20 Best Video Game Heroes Of All-Time
This is the definitive list too, and will cease all debate until the end of time.
So the Cultured Vultures content pits are getting a little dried up at the moment, and in the absence of some bountiful EGX 2018 hands-on pieces and the end of year game review blitzkrieg, we’ve decided to reach for some low hanging fruit: we’re talking about some of the best video game heroes today.
But don’t worry, we’ve even gone as far as to definitively rank them, which means this article is the only one you need. Never mind what outlets may say about video game protagonists, as ours is now the official word. There was a meeting and everything, we all agreed on it. You should have been there. There will be no more room for debate, as this list will be remembered for years to come as “the one that got it right”.
Our rankings are mainly based on how recognisable or iconic the protagonists are, which means you probably know who the top couple of entries are, but we’re also considering other factors. Anyway, enough dawdling. Let’s get to it.
Some heroes and heroines do it because they were born to do it. Some do it out of a sense of nobility or honour, a desire for justice and doing the right thing. Some, however, are heroes by circumstance. Doomguy never wanted to be a “hero”, he just really bloody hates demons.
A man literally powered by his own hate, Doomguy wants nothing more than to bathe in the blood and guts of his enemies, and he’s got the tools and the skills to make that a reality. Despite never uttering a word, he still possesses incredible charisma, making him a fan favourite the world over. Who couldn’t fall in love with the guy when he fist bumped the collectible figurine of himself?
It wouldn’t be one of our lists without some kind of reference to a fighting game, and this is no exception. When it comes to fighting games, there’s only one hero that stands out above the rest. Whether you’re a occasional Mortal Kombat player, were big into Tekken back in the day or you’re still lamenting the death of Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite, everyone recognises Ryu.
Street Fighter’s most iconic character might seem a little bland when compared to demons and evil train drivers that make up the rest of the roster, but Ryu’s design has stood the test of time, making him easily identifiable to this day. He’s also a character we could all aspire to be, seeking to better himself at every opportunity, just so long as he doesn’t give in to the Satsui No Hado anyway.
Usually, anti-heroes have some shred of a redeemable quality, but Kratos has spent the majority of his time in video games being somewhat of a dick. You might use the term anti-hero to describe his antics in God of War 1-3, but dick seems much more accurate. Dooming the entirety of Greece and butchering all of their gods kind of makes you a bellend, even if they might have deserved it.
God of War (2018) builds on the Kratos character though, making him into a man regretful of his past and willing to atone for his sins. He does that by trying to teach Atreus how to be better than he ever was; a lesson that takes a while to sink in for the boy. While he’s still not quite a hero, he’s certainly proof of how someone can change and evolve over time, even if he can’t always satiate that bloodlust.
17. B.J. Blazkowicz
“Lady… That the best you got? Then your best won’t do. You among wolves now, and these are our woods.”
On the “being a hero” scale, which is a real unit of measurement by the way, murdering scumbag, piece of shit Nazis is right up there. It’s one of the reasons why Wolfenstein’s hero B. J. Blazkowicz is both relatable and effective, but he’s more than just a meathead with guns strapped to his arms.
In The New Order, The Old Blood and The New Colossus, Blazko is shown to be thoughtful, insightful and funny, making him much more than just a one dimensional character, while his relationship with Anya and his motivation to keep her safe helps drive the game. We love you B.J., and we can’t wait to see your daughters kick more Nazi ass in Wolfenstein: Youngblood.
16. Max Payne
Protagonists are often tortured souls with tragic backstories, and it doesn’t get more tragic than Max Payne. Left an orphan due to his abusive and alcoholic dad and tormented by the memory of his family who were murdered by drug addicts, Max is a one-man wrecking crew haunted by his own personal demons, but he still tries to do the right thing in between the painkillers and binge drinking.
His dogged determination to overcome obstacles in front of him, even while his own addictions and depression taunt him, is staggering, leading to him solving multiple conspiracies over the course of three games. His dry wit and overarching commentary also make Max a much more memorable character, even in the third game.
Yes, the third game was good. There’s perhaps the hottest take of this article.
I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favourite entry on the Cita–wait, I’m only 15th?!
Shepard is an interesting one in the sense that they’re your protagonist. The choices you make inform what kind of hero, or dickhead, Shepard becomes. Though it’s hard to play Mass Effect with a Shepard that walks the line between Paragon and Renegade, both sides are fantastic in their own way.
With Paragon Shep, you become a cornerstone of all that is good and pure within the galaxy, as the different races look to you as the finest example of humankind. As a Renegade, you get to punch Ambassador Udina in the face. Like I said, each side has its own benefits, making Shepard a versatile character as a result.
14. Leon S. Kennedy
Leon deserves this kind of recognition just purely for dealing with Ashley’s shit in RE4. Most people probably would have just shot her, buried her in a ditch and carried on with trying to cure himself of that dreaded Plagas, but not our boy Leon. He bravely carried on with his mission, telling Ashley to go hide in a dumpster at every available opportunity.
First introduced in Resident Evil 2 as a capable protagonist and one of the few survivors of the Raccoon City incident, Leon has been one of the series’ go-to returning characters alongside Chris Redfield. While Chris’ penchant for boulder punching earns our respect, it’s Leon’s cheesy dialogue that wins our hearts.
“Where’s everyone going? Bingo?”
13. Nathan Drake
If Indiana Jones was played by someone like Ryan Reynolds, you’d end up with a character like Nathan Drake. The star of the Uncharted series, Drake spends four games exploring ancient ruins and areas untouched by civilisation for generations before finding new and creative ways to blow it all up. So much for historical preservation.
Fast talking and hard hitting, Nathan is never short of ammo or a good quip. Often outnumbered and staring down the barrel at threats that would break most normal men, Drake always finds a way to come out on top, making him a worthwhile hero in the process, even if he is a little bit naughty. Sometimes you have to be a little bad to do some good.
Life must be tough when dealing with alien parasites and space pirates led by a giant winged beast, but Samus Aran seems to handle it all in her stride. Her signature Power Suit, gifted to her by the Chozo, an alien race that trained her to become the protector of the galaxy, allows her to deal with any threat that comes her way. Just ignore the fact that she has a tendency to lose all her upgrades at the start of each game.
Her character is one with a huge history in video games, often cited as the first female protagonist that truly cracked the mainstream. Not the first, but the first big one, and her popularity has refused to wane in the 30+ years since her first appearance. Here’s to the next 30, eh, Samus?
Most heroes bring us a representation of who we should aspire to be: noble with a strong sense of justice and a willingness to do the right thing. Dante has all of those things, sure, but if anything, he’s the perfect representation of who we want to be. We want to be the cool guy that’s riding missiles while dual wielding pistols, throwing out the bad quips while we’re at it.
Though more protagonists on this list are a little bit more complex, one dimension is all Dante really needs. He’s here to massacre some monsters and look good doing it, and we don’t have a problem with that at all. Still, it doesn’t matter how cool Dante is, Vergil is so much better.
Special mention also goes out to Bayonetta in this slot, as they’re basically the same character. Basically.
Hyrule’s multiple time saviour, Link has taken plenty of forms over the years, whether that be young, old, pixelated or cel-shaded. One thing has remained a constant though: he’s the best hope Hyrule has at defeating that awful Ganon, if he could stop breaking into houses and smashing their pottery, that is.
When he’s not plundering everyone’s rupees, Link is tackling difficult dungeons, fighting incredible bosses and just generally being one of the most competent and enduring video game protagonists ever seen. We would ask that you never change, but you do with every new iteration, so ignore us. You do you, Link.
Look, it’s everyone’s favourite JRPG lad, Cloud Strife. Some of you might already be racing to the comments section to “well, actually, Final Fantasy VIII was my favourite”, but I don’t see Squall in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. I don’t see VIII getting the remakes that VII does, so I guess the evidence speaks for itself. Cloud is the best and let’s move on.
Cloud starts out his adventure as somewhat of an arrogant jackass, but over the course of the game, he learns there’s more to life than being buff ‘n’ tuff, ultimately choosing to fight in order to protect his friends. It’s a great story arc bound to one of the finest JRPGs ever made, making Cloud one of the best video game protagonists by default.
8. Solid Snake
Ignoring the fact that Snake is heavily based (see: pretty much stolen) from Kurt Russell’s Snake in Escape From New York and Escape From LA, the Metal Gear Solid version of Snake is one of the most distinguishable designs in video games. The beard, the bandana and that stupid sexy ass help form a truly iconic hero. Also, we’d love to be able to point at our own heads and proclaim we had “infinite ammo”, but that’s another story.
Though the temptation was there to throw the nod to Naked Snake, because Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a goddamn masterpiece, it has to go to clone boy Solid Snake. Aside from being the one that everyone remembers and associates with the series, Naked Snake had that thing where he became Big Boss and turned into a bad lad, which is somewhat of a blot on an otherwise perfect record. Solid, meanwhile, remained virtuous until the end.
7. The Walking Dead’s Lee
The Walking Dead Season 1 put Telltale Games on the map for a number of reasons: its focus on player choice, the fantastic story where death was never too far away or the incredible voice acting, but for us, playing as Lee Everett was the definitive highlight.
Like Shepard, Lee’s personality is dependant on the choices you make, meaning he could be an utter dick to everyone. Well, everyone except Clementine. How could you be mean to her, you monster? Still, Lee’s tale is one of redemption, as he seeks to atone for the crimes he committed before the outbreak, while teaching Clem the values she will need to survive in a world filled with bandits and walkers. We miss you, Lee. It still hurts to this day.
6. John Marston
Another tale of (Red Dead) redemption, John Marston isn’t really looking to be a hero. In fact, if it were up to him, he’d much rather retreat to his family home with his wife and son than scour the dying landscape of the Wild West for his old gang members, but the Bureau of Investigation have other ideas.
Though he spent the majority of his life living as an outlaw, it was in his final moments where John becomes a true hero, laying down his life in an attack perpetrated by those same government agents so that his family could escape unharmed. It was a heart-wrenching decision which cemented Marston’s status as one of gaming’s best heroes, and it totally didn’t bring us to tears. Nope, not at all. Someone must have been cutting onions or something.
5. Lara Croft
Often considered one of the first ladies of video games alongside fellow list entry Samus Aran, Lara Croft has enjoyed plenty of mainstream success over the years. You know you’ve made it when you find yourself adorned on the side of a bottle of Lucozade. That’s the dream that we all share in this life.
Though she’s been rebooted more times than our shitty downstairs computer, she’s always been a mainstay in the video game industry, remaining one of its most popular characters. Whether she’s dual wielding pistols and doing backflips off raptors or taking down mercenaries with her bow and arrow, Lara Croft is here to stay.
The White Wolf has become one of the biggest breakout stars of gaming in recent memory, even if he did originate from a book. We’ll ignore that though, because video game Geralt has captured the hearts and minds of gamers around the world with his dry wit, exceptional combat skills and his uncanny ability to shag his way around the Continent.
While Geralt is again mainly defined by your choices, he’s generally bound by code to do the right thing. His epic quest to find Ciri and ensure her safety in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is born out of a place of love, and if that’s not the sign of hero, I’m not really sure what is.
3. Master Chief
Taking our bronze medal spot is everyone’s favourite enigmatic space marine and humanity’s saviour on more than one occasion, John-117 AKA Master Chief. Genetically engineered and given the best armoured suit that the UNSC have to offer, Master Chief is a pretty cool guy who kills aliens and doesn’t afraid of anything.
You heard me.
Over the years, he’s taken on the seemingly infinite Covenant forces, the somehow more infinite Flood and the less impressive and kind of underwhelming Prometheans, and somehow the Chief finds a way to come out on top, usually by shooting his way. He thought he’d mix things up a little.
Silver medal goes to a video game hero that often plays second fiddle to our number one spot. Poor Sonic can’t catch a break, no matter how fast he can go. The Blue Blur has experienced somewhat of a tumultuous time when it comes to his games, going dizzying highs (Sonic 2, 3, Knuckles) to crippling lows (Sonic ‘06, Sonic Unleashed), returning to form (Sonic Mania) before crashing out again. Bloody Sonic Forces.
Despite that, Sonic has maintained a healthy and loyal following, some of them going so far as to delude themselves into believing that Forces was actually good. Still, though the hedgehog might have fallen from grace in recent years, his legacy within the gaming industry is indelible. Though many might hate what Sonic has become, we’ll always love what he was.
It wasn’t going to be anyone else other than Mario, was it? It’s not even up for debate: Mario is the biggest video game protagonist in the world. The famous Italian plumber has been a mainstay in video games since his first appearance as Jumpman in 1981’s Donkey Kong. Over 35 years later, Mario is still as popular and as relevant as ever.
With the latest release, Super Mario Odyssey, redefining what it means to be a Mario game on the Nintendo Switch, New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe on the horizon, dozens and dozens of licensed games and more on the way, Mario has become so much more than a video game hero: he’s a one of kind cultural icon.