The 25 Most Iconic Game Series of All Time

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate key art

The 25 Most Iconic Game Series of All Time

Determining the most iconic and important game series of all time requires considering several variables. For a franchise to make it more than a single entry in an industry as ever-evolving as video games, it first needs to be financially solvent. Further, it needs to innovate on the gameplay side of things and bring something new to the table that no other game has done before it and to where no other contemporary will quickly outshine it. And, perhaps most importantly, the greatest game series needs to be fun above all else, enticing players to return entry after entry in hopes of recapturing the joy players experience when making their way through the last game in the series. Somehow, the franchises on this list manage to pull off all of the above, earning their place as pillars of the medium.

And that’s not to say that these game series are perfect, as it’s virtually impossible for any one franchise to have an unbroken winning streak. Each of the franchises on this list has at least one entry that sticks out as the “black sheep” of their respective series. But what makes these game series so impactful and ending in their popularity is the developer and publishers’ ability to recognize what fans love about the franchise and quickly course-correct, delivering follow-ups that return each IP to its former glory. Between their commercial and critical success, importance to the development of video games, and longevity, these are the greatest and most iconic series in gaming.

25. Doom

©Key art of Doom 2016. – License

DOOM is undoubtedly one of the greatest franchises in all of gaming, primarily for the way that it revolutionized and popularized the First-Person Shooter genre. Further, DOOM‘s importance in helping to develop the PC modding and shareware communities cannot be overstated. With millions of units sold across multiple generations of entries (and the 1993 original still remaining popular more than 30 years later), DOOM has the kind of series longevity that typically escapes most FPS franchises, and it’s easy to see why. Every game in the DOOM franchise places frantic action and supremely entertaining fun factors as the core elements of each new game in the series, and as a result, it continues to have its own unique place in the genre regardless of current FPS trends.

24. Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong

©Donkey Kong character renders

Donkey Kong is a franchise that has been around for almost as long as the medium itself, debuting with Nintendo’s runaway arcade smash going by the same name. In the more than 40 years since the debut of Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s loveable gorilla has gone on to feature in multiple different franchises, from the excellent Donkey Kong Country platformers to the more recent (and excellent) Mario vs. Donkey Kong puzzle games. Like the plumber he originally threw barrels at as the titular antagonist of both characters’ debut game, Donkey Kong is one of Nintendo’s most important mascots and a key figure in the company’s place as one of the most important video game companies of all time.

23. Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider Remastered gameplay

©Gameplay screenshot

Before even counting the more recent Crystal Dynamics-developed series reboot in the Tomb Raider Survivor Trilogy, Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise would span a whopping 12 games. The initial trilogy of titles on PS1 is arguably the greatest games in the franchise’s initial run, with most of the sequels offering diminishing returns with each new entry. That said, Lara Croft is one of the more instantly recognizable and important protagonists in the history of gaming, proving that a female character could competently lead her own flagship video game franchise in an era where female heroes were few and far between. That the games are fun and offer some compelling action-adventure gameplay only adds to the series’ appeal, and makes it easy to see how the franchise would inspire so many other iconic series in its own right.

22. God of War

God of War Ragnarok key art

©God of War key art

God of War is both one of Sony’s most important first-party franchises and a tale of two distinct eras that rival its iconic hero’s transformation between their respective entries. The initial run of God of War game on PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 would serve as some of the greatest character action games of all time, providing players with some of the most visceral and satisfying melee combat along with incredible setpiece moments and adventure gameplay that made great use of its Greek mythology setting. To reboot the franchise for a new generation, Sony Santa Monica took the gruff and surly Kratos and made him a father while also taking him from Greek mythology into the realm of Norse mythology. Not only do the newer God of War titles evolve the series already excellent combat, but they elevate the storytelling of the franchise to new emotional heights.

21. Tetris

Tetris Ultimate key art

©Tetris key art

Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris is the kind of cultural phenomenon that only comes around every so often, captivating not just the minds of gamers but of casual, everyday observers as well. Simply picking up and playing Tetris is incredibly intuitive, and that universal appeal of the game would help it to become a worldwide sensation well beyond the closed-off walls of its Soviet origins. And, thanks to its place as a pack-in with the Game Boy (one of the best-selling consoles of all time), millions of people became deeply acquainted with Tetris where they might have otherwise missed out on the excellent puzzler. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of releases of Tetris, and each one is as addictive and fun as the original.

20. The Elder Scrolls

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim gameplay

©Skyrim gameplay screenshot

The RPG genre would end up being dominated by Japanese developers for several hardware generations, but the advent of PC gaming and the rise of popularity in personal computing gave way to an entirely new generation of Western developers intent on creating their own groundbreaking RPGs. One of the most important of these is Bethesda, whose mixing of traditional fantasy RPG game systems with open-world exploration and emergent gameplay in The Elder Scrolls series would position them as one of the most important developers working in the genre today. Skyrim is still somehow one of the best RPGs available more than a decade after its release, and the potential to sink hundreds of hours into a Bethesda Softworks RPG has fans eagerly anticipating the far-off release of The Elder Scrolls VI.

19. Mega Man

Mega Man 11 gameplay

©Mega Man gameplay screenshot

Capcom’s Mega Man series isn’t just one of the best action-platformer series to originate on the NES, it’s also one of the longest-running and most prolific. Between 11 mainline entries, 7 Mega Man X future-leaning spin-offs (with its own spin-off series in Mega Man Zero/ZX), the Mega Man Battle Network games, and the short-lived fan-favorite Mega Man Legends RPGs, there are no less than 30 games in the Mega Man franchise. And, against all odds, each of these titles has something that makes them worthwhile for any fan of the franchise, meaning a fan of Mega Man has plenty of precision platforming and satisfying combat to keep them busy for a long time.

18. Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic Origins key art

©Sonic key art

During the heyday of the 4th generation console wars between Sega’s Genesis and Nintendo’s SNES, the brilliant tagline for Sega’s ad campaigns was the legendary “Sega does what Nintendon’t”. Nowhere was that more obvious than in the sheer sense of speed and movement in Sega’s flagship franchise — Sonic the Hedgehog. Positioned as a direct competitor to the Super Mario Bros. series, Sonic trades precision platforming for blinding speed and a sense of “flow-state” gaming that was practically unheard of at the time, and it also happened to do all this while featuring graphics leaps and bounds ahead of Nintendo’s best-selling platformer. There are over two dozen games in the Sonic series now, but the 2D entries in the franchise are so legendary as to cement it in the annals of gaming history.

17. Castlevania

Castlevania artwork

©Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls artwork

The worlds of video games and horror would collide almost immediately after the invention of the medium, but it wasn’t until 1987’s Castlevania that an iconic franchise emerged as the leader and best representative of a true “horror” game. Since that debut, the Castlevania series has remained synonymous with some of the best (and also most challenging) action platforming in gaming, as well as gone on to create its own subgenre of action platformers by combining elements of the series gameplay with Nintendo’s Metroid. The Metroidvania genre is one of the most popular subgenres of action platformers today, and it wouldn’t exist without Castlevania‘s bold twist on its popular formula in Symphony of the Night.

16. Dragon Quest

Dragon Quest key art

©Dragon Quest key art

In terms of franchises with a pronounced impact on the gaming industry as a whole, it’s hard to think of one more significant than Dragon Quest. Not only is Yuji Horii’s original Dragon Quest the first Japanese-developed RPG (or, JRPG), but it also would inadvertently become a cultural sensation in Japan, cementing the Dragon Quest franchise as one of the nation’s most beloved franchises and best-selling IP. Having the creature and character designs of legendary manga artist and co-creator Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball fame) as part of the package certainly didn’t hurt, and the franchise is still going strong at 11 mainline entries, dozens of spin-offs, and a brand-new 12th game currently in development.

15. Dark Souls

Dark Souls key art

©Dark Souls key art

Like Castlevania before it, much of Dark Souls‘ importance rests on its place in creating one of the most popular subgenres of action RPGs — the “Soulslike”. Prior to the launch of the initial Dark Souls, FromSoftware (and, specifically, Hidetaka Miyazaki) would hone the formula in the cult-classic King’s Field games and the 2009 PS3 classic Demon’s Souls. But Dark Souls‘ success rests on the game arriving as the right title at the right time, refusing to hold players’ hands, and letting them explore a dark and dangerous world at a time when video games were becoming too safe and coddling. Dark Souls represents one of gaming’s few “lightning in a bottle” moments, and that Miyazaki was able to accomplish the same with Elden Ring more than a decade later is a testament to his genius.

14. Metroid

Metroid character render

©Metroid key art

Nintendo’s Metroid is one-half of the Metroidvania portmanteau and the originator of many of the subgenre’s gameplay mechanics, but it also happens to be one of the greatest series of action-platformer games regardless of its impact on the medium. What makes the Metroid games so special is the sense of isolation and solitude that each of Samus’ journies impart on the player, forcing them to explore and adventure across a mysterious world in search of equipment and upgrades that will see them become more and more capable as a combatant and, eventually, successfully complete their mission. With several excellent 2D entries and the phenomenal first-person Metroid Prime games, the Metroid series has a consistent bar of quality that few other iconic game series can reach.

13. Super Smash Bros.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate key art

©Super Smash Bros. key art

Ironically, Super Smash Bros. is itself somewhat of a museum of the most iconic game series, with each game featuring rosters containing plenty of Nintendo characters and rounded out with surprise cameos from some of the most popular non-Nintendo franchises. Nintendo’s addictive arena fighter is one of the most popular and successful fighting game franchises of all time, and its competitive scene is one of the most robust and highly-spectated in the fighting game community. The true highlight (and secret to the series’ longevity) is Super Smash Bros. multiplayer, which makes the title a must-have for any Nintendo console thanks to the games’ ability to become an instant crowd-pleaser in a group setting.

12. Metal Gear

Metal Gear concept art

©Metal Gear concept art

Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series is yet another foundational franchise in terms of establishing the mechanics and core elements of stealth gameplay. The original on MSX was released at a time when almost every action game saw the player mow down waves of enemies using an endless supply of ammunition, and instead, Metal Gear challenges players to avoid confrontation entirely and use a plethora of gadgets to confuse and sneak past the enemy. Kojima would further evolve this formula across the groundbreaking and revolutionary Metal Gear Solid series, and in the process, he would also make a strong case for video games growing up and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the quality of artistry and storytelling on display in the best films.

11. Resident Evil

Resident Evil (2002) screenshot

©Gameplay screenshot

Survival-horror games existed before Resident Evil, but it wasn’t until the release of Capcom’s now-legendary 1996 classic that the genre would have a name coined for it. While the first Resident Evil is an important and iconic game in its own right, the way that the Resident Evil series continued to evolve over the years is what would help it become the best-selling horror IP of all time. Not only are there 8 (and soon to be 9) mainline entries in the franchise, but there are several successful spin-offs and a massively successful film franchise as part of the Resident Evil IP. Few gaming franchises are both excellent games and popular films (regardless of their mostly middling quality), but Resident Evil has transcended the world of video games to become a force in pop culture.

10. Mortal Kombat

©Mortal Kombat gameplay screenshot

Fighting games were all the rage in the early 1990s thanks to the groundbreaking arcade success of Capcom’s Street Fighter II, but perhaps no one was ready for Midway’s unexpected entry into the fighting game world with Mortal Kombat. Across the more than 30 years of the Mortal Kombat franchise’s existence, the series has seen its ups and downs but is arguably in a better place now than it has been since its initial trilogy of games on the arcade and home consoles. One of the factors that has continually played into the series’ success is its ever-present controversy, with the Mortal Kombat franchise being synonymous with over-the-top gore and acting as one of the titles justifying the ESRB’s rating system for games. Ultimately, that notoriety and controversy only helped to make Mortal Kombat a household name, and the series is still going strong three decades after its debut.

9. Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy I concept art

©Original concept art for Final Fantasy from Yoshitaka Amano

Along with Dragon Quest, the Final Fantasy franchise is one of the foundational pillars of JRPG design, establishing just as many core mechanics and elements as its early genre competitor. Where Final Fantasy quickly outpaced Dragon Quest, though, was in the storytelling and narrative departments, with the series quickly becoming notorious for featuring some of the all-time greatest tales in gaming. The franchise’s transition to 3D on the Sony PlayStation with Final Fantasy VII would see the series earn its first taste of mainstream success, and there’s a case to be made for Sony’s victory in the 5th console generation resting heavily on Final Fantasy VII being a console exclusive. Whatever the case, the Final Fantasy series is still one of the most popular RPG series, with players returning time and again to experience impeccable audio-visual presentation and captivating stories.

8. Mario Kart

Mario Kart 8 key art

©Mario Kart key art

Few spin-off series can surpass the success of their namesake franchises, but Mario Kart is one of the most important video game spin-offs of all time and a core component of Nintendo’s flagship IP. To include Mario Kart as part of the Super Mario franchise wouldn’t quite be accurate, as the series has 8 entries of its own. The latest of these is the best-selling game on the Nintendo Switch, making the Mario Kart franchise more than deserving of its own place on a list of the most iconic game series. Additionally, the success of the original Mario Kart on SNES and Mario Kart 64 on the Nintendo 64 would inspire a legion of other IP to try their hand at the kart racing formula, and to this day not a single one can compete with the greatness of Mario Kart.

7. Street Fighter

Street Fighter Duel artwork

©Street Fighter artwork

The Street Fighter franchise is arguably the most important and iconic fighting game series of all time, single-handedly introducing an entire generation of players to the core mechanics and gameplay of arcade fighting games thanks to the breakout success and ubiquitous nature of Street Fighter II arcade cabinets across the world. Within the fighting game community, competitions are still a huge part of the scene, and the Street Fighter games are arguably one of the premier fighting grounds (pun intended) for competitive supremacy. Beyond that, though, the Street Fighter series features some of video games’ most iconic characters, incorporates some of the best balancing in the genre, and is just flat-out fun to pick-up-and-play. Fighting games can be an intimidating genre to break into, but somehow Street Fighter makes everyone feel like they can hold their own.

6. Halo

Halo Infinite gameplay

©Halo gameplay screenshot

Not only did the Halo franchise practically carry the Xbox during the 6th console generation, it’s the series mostly responsible for ushering in the modern age of competitive online gaming. And, lest it be forgotten, the original Halo: Combat Evolved‘s innovations and refinements to the first-person shooter genre would impact the design of practically every single FPS releasing after it in an attempt to capture its runaway success. Halo still stands as one of the most important and iconic series in gaming thanks to its carefully executed balance between single-player campaigns and frantic competitive multiplayer, with both halves of its gameplay existing as exemplars within the FPS genre.

5. Pokemon

Ash and his starter Pokemon appear in this screenshot from the anime.

©Ash and his starter Pokemon appear in this screenshot from the anime. – License

Nintendo and Game Freak’s Pokemon is one of gaming’s “Golden Gooses”, producing a long-running series of quality RPGs, a successful animated series and films, and a multi-billion dollar competitive card game. Taken collectively, the Pokemon IP is the most successful multimedia franchise of all time, earning a cumulative $90 billion over all of its different mediums. At the core of its business, though, are the excellent games, which would help secure Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld console market across multiple gaming generations. And, the Pokemon franchise is just as strong now as it ever has been, establishing the timeless quality inherent in Nintendo’ adorable “pocket monsters”.

4. Call of Duty

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare key art

©Call of Duty key art

The Call of Duty franchise stands as the best-selling FPS series of all time, selling more than 430 million units across all entries since its debut in 2003. The most successful pivot that the franchise would make came about as a result of the series’ shift into the present day with the incredible Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Since that game’s release and incredible commercial and critical success, the Call of Duty franchise has become a household name and now launches almost yearly entires as part of the franchise’s release strategy. Another massive success for Call of Duty would come about as a result of the game’s mobile edition, which (along with Candy Crush) is one of the most-played mobile games of all time with a staggering 500 million downloads.

3. Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto V artwork

©Grand Theft Auto key art

The Grand Theft Auto series is one of those rare franchises that has it all. Not only is Rockstar’s long-running crime-adventure series one of the best-selling game series of all time, Grand Theft Auto III would practically reinvent the wheel when it came to open-world game design and usher in an era in which it seemed like every new action game also took place in a sprawling open world. Of course, none of these would matter if the games themselves were lackluster, but that’s nowhere near the case. The single-player campaigns of the modern Grand Theft Auto games feature voice acting and presentation that rivals some of the biggest films in Hollywood, and Grand Theft Auto V‘s Online mode is one of the most successful multiplayer games ever made, drawing in millions of players every month with its addictive gameplay.

2. The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda key art

©Zelda manual art

It’s safe to say that, without The Legend of Zelda, gaming as we know it would look completely different. The original game in the franchise would redefine what was possible on a home console, challenging developers’ and players’ perceptions of what an adventure game can and should be. Since that groundbreaking first entry, nearly every game in the series has launched to massive critical and commercial acclaim, cementing Zelda as one of the pillars of the gaming industry. The launch of each new Zelda game is a massive event in the cultural zeitgeist, and the series’ more recent pivot into open-world survival gameplay only proves what most longtime fans have known for years — the Zelda series is where Nintendo’s greatest innovation and imagination are on display.

1. Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder key art

©Super Mario key art

Without a doubt, the Super Mario franchise is the most iconic game series of all time. The original Super Mario Bros. would introduce an entire generation of gamers to Nintendo’s mascot, and the series has continued to be instrumental in Nintendo’s success and place as an industry leader. Both Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World would influence countless other 2D platformers, and when the series moved into 3D with Super Mario 64, the entire world took notice. Not only is the Super Mario franchise the most successful series in gaming (with almost a billion units sold across all entries), the recent animated film based on the IP is one of the most successful animated films of all time. Mario’s appeal as a character is timeless, and each new entry in the series affirms the brilliance of Nintendo’s platforming design.

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