“There’s no accounting for taste,” said someone it seems rather a long time ago. Well, okay, some accounting. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t have rationalizations for our pick of gaming’s most influential super-spies, brawlers, arch-villains and redoubtable heroines.
But before you wade in, a note about “influential,” which we endeavored not to confuse with related terms like “beloved” or “innovative.” We instead tried to gauge simple characterological impact, whether within or beyond gaming. Thus while an icon like Nintendo’s Mario routinely headlines roundups like this, we’re suggesting that his status as a gameplay vanguard (totally legitimate, by the way!) might be overshadowing his converse lack of influence as a character in gaming-dom. Note that we’ve also limited ourselves to one character per series to avoid overrepresentation.
Here’s our take on the most influential game characters circa 2017, as compiled by TIME’s technology reporters and editors.
Peach, the perennial princess abductee in Nintendo’s Mario series, is the quintessential damsel in distress, a controversial trope that’s existed in forms of pop culture since antiquity. In most of her Super Mario appearances, she’s kidnapped by Bowser and reduced to a spur for Mario’s progression. A dimensionally flat character (in, to be fair, overall dimensionally flat stories), her dialogue consists mostly of cries for help. That’s not to say Nintendo hasn’t worked to redress the situation in recent years: In Super Mario 3D World, for instance, she’s a playable character with abilities that can give her an edge over Mario and Luigi. And she’s for many a favorite in spinoffs like the Super Smash Bros. brawlers and Mario Kart racing games. It’s arguably in response to characters like Peach that game developers have been encouraged to develop strong female leads, from The Last of Us‘s Ellie to the recent reimagining of Lara Croft.
Few characters have undergone transformations as dramatic as Tomb Raider series lead Lara Croft. When she was introduced in 1996, she was an obnoxiously busty, pistol-wielding daredevil clad in short-shorts and skintight top — a bizarre amalgam of female objectification and empowerment. After a dozen games, the franchise’s 2013 reboot finally portrayed her with realistic body proportions, the same fortune-hunting badassery and the sort of dispositional nuance along with a rich, complex backstory typically reserved for male protagonists. If old-school Lara Croft embodies much of what’s wrong with female representation in an interactive medium that as of 2016 counts over 40% of its adherents as women, new-school Lara Croft has plenty to say about what’s right.
Legend holds that Pac-Man was inspired by a pizza pie missing a slice — or just a modification of the Japanese character for “mouth.” Either way, there’s no debating the influence of this legendary wakka-wakking, dot-swallowing, phasmophobic hero. His first arcade appearance in 1980 said nothing about the character, save an implicit, voracious need to gobble things. He chomped his way into gamers’ hearts anyway, sending a message to future designers: that a distinctive, easily recognizable protagonist wed to a dead simple play concept can go miles toward making something a hit.
This lemon-furred, zigzag-tailed electric mouse became the face of a franchise that’s as popular as ever 20 years after its debut. As the Pokémon franchise mascot, Pikachu’s relationship with his trainer in 1999’s Pokémon Yellow as well as the indefatigable television series and movies (20 seasons and as many films) have made him one of the most recognizable and beloved sidekicks in pop culture. His influence — emblematic of a series about capturing magical creatures and deploying them in battle — ripples through everything from Atlus’s Persona to Bandai Namco’s Ni No Kuni games.
The protagonist of each The Legend of Zelda series installment, Link embodies the selfless hero on a transformative journey, a storytelling trope we’ve seen in countless titles from Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepherd to Halo‘s Master Chief. For most of these games he plays the taciturn chosen one, his presence established by his willingness to embark on dangerous quests to save those important to him (most notably Princess Zelda). But the Zelda games also invest heavily in forms of reincarnation: In each game, a new version of the hero emerges, thrust into crisis with no memory of the series’ prior cycles (also highly useful if you want to focus on gameplay iteration). That notion of the hero’s return, stripped of abilities, inhabits everything from Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid games, to Ubisoft’s genetic memory informed Assassin’s Creed series.
During the console wars’ heyday in the late 1980s, Sega decided it needed something to counter arch-rival Nintendo’s Mario. Thus was born Sonic, a speed demon hedgehog who embodies everything the ebullient Italian plumber isn’t. Sonic was fast, rebellious and full of attitude, a punk rock blue-and-white missile hurtling through vibrant levels at breakneck velocities. His edgy mohawk and roguish grin summarized Sega’s strategy: to appeal to the teenage crowd aging out of Nintendo’s family-friendly games. The dude-with-a-tude’s impact spawned all sorts of offbeat video game characters, from Crash Bandicoot and Earthworm Jim to Bubsy, Conker the Squirrel and Rayman.
If Microsoft hadn’t snapped up games studio Bungie, its first games console — the Xbox — would have probably flopped. Why? With Bungie came 2001 sci-fi shooter Halo: Combat Evolved and its instantly simpatico protagonist, Master Chief. While Halo had top-notch voice acting for the time, “Chief” stayed mum, his reticence a blank slate into which players could pour themselves. And so they have, as evidenced by all the Master Chief cosplayers you’ll encounter any games convention. All spacefaring shooters since, Destiny to Mass Effect, owe Master Chief a debt (as does Microsoft, whose Xbox brand banks heavily on the Chief’s celebrity to sell games and consoles).
What’s it like to play God? You get a sense of that awesome power with The Sims, a series of games in which you’re largely responsible for the fates of the computer characters you create. Unlike most video games, but just as in real life, nobody ever “beats” The Sims — the point lies in the social relationships forged during the journey itself. Original designer Will Wright’s wildly popular series birthed the life simulation genre, whose offshoots include everything from simulated reality precursor Second Life to virtual reality experiences like AltspaceVR.
Those age-appropriate ratings gracing the cover of every video game you buy today? You can thank Mortal Kombat, a game so vicious and gory (even at a rough and ready 16 bits) that it triggered congressional hearings over video game violence, eventually prompting the establishment of a games rating board. Of all its colorful butchers, Scorpion is the most emblematic, a vengeful undead ninja notorious for hurling a chain-linked spear into enemies’ chests, then yanking them into his lethal grasp with a growling “GET OVER HERE!” His influence on gaming has been vast, from similarly bestial characters like God of War‘s Kratos to the memetic proliferation of game character catchphrases.
Conventional wisdom holds that gaming auteur Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid stealth series mainstay Solid Snake was inspired by Escape from New York badass growler “Snake” Plissken. Not so, says Kojima, attributing his dour, tobacco-toking super-spy’s sneaky codename to mundane zoological literalism (and the modifier “solid” as just an alliterative vamp for resilience). Either way, Snake’s incongruous vice-virtues and Eastwood-ian equanimity ripple through so much that’s emerged since Kojima’s seminal 1998 PlayStation masterpiece. Snake is pensive and prurient, surly and sardonic, paradoxically antiwar yet military-minded, an eccentric, identity-scrambled mercenary genius whose strengths and foibles make him one of gaming’s most enthralling antiheroes.
Deranged sentient computers long predate gaming, and cyberpunk corridor-crawler System Shock‘s goading, glitch-tongued SHODAN owes a debt to precursors like Kubrick and Clarke’s HAL and Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” But there was something both exquisite and distinct about Tribe alt-rocker Terri Brosius’s inspired voicing of the character. SHODAN was like a black widow spider, a paralyzing, godlike presence whose seductive brilliance and stammering balefulness made her one of gaming’s most memorable antagonists. That she’s tangled in the inception of so many game villains since (most visibly Portal‘s superb GLaDOS) seems a kind of poetic imperishability she would doubtless endorse.
Big Daddy / Little Sister
It felt wrong to sunder this character binary at the heart of Irrational’s metaphysically harrowing BioShock games. And so we’ve included both the series’ forbidding diving suit-imprisoned mutants (Big Daddies) and their lithe, electric-eyed ragamuffin wards (Little Sisters). This pair’s dynamic explorations (reaping magical stem cells from corpses), symbiotic cooperation and brutal retaliation when provoked catalyzed waves of experimental A.I. ecologies in subsequent games that stressed player tinkering and emergent consequences. But it’s important to recall how much they exemplify the sort of Cronenberg-ian building-block body horror we’ve seen hence in games like Dead Space, Inside and Soma.
Much that is mordant and blackly comedic in modern gaming feels like it’s standing on the shoulders of this doughty, relentlessly blithe Fallout-series mascot. A blond-haired, blue-eyed, cartoonish young male in the style of Mr. Monopoly (nee Rich Uncle Pennybags), Vault Boy emblematizes character stats, chance actions and otherwise dull math in Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic roleplaying romps. But it’s his gloriously absurd and irreverent spectrum of dispositions and postures, from hyperbolic simpering to grisly dismemberments, that makes him gaming’s most Pythonesque icon.
It’s hard to beat the devil, and Blizzard’s eponymous infernal sovereign can be a grueling adversary if taken lightly. He is the lord of terror, the most powerful of the prime evils, the liar in the guise of the dark wanderer, the goading adversary at the heart of each eschatological installment in this Judeo-Christian mythos informed gothic fantasy series. He is also gaming’s archetypal foozle, an illimitable damage sponge into which players pour a game’s worth of tactical preparation, informed by scrupulous looting, savvy inventory juggling and ability streamlining — the finger-cramping benchmark against which every gamer’s hack-and-slash mettle is measured.
The Z-Shaped Tetris Block
Long before Candy Crush or 2048 hooked us, there was Tetris, the timeless, addictive arcade puzzler by Russian game designer Alexey Pajitnov, first released in 1984. Of all its signature tetrominoes, the Z-shaped block is arguably the most maddening — play it in the wrong place, and it can be impossible to recover. That’s what makes games like Tetris so addictive: the impression that winning (or losing) is always just one vital choice away. And once you err, you’re convinced you’ll get it right the next time, enveloping players in a self-reinforcing, time-swallowing black hole. It’s true for countless puzzle games, but the Z-shaped Tetris block exemplifies the concept like no other.