The best video game characters of all time
Mario, Sonic, Link... great game characters through the ages...
On May 12, 2023, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom releases on Nintendo Switch. If there’s another video game series that keeps fans coming back faithfully time and again with as much undiminished enthusiasm and expectation, we’re not sure what it is.
Which is funny, because there’s typically little to tie each game together, at least in terms of narrative. Each Zelda game is more or less a fresh start, with its own twist on a very loose central mythology.
Besides a bunch of recurring motifs, it’s the main character of Link that forms the through line for each Zelda game. Which got us to thinking about all those wonderful video game characters we’ve encountered over the years.
Some of them are just brilliantly written. Others amount to little more than a catch phrase or a cool outfit. Because they serve as our avatars in these wondrous interactive worlds, however, we tend to form the kind of attachments usually reserved for beloved literary characters or pets.
Here, then, are 20 of the best video game characters of all time. Be sure to vote for your favourite below.
The best video game characters
1. Mario (Mario series)View now (Amazon)
It’s-a-him! Whether he’s being played by Chris Pratt, Charles Martinet, or Bob Hoskins (OK, maybe not Bob Hoskins), everyone knows and loves Mario. The design of Nintendo’s surprisingly agile Italian plumber was very much a product of the technical limitations of the early ’80s, but he’s since lent his friendly moustachioed face to a staggering range of games and media properties.
2. Link (Zelda series)View now (Amazon)
Considering he’s the character that inspired this whole darned list, Link sure is a low key hero. He’s totally mute for one thing, barring the odd grunt of exertion as he battles a moblin or jumps off a cliff. His wordlessly plucky nature is all part of Link’s universal appeal, however, making him the perfect vessel for visiting Nintendo’s epic fantasy worlds.
3. Lara Croft (Tomb Raider series)Play now (Steam)
Lara Croft blazed a trail in many ways. For one thing, she was a rare kick-ass female lead back in the testosterone-filled ’90s gaming scene, albeit an overly sexualised one. For another, the character has appeared in a trio of (relatively) successful Hollywood films starring Angelina Jolie and Alicia Vikander, with the latter take based on a gritty 2013 franchise reboot. She’s the original video game crossover star, and an enduring one at that.
4. Sonic (Sonic The Hedgehog Series)Play now (Steam)
Essentially serving as the antithesis to Nintendo’s Mario during the ’90s platformer mascot wars, Sega’s Sonic The Hedgehog was cool, arrogant, and of course, blazingly fast. His games might not have the impeccable consistency of his dungaree-clad rival, but Sonic’s cocksure character is enduringly popular – as evidenced by the success of the recent live action Sonic movies.
5. Master Chief (Halo series)Play now (Steam)
The idea of video game characters acting as blank avatars onto which players can project themselves reached its ultimate expression in Master Chief. The star of the Halo series is a faceless, almost silent ‘Spartan’ supersoldier with nothing but his considerable physical abilities to distinguish him, yet the mythology Bungie built up through the early Halo games has turned Master Chief into a true video game icon.
6. Solid Snake (Metal Gear series)Play now (Steam)
In Solid Snake, ex-Konami auteur Hideo Kojima created the ultimate laconic bad-boy hero. Or rather, he assembled him from assorted heroic archetypes. Boiled down to his essence, he’s basically Kurt Russell’s Snake Plisskin from Escape from New York, with a splash of Lupin III’s roguish charm. More importantly, he’s the star of one of the maddest, densest, most idosyncratic video game sagas ever committed to 1s and 0s. Snaaaaaaake!
7. Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong, Mario series)Play in browser (Free Video Games Project)
One of his predecessors may well have have been an early antagonist to Nintendo’s most famous son. The family doesn’t like to talk about it. But the Donkey Kong we all know and love today has become the endearingly grouchy, thrillingly muscular hero of his own brilliant platformer series, not to mention a heavyweight mainstay of the Mario Kart games and other Mario side gigs. Just don’t ask where the rest of his clothes are.
8. Samus Aran (Metroid series)View now (Amazon)
Another of Nintendo’s great (mostly) mute heroes, Samus Aran is an armoured bounty hunter feared the galaxy over. The entire Metroid series is heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s Alien movie, and Samus certainly has something of Ridley’s quiet resolve and extreme competence under duress. She just also happens to have a state-of-the-art suit of armour to stomp around in.
9. Pikachu (Pokemon series)View now (Amazon)
Pikachu’s name paints a vivid picture, made up as it is of the Japanese onomatopoeic words for the sound that electricity (pikapika) and a mouse (chūchū) make. Much of the rest of this character has been filled in by the animated Pokemon series, but Nintendo clearly knew what it had on its hands when it made Pikachu the adorable face of those seminal early Pokemon games.
10. Nathan Drake (Uncharted series)View now (Amazon)
The path to The Last of Us convincing everyone of gaming’s storytelling potential started with Uncharted, Naughty Dog’s prior smash hit adventure series. It all hinges on Nathan Drake, a charismatic, wise-cracking, tomb raiding mash up of Indiana Jones and Johnny Knoxville. Which makes it all the more ironic that the Uncharted movie was a shallow, empty experience with a cardboard cutout lead performance from Tom Holland.
11. Kratos (God of War series)Play now (Steam)
When he made his debut in the first God of War game back in 2005, Kratos was the very opposite of a likeable or even relatable lead. This murderous, gruff, rage-fuelled Spartan warrior essentially slaughtered and screwed his way across mythical ancient Greece. In the the 2018 reboot, however, his character was effectively coloured in by loss and regret, as well as the need to protect a gifted but vulnerable son.
12. Guybrush Threepwood (Monkey Island series)Play now (Steam)
Video games can make you feel a lot of things, but they don’t often make you laugh. The Monkey Island series from LucasArts is a rare exception. These peerless point and click adventures place you in the hapless boots of Guybrush Threepwood, a lovably dishevelled and incompetent wannabe pirate who must get through each game on his wits and ingenuity, not to mention the odd verbal joust.
13. Ellie (The Last of Us)View now (Amazon)
Joel might technically be the headliner of The Last of Us – certainly in terms of initial player control, not to mention Pedro Pascal’s casting in the live action adaptation – but really, it’s all about Ellie. She’s the heart and soul of the whole extended franchise, and an increasingly badass, believably flawed, yet ultimately lovable human being. Oh, and she’s the potential saviour of humankind, of course.
14. Pac-Man (Pac-Man series)Play in browser (Google)
How do you extract character from a giant yellow mouth? We’re really not sure. All we know is Pac-Man has come to embody the entire video game art form for many people. He’s not especially talkative (wacca-wacca indeed), he has a nasty pill habit, and he spends his days chasing ghosts, but Pac-Man is the original video game superstar.
15. GLaDOS (Portal series)Play now (Steam)
The protagonist of Valve’s peerless duo of first person Portal puzzlers is pretty anonymous. I just Googled it, and her name is Chell, apparently. Thankfully, the Portal series has one of the finest antagonists in all of gaming in the form of a sassy AI known as GLaDOS. Throughout both Portal games, GLaDOS will goad you, belittle you, and sarcastically undermine you in a hilariously stilted robotic voice.
16. Gordan Freeman (Half-Life series)Play now (Steam)
We love the fact that the star of one of the best all-action first person shooter series ever made is a total nerd. At the outset of Half-Life, Gordon Freeman has just turned up for his first day as a scientist at a top secret military base. All hell soon breaks loose, forcing our mute hero to pick up a gun. Several guns, in fact, not to mention an iconic hazmat suit.
17. Commander Shepherd (Mass Effect series)Play now (Stream)
Unlike the other characters on this list, not every player’s Commander Shepherd looks or even acts the same. Mass Effect lets you personalise the look and gender of its protagonist, as well as steering conversations and key choices. However, it’s that very personalisation potential, in conjunction with BioWare’s masterful world and character building, that makes Commander Shepherd the best of the best to certain gamers.
18. Big Daddy and Little Sister (Bioshock series)Play now (Steam)
The Big Daddy and their constant companion, the ghoulish Little Sister, essentially form a single character the core of the first two Bioshock games. In the first game they’re simultaneously formidable boss characters and multi-purpose tools, while making a tough moral choice concerning this tragic pair early in the game sets the tone for the entire series. In Bioshock 2 you even get to play as a Big Daddy, which only cements our love of the character.
19. Aeris (Final Fantasy VII)View now (Amazon)
Aeris (aka Aerith) isn’t the protagonist of Square’s Final Fantasy VII, which is packed full of brilliant characters. Indeed, the flower-girl-cum-last-of-the-Ancients isn’t even really around for much of the game. But her – SPOILER ALERT – abrupt death half way through the game made a whole generation of gamers feel thing that they hadn’t felt from a video game before.
20. Tom Nook (Animal Crossing)View now (Amazon)
Within the context of the cosy quasi-socialist utopia that is the Animal Crossing universe, Tom Nook is a capitalist monster, essentially placing you into indentured service so as to pay off a whopping great debt. But gosh darn it, just look at his cute little Hawaiian shirt and his fluffy little tail. If only all money-grabbing megalomaniacal landlords were this loveable.
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