Video games have been around for decades and are beloved by millions around the world. The real mass market came in the late 80’s and early 90’s with the rise of the home console, driven by companies like Atari, Nintendo and Sega.
Nowadays, there are countless successful video game titles filled with countless beloved characters. But who are the most iconic video game characters of all time across all platforms that 99% of people would recognize immediately?
I decided to take a look at many characters spread across all platforms and developers, hoping to find the most iconic characters of them all. In this search, I was looking for a few key traits in these characters. For example, they would need to be characters who are the core of their franchise, with multiple appearances and cameos throughout several games. Ideally, they even created or shaped a genre and had a high influence on modern gaming. Also, you should be able to play as them throughout the main portion of the game in a meaningful way.
I want to make it clear from the beginning that this is my list and view on these characters. This article is entirely my opinion and should not be taken as anything else.
Also, this is not a ranked list of which character is the best or most successful, so please keep that in mind.
Without a doubt, Pac-Man is one of the most iconic and well-recognized video game characters of all time, ever since his debut in 1980 on Japanese Arcades. While the character’s yellow “mouth” design is highly limited, its simplicity may be a huge part of why Pac-Man is so well known.
The Pac-Man franchise also features four highly-recognizable enemies, the “ghosts,” Blinky (red), Pinky (pink), Inky (blue) and Clyde (orange). The game itself is colorful and charming and its gameplay is incredibly addictive.
The first person to achieve the “perfect game” was the infamous Billy Mitchell. Mitchell was also used as the antagonist in the documentary The King of Kong, which I would recommend checking out.
To this day, Pac-Man is the most successful arcade game with over 11 billion Dollar gross revenue up to 2016. Its impact on the gaming industry is undeniable, and the legacy of Pac-Man transcends its era. The game is as much of a pop-culture icon today as it was way back in the 80s.
First appearance: May 22nd, 1980 (Japan)
Publisher: Namco / Midway
Creator: Toru Iwatani
Sonic The Hedgehog
Sonic was the face of Sega in the 90’s and brought great success to the company, as well as tons of fun to kids owning a Sega Genesis. The simple game design and level structure took cues from Super Mario while offering enough variety and differentiation to stand on its own.
However, the series has been fighting for the last decade to become relevant again and to deliver a game that can hold its own in what is now hyper-competitive market. Recent news around the dashing hedgehog shows a promising future, with two games releasing in 2017 that have Sonic fans hyped.
First off, Sonic Mania, which will feature gameplay taken from the original Sega Genesis titles with some new polish but maintaining the old style, with playable characters like Tales or Knuckles along with Sonic himself.
The other title will be Sonic Forces, which is a more modern approach regarding graphics and gameplay as well as a shifting perspective between third-person and 2D.
First appearance: 1991
Solid Snake is one of those iconic heroes that have been around for decades, starting his first adventure in 1987 on the MSX2. Thirty years later, Hideo Kojima, the creator of Metal Gear, is leaving the franchise behind after his magnum opus, Metal Gear Solid V.
At this point, most gamers have been in touch with some Metal Gear game, and probably have some familiarity with the convoluted story and heavy influence of philosophy. Hideo Kojima created the stealth action genre with Solid Snake, and he has been a major part of Konami’s and Sony’s success in the last three decades. Solid Snake was voiced by David Hayter, with a rough and growly voice which defined the character. As a soldier, he is constantly confronted with plots that far exceed his military training. As a clone of the legendary soldier Big Boss, Solid Snake overcame every obstacle the world presented to him.
Solid Snake more than earned his stay here in the list of most iconic video game characters.
First appearance: July 13th, 1987
Creator: Hideo Kojima
Where would Microsoft and the Xbox be today if it wasn’t for Master Chief? Halo: Combat Evolved was a launch title for the original Xbox and was the killer app, the reason to get this console. The developer Bungie delivered one of the greatest and most epic shooters for consoles to this date, and they created a franchise that impacted the whole industry.
After Bungie had left the franchise, they focused on their contract with Activision Blizzard and introduced Destiny to the world. Today the Halo games are developed by 343 Industries. Besides the successful shooter, they developed a real-time strategy game series called Halo Wars. There have been countless other platforms for Master Chief, including books, toys and even movies.
A universe without John-117 is not imaginable today, and he will live on to fight another day on our consoles soon enough.
First appearance: November 15th, 2001
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Designer: John Howard
Geralt of Rivia
Geralt of Rivia is a bit of an outcast on this list because he was not created as a video game character. He was brought to life by the fantasy novels of Andrzej Sapkowski as early as the 1980’s. In 2007, a small developer in Poland released the first Witcher game, after purchasing the rights to the character for a relatively small money.
Since then, CD Projekt RED has released two more Witcher games. The third title from 2015 has even been heralded as the best game ever made by several people, including our own editor-in-chief. No other RPG has achieved such high praise by focusing on one man. The Elder Scrolls series, for example, always allows you to create your own hero with no name.
Geralt is the character that everyone loves to play as in a fantasy action-adventure. The game does not require a character creator at the beginning, as the White Wolf has enough character on his own to make the game compelling. He is also the “youngest” entry on this list, as a video game character at least. Still, his track record after just ten years is impressive, especially for an underdog developer.
First appearance: October 26th, 2007
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt / Atari
Creator: Andrzej Sapkowski
Probably one of the best franchises created during the 2000s, God of War skyrocketed after the initial release and has been a major part of the Sony hall of fame ever since. Its central character, Kratos, a mean Spartan who made a bad deal with the actual God of War: Ares, has been seeking revenge for over ten years. In that time, we’ve seen Kratos slay an ungodly amount of minions and mythical beasts. as well as almost every ancient Greek God you can imagine.
Not only is the Ghost of Sparta cruel and brutal to his opponents, but he also brings the hardware of the Playstation 2, 3 and soon 4 to its knees. God of War II is still one of the best looking PS2 games around. God of War III took the crown a full generation later.
The intense battle against gods, giants, and beasts is a sight to behold, and Kratos will only continue his quest for revenge in the newest installment of the franchise, God of War 4. Kratos now has a son, and he will likely pass on his legacy at long last.
First appearance: March 22nd, 2005
Developer: SCE Santa Monica Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Designer: David Jaffe
If asked to name the greatest Ninja in video game history, what would you say? I have to admit that the Cyborg Ninja was a close second on this, but Ryu’s legacy has a far wider reach. While some may only know Ryu from the Dead or Alive fighting game franchise, he is the character that originally defined what a “hard game” is with the Ninja Gaiden series.
Ryu Hayabusa has been on duty since the late 80’s, and has continued to be a part of Team Ninja throughout the decades. Depending on who you ask, the Ninja Gaiden series is still considered to be among the most brutal and difficult games to conquer. Whether it’s the original Ninja Gaiden for the NES or later installments like Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Ryu is one of the toughest video game characters around. His games are so intense, you practically have to become a Ninja to beat them on the hardest difficulty.
First appearance: October 1988
Creator: Hideo Yoshizawa
How could this list be complete without the Hero of Time? Nintendo produced so many iconic characters over the past decades that I could easily create a list composed entirely of Nintendo characters. Link, the mute hero of the franchise, has been around since the dawn of Nintendo’s march towards the mass market with their home consoles. The recent sales of the Nintendo Switch show that attaching a Legend of Zelda game to a console’s launch will sell it on its own.
It’s hard to find even one “bad” game, made by Nintendo. that Link starred in over the last 30+ years. Link’s Crossbow Training might be the worst title to name here, but almost every other title was superb and was met with critical acclaim. Ocarina of Time still holds the title of best game ever made for the majority of gamers across the globe.
Link has always been one of those characters that did not change much since his first appearance. Sure, graphics changed, and he even got the cell-shading treatment, but overall, Link has been consistent over the years and will probably stay with us forever.
First appearance: February 21st, 1986
Creators: Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka
Going through this list, I cannot help but wonder why Lara Croft is the only female character to make the cut. Don’t get me wrong, there are other female superstars that would have made the list, but most of them are still stuck in the shadows of their male counterparts. I want to mention names like Samus Aran, but in the early years, nobody even knew that she was a female bounty hunter. Others like Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn made an impact, but her longevity has yet to be proven. Characters like Bayonetta, Chun-Li and Jill Valentine do not compare to the success of Lara Croft.
Lara Croft was the first female superstar of the gaming industry. Her first entry in 1996, Tomb Raider, catapulted her in the center of a male-dominated video game industry. She was the pioneer that made way for a more varied gaming experience and broke the cliche of the “damsel in distress” that characters like Princess Peach incorporated.
Lara is also one of the very few female characters to make it to major movies and book deals, just like her male competition. In the 2000’s Lara had to struggle to stay relevant, but with the 2013 reboot of the franchise with the help of Square Enix, she is back and still kicking ass.
First appearance: 1996
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Designer: Toby Gard
“It’s-a me, Mario!”
Who would have thought that an Italian plumber would become the icon for video games? Mario is synonymous with video games, ranging from his first game as the protagonist in Donkey Kong, to his highly anticipated new adventure in Super Mario Odyssey. This little red and blue character is and has always been the gold standard for video games.
Creating the genre of the jump ‘n’ run as well as being the first to introduce us to a 3D environment, Mario is the core figure around the biggest video game franchise the world has ever seen. Mario is easily the most famous creation in the video game industry. No other character created so many successful spin-offs, such as Mario Kart, Yoshi or Mario Party. The gaming industry today would not be the same without Mario. He is the reason why Nintendo became the number one in the industry and continues to bring joy to millions of people young and old across the globe. Mario truly is the face of this industry we love so much.
First appearance: September 13th, 1985
Designer: Shigeru Miyamoto
I hope you enjoyed the list and I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions about these characters. I know, there are so many more characters and as a gamer, I feel the need to list them all, but it really is hard if you want to pin down the most iconic ones without your own nostalgia or feelings interfering. What do you think? Share your opinions of the most iconic gaming characters on our Twitter or Facebook page!
Thanks for reading!