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The 50 most iconic video game characters of all time

25. Ezio Auditore da Firenze 

Ezio

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

First appearance in a game: 2009
Notable Appearance: Assassin's Creed 2

Whatever your favorite Assassin's Creed game, it’s hard to argue against Ezio being the face of the series. He embodies everything the games do best: infectious swagger, near-superheroic abilities, and an absurd proliferation of belts. But he’s not just cool for the sake of it: we get to go on a journey with Ezio, a man who hones his craft over time and grows as a character. And the fact we get to see so much of his life makes everything more poignant: like the montage scene from Up, but with more brutal melee takedowns. His experiences are chronicled over the course of four main games and he also made guest appearances in Soulcalibur 5 and For Honor. 

24. Leon S Kennedy

Resident Evil 4

(Image credit: Capcom)

First appearance in a game: 1998
Notable Appearance: Resident Evil 2

As well as being the proud owner of a haircut you can date to the precise month in the 1990s, Leon S Kennedy of Resident Evil 2 holds the award for ‘worst ever first day at work’. He finds his new home overrun with flesh-devouring reanimated corpses, his mysterious new paramour Ada betrays him and his welcome party has been canceled. He handles it well, however, helping to save the young Sherry Birkin and escape the city with the help of student Claire Redfield. He lands a promotion after that, getting bumped up to government special agent by Resident Evil 4, this time on a mission to save the president’s kidnapped daughter from cultists infected with a mind-controlling parasite. 

23. Glados

Glados

(Image credit: Valve)

First appearance in a game: 2007
Notable Appearance: Portal

You know a villain has to be pretty special to earn a place on this list alongside the gallery of fully fleshed-out protagonists. But then you could argue that Glados is the central character in 2007’s Portal and that Chell is merely a delivery method for Valve’s flawlessly scripted, unhinged AI. Her manipulative turn in the first game would likely have justified her inclusion here, as she degenerates from a sassy guidance personality construct to a belligerent overlord. But Glados’s face turn Portal 2 - which even includes an undignified spell as a sentient potato battery - brought a surprising degree of pathos and relatability to a machine that spent several hours trying to kill us. 

22. Commander Shepard

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

(Image credit: EA)

First appearance in a game: 2007
Notable Appearance: Portal

If you’re reading this having already played Mass Effect, you’ll likely have a specific image in your head when we talk about Commander Shepard. Perhaps it’s the ruggedly generic Default Shepard. Or perhaps it’s some bug-eyed, character-slider abomination. But whatever your choice, Shepard resonates with so many of us because they’re the central point in one of gaming’s great stories - a moral nucleus that lets you change the fate of planets and galaxies in one breath and punch abrasive reporters with the next. Bioware does such a fine job of building a believable universe in Mass Effect that you begin to believe your own legend as you play, and the strength of Shepherd’s characterization - paragon or renegade - is a huge part of that.

21. Samus Aran

Metroid Dread

(Image credit: Nintendo)

First appearance in a game: 1986
Notable Appearance: Metroid

Samus is rightly regarded as a breakthrough character in games. The big reveal at the end of the first Metroid game, in which it was revealed we’d been playing as a woman all along, was so unexpected that many players simply didn’t understand it. Some even attributed it to a legendary cheat code that unlocked all the items in the game. In fact, the cultural significance of that reveal is now only obvious in hindsight - not just because Samus is a woman, but because her gender didn’t have any over effect on her appearance or behavior. And while Samus wasn’t the first playable female character in a video game, despite some assertions to the contrary, she was certainly the one with the highest profile. She’s starred in nine Nintendo games since - including, most recently, Metroid Dread - and has been a playable character in all five Super Smash Bros. games. 

20. Rayman

Rayman

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

First appearance in a game: 1995
Notable Appearance: Rayman

Much like Mumford and Sons or Worcester sauce-flavored crisps, few people publicly admit to Rayman being their favorite. But there’s an enduring appeal to Ubisoft’s cheerful magical hero. Rayman first appeared in 1995, and has gone on to star in four other major releases, including the critically lauded Origins in 2011 and Legends in 2013. He’s also starred in an absurd number of spin-offs - including golf, gardening, and kart games - as well as ‘gifting’ us with Ubisoft’s mischievous, screaming mascots in 2006’s Rayman Raving Rabbids. His unique design - essentially a head with floating hands and feet - is based on sketches drawn as a teenager by creator Michel Ancel. One can’t help but wonder what’s underneath those white gloves. Terrible violence, probably. 

19. Gordon Freeman

Gordon Freeman

(Image credit: Valve)

First appearance in a game: 1998
Notable Appearance: Half-Life

Many characters in games get saddled with the ‘everyman’ tag, but few wear it with the same grace as Gordon Freeman. Since his appearance in 1998’s Half-Life, he’s cemented his place as gaming’s most aspirational theoretical physicist - a man as handy with a crowbar as he is with complicated science things I’d struggle to explain here. He’s helped along by Half-Life’s effervescent cast, particularly Alyx Vance, who makes us love Gordon more just because of the way she looks at him. Yes, the idea of a guy in a beard and glasses saving the world and getting the girl might be the ultimate geek glow-up fantasy, but Freeman has an understated x-factor that makes it somehow seem more believable. 

18. Cloud

Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade

(Image credit: Square Enix)

First appearance in a game: 1997
Notable Appearance: Final Fantasy 7

On a purely superficial level, it’s easy to dismiss Cloud Strife as if you’re playing a game of hack journalist cliche bingo. Big hair! Big sword! Amnesia! LOL. But the truth is that Cloud endures because he’s a complex, nuanced character, and his appearance in Final Fantasy VII might be the first example of an unreliable narrator in games. In a game famous for its twists and tragic deaths, it’s the lead character’s trauma that leaves the most enduring mark, and that’s a testament to how ahead of his time Cloud was. His cultural significance might have lessened over recent years, purely because he’s so ubiquitous, but it’s worth taking a moment to remember he’s about more than just decadent hair and a preposterous sword

17. Chun-Li

Chun-Li

(Image credit: Capcom)

First appearance in a game: 1991
Notable Appearance: Street Fighter 2

It seems mad to write it, but back at the time of release in 1991, Chun-Li was the first playable woman in a fighting game. Fast forward a few years and it’s almost impossible to imagine the competitive landscape without her. As an Interpol agent out to avenge her father’s death at the hands of M. Bison, she’s one of Street Fighter’s most fleshed out fighters, which is likely why she ended up with her own live-action movie, 2009’s The Legend of Chun-Li, in which she was played by Kristin Kreuk. Since her conception, Chun-Li has inspired obsessive devotion: her meticulous design almost caused 1991’s Street Fighter 2 to be delayed because designer Akira Yasuda, also known as Akiman, was so obsessed with her legs he resprited them five times, pushing the game right up to their final deadline.

16. Agent 47

Hitman: Codename 47

(Image credit: IO Interactive)

First appearance in a game: 2000
Notable Appearance: Hitman: Codename 47

How important is Agent 47? The chances are that you can no longer see a bald man in a black suit without imaging a barcode on the back of his head - or, better yet, drawing one on him while he sleeps. We first met him in 2000 in Hitman: Codename 47, which established him a the ideal, emotionless vessel through which to execute your elaborate murder plans, and he’s gone on to feature in eight main games and two spin-offs. Agent 47’s utter coldness just makes it even funnier when you dress up as a flamingo to bludgeon a villainous industrialist. 47’s total lack of personality makes the decision to cast Timothy Oliphant - a man so charming his teeth can cause delirium - to play him in the 2007 film adaptation even more inexplicable.

15. Nathan Drake

Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection

(Image credit: Sony)

First appearance in a game: 2007
Notable Appearance: Uncharted

If you’ve ever wondered why modern game characters never stop chatting to each other (or themselves) while you play, look no further than Nathan Drake. Since his first charmingly-disheveled appearance in 2007’s Uncharted, Drake set the standard for humanizing, in-game banter, whether it was a wry chat with a friend and mentor Sully or, more famously, a desperate ‘oh crap’ before being crushed, dropped, exploded or a combination of all three. He’s the archetypal loveable rogue: a troubled man with a murky past, who inevitably ends up doing the right thing despite his outward reluctance, and he’s the reason Uncharted shines brighter than other games that offer similar, treasure-thieving thrills. Drake will - finally! Finally! - be played by Tom Holland in the Uncharted movie, scheduled for release in 2022. 

14. Spyro

Spyro the Dragon

(Image credit: Activision)

First appearance in a game: 1998
Notable Appearance: Spyro the Dragon

A gaming mascot should be like an excellent cake: sweet, but not so sweet that you want vomit. Spyro gets the balance right. His appearance is all about function, not form: he was changed from classic dragon green to purple to avoid him blending in with the greenery and given the ability to glide to make the game stand apart from other platformers. Insomniac even hired NASA rocket scientist Matt Whiting to perfect his in-air movement. Since his first appearance in 1998, Spyro has appeared in six main series games, as well as three in the Legend of Spyro reboot series. He’s also appeared in two Skylanders games, albeit after a slightly upsetting redesign. One parting Spyro fact: he was initially called Pete, but the name was changed to avoid the wrath of the ever-litigious Disney. Smart. 

13. Geralt of Rivia 

The Witcher 3

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

First appearance in a game: 2007
Notable Appearance: The Witcher 2: Wild Hunt

In a landscape full of dashing heroes striving to do the right thing, Geralt of Rivia stands out as a peerless example of grey morality. The world around him contains every kind of cruelty and evil, and it’s fruitless to try and fix it all. Instead, Geralt provides a believable lynchpin around which The Witcher’s unflinching fantasy world is built. Geralt has starred in three main Witcher games from CD Projekt Red, the Gwent spin-off, and has made guest appearances in Soulcalibur 6, Monster Hunter: World and Daemon X Machina. In the Netflix series - which takes its cues directly from Andrzej Sapkowski’s books rather than the games - he’s played by Henry Cavill. Wherever he turns up, Geralt thrills as a complex, reviled outcast, pushed by destiny and circumstance into conflict he can’t escape. 

12. Ellie

The Last of Us

(Image credit: Naughty Dog)

First appearance in a game: 2013
Notable Appearance: The Last of Us

Ellie may be the emotional heart of The Last of Us, but her origins lie in Uncharted 2. She was inspired by a proposed sequence in which Drake would meet a mute girl in a war-torn city, and the two would form a bond through gameplay, not dialogue - things like Drake following her through the city and learning her secrets. The concept was so compelling that Naughty Dog built an entire game around it. Over the course of two titles, Ellie provides resolve, humor, truth, and vulnerability to a world that would otherwise be unrelentingly cold. Ashley Johnson understandably won critical acclaim for her portrayal of Ellie, for whom she provides motion capture and voice acting, and Ellie will be played by Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey in the upcoming TV adaptation of The Last of Us, written and produced by Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin.

11. Z-shaped Tetris Block

Tetris

(Image credit: Alexey Pajitnov)

First appearance in a game: 1984
Notable Appearance: Tetris

The Z-block, alongside her less glamorous sibling the S-block, came into our lives in 1984. Affectionately known as the ‘squiggly’, this tetromino neatly encapsulates the delicious torture of Tetris. Yes, you might be able to find the correct alcove in which to nestle the Z-block, but you can kiss your pristine, smooth surfaces behind. With that in mind, you might expect we’d pick the O-block or the I-block as the MVPs of Alexey Pajitnov’s legendary puzzler. But no. The O-block is literally just a square - you can find those anywhere - and the straight, simple I-block is so basic it’s the pumpkin spice latte of the tetromino world. All hail our difficult but interesting friend Zed.

10. Solid Snake

Metal Gear Solid

(Image credit: Konami)

First appearance in a game: 1987
Notable Appearance: Metal Gear Solid

Solid Snake has many names, David, Old Snake, Iroquois Pliskin, and honestly trying to condense this icon's biography into a pithy paragraph is every writer's worst nightmare. Born from the complicated mind of Hideo Kojima, Solid Snake is a mercenary and spec ops solider and a clone of FOXHOUND founder Big Boss. Through his complex life, he has saved the world, fought the titular tank Metal Gear, tried to retire, joined the CIA, and become a competitive dogsled racer. Outside of the Metal Gear series he's appeared as a corpse in Silent Hill 3, in the Game Boy Advance game, Yu-Gi-Oh! 7 Trials to Glory: World Championship Tournament 200, Ape Escape 3, and LittleBigPlanet, to name just a few of his cameos. This oddly busy man is also set to be immortalized in a movie from Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. 

9. Kratos

God of War Ragnarok

(Image credit: Sony)

First appearance in a game: 2005
Notable Appearance: God of War

From frenzied frat boy of violence to an emotionally conflicted dad, few characters in gaming have ever pulled off such a surprising narrative arc. When Kratos arrived on PlayStation he was a Spartan warrior filed by a lust for vengeance, but not averse to a sex mini-game now and again. He was a hero, but not one you'd introduce to mom. The reboot in 2018 under creative director Cory Barlog gave Kratos a new son, Atreus, and a soul. Gone were his double-chained blades (at least at first) and in came the Leviathan Axe and its elemental powers. As well as new gameplay, Stargate SG-1 gave a new voice and pathos to Kratos. Father and son will return next year in God of War: Ragnarok. 

8. Crash Bandicoot

Crash Bandicoot 4

(Image credit: Activision)

First appearance in a game: 1996
Notable Appearance: Crash Bandicoot: Warped

Mobile mutant Crash Bandicoot is actually the victim of genetic experimentation, bit doesn't let that get him down. His signature move since is his tornado spin, but since his debut in 1996, his skills have expanded to include new fighting moves and even a bazooka. In his most recent adventure, 2020's Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, Crash could use Quantum Masks to slow time, reverse gravity and get a temporary invnicibility buff. Perhaps the greatest honor bestowed on this icon is that an extinct species of bandicoot discovered in northwestern Queensland was named after him by a group of paleontologists. 

Zelda

(Image credit: Nintendo)

First appearance in a game: 1986
Notable Appearance: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Link the silent Hyrulian twink is the creation of legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto and has been battling Ganon for 15 years through The Legend of Zelda series, as well as popping up in spin-offs, cartoons, and manga. While his appearance has changed significantly through the games, some things remain true for every link. His signature weapon - the Master Sword - his close relationship with Princess Zelda, and his fearless nature. Link has always been multiskilled, using boomerangs, bows, shields, musical instruments, and gliders to defeat enemies and explore dungeons, and even had the ability to transform into a wolf in Twilight Princess. Despite his legacy, he's one of the few icons on this list not to have his own movie. 

6. Master Chief

Halo Infinite

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

First appearance in a game: 2001
Notable Appearance: Halo: Reach

Full name Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, the Halo hero is a Spartan supersoldier, conscripted by the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) as a child and trained for battle. With the help of his AI sidekick Cortana, Master Chief has been fighting a collective of aliens called the Covenant for 20 years. With the success of the original trilogy, Master Chief became the face - or at least the helmet - of Xbox, and has gone on to appear in 15 Halo games, and Halo Infinite will be released on December 8, 2021. He's also starred in novels, comics, anime, has a Paramount+ television series produced by Steven Spielberg in the works, and almost had his own feature film with Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, and Neil Blomkamp all involved before the project was canceled. 

5. Pac-Man

Pac-Man

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

First appearance in a game: 1980
Notable Appearance: Pac-Man Championship Edition DX - 93

You probably can't remember the last time you played a Pac-Man game, but you'd recognize that little yellow circle anywhere. Inspired by a slice of pizza with a piece cut out, Pac-Man's raison dêtre is eating dots and escaping ghosts in a simple maze. Despite these simple mechanics, Pac-Man has remained one of the most enduring characters of the arcade era, with the merchandise and media profile to match. He's had a cartoon - featuring the entire Pac family and pets - and even today is referenced in movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Pixels and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. 

4. Lara Croft

Tomb Raider 2013 reboot

(Image credit: Square Enix)

First appearance in a game: 1996
Notable Appearance: Rise of the Tomb Raider

The pin-up archeologist has been through a massive evolution since her creation as the pointy-breasted sex symbol hero for 1996's Tomb Raider. She was always a badass, traversing ancient tombs and taking on villains and dinosaurs, but the 2010 reboot introduced a new, more modern Lara Croft, giving her a more complete origin story and a new streak of humanity. Across the various games Croft's biography has changed, but her smarts, bold spirit and parental tragedy are recurring themes. Away from the games, Lara Croft has been touched by movie magic twice. In 2001 Angelina Jolie portrayed her for two movies, and in 2018 Alicia Vikander stepped into her hiking boots. Vikander will return for Tomb Raider: Obsidian, with Lovecraft Country's Misha Green as writer and director. 

3. Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic the Hedgehog

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

First appearance in a game: 1991
Notable Appearance: Sonic Mania

Sonic is the instantly recognizable mascot for Sega, but in another timeline, it could have been very different. In the concept stage of making a rival for Nintendo's Mario,  Sega developers considered a rabbit, a dog, and even an armadillo. Luckily they went with the blue hedgehog, who has since appeared in over 100 games on a range of platforms, from the Sega Genesis to arcades to phones. He's also been immortalized in animation, on the side of Formula One cars, on soccer kits, and scientists working on genetic mutations in fruit flies have even named a protein after him. In 2020 Sonic got his own live-action movie (after some edits to his controversial CGI look in the trailer) and a sequel is due for release in April 2022. 

2. Pikachu

Pokemon Pikachu

(Image credit: The Pokemon Company)

First appearance in a game: 1996
Notable Appearance: Pokemon Gold and Silver  

If Pokemon has a spokesperson, it's the adorable and electrifying yellow fuzzball. First appearing in Pokemon Red and Green in Japan, the mouse-type pokemon was chosen by Nintendo to be one of the mascots for the game series' marketing and merchandising and has since appeared at international football matches, as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, on the side of Boeing 747 and as a MacDonald's dessert. For millennials, his fame was secured not just by the games but as Ash Ketchum's faithful companion in the cartoon, and for the newest generation of pokemon trainers, there's the movie Detective Pikachu where his cute squeaks are replaced by the Ryan Reynolds repartee.  

1. Mario

Mario

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Notable appearance: Super Mario Bros.
First appearance in a game: 1981

There's never been a better time to be Mario. It's been forty years since the plumber first appeared in Donkey Kong, and now he's the face of Nintendo with a star-studded movie due in 2022, a Super Mario World theme park in Japan, and over 200 video games to his name. Even now, Nintendo is still finding new ways to innovate on the adventures for their stocky Italian plumber, with games like Super Mario Odyssey and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle proving there's plenty of life in the little guy yet. 


For more, check out our rankings of the 20 best video game consoles and hardware of all time and the 50 best games of all time

Rachel Weber

Rachel Weber is the US Managing Editor of GamesRadar+ and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Rachel began working in games journalism in 2006, combing her love of video games with her passion for writing. Starting as a fresh-faced staff writer of Official PlayStation Magazine, she went on to cover the business side of the industry with GamesIndustry.biz, before joining Rolling Stone's ambitious - if short-lived - Glixel project in 2016. She returned to Future and joined GamesRadar+ in 2017, revitalizing the news coverage and building new processes and strategies for the US team.


Throughout her 15 years of experience, Rachel has interviewed celebrities about their gaming habits, chatted with PlayStation and Xbox bosses, written thousands of words of previews, reviews, and news, and appeared as an expert on BBC radio and TV. In the name of games journalism, she's also taken rap lessons, appeared on the streets of London as a zombie, tried her hand at sword-fighting, and taken part in more than one 24-hour gaming marathons. 


When she's not on duty for GamesRadar expect to see her hunting down the weirdest indie games on Steam, curling up with the latest horror novel, or binging the newest must-see crime documentary. You can find her at @therachelweber on Twitter.