The best next-gen launch games of all time, from WipEout to Wii Sports

(Image credit: Sony)

There is nothing like the dawn of a new console generation to ramp up excitement in the games industry – and once we're done obsessively comparing the gigabytes and teraflops of the machines themselves, it's what we'll be playing on them that counts. 

The launch game line-up is where each console war truly begins, and it's the job of a good launch title to tell us what we can expect from the new era, whether that's some astonishing graphical advance or an innovative new feature that changes the way we think about games forever.   

Players have witnessed some spectacular opening salvos over the last 40 years, from the star turns of Mario and Sonic to the handful of eccentric oddities that brilliantly highlighted amazing new next-gen technology before disappearing forever. Here, then, are the launch games that really made a difference. 

Table Tennis (Magnavox Odyssey, 1972)

Table Tennis

(Image credit: Magvanox)

Two bats, a ball, and a score: that's the entire concept behind this extremely basic launch title, designed by the father of the games industry Ralph Baer. 

But because the Odyssey was the first ever commercial video game console, and since Table Tennis also inspired Pong (a.k.a. the Atari machine that kickstarted the video game arcade business), this game was, you know, pretty important.  

Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1985)

Super Mario Bros.

(Image credit: Nintendo)

The masterpiece that affirmed Nintendo as the global leader in console gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto's delightful epic either invented or revolutionised every trope of the scrolling platformer, filling the Mushroom Kingdom with imaginative enemies, beautifully designed puzzles and dozens of secret features. 

The sense of perfectionism that Miyamoto and his team brought to every facet of Super Mario Bros., from the exact angle and length of jumps to the pixel-perfect placement of obstacles, inspired a generation of game creators.  

Altered Beast (Mega Drive, 1988)

Altered Beast

(Image credit: Sega)

From the beginning of its conception, Sega pitched the Mega Drive as a true home arcade machine capable of bringing the latest coin-op hits straight into your living room with few graphical compromises. Altered Beast did a pretty good job of living up to that promise. 

The scrolling beat-'em-up, set in a lurid version of Ancient Greece, boasted large, well-animated characters, huge bosses and varied environments, and its gleeful violence established the Mega Drive as a teen-friendly rival to the family-orientated Nintendo machines. 

Tetris (Nintendo Game Boy, 1989)


(Image credit: The Tetris Company/N3twork)

Okay, so this could technically be considered cheating, as Tetris had already been released on various home computers by the time it arrived as a bundled game for the US and European launches. However, the impact of the handheld version was gigantic, the simple but brutally compelling game design widening the audience for video games immeasurably. 

Tetris addiction became a global news story, and today, the Tetris Effect, in which people who spend too much time on a repetitive activity begin to see it when they close their eyes, is a recognised medical phenomenon. Not many launch games have achieved that kind of impact.

F-Zero (Super Famicom, 1990)


(Image credit: Nintendo)

Launched alongside the wonderful but familiar Super Mario World, F-Zero represented something quite new for Nintendo; a lightning fast futuristic racer, not to mention one which made breathtaking use of the machine's Mode 7 graphics engine. 

This allowed 2D backgrounds to be scaled and rotated like a 3D landscape, giving games a greater sense of depth and realism. At the time, it looked like the future, and if launch titles are designed to showcase the innovative capabilities of new hardware, F-Zero really delivered.

Virtua Fighter (Sega Saturn, 1994)

Virtua Fighter

(Image credit: Sega)

One of the first games to make use of texture-mapped, polygon-based graphics, Virtua Fighter was a revolutionary hit in the arcades. Bringing it to the Saturn, in a conversion handled by original development team AM2, was thus a strong statement of intent from Sega. 

Though the eight characters, each constructed from around 1200 polygons, look blocky by today's standards, the swooping cameras and intricate fighting moves were extremely advanced, setting up a fierce rivalry with PlayStation's Tekken series that would last for years. 

WipEout (PlayStation, 1995)


(Image credit: Psygnosis)

With its fast-paced polygonal visuals, ultra cool sci-fi world design, and trendsetting dance music soundtrack, WipEout arguably created the image of the PlayStation generation, a year after the machine's Japanese arrival. 

While Ridge Racer was a great arcade conversion, WipEout set the PlayStation apart from its rivals, pitching the machine at twenty-something clubbers and music festival goers, cleverly broadening its appeal. Ultimately, this game was as much about attitude and marketing as it was about racing spaceships – and that's what made it vital. 

Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996)

Super Mario 64

(Image credit: Nintendo)

One the most important console games ever released, Super Mario 64 is a creative juggernaut that re-shaped the industry's approach to environment design and world exploration. 

Miyamoto was at the height of his powers, inventing a vast 3D playground for his beloved Mario that continually surprised and tested players. Importantly, it also revealed the possibilities and appeal of the N64 console at a time when Sony's PlayStation was completely dominating the industry. The greatest ever launch title? Probably.

Sonic Adventure (Sega Dreamcast, 1999)

sonic adventure

(Image credit: Sega)

Sega's Sonic Team completely reinvented its mascot for this Dreamcast killer app, using the 128-bit power of the machine to create a lavishly detailed environment, filled with sub-quests, mini-games and lush cinematic sequences. 

As well as showing off the console's graphical capabilities, the game also allowed players to discover and look after virtual pets named Chao, which could be managed on the Dreamcast controller's unique Visual Memory Unit. This game didn't just launch the Dreamcast; it also helped build the entire concept and structure of the modern action-RPG adventure.

Fantavision, (PlayStation 2, 2000)


(Image credit: Sony)

Okay, bear with us here, this is probably not the PS2 launch title you were expecting. However, Fantavision was a really compelling puzzler based around matching firework colours to create beautiful pyrotechnic displays. 

Originally created as a tech demo, the game told potential buyers that they could expect strange new ideas from this console, not just the same old shooters and racers. Filled with odd visual flourishes, and released with different soundtracks for different regions of the world, it was classic Sony: stylish, cool, and perfect for showing off your new kit to non-gamers. 

Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox, 2001)

Halo: combat Evolved

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

It is almost impossible to think about the original Xbox without Halo: Combat Evolved – the two are basically inseparable. Bungie's beautifully designed game, which brought the exactness and attention to detail of a Nintendo platformer to the first-person shooter genre, gave Microsoft's machine an instant fanbase. 

We came for the exciting story, weighty gunplay, and engaging enemy AI, but stayed for the competitive multiplayer modes which pointed toward the online future of the Xbox franchise.  

Lumines (PlayStation Portable, 2004)


(Image credit: Q Entertainment)

Just when it seemed no one could break Nintendo's monopoly on the handheld gaming market, along came the PlayStation Portable, a very different proposition from the Game Boy series with its sleek, mature design and huge, high resolution screen. 

Ridge Racers showed off the console's 3D graphics credentials, but Lumines from ex-Sega designer Testuya Mizuguchi was the real star, a superb combination of Tetris-style puzzling, hallucinogenic visuals, and blissful dance music.   

Wii Sports (Wii, 2006)

wii sports

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Before it launched, people scoffed at the idea of the Wii's dated tech and weird TV remote control joypad. Then they saw families playing Wii Sports together, and everything clicked. Through its five easily recognisable events, the game perfectly illustrated the sheer accessibility of the console's motion controls, allowing six-year-olds to play against eighty-year-olds – and everyone in between. 

The fact that there is still a National Senior League for Wii Bowling tells you all you need to know. Rarely has the entire design philosophy behind a new console been so clearly symbolised in a single game.

Knack (PlayStation 4, 2013)


(Image credit: Sony)

No, we haven't gone crazy. Sony's platforming adventure, with its strange shape-shifting hero, got a mixed reception at launch, but Knack was an old school launch game in all the right ways. 

Designed and developed in-house (in this case by PS4 system architect Mark Cerny) to illustrate the potential of the new machine, Knack's varied, colourful environments and use of new features like the DualShock's built-in speakers made it a friendly, approachable introduction to the PS4 era. It's the sort of launch game you played all through the Christmas holidays until you could afford something new, but still feel affectionate towards after all this time. 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch, 2017)

Breath of the Wild

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Let's be honest: no one does launch titles like Nintendo. Breath of the Wild was an endlessly inventive re-imagining of the open world RPG, giving players unfettered access to the environment and its many quests, secrets, and characters, all while infusing the world with authentic physical properties. 

Utterly engrossing, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild perfectly illustrated the value of being able to switch play from your TV to the built-in display: like a wonderful fantasy novel, it was capable of transporting you to a different world, wherever you were. 

For more, check out the best Call of Duty games in the series' history, or check out our official PS5 unboxing in the video below. 

Freelance journalist

Keith Stuart is an experienced journalist and editor. While Keith's byline can often be found here at GamesRadar+, where he writes about video games and the business that surrounds them, you'll most often find his words on how gaming intersects with technology and digital culture over at The Guardian. He's also the author of best-selling and critically acclaimed books, such as 'A Boy Made of Blocks', 'Days of Wonder', and 'The Frequency of Us'.