10 Most Iconic Video Game Characters Ever
Updated: September 15,2022
The gaming industry has evolved dramatically from its humble beginnings over half a century ago. It has now become one of the most profitable entertainment sectors, and video game characters are now so ingrained in media and pop culture that even non-gamers are at least aware of their existence.
The characters themselves are often one of the primary factors behind a video game’s success. Some of them are known only to a niche community of gamers, but that’s not the case with those on our list: Here’s the breakdown of the most iconic video game characters ever to grace our screens.
First appearance: Donkey Kong (1981)
Initially known as “Jumpman,” Mario is the world’s favorite Italian plumber and makes every list of the most popular video game characters. Many of us first encountered console gaming through the Super Mario franchise, with youngsters and adult gamers across the world having spent countless hours attempting to rescue Princess Peach from her various predicaments.
Mario has essentially become Nintendo's mascot, appearing in over 200 games. Since new Mario adventures continue to be launched on numerous platforms to this day, he remains a vital symbol of the modern gaming industry.
First appearance: Tomb Raider (1996)
Lara Croft is an important female video game character distinguished by her toughness and ability to complete the most difficult missions, journeying through ancient crypts and catacombs. Some claimed the British archaeologist was just a “sex symbol” because of her good looks, although said looks were merely a couple of polygons in the first several iterations of the game. This is a common issue with female characters, as they are often oversexualized to pander to a specific gamer demographic which becomes particularly loud when women’s representation in video games doesn’t have a skimpy outfit.
Luckily, Lara Croft’s character has done much to change this image, thanks to her wits and distinct style, and has grown into a well-rounded character in the 2010 game reboot, Lara Croft, and the Guardian of Light.
The Tomb Raider franchise has spawned three films so far, with a fourth in the works, undoubtedly contributing to Lara Croft’s appeal and popularity, making her a household name and just as hardcore a reputation as many male video game characters have.
First appearance: Pokémon Red and Green (1996)
The yellow mouse-like critter is known by practically everyone, even those who never took on the trainer role in any of the Pokémon games. Pikachu initially appeared in Japan in 1996, when the Game Boy versions of Pokémon Green and Red were released.
Nintendo wanted to use Clefairy as their games’ mascot at first, but the company ultimately switched to Pikachu instead. The adorable Electric-type Pokémon turned out to be an excellent choice for the games’ franchise advertising, as he quickly gained popularity worldwide. This iconic video game character got his special edition game in 1998, Pokémon Yellow, appeared in the Pokémon animated series as Ash Ketchum’s loyal companion, and even “starred” in the 2019 film Detective Pikachu.
Sonic the Hedgehog
First appearance: Rad Mobile (1991)
Sega’s mascot Sonic, the anthropomorphic blue hedgehog, is one of the most beloved gaming characters ever. In the beginning, Sonic had to collect power-up rings and speed through levels whilst avoiding obstacles and opponents, as the challenges kept getting harder and harder.
Since making his debut on the Sega Mega Drive, this iconic 90s video game character has migrated to various platforms, appearing in over 100 games, and getting his own spin-off cartoons, comics, and a live-action movie that came out in 2020. Defeating Dr. Robotnik, Sonic’s archnemesis has marked many people’s childhoods, and his adventures continue today.
First appearance: The Legend of Zelda (1986)
Over three decades ago, the Legend of Zelda series introduced us to Link, a brave Hyrulian hero. With his signature Master Sword, this popular video game character is on an eternal quest to save Princess Zelda from Ganon’s evil clutches.
Link’s kind nature and courage when facing the many enemies along his way have been constant throughout the franchise. Though never featured in a film, Link does make appearances in mangas and animated series. Many gamers first encountered Link at a young age, and most fans like to revisit one of the many titles in Zelda’s saga well into adulthood.
First appearance: Pac-Man (1980)
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the most iconic 80’s video game characters - Pac-Man. The image of a pizza with a missing piece served as inspiration for Pac-Man, who remains an instantly recognizable character.
Pac-Man’s only goal is to avoid the four colored ghosts inside a maze while trying to eat as many dots as he can without getting caught. This classic game was originally designed for arcades and has withstood the test of time, despite its pretty basic mechanics. Pac-Man has been referenced in numerous shows, cartoons, movies, and, of course, other games.
First appearance: Crash Bandicoot (1996)
When SONY launched the PlayStation, they intended Crash to be its mascot character, rivaling Sega’s Sonic and Nintendo’s Mario. This iconic video game character is an anthropomorphic marsupial and has lived up to this intention - this bandicoot is one of SONY’s most adored characters.
His adventure started back in 1996 when he managed to escape the Cortex Vortex, after a failed experiment by the main antagonist of the Crash Bandicoot series - Doctor Neo Cortex. He’s best known for his signature tornado spin, although he gained new combat moves in Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, a game from this franchise that came out in 2020.
First appearance: The Last of Us (2013)
The Last of Us is one emotional rollercoaster of a game. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the game follows her and her friend Joel’s journey. She reappears in the sequel, The Last of Us II, this time as the counterpart to the game’s other protagonist - Abby. Even in a dystopian environment, she entertained us with her jokes, and the players connected to her compassionate nature.
Besides the game’s stunning visuals, Ellie is a well-written, relatable character, and it’s no wonder she’s on this list. Considering she’s an LGBT video game character and the TV adaptation of the Last of Us coming soon, Ellie’s popularity will only continue to grow.
First appearance: God of War (2005)
The first three games of the God of War franchise focus on Greek mythology and portray Kratos as a Spartan warrior on a quest for vengeance. No one can stand in the way of his brutality, wrath, and dual blades, and he’s well-established as one of the most badass video game characters. However, seeing as the initial games in the series were much more combat- than story-oriented, Kratos didn’t get much character development.
However, in the Norse era of the series, rebooted in 2018, that all changed. We play Kratos as an older man, left to deal with raising his son, Atreus, in a foreign land, and dealing with God-level problems along the way. We get to see Kratos gradually learn compassion and grow up together with Atreus. Of course, the story and combat are impeccable, too. Fans eagerly await the sequel to Kratos’s new saga, God of War: Ragnarok, to be released in late 2022 on PlayStation 4 and 5.
First appearance: Duke Nukem (1991)
The Duke Nukem franchise gained popularity when Duke Nukem 3D came out in 1996. Since then, Duke's demeanor has been that of a narcissistic, hyper-masculine, politically incorrect, macho womanizer. His primary mission is to defend Earth from extraterrestrial invaders, and he does so by killing mutant pigs, bugs, and hostile robots who enslaved our planet’s women.
No discussion about Duke Nukem would be complete without mentioning some of his pop-culture-inspired catchphrases, such as the iconic “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum.” While Duke Nukem Forever, which was released in 2011, failed to live up to its predecessor, the protagonist remains one of the most iconic video game characters of all time.
The gaming world is so expansive and filled with so many memorable characters that choosing 10 of them who would make this video game characters list was by no means simple. While not everyone would agree with this list, crafting one that would be met with unanimous approval seems almost impossible.
These characters remain popular amongst many demographics. The fact that most of them are still relevant decades after their initial appearance speaks volumes about their place within the industry and their importance in mainstream culture. After all, withstanding the test of time is exactly what makes them the most iconic video game characters.
Frequently Asked Questions
Since there are so many memorable video game characters, it would be impossible to name a single one to represent them all. Characters such as Mario would definitely be on that list, as well as Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, Lara Croft, Crash Bandicoot, and Pikachu from Pokémon. After all, most people, even non-gamers, have encountered these characters in some form or another.
The video game character whose actions are controlled by the player is called the player character (or just PC). It’s worth mentioning that players can control multiple characters in some game genres. Non-player characters (or NPCs) are characters not controlled by the player.
Some classic and most iconic video game characters, such as Mario, Pikachu, and Pac-Man, could be viewed as the most lovable, simply because they were among the first to appear. The topic of the question is far too subjective to be genuinely answered to everyone’s taste.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.