Four decades of video games have pushed their industry into the stardom it enjoys today. The top three best-selling titles from each era show what gamers were attracted to as gaming technology evolved.
But every decade has more to say than how video game trends changed. What you'll see is a shift in needs and priorities.
Some of the most famous franchises of all time were born in this decade. Does Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Prince of Persia or The Legend of Zelda sound familiar? But the three below outsold them all.
Nintendo released the first-ever Super Mario title in Japan and the US in 1985. The game was repeatedly revised and included multiplayer capabilities – far from your modern MMO technology – that allowed you to play either Mario or Luigi. Since then, the industry’s beloved grandfather of side-scrolling platformers has sold at least 40 million copies worldwide. And that’s not including all the Super Mario series that followed.
Another retro game still making splashes in the video game market is Tetris (seriously, there are over 60 variants to date). The original Tetris, designed by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, circulated for home computers and arcades in many different forms. Global recognition came in 1989 when Nintendo, in another ingenious move, got the rights to produce a handheld console version. Enter Tetris for Game Boy and a range of subsequent platforms. The whole franchise has made over 170 million sales.
First-person shooters have their ancestor too, and you have Nintendo to thank yet again. Duck Hunt was initially released in Japan in 1984 and then again for North American gamers in 1985 for the NES. The bad news is that it was packaged alongside Super Mario Bros. But, as you can tell from this list, it didn't end up minding too much. Overshadowed but still successful, it moved over 28 million units.
This era has a familiar brand topping the charts along with a new entry. The shift from classic arcade and adventure to more creative and immersive gaming styles is clear in consumers' choices. Developers noticed and created the likes of DOOM (1993), The Elder Scrolls (1994) and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (1998). Good times! As for top-sellers, the craze and fame of Tetris for Game Boy spilled into the 90s, so let’s start with the next three titles.
Before MMOs, there were basic but pioneering multiplayer games like Pokémon Red and Blue, launched in North America in 1998. This milestone of an RPG popularized the genre. Its competitive design that pitted players against each other in collecting and mastering all 151 unique and adorable creatures worked well too. Surprised? Where would eSports or PvP even be without Pikachu? 23.5 million copies were sold, marking the beginning of another massive franchise.
The Italian plumber brothers and their heroic moustaches dominate the rest of the 90s’ top 10 list of best-selling video games. Super Mario World for the SNES, released in the US in 1991, brought their arch-enemy, Bowser, and Mario's trusty dinosaur, Yoshi, into the franchise’s expanding universe. The growing fan base devoured 20+ million units.
1990 saw the release of this instalment and the sale of another 15 million copies for the brand. Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced new gameplay features, like the ability to slide, fly and throw blocks. It also added different landscapes to made Mario and Luigi’s adventure a lot more interesting. The plot, design and playable tools grew in complexity. Upgrades to multiplayer capabilities were a major plus too.
By this decade, there were more changes in tastes and technology. Grand Theft Auto was among the open-world franchises making a major impact, while first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo were priming their genre for the boom to come. But that’s not what impressed buyers the most.
This was the game that came with the 2006 release of Nintendo Wii. Both the title and the technology quickly became favorites of their age. Wii Sports sold 58.40 million units, and rightly so. Through an intuitive system, you could jump into action with a range of popular sports: tennis, baseball, golf, boxing and more. Exercise and gaming in one. And the Wii craze didn’t end there.
The next Wii package came to the US in 2007. Apart from a friendly game of baseball, why not have a cow race with your pals? Or a round of billiards. Or laser hockey. Or some fishing. These games were designed for party fun and they gave exactly what they promised. Wii Play moved 26.53 million copies and added to the growing demand for more active gaming.
The game that broke Wii’s, but not Nintendo’s, domination did so through sheer cuteness. Designed for the Nintendo DS, Nintendogs gave players a virtual dog to pet, care for and train. Think of Tamagotchis but on a big screen and with a ton more features. Perks, rewards and surprises came as your pooch progressed in happiness and skill. Chihuahua, Labrador, Dachshund and several other breeds could be unlocked. Unit sales of this game reached more than 23 million.
The rise of eSports, first-person shooters, open worlds and MMOs has marked the last decade. A thriving video game culture is evident in the dozens of conventions happening around the world every year.
Competitive gaming has also helped put the industry on the map. Gamer after talented gamer joins the eSports ranks. And makes a fortune! Tournaments are broadcasted through almost every digital platform, from Twitch to YouTube to Facebook. And, finally, mobile gaming.
How else can you describe it but a powerhouse? This decade has seen its technology rival that of PC and console.
Combining LEGO-like sandbox simulation with a huge open-world RPG design, Minecraft hit the jackpot. Nintendo was finally outshined, in this case, by Mojang and Microsoft in 2011. A whopping 144 million copies have been sold so far. Unlike titles with a set, if expansive, storyline, Minecraft’s appeal is in the freedom of creation given to players.
2013 saw Rockstar Games almost top the best-sellers' charts. This instalment of the action-adventure franchise took its performance, underworld themes and open-world capabilities to new heights. The reward for these efforts has been an overall sale of more than 90 million units and a satisfying buzz of approval for the Grand Theft Auto brand.
Blizzard Entertainment’s first-person shooter game has beaten its heated competition. Overwatch was released in 2016 and within three years has achieved 35 million sales. Among the decade’s MMOs, this is an example of the genre’s investment in a design that’s fun and highly stimulating, as well as action that doesn’t lag no matter how intense or complicated it gets. The cutting edge technology used went a long way to making Overwatch one of the most popular eSports today.
The journey from retro platformers to MMORPGs is even more impressive when you look at what makes each style attractive. Gamers and even designers often cycle back to a classic Tetris or Super Mario for its simplicity. On the other hand, buyers of each decade were clearly drawn to titles that promised more storytelling, action, freedom of choice and social entertainment. Developers delivered products they thought would appeal to target audiences, but it was what consumers actually bought the most that showed their underlying needs and shifts in tastes. Do gamers rule the games after all?