I probably spend too much time thinking about the history of video games. Sometimes it is because my younger brothers ask me about old games; sometimes it is just that I like old games. An idea that often comes to me is the idea of setting up a video game canon, like the western literary canon. Yes, the idea of the literary canon has faced some criticism in the last couple of decades, but it is absolutely a useful tool if not a perfect one. If someone wants to study the history of video games, having a video game canon seems like a good first step to make that easier. 1up.com did two essential games lists back in the day that would have made a good place to start, but they seem to be lost to the ether. (It has come to my attention that USGamer.net is doing a video series of Essential NES Games, which is a good starting point for that specific system.) So we need a new place to start. Not that I am in a position to make such a list; for anyone to assume that they could would be the height of arrogance. But I am going to put forth a list of fifty games, too small a number to be anywhere near complete, as a starting point.
The question is how are “essential” games determined? I think there is a difference between what is essential and what is best. Not that most of the games generally determined to be the “best games ever” don’t deserve to be on this list, only that being one of the best is only one aspect considered. Take, for instance, the Mega Man series. I would say that the series deserves to be represented on this list, but which game or games? Do you put the first one since it was the first? What about the ever ongoing argument about which game is better, Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3? What about all the subsequent subseries? For this initial rough draft list, I’ve only put Mega Man 2 on this list. It and 3 are essentially equally good, but MM2 has the fact that it is the game that really put the series on the map. It was the hit that secured the Blue Bomber’s place in the gaming pantheon. I’ve also put Mega Man X on the list. It is a great game in its own right and it was a seismic shift in the fortunes of that series. That is an example of the thought process I had as I put together this list. TO be on the is list, a game has to be some combination of excellent, influential or popular. So a game like Mortal Kombat, which I don’t much like, is important enough to the history of video games that it makes the list. It was certainly popular and definitely influential. For someone to understand the landscape of video games in the early ’90’s, one needs to experience Mortal Kombat right alongside games like Street Fighter 2 and Super Metroid.
That being said, I know there are holes in my knowledge. I don’t play a lot of computer games, so my knowledge of them is vague at best. Also, I am largely kind of a Nintendo goon, so Sega and the Arcade are obscenely underrepresented. Lastly, I have deliberately left off everything from the last 5 years or so. Not because there are no great or important games coming out, but because it is hard to gauge a games importance without a little history to look back over. All that is fine though, the point of this list is not to be comprehensive; the point is to spark thought and discussion. Eventually may evolve into a useful tool to help people explore the games that made this medium what it is now. The list below started out chronological, but all fifty games didn’t come to me at once and when I finished it was close to seventy games long so I had to edit it. Instead of going back and spending a few minutes putting it in the correct order, I figured it was good enough as is. Et Voila: