re-released on newer consoles, so you shouldn’t have any trouble tracking them down. I tried to exclude anything that I wouldn’t play today, but some of these titles may not have aged as well as I remember.

Cameron Summerson, Review Geek Editor-in-Chief

Joel and Ellie looking at the giraffes in The Last of Us

I’ve been playing video games for well over half my life at this point. While I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore gamer by any stretch, I will say that I’m pretty passionate about my favorite games. Because to me, the best games aren’t just titles that are fun to play. They’re games that literally change the game or draw you in and make feel something in a meaningful way. Some of the titles on my list transcend “gaming” into other forms of art, while others invoke a unique emotional response that can’t easily be described or likened to any other sort of media.

And, some are just fun as hell.

  • The Last of Us (PS3/PS4): If someone asked me what the greatest video game of all time is, there’s a 110 percent chance I will say The Last of Us. I got into this game a few years after its initial release, but I’ve still played it over 30 times since then. To me, The Last of Us isn’t just a game—it’s a movie that you can play. The story is deep and meaningful, and it makes you think about the lengths you would go to protect the ones you love. On the surface, it admittedly looks like a typical zombie-survival game. Even if that’s not your typical genre, give it a chance—you’ll find that it’s so much more. Just watch out for the hotel basement.
  • Red Dead Redemption 1/2 (Xbox, PS3, PS4, PC): The first Red Dead Redemption was one of the greatest, most memorable gaming experiences that I can remember having. The game is set in the early 1900s, just as the Wild West was being tamed. You play as John Marston, an outlaw looking to change his ways and hunt down his old gang. It’s a fascinating story that is both captivating and fun as hell. Red Dead Redemption 2 is technically a prequel to the first game, but it’s equally as fun with an excellent storyline. I highly recommend both.
  • Portal 1/2 (PS3/Xbox/PC): You know how I said the best games draw you in and make you feel something? Well, that’s not what the Portal series is about. It’s great for other reasons—like the incredibly witty writing and stellar physics-based puzzles. The first game is fairly basic—but absolutely still worth playing just for the experience and the witty banter—but the second one is where the magic really is. It’s more dynamic, wittier, more challenging, and has a deeper storyline. Play them both, but savor the second one. It’s pure gold.
  • The Metal Gear Solid series (PS2/PS3/PS4/Xbox): There was a period of time where I didn’t play many video games. At one point, I had wrecked my first car and had no transportation, so I traded an original NES and some games for the first PlayStation and Metal Gear Solid. This basically rekindled my love for playing games, and Metal Gear was unlike any game experience I’d ever had before. To this day, I still remember the first time I fought Psycho Mantis. What a trip! I love the whole Metal Gear franchise, though I’m quite partial to the first two games. The others are fine, but 1 and 2 will always hold a special place in my heart.
  • Super Mario World (SNES): Let’s go back. Way back. Back to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which launched when I was just a wee lad. (Really, I was like 9.) The entire Super Mario franchise is generation-defining, but I would argue that none changed the game the way Super Mario World did. It’s quintessential Mario to me. And the best part? It still holds up to this day. If you’ve played modern Mario titles but haven’t touched the old catalog (or haven’t played it in a while), it’s definitely still worth playing today.
  • Super Mario RPG (SNES): Historically. I’m not a huge fan of RPGs. But Super Mario RPG is an exception to the rule because it takes the typical RPG format and somehow combines it with the platformer style that Mario is known for—and it does it in a way that is honestly just great. This combined effort between Nintendo and Square Enix (Final Fantasy) is easily the best one-off project that has ever existed. There’s never been another RPG quite like Super Mario RPG—and I mean that in the best possible way.

Trying to widdle this list down to something consumable was a challenge for me because there are so many great games out there. I feel like I at least have to mention some of the others just to get the names out there, so here are a few additional nods to some my personal favorites: Contra (NES), The Suffering 1 & 2 (PS2), Dying Light (PC, Xbox, PS4), Days Gone (PS4), Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4), Soul Reaver 1 & 2 (PS2), and the Mario Kart series (Nintendo platforms).

Joel Cornell, How-to Geek Staff Writer

Street Fighter II Arcade
Martina Badini/Shutterstock

I was never not playing games as a youth, and the impact they’ve had on my life is pretty clear. My tastes have always skewed towards the games that provide massive amounts of release when victory is achieved or denied, whether it’s a 60-hour campaign where my strategies paid off or a fighting game where my style and dedication finally came to fruition with heart-throbbing finality. Also, I like to garden.

  • EarthBound (SNES): EarthBound wasn’t a huge hit at first for many reasons, but eventually became a cult classic on account of its unique blend of light humor, dark tones, and music that reinforced these themes. Part of its cult status derives from the way it serves as a universal bildungsroman for the unpopular kids, hiding an intelligent game system in a dorky aesthetic. It contrasts the frivolous adventures of modern youth with the weird heroics of science fiction, comics, and fantasy. EarthBound was stunningly different from traditional RPG fare and has left an impact that reflects that uniqueness.
  • Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen (SNES): I chose Ogre Battle over this era’s foremost tactical RPG, Final Fantasy Tactics, because of its more complex system and its similarity to modern autochess games like Dota Underlords orTeamfight Tactics. Determine your starting units through moralized tarot card draws, and set out on a classic anti-authoritarian campaign to save the kingdom from itself. Battles take place on a grand strategy map where units move in real time, while skirmishes automatically play out based on where you have placed certain units on your 3×3 grid. The system offers everything a tactics lover could want, without the modern quality of life adjustments.
  • Harvest Moon 64 (Nintendo 64): There’s no better way than farming and village simulation games to learn how true it is that “time enjoyed is never time wasted.” While Animal Crossing was still in development exclusively for Japan at that time, Harvest Moon 64 was unparalleled in offering the chance to work your soil, build your farm, enjoy village life, and start a family. Modern games like Stardew ValleyGraveyard KeeperMy Time at Portia, and more have built a wonderful legacy on what the Harvest Moon series of games accomplished.
  • Street Fighter II (SNES/Arcade): The beautiful spirit of the fighting game community comes from the same place as it does for any sport: a common love for competition, dedication, strategy, creativity, and focus. My love of the genre stems from the countless nights I spent with friends spamming my first main, Chun-Li, and how my heart would always beat that much harder as I got better. Decades later, I’m sure my younger self would whoop these old bones, but the game left an indelible mark on my approach to improving myself, overcoming defeat, showing compassion, and learning to love the spirit of the game.

Josh Hendrickson, Review Geek News Lead

The cast of "Chrono Trigger" over the game logo.
Square Enix

You can almost guess my age by my list of picks. I grew up with a Nintendo, Super Nintendo, a Sega Saturn (I know…), and then an original Playstation in my home. So, it shouldn’t be surprising at all that games from that era comprise my list. It isn’t that modern-day games don’t inspire me. I love Ori and the Blind Forest and the Uncharted series. But without the games that came before them, I’m not sure I could hold the same appreciation I have now.

In some ways, that the games I grew up on were so genre defining is evident in the fact that most of them are still available to buy today, and half of them have remakes in one form or another.

  • Chrono Trigger (SNES, iOS, Android, and more): I own more copies of Chrono Trigger than I care to admit. To me, it is a near-perfect RPG. You have it all, music that adds to the game, characters who you actively root for, and the classic “save the world” storyline. But this time you travel in time. And, what’s amazing is the different time periods work correct; changes in the past affect the future. You can see the shifting continents. And everything, I mean everything, ties together. Chrono Trigger also introduced the perfected version of NewGame+, a mode where you play the story again, but with all your levels, skills, and items. And, this time around you can see new endings.
  • Final Fantasy 7 (Playstation, Switch, Xbox): Final Fantasy 7 is another game that I’ve purchased on multiple platforms. It stood out thanks to its 3D graphics and amazing cut scenes. But the story itself left you wanting to know more constantly. The game also showed courage (and a streak of meanness) by perma-killing a beloved character. It’s a decision so controversial, rumors that you can bring back the character persist to this day. If you can’t deal with the aging graphics, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is very good, though not quite the same.
  • Myst (Sega Saturn, Playstation, iOS, Android): Myst is unlike any other game on my list. You start the game by getting sucked into a book and transported to a mysterious abandoned island. You find two brothers trapped in two books with missing pages, and through broken messages, they implore you to find more books, travel to new worlds (called ages), and recover the missing pages to their books to free them. But each warns you that that the other can’t be trusted. Myst is a beautiful game fully rendered in what were then state-of-the-art graphics. It’s essentially a point-and-click puzzle game, but the music, artwork, and storyline are an experience. You can play an updated version dubbed realMYST that’s fully interactive, which may be the best experience in today’s modern gaming world. I played the game on Sega Saturn, a system that deserved better than the treatment it got.
  • Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Game Boy, Switch): The first notable thing about Link’s Awakening is that it’s a Zelda game without Zelda. Link is traveling by ship when a storm hits and shipwrecks him on an island. He can only leave by waking the Wind Fish. Thus begins a journey all across the island to find instruments that can awaken the slumbering fish. Because it started on Game Boy and because it’s not lengthy, Link’s Awakening is the first game I ever completed (no need to fight for control from my brothers). You don’t need to find an original version to play, though; it recently re-released on Switch with updated graphics. Besides those cute 3D graphics, it’s a shot for shot remake.
  • StarFox (SNES): I spent hours and hours playing the original Star Fox game. Technically it was a simple “on rails” shooter, but it didn’t feel like one. You could speed up and slow down (at least temporarily), and you could survive multiple hits. You even had co-pilots who would help you (and you can help in turn). That was all new, along with the cutting-edge graphics. And herein, is a story that can’t happen anymore. The original Star Fox contained a black hole level that hinted at the tragic loss of Star Fox’s father. You played the level as long as you want (on a loop) before taking one of the exits that would appear occasionally. My brothers convinced me that if you repeated the level the right number of times (47 as I recall), you’d save Fox’s father. I tried—so many times. The internet is a thing now and tells me that it was never true.

Michael Crider, Review Geek Reviews Editor

Skies of Arcadia screenshot
SEGA

I’ve played a lot of games—possibly more than I should have. So, trying to narrow them down to only the most “formative” is a tall order. But the following seven are certainly the most memorable to me. And, among the ones I’ve played, they’ve made either the biggest impression on me, the biggest impression on games as a medium, or somewhere in between both.

  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis): This is the earliest game I can remember playing through on my own, as my parents got me a SEGA Genesis one Christmas and Sonic 2 came in the box. Though I admit to being biased, I think Sonic 2 counts as a genuine classic. The visual and audio fidelity soundly beat anything Mario was pumping out, and if it didn’t quite beat Nintendo in terms of gameplay innovation, it still offered some important steps forward. Time has not been kind to the Sonic franchise—or SEGA itself—but there’s no denying that for a blazing moment in the ’90s, the console war was truly a fair fight.
  • Command and Conquer: Red Alert (PC): Remember when real-time strategy games were a huge portion of the gaming market? I do, because it was the go-to multiplayer experience in my house, where my dad’s “computer lab” in the dining room occasionally became a LAN party. There were better strategy games than Red Alert, but none so beloved by me, because it included some super units like Tanya the crazed bomber that I could exploit to beat my dad’s more conventional tactics. The self-indulgent cheese of the single-player campaign, an alternate history of WWII with time machines and lightning guns, was also a lot of fun.
  • Metal Gear Solid (PlayStation): Later entries in the series went off the rails—nanomachines, son!—but it’s undeniable that Metal Gear Solid is a shining example of gameplay and story growing up in the early age of 3D graphics. Other PS1 mega-hits like Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater demonstrated that you could entertain adults with more ambitious console games, but MGS proved that you could tell a story at least as good as the average Hollywood blockbuster without resorting to a full and rather slow RPG. The gameplay is far from perfect—clunky controls are the biggest issue—but the thoughtful well-paced stealth is a perfect accompaniment to the tense story.
  • Skies of Arcadia (Dreamcast): I’ve never been much of a fan of Japanese RPGs, unless Pokemon counts. But something about Skies of Arcadia’s world and mechanics just clicked with me, so much that I’ve played through it at least three or four times. I’m told it’s fairly typical as far as JRPGs go, and pretty simple in terms of story, but the bright graphics, excellent music, and fleshed-out world make it a diamond even on the Dreamcast’s star-studded library. It’s unfortunately rather hard to play these days—you’ll probably need to resort to an emulator—but well worth the effort.
  • Grand Theft Auto III (PlayStation 2): Confession: I played GTAIII when I was 13, long before my parents would have allowed me to if they’d known. (Thanks, anonymous eBay seller who accepted a money order!) But beyond the violence and “edgy” content, you’ll see the bones of the modern open-world game genre. Without the fully-realized 3D world of GTAIII, newer and better examples of the genre like Just Cause, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Red Dead Redemption wouldn’t be possible. For that, it deserves a place of honor.
  • Mount & Blade: Warband (PC): If you’ve never played Mount & Blade and you have a gaming PC, close this tab and go buy it. If you can get through the admittedly awful graphics, you’ll see an incredible combination of real-time strategy, thoughtful action combat, and open world empire-building that’s unlike anything else in the world of gaming. The long-awaited sequel is out now, but still in early access—pick up the original for a song and prepare to lose a year or two of gaming to its amazing depth.
  • Universal Paperclips (Browser): I was vaguely aware of “clicker” games, and I dismissed them as casual knick-knacks. Universal Paperclips gave me a lesson in humility: it taught me that the simplest mechanics can create absolutely incredible gaming experiences. Sometimes less is more, and in this case, almost nothing is Universal. Check out this editorial if you want to see what I’m talking about, or better yet, just go play it for yourself. All you need is a browser and some time.

Suzanne Humpheries, Review Geek Staff Writer

suzannevideogame
Darkest Dungeon/Red Hook

As a kid, the video games I played taught me many of the crucial skills I’d need to navigate everyday life. From looting corpses and eating random food I find on the ground, to stealing cars and punching trees, I’m sure that these skills are the only reason I’m flourishing as an adult. Here are some of the finest video games I’ve played over the years that I’d consider to be the most formative for me.

  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES): In 1991, my cousin got The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for his birthday. We spent countless hours in his room playing it. I remember being enamored with every detail of the world, from the shape and sound of the rupees, to the beautiful fairies that would heal you when you stepped into their pool. I thought we played the entire game, but when I replayed it as an adult, it turned out we didn’t actually get too far; I guess we just wandered around mowin’ grass and kickin’ ass. But the music and graphics and dungeons made Zelda the first video game I ever remember playing, and I loved every minute of it, even if we did suck.
  • Mortal Kombat (SNES): I don’t remember how my cousins got that copy of Mortal Kombat (or how they kept it hidden from their parents), but I do remember that the game was so awesome, we never played Zelda ever again. Zelda was awesome, but like any young kids, we couldn’t resist the allure of playing a game we’d never in a million years be allowed to play, with its blood splatters and ultra-violent fatalities where you could pull a guy’s spine out of his body, behead him, or rip out his still-beating heart. The game was so fun to play against each other, and the fact that we got away with it made our (flawless) victory made all the more sweet.
  • Doom (PC): My dad downloaded Doom to play at night after work. One day, 8-year-old me asked permission to play Full Tilt! Pinball on his computer, then I stumbled across Doom. And opened it. And immediately fell in love with it. I was instantly obsessed with the music and graphics—it was cooler than anything else I’d played at that point, (except for Mortal Kombat). I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face when he walked in 30 minutes later and saw me playing Knee-Deep in the Dead on Hurt Me Plenty. He banned me from playing the game—on account of me being a young impressionable girl and Doom being a gorebath—but I kept playing until he deleted it off his computer. Doom is the standard to which I hold all other FPS games, and no matter how crisp and tight gameplay and graphics get, nothing will ever beat the OG.
  • Goldeneye 007 (N64): I played so much of this as a kid I can still hear my parents yelling at me to turn it off and go outside. Goldeneye’s solo missions were cool and all, but the real fun was in playing multiplayer. It was all about memorizing the best hiding spots in each level (and getting there first). Oh, and lasers and proximity mines are fun, but nothing beats Slappers Only with the giant heads cheat.
  • Minecraft (PC/MacOS/Xbox/PlayStation/Nintendo Switch): Creation and building games have always fascinated me. As a kid, I loved any toys that would let me build things, like Legos and K’nex, so it’s no surprise that when Minecraft was released, I was all in. Vanilla Survival Mode is great on occasion, but it’s all about Creative Mode where you have access to every block. Here you can build castles, cities, pyramids, underwater fortresses, and anything else you can think of. I got really into the game through Achievement Hunter. These idiots are actually terrible at Minecraft (even after 8 years of playing it together), but they have fun making their own hilarious story arcs, challenges, and adventures with cool mods like Galacticraft (traveling to outer space), Pixelmon (a Pokemon simulator), and Sky Factory, where you built up an entire world starting with just a tree and a block of dirt. The game’s flexible sandbox design and infinite possibilities make it for both relaxing and chaotically fun times.
  • Darkest Dungeon (Steam/Nintendo Switch): This game is hard. This game is infuriating. I hate this game. Okay, I love this game. Darkest Dungeon first caught my attention because of its Gothic Lovecraftian feel, but I stayed for the dungeon-crawling, monster-fighting, loot-collecting good time it offers, complete with ambushes and ass kickings. You recruit, train, and lead heroes to collect ancient artifacts and fight off the baddies taking over your ancestral home town. Each of your heroes are flawed in their own ways. They’ll incur even more physical and mental afflictions as their stress builds during the battle, which can even lead to insanity and (perma)death. You’ll gradually work to improve the town and your heroes as the game progresses, but don’t get too attached to your heroes as you level them up for the eponymous Darkest Dungeon—they tend to die. You’ll quickly become appreciative of small victories in this game, and slowly learn that bigger victories are hard earned.

As many games as this list covers, it’s by no means an exhaustive list. But for our eclectic group of writers, these are the games that shaped us and informed our tastes. If you can, you should absolutely play them. And, if you can’t, we weep for you.

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