Most video games have colorful casts of characters that draw players in and help sell their narratives, but only a select few have made the kind of cultural impact that turns them into icons. What gives them this unique appeal? It’s more than simply being recognizable. The most iconic characters are well-designed, elicit strong emotions (both positive and negative) from their audiences, and have a special place in the era of gaming in which they were born. Here’s a look at some top choices that fit the bill, plucked from categories throughout gaming history.
In many respects, Mario has set the mold for iconic. The king of the classic gaming mascots — and perhaps the king of video game characters in general — Mario came of age during a time when gaming was still in its nascent stages. When it comes to being recognizable, the pint-sized plumber has the stats to outclass all other challengers. He’s appeared in more than 200 games that have moved over 240 million units, and he’s got the best-selling franchise of all time. A fair number of these titles were well-received if not outright praised for their strong gameplay. His most recent adventure, Super Mario Odyssey, is sitting at a cool No. 97 on Metacritic.
Mario’s been around since the 1980s, so there’s hardly a gamer alive who doesn’t know him. Beyond simply being one of the first to ever achieve such widespread acclaim, though, Mario has remained a video game culture icon for decades — something only a select few can boast about. In large part, it’s because he’s so basic and easy to understand. Through the years, Mario’s motivations have been simple (save Princess Peach, usually), and he hasn’t said much. While some would say these factors rob him of a unique personality, they instead give the little guy a level of mass appeal that far outstrips all the competition.
Sonic The Hedgehog
Like Mario, Sonic The Hedgehog benefits from being a fixture in the childhood of many gamers. A darling of the 16-bit era, Sonic rose to prominence in the early 1990s, quickly inspiring spin-offs in the form of cartoons, comics and other creative media. With so much reach, it’s little surprise that the Sega mascot is so well-known. What makes him legendary, however, goes beyond units sold or accolades received (there have been some absolutely terrible Sonic games, and yet fans still clamor for more).
The Blue Blur’s interesting look and personality are what draw in generation after generation of gamers. Sonic’s a capable hero, and one that’s firmly on the side of angels, but he’s also got a cocky sense of self and laid-back attitude that make him more than just another bland good-guy. Add to that the fact that there’s a large swath of gamers who just “gotta go fast” and the recipe for a classic gaming icon who stands the test of time is complete.
As gaming evolved in the mid-’90s to incorporate more advanced graphics, gameplay, and plots, developers were given the freedom to work new kinds of characters into their games, like action-adventure heroine Lara Croft. Though clearly a derivative of “archaeologist-type” characters, specifically Indiana Jones, and one that has gone through several reboots of her origin story, Lara Croft remains a recognizable and influential character.
Lara Croft’s story has been adapted to film, animation, and comics. She also represents a shift in the gaming industry — having aided the rise of the original PlayStation — and a model for how to incorporate tough, feminine protagonists into video games. She’s not the Guinness World Records’ “most recognized female video game character” for nothing.
The story of the Metal Gear franchise may seem convoluted and incomprehensible to many, but one thing that’s clear is that Solid Snake is one of the veritable gaming culture legends. His appearance on the original PlayStation’s Metal Gear Solid helped catapult him and the Metal Gear series to more widespread appeal. Snake’s popularity comes from his gritty and determined nature.
There’s no denying the usher of the Xbox era was Master Chief. His appearance in the first Halo helped bring the sales and accolades to the original Xbox. Throughout its subsequent iterations, numerous sequels to Halo have always been a selling point for the systems. Though he’s not particularly talkative in the games in which he’s portrayed, Master Chief is representative of a simple, heroic drive that exists with almost everyone. There’s a job to be done, and he’s getting it done no matter what the personal cost.
How could a character who says absolutely nothing be as iconic as Gordon Freeman has managed to be? In this particular case, it’s because of the influence the Half-Life series has had on first-person shooter games, having a direct effect on the realism and immersive nature of the shooter games that came in its wake. Gordon doesn’t say anything, but he’s a relatable everyman all the same and represents that ultimate nerd fantasy of stepping up to the plate in harrowing circumstances to save the day.