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The 25 Most Iconic Video Game Characters of All Time

OMG September 6, 2017 By Vincent

For years the whipping-boy of reactionaries everywhere, video games have, pretty much, gone mainstream in an industry that is now bigger than Hollywood and makes billions of dollars a year. No longer the sole belonging of nerd culture video games now have their own icons and legends like any other form of entertainment and we look at the characters who have taken control of our hearts and minds whilst we've taken control of them.

25. Agent 47

The protagonist of the 'Hitman' series of games, it is surprising quite how culturally significant this character has become considering his dialogue is limited and often monosyllabic, his attire is monochromatic and his name is solely numeric. Still, it is this essence of cool, calm and collected that made him such a dangerous dude and lethal killing machine in the games which brought a level of ingenuity and genius to stealth gaming like few had done before. They fell off a bit later in the series due to advances in how other games used similar mechanics and there have been a couple of ill-fated film attempts as well but that still doesn't mean that Agent 47 doesn't deserve his place on the list.

24. Rayman

You'd think being limbless would hold you back when it comes to fighting the forces of evil but not for Rayman who used his uniquely coiffured hair to helicopter his way to safety. Debuting all the way back in 1995, he came to us in a time when the gaming landscape was dominated by platformers and many expected him to be a failure but he is still going strong and has even seen spin-offs arise for his side characters but it is he himself who remains the star. What marked him out was his ability to throw his hands and feet further than other characters because of their lack of attachment. Like others who have been around for a while, time has faded his star but it will never be extinguished.

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23. Cloud & Sephiroth

Presented as a duo because they are essentially inseparable, these two came to us in Final Fantasy VII, arguably the best in the increasingly poorly named series it took years of fans pushing for a remake of this particular game but it is finally happening and in no short part because of the relationship between the main protagonist and antagonist who were once soldiers together, their relationship is defined by one another and so they come as the ultimate group package. They only appeared in the one game together so it is a testament to the love fans have for them that they make it onto such a list but they don't climb higher because of their lack of output otherwise.

22. Pyramid Head

The recurring villain in Silent Hill 2 is chilling in his faceless silence that permeates throughout the game and follows you throughout your quest. What makes him more terrifying is that he is actually merely imagined into existence, a beautifully designed and elegantly executed representation of the protagonist's guilt of the death of his wife. Carrying around a butcher's knife with the implicit threat of malice, this character messed up a whole generation of gamers who couldn't deal with how freaky this guy was. Nightmarish and iconic with it.

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21. Kratos

The tortured protagonist of the God of War series, who is on a quest to murder the God of War, then later the God of Thunder due to his manipulation and torture where he kills his own family and then seeks vengeance for being played like a pawn. The angry icon of a hack n' slash generation who remember his bloody exploits through repetitively committing great atrocities, it was the level of brutality that he will be remembered more for rather than his storylines, but, boy, were the games fun.

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20. Worms

What is telling about the series about war-mongering annelids, is that there is little to no story line, no standout characters and no new gameplay developments outside of a few technical upgrades and switch from 2D to 3D, in the past 20 years of the series. So why is it so beloved? Well, put simply, it's just darn funny. Easy to learn, practically impossible to master, Worms was the ultimate in tactical, turn and new iterations of the game haven't changed greatly from its first release apart from maybe newer weapons. It's inherent comedy value with exploding sheep and holy hand grenades added to its quirky charm all the while you try to assassinate animated worms, what more could you want?

19. Duke Nukem

As a muscle-bound misogynist who drank too much and visited strip clubs, some may wonder why he became such a 90s pop-culture icon and, in short, it was because he was a satirical stab at the very industry he was created by in a time when it was perceived as a male-dominated nerd fest. Tumultuous game delays later in the series as well as failing to keep up with current events in gaming eventually killed poor old Duke off but ultimately it was the fact that his satire had done the job, as the face of the industry and its customer base changed. As gamergate proved, there is still some way to go but Duke Nukem is no longer as relevant as he once was when he dropped pithy remarks to events in entertainment. Still, he will forever be fondly remembered as an icon in gaming.

18. Marcus Fenix

The face of a gaming series that revolutionized the first-person shooter, Marcus Fenix is a gravelly voiced heroic archetype who shared a bromance with his band of rag-tag top=heavy soldiers fighting against alien hordes with their chan-saw attached machine guns. A synonym for camaraderie and male bonding, Marcus Fenix led the line in the Gears of War series and still holds water with today's gaming generation as he slices and dices alien scum after winning retribution for once being a criminal.

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17. Nathan Drake

The working man's Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake is a basic treasure hunter, who lacks a whip and fedora but solely relies on his athleticism and smarts to get him by. A revelation in platform gaming, his inspirations were obvious but it was something about his everyman pluckiness that endeared him to gamers despite him being little more than a reimagining of previous icons.

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16. Scorpion & Subzero

Two of the fighting characters who were forever at each other's throats (or tearing them out) in the Mortal Kombat series. Fighting games had existed long before Mortal Kombat hit the scene but its ultra-violence and gore made it both a massive hit and massively controversial. The game didn't care for political correctness and was solely over-indulgent sensationalism and unashamedly so. These two were the most popular faces for their special powers and backstories as a demon of the underworld and ice-god who were evenly matched. If your friend chose one of them, yu were basically forced to play as the other rather than have to choose another (let's be honest) sub-par character.

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15. Crash Bandicoot

The original mascot of the PlayStation brand, Crash Bandicoot came about as a re-thinking of the platformer concept which had long been a side-scrolling format where you saw your character in profile. Originally dubbed 'Sonic's Ass' in a concept which saw the creators wondering if you could make a platformer from a different perspective (i.e. behind the character so you could see what they were seeing) this Australian marsupial was eventually settled upon and he rapidly became a legend for his fun, quirky game design, hilarious enemies and downright brilliant level design.

Image: NewGameNetwork/Flickr.com

14. Dante

Fighting the demonic spawn of the devil in the Devil May Cry series, it helps if you're a cocksure, swarthy gent with a massive sword and impressive acrobatic skills. Arrogant and good at his job, his name is a nod to classic literature and he himself falls into video gaming cannon as he hacked and slashed his way through the undead hordes of hell.

13. Samus Aran

Spawning the immensely popular series of Metroid video games was, of course, the 1986 game Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES). The game followed a burly, canon wielding, super-soldier who traveled through space dealing with threats to the Galactic Federation such as space pirates and biological weapons. Called Samus, the protagonist's identity remains hidden behind the reflective visor of their protective space helmet and remains that way until completion of the game. However, if you manage to whizz through the various levels and defeat the final boss all in under an hour (trust me when I say, no mean feat) the identity of our hero is revealed. Given the name Samus and the fact they spend their time in a bulky space suit, many jumped ahead thinking of their character as a man but the reveal is that Samus is actually a 6" 3 blonde woman. In this day and age, this is perhaps not particularly noteworthy, but at the time this was big news as Samus was one of the first female characters in video games that weren't a victim or a bit part player to the story. The Guinness book of records credits her as "the first playable human female character in a mainstream videogame" and she remains one of the least sexualized female video game characters in history.

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12. Ryu & Ken

Brothers in all but blood, Ryu and Ken are the iconic characters of the Street Fighter games and are the less gore-y equivalent of Scorpion and Subzero. These two were originally exactly the same character but with a change of hair and name as the game was developed with both a Western and Japanese market in mind and developers thought those in the West would not play with an Eastern character so Ryu was copy and pasted and became Ken, the eternal rival to Ryu from who he was cloned. Both with the iconic Hadouken move, they have been at the forefront of fighting games since their introduction to us in 1987.

11. Bowser

Initially just the giant turtle-shelled monster that stole Princess Peach and gave Super Mario something to do, Bowser evolved into a far more fleshed out character over time and became an excellent counterpoint to the plumber bedecked in red and even had his own tongue-in-cheek game focussed around his inner workings (although it still acts as a Mario & Luigi vehicle). He has always been Mario's nemesis and without him, there can be no Mario and so he deserves his own mention on this list.

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10. Solid Snake

The man that made stealth gaming what it is today in games revolving around technological warfare against weird and wonderful enemies who had been augmented and changed with special powers. Snake was the one who saved the day with his sneaking around under boxes and trying to get past enemies with stealth rather than just blasting his way through. He was a breath of fresh air to gaming and every stealth game now owes its legacy to this bandanna sporting, grizzled character.

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9. Mega-Man

A bio-engineered robot-man with a cannon for an arm, Mega-man wad the first game to make gaming really hard. If you are under-par on Mega-man you will know about it and it was the first in gaming trends to really test gamers to their limits, something that is still sadly lacking in the industry. This robotic icon was characterized by his bright blue suit and infuriating enemies that could ho,d you in one spot for hours.

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8. Donkey Kong

Bad guy turned good, Donkey Kong pre-dates the legend that is Bowser as an enemy of Mario but has since become the hero of his own series of games. Once a barrel throwing menace, he became an icon for Nintendo before being loaned to developers Rare in a golden era for the character who had his own adventure and racing games. Only returning to Mario games for spin-off party games, it is a testament to the fact that he is too big a name himself to share the platform with another Nintendo character.

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7. Link

The green clad warrior boy who saves Princess Zelda in The Legend of Zelda, he presented puzzling and epic adventure battles to the gaming community in equal measure and was the first truly in-depth story line that people saw in gaming as you battled cave-dwelling trolls, chased chickens and smashed pots for rare gems all before defeating the evil pig-monster, Ganondorf, and rescuing the Princess.

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6. Lara Croft

Mention the name Lara Croft and to a generation of twenty-to-thirty-somethings will light up and gladly engage you in conversation about the pixelated adventures of a female archaeologist who would explore tombs and temples across the globe. It is a rare phenomenon, although not entirely unique, to see a video-game character have such a cultural impact, and especially one from the 90s. Nowadays the video games industry is a multi-billion dollar one but when we first saw Lara Croft in the 1996 game Tomb Raider it was undoubtedly a time when the market was turning and video-game consoles where becoming a mainstream appliance but not quite at the magnitude we see today.It could then be said that Lara Croft is one of the forerunners of this boom in interest for video games. Lara Croft's inception came at a time when there were very few female protagonists in video gaming and the pastime was considered a more male-centric one and her unmitigated success led to a slew of female characters in video games post her arrival. As such her cultural impact was evident from the outset, by presenting a strong, self-reliant, female character she was breaking the damsel in distress trope as well as pushing forward the narrative of video game storytelling. She was, however, not without her controversies. Created and designed by male developers, Lara Croft became, what is considered to be, one of the video gaming's first sex symbols, with certain features being over exaggerated and many considering the sounds the character made when in action, overtly sexualized.

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5. Master Chief

An emotionless super soldier whose face you never see, just picks up guns and takes on whole alien hordes on his own with only the help of his computer-generated sidekick. Single-handedly saving the original Xbox console from obscurity, the Halo franchise was the pinnacle of shooters and for the original trilogy, went from strength to strength and led the line when it came to online gaming when it finally went mainstream on consoles. Now as much an icon of Microsoft as Bill Gates is, Master Chief has earned innumerable accolades and deserves his place on this list.

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4. Pikachu

Believe it or not, the enduringly popular Pokemon franchise is now 20 years old and has dominated various entertainment mediums since its birth way back in 1996. Based around the concept of battling monsters that can fit in your pocket with the help of special technology, the idea of Pokemon has swept the globe and captured the imagination of generations of children. During its 20 years of success, it has gone from 151 creatures to a whopping 650 and so one had to become the stand-out icon in order to sell the brand and that was the cute electric mouse that was Pikachu, who became the sidekick in the spin-off animated series. In 1996, Nintendo released a new video game for their portable console, the Gameboy, which was a role-playing game that revolved around you capturing and battling an array of weird and wonderful monsters that could fit in your pocket via the contraptions of Pokeballs, hence that name Pokemon - a portmanteau of pocket monsters. It was not understood the cultural impact of this game would have on the world but with the ability to battle and trade these creatures with friends with dual games having distinct variations it was an instant hit with the youth of Japan, where it was released, with 151 original Pokemon to collect and trade spurring a frenzy of activity in order to "catch 'em all". Suddenly, an empire was born. In its other entertainment forms, such as film and TV, the public was introduced to Ash, a character who had been given a Pokemon outside of the regular starter Pokemon and befriended it to a point that it actually walked around beside him rather than staying in a Pokeball like others. With Pikachu becoming a recognizable character in his own right people soon started to identify him as one of their favorites and wanted to emulate Ash in the video games. A special edition of the game was released where you started the game with a Pikachu that followed you around and it tied in with other areas of the franchise. This was launched for Nintendo's new portable console, the Gameboy Color, which meant, for the first time in the game, you could see your creatures in full color.

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3. Sonic The Hedgehog

Sonic the Hedgehog is an international cultural icon, one of the first poster-children of video gaming and a franchise of massive proportions. His unique blue hue has made him instantly recognizable along with his bold persona and ability to run at super speed (hence the name). However, it hasn't always been plain sailing for the miscolored mammal and he had his ups and downs. Let's start with where it all began, shall we? Sonic the Hedgehog was born out of a need to compete. Nintendo had a firm grip on the video game market and it mainly revolved around the exploits of a giant Gorilla and a pair of plumbers in red and green overalls respectively. Super Mario had become the first superstar icon of video games with his instantly recognizable red hat and bushy mustache and SEGA wanted to challenge this. They were soon to launch their new console and needed a frontman for it, an icon that would represent them how Mario represented Nintendo and so everyone within the company was asked to come up with a design for a character. Of the designs that came out on top, one was a friendly rabbit inspired by the popularity of the Disney brand, another a large, affable fat man with a bushy mustache (like Mario) based heavily on former US President Theodore Roosevelt and finally, a superfast hedgehog initially dubbed Mr. Needle Mouse. The rabbit was quickly done away with but the other two characters were held in high regard. It was decided, however, that Mr. Needle Mouse could become everything Mario wasn't. Rather than a character based on trial and error, Needle Mouse could be about speed and reactions and rather than red he'd be Blue. The fat man was repurposed and soon became the enemy to this hog and after a quick rename to reflect his speed and attitude, Sonic was born along with the evil Dr. Ivo Robotnik (or Dr. Eggman in Japan.)

Image Source: PlayStation Europe/Flickr.com

2. Super Mario

The Italian plumber who travels through tubes to battle walking mushrooms and flying turtles, he has been at the forefront of video gaming since 1986 and hasn't slowed down since. Forever having to save Princess Peach of the mushroom kingdom, he is arguably the first character to bring us backstory or platform gaming and is a true icon, so much so that the Japanese Prime Minister recently dressed up as him in order to promote his country at the Olympic games. If that doesn't say legend, I don't know what does.

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1. Pac-Man

A character literally designed after a pizza that was missing a slice, the original Pac-Man arcade game, in just 10 years after its release, had generated a staggering $2.5 billion purely from quarters.  The leap to home entertainment saw the arcade game re-imagined in cartridge form and pretty much all consoles available on the market have a version of the original game but, realistically, the leap to the home gaming market was unkind to Pac-Man but he is still the most iconic and recognizable video-game character in the world.

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