The dual release of the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X will be the biggest thing to happen in video games this year and is certain to throw shoppers into a Black Friday frenzy as they try to get their hands on the future of gaming. But it’s always good to remember the classics which got us here, which is why we’ve ranked the best video game franchises of all-time.
Even narrowing down the list to 11 was no easy feat, because there were about 50 franchises that have a legitimate case for being on this list. We were on the verge of tears when we realized classic franchises as Metal Gear, Super Smash Bros., Dragon Quest, Sonic and Dark Souls weren’t going to make the cut.
When considering which franchises were worthy of being considered the greatest, we considered the following criteria:
- Longevity: How long has the franchise been relevant?
- Quality: Any franchise can produce an amazing game, but the great ones churn out classic after classic.
- Sales: How much revenue have these franchises generated?
- Overall Cultural Impact: When your dad (who swears video games rot your brain) knows about a game, you know that’s a great franchise.
So, we ended up with the list, and while we’re sure you’re going to vehemently disagree, we stand by our picks for the best video game franchises. Let’s get ready to argue.
Halo hasn’t been around as long as most of these franchises, hasn’t grossed as much money, and has even had a couple of underwhelming entries in its relatively small oeuvre. But even with the upcoming Halo Infinite in complete and utter disarray, this franchise’s legacy is cemented for two reasons.
First, it single-handedly carried the Xbox to relevance in the console’s extremely uncertain early days by existing as the platonic ideal of the single-player FPS. Prior to the Xbox’s launch, the console was largely treated as a punchline, but once gamers got their hands on Halo, that quickly changed, and Microsoft swiftly replaced Sega as the third challenger to Sony and Nintendo’s stranglehold on console gaming.
Second, Halo 2 was arguably the first blockbuster console game to give fans a polished, online multiplayer experience, which changed the way we gamed on our couches and locked down the franchise’s pioneer status.
Pac-Man might not have aged quite as gracefully as some of his contemporaries, but we have to give credit to the godfathers of video games where it is due, and Pac-Man is the original godfather. Along with Pong, the Pac-Man franchise helped bring gaming into mainstream culture, and for a time in the ‘80s, there wasn’t a hotter video game around. While Pac-Man’s later attempts to expand into other genres resulted in some decent games, they likely weren’t the commercial home runs that Namco had hoped for.
Like many of the best video game franchises whose glory has faded, the Pac-Man still has the magic touch from time to time. For proof of this you need not look any further than cult classics such as Pac Man: Championship Edition DX and Pac-Man 256, which mixes the traditional gameplay of Pac-Man with the endless runner mechanics and aesthetics of Crossy Road.
If Halo was the FPS perfected, Doom was one of the pioneers that introduced an entire generation to 3D gaming in the early ’90s. Since then, the fast and frenetic gameplay of each successive Doom release has been met with excitement and adoration, proving there’s still a place in the world for FPS games that aren’t team-based.
But maybe the most enduring legacy of this franchise (aside from cameo appearances in some of TV’s greatest shows) is the fact that the original Doom and Doom II were open to modders, which provided an endless number of new maps (or WADs) for players to blow through. This has even led to creators from all walks creating new games worth of content, which has brought us Doom-based titles such as Valiant, Sigil (designed by original Doom dev John Romero), and … wait for it … Chex Quest.
There might not be another video game franchise that switched lanes as hard as Warcraft and came out better for it. After occupying the throne for real-time strategy games from 1994 to 2004, indirectly spawning a spinoff hit in the form of the fan mod DOTA, Blizzard released the MMORPG World of Warcraft and never looked back. The franchise has generated over $11 billion in revenue to date, solidifying the idea of “games as a service.”
The numerous expansion packs and updates to World of Warcraft have kept fans so locked in that Blizzard still hasn’t given any thought to releasing Warcraft 4 (although it did release a deeply regrettable remake of Warcraft III at the start of 2020).
7. EA Sports
This might be cheating, but if Mario Kart and Paper Mario fall under the Mario franchise, then all of the EA Sports games can be lumped together, and together they are one of the best video game franchises. While the ‘90s were a golden age for the franchise, giving us games such as NBA Live ‘95, NHL ‘94 (look at little Wayne’s legs shaking!) and Triple Play ‘98, the two most relevant and enduring sports games EA has made are its annual installments of Madden and FIFA. Despite the fact that these games have basically been the same for the last five years, EA still laughs its way to the bank every fall as fans rush to get their hands on the most current player stats and incremental updates.
That, if nothing else, speaks to the power of the franchise.
Tetris is something of an outlier among the best video game franchises because The Tetris Company, run by the game’s creator Alexey Pajitnov, will license out the rights to outside developers or publishers who want to attempt their own take on the game (of which there have been MANY). As a result, dozens of Tetris variants have surfaced over the years, which has led to more than 495 million copies of the game being sold.
The best and most beloved version of Tetris is still probably the Game Boy version which came bundled with the handheld system, but there have also been some downright innovative spins on the game over the years, including the psychedelic Tetris Effect, which can be played in VR.
You can argue that the idea of Pokemon is greater than the sum of its individual titles when it comes to the best video game franchises, but what you can’t argue is how lucrative it has been since the Japanese release of Pokemon Red and Blue in 1996. Thanks to the movies, TV shows and endless waves of merchandise, the franchise has generated over $90 billion in revenue, which not even Mario and his theme park can scoff at.
Since then, we’ve received new rounds of Pokemon games every three years like clockwork and spent a summer literally walking in circles trying to catch a Mew in Pokemon Go. Also, let’s never forget the legend of Missingno.
4. Street Fighter
If you were a child of the ‘90s, Street Fighter II is probably the first game that comes to mind anytime arcades are mentioned. Chock full of over-the-top (and occasionally problematic) characters that could teleport, levitate and conjure up energy blasts out of thin air, the quick and frantic 1v1 battles headlined by Ryu and Ken not only helped to define the concept of fighting games but also drained you of every last quarter you owned. It was the purest essence of arcade gaming in the ’90s.
Unlike some of the other best video game franchises, the popularity and relevance of Street Fighter didn’t wane once it transitioned over to consoles, and thanks to online multiplayer, this franchise still has an incredibly strong fanbase and competitive scene. There’s even an entire anime that was created as a tribute to the halcyon days of Street Fighter II.
3. The Legend of Zelda
With games that are part-RPG and part-action/adventure, The Legend of Zelda is a major, major mood. Series godfathers Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aounma have spent the last 33 years deftly creating a world that’s as expansive and immersive as it is withholding and mysterious (seriously, there’s an entire corner of YouTube dedicated to Zelda fan theories). As a result, every time you assume the identity of Link and take a romp through any of Hyrule’s many iterations, there’s always something new to discover. But the gameplay itself is often an exercise in perfection; the engaging puzzle designs in dungeons, grueling boss battles and innovative gameplay mechanics will stick with you for decades after you first play them (don’t ever let anyone tell you the repeating 72-hour cycle of Majora’s Mask wasn’t brilliant).
More than any other Nintendo Switch game, Breath of the Wild is the one which helped catapult the console to levels of uber-popularity, so it should come as no surprise that people are still obsessively playing it 3.5 years after its release.
2. Final Fantasy
While very few Final Fantasy games share the same characters or exist in the same world, that doesn’t make it any less of a franchise. What unites all these games is its recurring philosophical approach inside and outside the game: grandiose narrative themes of power, corruption, injustice and the effect of technology on the natural world, along with an always-innovative approach to party-based battle systems which set the standard for all JRPGs that followed and made Final Fantasy into one of the best video game franchises.
Thanks to its seemingly unlimited budget and over-the-top production value, each entry in the series was more epic than the next. And while that ambition has led to a few noticeable missteps, every release since Final Fantasy VII has been nothing short of a singular event in the gaming world.
This is the best video game franchise ever and it can’t be debated. Commercially, Mario games have generated more revenue than any other franchise and critically they have changed the face of gaming many times over, none more so than Super Mario 64. Even if you disregard the spinoff series here, which include Mario Kart, Paper Mario, Mario Sports and the Yoshi games, and the Mario franchise would only be topped in sales by Tetris and Pokemon.
While there are a few mainline Mario platformers that aren’t among the greatest games of their generation, there’s not a single one that is even mediocre, which, after 35 years, is pretty amazing. Maybe when other franchises get their own theme park they can start to make their case for being the greatest ever.