The best heroes in video games are truly unforgettable. We're talking about the most iconic characters who helped shape the most legendary stories, heroes who made such an impact that they have taken on a life of their own. Whether it's legendary mascots like Mario and Master Chief, retro icons like Samus Aran and Guybrush Threepwood, or modern legends like Joel and Ellie, you'll find all of them and more in this ranking of the best heroes in video games.
Each of these iconic gaming heroes has found their way onto this list for different reasons. Maybe they taught us something about the world we live in, helped us through a pretty tough spot, or just did something to one of the best villains in video games that was so badass we just can't forget it. Whatever they do and whoever they are, these characters are all heroic legends. So keep on reading for our pick of the 25 best heroes in video games.
25. Sonic (Sonic the Hedgehog series)
Sonic is a champion. He stands up for the little guy and frees the oppressed from the clutches of a genocidal maniac. He's eco-friendly, a natural leader, and uses his superspeed for altruism across space and time. Sonic doesn't even ask for anything in return, although he wouldn't say no to a chili dog or two. And above all, he always manages to keep such a positive outlook - the trait that no doubt inspired lifelong loyalty from Tails, Knuckles, and the whole gang of anthropomorphic animal pals. People may still debate Mario versus Sonic, but no matter where you stand, you have to agree that the blue blur deserves to be on this list.
24. Guybrush Threepwood (Monkey Island series)
Few video game heroes get their names botched as often as Guybrush Threepwood, but that doesn't stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a mighty pirate, nor risking his life to save his lady love. Making his video game debut in The Secret of Monkey Island, he didn't exactly make a good first impression with the governor Elaine, but he managed to win us (and her) over with his charm and youthful exuberance. He's not only an unlikely pirate, but also an unlikely hero. Through the series he's grown and matured, but we'll always remember him as the eager, young man with simple dreams, whose only goal was to become a swashbuckling pirate.
23. Gordon Freeman (Half-Life series)
How does a character without a single line of dialogue become so iconic? Easy. In Half-Life, and especially Half-Life 2, you don't play Gordon Freeman. Gordon Freeman plays you. That's the narrative genius of Valve's sequel. Among the fantastic characterization, the affecting writing, the brilliant performances, there's a very clever thread of pacing, thematic escalation, and carefully curated emotional stimulus that slowly, steadily encourages the player to imprint themselves upon Gordon completely. Never breaking from first-person, and barely ever taking away control, Half-Life 2 ensures that you experience every moment, from wide-eyed, terrified stranger in a strange land, to steadily empowered transgressor, to rebel and leader. This many years on, the game's structure and intensification represent a still-unbettered deftness and understanding of the player experience, creating in Freeman one of the most welcoming, receptive, and unobtrusive vessels for the player id ever put in an FPS.
22. Bayek (Assassin's Creed Origins)
What makes Bayek such a great character is his humanity. He's an actual person outside of his Assassin role - a father, a lover, a friend, and an adversary. As you explore ancient Egypt with Bayek, it becomes clear that he's part of the world, bumping into old buddies and sparking off against people he's had a grudge with in the past. His personal story is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and his wit and conversation adds a genuine warmth to almost every interaction. It all makes Assassin's Creed Origins feel like you're living Bayek's life, not just ticking off a series of fetch and carry quests, and Ubisoft deserves massive credit for that.
21. Clementine (The Walking Dead series)
Kids can be irritating, annoying, wonderful bundles of unexpected humanity and warmth. Clementine is all of those things. Yes, as a kid she's even annoying (remember her putting that bug on Duck's pillow? Very mature, Clem). Even before the zombie apocalypse really sunk in, she was a mature child, her time spent with Lee turning her into a moral compass for the foreseeable future. Clementine's greatest strength is that no matter how many times she sees those she loves die (and then rapidly reanimate), she still gets up each morning. Not that she spends her time picking flowers and trying to make everybody get along. Optimism for her doesn't mean that she sees the good in everyone. She's more inclined to be suspicious of newcomers, showing us a different kind of hero - one who perseveres for the right reasons, but not necessarily always in the right way.
20. 2B (Nier: Automata)
Nier: Automata (opens in new tab) heroine 2B begins the game as a relatively boring character - she's a no-nonsense battle android, always focused on the mission, and sees her enemies as mere things that need to be destroyed. But over the course of the game, she changes and becomes more forgiving, more accepting, and fights for a larger purpose than the one she was designed for. Her striking visual design has made her a favorite among fan artists and the cosplay community, while what she represents (individual freedom, life's capacity to continue in the face of annihilation, the breaking of cycles) resonates deeply with the game's central themes. 2B makes us question what it means to be human while swinging 10-foot swords and wearing a lolita-style dress, and that's worth some kudos.
19. Samus Aran (Metroid series)
Samus is a simple character: she kills aliens for money and she's very good at it. She's at her best when she's parsecs away from civilization, deep below the surface of a strange planet and surrounded by hostile creatures. The most compelling relationship she has is with Ridley, a fiendish dragon-thing whom Samus interacts with almost exclusively through recurring boss battles (her heartbreakingly brief surrogate motherhood for a baby metroid is a close second). Metroid games that explicitly characterize this enigmatic bounty hunter are universally weaker for it. Some people are defined by their careers, and that's fine for Samus. Love your job and you'll never work a day in your life.
18. Bayonetta (Bayonetta series)
Demon hunters are a dime a dozen, but Bayonetta stands out by killing angels and demons alike in increasingly bombastic and risque fashion. With lovely accent, martial arts expertise, puckish sense of humor, and unique style, it's hard not to want to follow Bayonetta wherever her dangerous missions may take her. Oh, and every time her hair/bodysuit morphs into a colossal creature from Hell, we just want to grab some popcorn and watch the carnage unfold. Never make the mistake of underestimating her - or as she so eloquently puts it, "Dont fuck with a witch."
17. Leon S. Kennedy (Resident Evil series)
From rookie cop to Secret Service agent, few gaming characters have endured the constant crises that Leon's witnessed across Resident Evil 2, RE4, and RE6. He's experienced the Worst First Day at Work, the Worst Trip to Spain, and most recently, the Worst Trip to China. And through it all, he maintains not only perfect hair, but composure and raw endurance to match. Leon's ability to keep calm and shoot zombies is uncanny, as are his skills with a knife in that unforgettable duel against Krauser.
16. The Boss (Saints Row series)
There's no way the creators of Saints Row intended it from the beginning, but The Boss' journey from unaffiliated street tough to President of the United States (with a few dozen stops at the plastic surgeon along the way) is a perfect cartoon distillation of the American dream. The Boss began as a typical create-your-own silent protagonist, but starting in Saints Row 2, they developed a vicious-yet-vivacious personality of their own. Whether you pick the sultry French, zombie, or literally-just-Nolan-North voice option, The Boss' determination and fierce loyalty to friends anchor them as a surprisingly memorable protagonist throughout increasingly absurd situations. I'll never forget those car sing-a-longs we had.
15. Link (The Legend of Zelda series)
Humble beginnings, courage in the face the ultimate evils, and thankless rewards. For over 30 years, Link has taken the hero's journey, often starting as just an average boy then becoming an evil-vanquishing, green-garbed warrior of legend through a path of adventure and personal growth. Being the bearer of the Triforce of Courage, Link never backs down from a challenge, be it facing grotesque monsters, defeating ancient villains, or competing in rupee-gathering contests. Link is not only brave; he is the embodiment of the virtue of courage and heroism, single-handedly embarking on epic quests, helping those in need no matter how small the task, and showing his kind-hearted soul to everyone he meets. Link does all these things for little more reward than the occasional thank you. Then, after his job is done, he leaves those he saves and disappears until destiny calls up a new boy in green to find a sword and shield and go off to a new adventure.
14. John Marston (Red Dead Redemption)
John Marston is the cowboy we've always wanted in a video game. Like an Old Western Robin Hood, he joined a gang, stole from the rich, and gave to the poor - until he was left for dead by his own. He reformed his ways, becoming an honest-to-goodness family man, but he didn't let that transformation dull his edgy personality. John's always down for a little danger - sometimes even a little gambling - and the motivations for his gang-slayin' (and zombie-huntin') adventures are more pure than anything else in the Wild West.
13. Joel (The Last of Us)
Joel, arguably, is no kind of a hero at all, perhaps not even in his own mind. Forced to embark on his journey, and initially reluctant to protect - both traits stemming directly from horrific personal loss - he does not rise naturally to the role of fighter and defender. He's a burnt-out, angry man, shattered by an insane world, and all he wants is to be left alone. And when Ellie, and her unavoidable echoes of Joel's daughter, wakes up the protective side he's long been trying to bury, his response veers far from the romanticized ideal you might accept. Selfish, over-zealous, and deeply, deeply scared, Joel will fight to the death to protect Ellie. Joel will do anything for her, in fact. But when it comes to the bigger picture, ultimately he's still doing it all for himself, to heal his own wounds, not those of the world, and damn any one who tries to get in the way of that. That might not make him a hero in the traditional sense. It might even make him a villain. But it makes for a much more meaningful, much more human journey through the wilderness than the simplistic hero's journey most game would be happy to give us. If Joel was a better man, The Last of Us would be a much worse game.
12. Master Chief (Halo series)
In many ways, Master Chief is a personality void - a super-soldier who typically represents himself with action, rather than words, and is rather dull if you isolate all his key scenes. It's what he represents that sets him apart. He's a figure of hope and reason when the whole universe is losing its head (and limbs), and he's the embodiment of humanity's will to succeed and survive among the stars. He's also a symbol of Xbox history and the embodiment of the respective talents of two major studios: Bungie and 343. So, no, he doesn't have a bunch of clever one-liners, and he isn't a quirky fish-out-of-water struggling to adapt to a horrifying world. He's a symbol, an icon, and a representative of the greatness of gaming - for that alone, he's in the top half of this list.
11. Mario (Super Mario series)
If there's one face who symbolizes games, it has to be Mario. Anyone who isn't into games would see his chubby, mustachioed face and automatically connect the dots to games - not to mention platforms, green tubes, and gold coins - without having ever played a game. Along with Donkey Kong and Pong, Mario is basically the father of the gaming industry, literally putting a face on the bleeps and bloops of home consoles and whiling away the hours sat crossed-legged in front of the TV. It's easy to see why: he's the guy saving the princesses, he's the plumber leaving the toilets behind and reaching for the mushrooms in order to save the Kingdom from Bowser - over and over again. He's repeatedly shown that even an everyday guy can be a hero, and although he's come a long way from his plumbing days, he's still a hero that can bring smiles to kids of all ages.
10. Dante (Devil May Cry series)
Cocky, sarcastic, and confident: all apt descriptions of Capcom's half-demon hero. Dante's been charming us for over a decade (even in the regrettable Devil May Cry 2), whether it's in his own games or as cameos in others. And Dante's got the tight gameplay to match all that charisma, able to bust out ridiculous attack strings with his many outlandish weapons when controlled by the hands of the highly skilled. Whether it's Chibi-Dante (a la Viewtiful Joe on PS2), Marvel vs. Capcom Dante, or even the new-look Dante in DmC, he's a guy who you'll always have a hell of a time playing with.
9. BJ Blazkowicz (Wolfenstein series)
It takes a particular blend of careful writing and perfectly pitched performance to give real, emotional and philosophical soul to the hero of a game where you can shred mecha-Nazis with dual-wielded shotguns, but the modern Wolfenstein games (The New Order (opens in new tab) and The New Colossus (opens in new tab)) nail it. The key factor, really, is that unlike the vast majority of games, with their simplistic worship of heroism and victory, the modern Wolfensteins are fundamentally concerned with a hero who has already failed. By the time The New Order reaches its second mission, everything is lost. The Nazis have won, the world is theirs, and no resistance exists. Thus, without the traditional things to prove, without the traditional fears to stave off - because the worse has already happened - BJ Blazkowicz can reflect. He can ponder. He can muse on childhood traumas, as brutish evils in the modern world send echoes through his mind. He can fuel his crusade with a thin thread of light, spiralling abstractly from whatever personal hopes and dreams he can still muster belief in. The modern Wolfensteins are as much about the man as the mission, and you'll be aware of him with every shot you fire, hanging just on the edge of hope, his every near-defeated monologue motivating you to hold on just that little bit longer.
8. Ezio Auditore (Assassin's Creed series)
There are few video game characters that we have the honor of sharing life with for the entirety of their existence, from the moment of their birth through to their passing. But over the course of three games (and one animated short), we witness Ezio grow from helpless babe to master assassin, tracing every step of his character development along the way. We see him enjoying life in Florence as a carefree adolescent, experiencing the trauma of his own family being unjustly executed by templars, finding purpose in the creed, fighting the good fight as a young man in Rome, hitting a midlife crisis as he searches for answers in Constantinople, before starting his own family and finding bittersweet peace as a sagely elder in the heart of the Italian countryside. Thank you, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, it's been an absolute pleasure.
7. Lara Croft (Tomb Raider series)
Lara Croft is the original female gaming hero, and despite the fact she was originally very much sexualized (despite the triangular nature of her breasts), she managed to capture a new gaming audience in the form of young girls. Because when Lara Croft arrived, she wasn't only beautiful. She was also intelligent, fearless, and capable of doing anything that a male adventurer - like Indiana Jones - could do, diving headfirst (literally) into tombs full of deadly traps, avoiding big rolling boulders, and solving puzzles. There aren't many gaming heroes who have gone from being just a game character to a face on TV ads, movies, and more too. And, of course, she's also transformed incredibly well into a hero for the modern age too, with the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot transforming Lara from sex symbol to vulnerable teen who evolves into the badass Tomb Raider we know and love.
6. Geralt (The Witcher series)
Geralt is a great hero precisely because he's not a hero at all. While other protagonists on this list might shine with valiant righteousness, or struggle winsomely against adversity in order to rise above strife, Geralt is something far more interesting than any of those clichés. He's a real guy, in a realistic world, frequently surrounded by assholes and their resultant bullshit, and he doesn't feel the need to pander to any of it. He's a fundamentally decent person, mind you, but he's not perfect, nor does he aspire to be. Thus, when playing as Geralt, everything is relatable and dramatic, from the biggest monster hunt (its backstory no doubt filled with human foibles and failings to judge and grumble at) to the smallest, local nuisance (who Geralt's weary, seen-it-before demeanour might well convince you is best served with a simple, stout punch to the face). There's just an immense, unpretentious humanity to Geralt, and that makes every story you share with him both entirely more normal, and far more exciting.
5. Commander Shepard (Mass Effect series)
What's interesting about Commander Shepard is that there is no single, definitive version of the spacefaring hero. When fans talk about the character, you'll often hear "my Shepard." While many games of the time featuring a customizable protagonist made them a blank (or silent) slate, BioWare expertly meshed player choices with a defined persona and history. You could be ruthless or forgiving, selfish or generous - but you were always the first human Spectre, out to save the galaxy from annihilation, and your choices were always validated by top-tier voice acting and writing. This gives players an intense connection with their vision of Shepard, and helped the character gain broad appeal. A few memes and in-jokes along the way ("Wrex." "Shepard."; "This is my favorite store on the Citadel."; the 'Shepard Shuffle (opens in new tab)') made us love BioWare's leading lad / lady even more. How cool is Commander Shepard? Cool enough to get their own theme song (opens in new tab).
4. Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn)
Life as an outcast could make you bitter. I wouldn't blame you if you despised the society that's ignored you all your life, or were reluctant to help anyone because you'll had to fight alone for so long. Yet Aloy, after being consigned to the outskirts of the Nora tribe, doesn't hold a grudge. But that alone doesn't make anyone a hero, just a decent human being. No, what really makes the Seeker a hero is how she uses the mistreatment she's endured for so long to fuel her fierce curiosity surrounding why she's been shunned. Deep down, Aloy just wants to understand the world around her, yet even when she realises that the gods worshipped by the Nora are actually AI Aloy doesn't ridicule them. Unlike the Nora or any of the other tribes Aloy doesn't define herself by her worldview or take a holier-than-thou stance just because she understands the technology that literally makes their world go round. Pragmatism courses through her veins, and her ability to compromise with those tribes and with morally ambivalent characters like Sylens proves that she knows nothing will really change, but she can do her damn best to figure out how it all works. Glory is the furthest thing from Aloy's mind throughout Horizon Zero Dawn (opens in new tab). But it's certainly at the forefront of ours.
3. Nathan Drake (Uncharted series)
You can't not love Nathan Drake. The Uncharted series' leading man is gamingkind's Harrison Ford: like Han Solo, he's a scoundrel with a heart of solid gold, always managing to save the day in spite of his devil-may-care attitude, and his knack for treasure-seeking and knowledge of ancient civilizations is more than a little inspired by Indiana Jones. Always ready with a real zinger of a quip or the near-infinite upper-body strength to scramble his way up just about anything, Nathan's immensely likable and immediately relatable to anyone who's had to tussle with a particularly bad day. The company Nate keeps is a reflection of his own upstanding character; his relationship with Elena is one of the most real, empathetic romances in AAA gaming, and his lifelong bond with Victor 'Sully' Sullivan is just so endearing (even with all the dirty jokes). Yes, Nathan's the kind of hero who, when you think about it, has killed hundreds of gun-toting goons with little remorse - but all it takes is an exasperated "Oh crap!" to make us forget all about the mass murder.
2. Ellie (The Last of Us)
Ellie is the thudding heart and tender soul of The Last of Us, making sure that Naughty Dog's zombie story was more than just another undead shooting party. She's the perfect balance to Joel, the bereaved smuggler you play as for most of the game, and manages to avoid the stereotypical damsel in distress moments that so many female characters are pushed into. While Joel handles most of the combat, Ellie is the one that gives us something to fight for, just an ordinary teenage girl - one who likes blueberries and carries a joke book - who has managed to hang on to a spark of innocence in the face of a horrific pandemic. That connection you build with her as Joel makes the role reversal in The Last of Us, when she has to become the carer and face the horrors of the world on her own, feel all the more desperate. A big part of the success has to be down to Ashley Johnson, the actress who did the motion capture and voice acting for Ellie, but also clearly helped shape her character. We don't know what Naughty Dog has in store for Ellie or us in The Last of Us 2, but goddamn it I want to be by her side to find out.
1. Big Boss / Solid Snake / Venom Snake (Metal Gear series)
Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid / MGS2) is the archetypal 1980s action hero: a gruff, sardonic, chain-smoking special services veteran. But it's Hideo Kojima's subversion of the 'Snake' character that defies categorization. The Snake 'family' of parents and clones, including Big Boss, Solid Snake (plus non-playable brothers Solidus Snake and Liquid Snake), and Venom Snake examine how upbringing, genetics and events can shape a character's destiny and moral compass; across a series of 20+ games, spanning 28 years. In Metal Gear (1987) you play as Solid Snake versus 'villain' Big Boss. In MGS3 (2004) you play as a youthful Big Boss to discover what turns him 'bad'. In MGS5 (2015) you play as Venom Snake (aka Big Boss, but… it's complex), in an examination of our roles as players and the relationship between a creator and his work. If that sounds insanely complex... it is, but it's also completely unmatched in terms of ambition or scale. "I'm no hero, never was (opens in new tab). Never will be. I'm just an old killer hired to do some wet work," says an aging Solid Snake in MGS4. It's a statement typical of this contradictory, introspective series that makes you feel like a badass, while provoking deeper introspection of our loyalties and responsibilities.