The weirdest thing about being a gamer is our attitude to sequels. On the one hand, we love nothing more than to collectively bemoan the lack of creativity in the games industry. “What we want is new, original IP!”, we say with gusto. Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely true - as you only have to wait for the official announcement of a new game in a beloved series to see the same people salivate at the prospect of another adventure in Hyrule or Liberty City.
Since videogames were invented then, there are some series which have become veritable powerhouses. Games that, on the strength of a name alone can sell millions. We’ve got our own gaming aristocracy.
But which franchises are these? Here’s a rundown of the ten best selling games franchises of all time.
First released: December 18th, 1987
In the opposite situation to the Neverending Story, which did in fact have an end, there is nothing final about Final Fantasy, as SquareSoft (and later SquareEnix) have been pumping out sequels and spin-offs regularly since the franchise first appeared in 1987.
Final Fantasy started life on the Nintendo Entertainment System, before defecting to Sony’s PlayStation for Final Fantasy VII so that the game could make use of the extra storage available on CDs compared to cartridges. And a good thing too, as the game, which is widely regarded as the series high point required four discs.
Since, the game has pretty much defined what makes a good RPG - with each installment offering a fresh set of characters and stories to get involved in, while retaining the thematic sci-fi-ish themes we expect from the series.
In more recent years the franchise has received a more mixed reaction - with the 14th installment (XIV, for those counting in Roman numerals) receiving a particular critical pasting. Billed as Final Fantasy Online, it was so bad, the developers went back and took a second swing at making a game that works.
The next big release in the series is set to be a 21st century reimagining of VII - with graphics and game mechanics brought up to match our modern expectations. Unusually, rather than release the whole massive saga in one go it will be released episodically. So though release is set for October, we might not get a conclusion for some time.
Sonic the Hedgehog
First released: June 23rd, 1991
It might surprise you to learn that Sonic the Hedgehog was not Sega’s first mascot. That honor went to a character called Alex the Kidd, who was best known for being completely unremarkable. It wasn’t until Sega released a 16 bit console - the Mega Drive (or Genesis if you’re American) that Sonic arrived and became an instant icon. The blue hedgehog was much faster than Nintendo’s podgy Italian plumber - which made the games much more exciting.
There were three installments of the core Sonic series on the Megadrive - with Sonic 2 introducing Tails, a fox sidekick who could fly, and Sonic 3 introducing Knuckles, an echidna that can glide and climb. Cleverly, the Sonic 3 cartridge came with a passthrough that enabled you to plug your Sonic 2 cartridge on top, and then play through the second game with Knuckles instead of Sonic. Very clever indeed.
Sadly for Sonic though, the transition to 3D didn’t treat him very well. When Sega hastily released the Sega Saturn in 1994 (dramatically announcing on stage at E3 that the console was available that day), there wasn’t a Sonic game ready for launch - a sure sign of disaster. And when it came to the Dreamcast, Sega’s last home console, Sonic Adventure was relatively warmly received - but Mario 64 it wasn’t.
In more recent years, Sonic has been - if anything - more troubled with a countless string of mediocre or downright bad 3D platforms being released every few years. At this point the disappointment is so predictable that fans have even come up with the “Sonic Cycle”.
So until Sega does the right thing and gives the Sonic franchise to an indie developer (or maybe, a whole bunch of indie developers) to reinvent Sonic for the modern age, the best Hedgehog experience in 2016 is probably buying one of the ancient 16 bit titles on the app store.
Need for Speed
First released: August 31st, 1994
Arguably the least obvious entry on this list, Need for Speed is a racing franchise that has gone through many different incarnations - from fairly straightforward rally racing (like NFS: Shift) to a more arcade-type experience, with drifting, destruction and police pursuits (NFS: Underground).
The series started life in 1994 on the ill-fated 3DO, before being ported to the Sega Saturn, and then, mercifully the original Playstation and DOS PCs. There has been a release almost every year since - and sometimes two.
Despite the games in the franchise broadly receiving the stamp of approval of gamers, the same cannot be said for the film adaptation which came out last year. Starring Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper as two rival racing drivers, the film was considered something of a car-crash by the critics.
First released: February 4th, 2000
For years Maxis had been creating different “Sim” games. Sim City turned us into city planners, Sim Tower turned us into property tycoons and Sim Ant, umm, turned us into, umm, Queen ants. But it turns out that what we really wanted to do was play God.
The brainchild of gaming legend Will Wright, The Sims first hit in 2000 and put the player in control of a family - and were tasked with building a house and helping them live their lives. Or if you were feeling particularly evil, you could build them a house and box them in, unable to leave or eat - and watch them slowly die.
The game was perhaps most notable for inventing a whole new language - Simlish - for the characters to speak in game, and for having an interface that bravely used Comic Sans.
It was though a huge hit and spawned endless sequels and add-on packs. The Sims 3 was perhaps the most notorious money spinner - essentially inventing crappy DLC before DLC was even a thing. Sure, you could buy on-disc expansions that would do cool things like add pets or even supernatural powers… but some expansions simply added new textures. One particularly egregious expansion was a tie-in with clothing retailer H&M, and players were invited to pay for the pleasure of having H&M clothes added to the game.
First released: November 19th, 2006
The series was created to show off some of the most innovative features of the original Wii and its successor, the WiiU: Namely the Mii avatars that players can create and the motion controls. The Wii Sports packed in Tennis, Golf, Bowling and Baseball, and then when Nintendo created the more accurate “Motion Plus” controller, it decided the best way to promote it was with another title - Wii Sports Resort, which added some more esoteric sports the mix like fencing and skydiving. Further titles, like Wii Play and Wii Party took the concept further - essentially using the Mii characters as an excuse to pack together some addictive minigames.
This franchise feels like it is cheating but damnit, if Mario can have his Kart races, his Parties and his Tennis - then so can the Mii characters. Grouped together, Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, Wii Sports Club, Wii Play, Wii Fit and Wii-everything else make up the 6th biggest franchise of all times.
It can’t even be ruled out on the basis that Wii Sports was a pack-in title with the console in many markets - as the same could be said for other games on this list, such as Sonic which came literally built into the hardware of many Master Systems sold - no cartridge required.
Grand Theft Auto
First released: October 1997
There’s a well known myth that Victorians used to be so prudish that they’d cover up tablet legs - as showing legs was considered immodest. It’s a fun story because it seems completely ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. And in a sense, the original Grand Theft Auto is much the same.
A top-down, 2D affair, it’s completely quaint by the standards of today - there’s not even any screwdriver torture sequences in there. But this didn’t stop a number of activists - including most notoriously former Attorney Jack Thompson trying to get the game banned.
The franchise really took off though with GTA3 when the game went 3D for the first time. 3 was followed by sequels Vice City and San Andreas, as well as a number of portable and mobile spin-offs, and then GTA4 during the last console generation took it to a whole new level of gritty realism.
The high position in this list of GTA though is probably mostly thanks to GTA5, which became the fastest entertainment property to gross $1bn ever - that includes films too, and not just games. It took half a billion in its first day on sale. And just in case that wasn’t enough cash for developers Rockstar, the title was re-released on Xbox One and PS4 when the current console generation hit, and it had been given a graphical upgrade to boot.
To this day, Rockstar continues to support the online component of the game, GTA Online which regular updates and events. Though we’re still waiting for the much-hoped for single player expansions too.
Call of Duty
First released: October 29th, 2003
If there’s one franchise that sums up the enormity of the modern games industry, it is Call of Duty. In 2003 the series started as a historical WWII shooter in the mould of rival Medal of Honor, but the series really took off in 2007 with the 4th entry: Modern Warfare. The contemporary setting and the increased processing power that developers were able to unlock on the PS3 and Xbox 360 created a visceral experience unlike anything gamers had ever seen before.
What’s perhaps most notable though is the impact COD has had on the broader games industry.
Realising it had a money-printing machine, Activision took the decision to “annualise” the release schedule. This means that around Christmas every year gamers are guaranteed a new installment - something that had previously only really been done with sports games. To make it happen, development was farmed out to three separate studios: Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer, and it meant that the studios started working on the next-but-one game before the next one had even been released.
COD has also found a loyal following in the Esports community - with it being one of the most popular games for people to play professionally.
A decade on from COD hitting the big time though and the consensus amongst many gamers is that the series is getting tired. Each release is essentially the same: A linear single player campaign, coupled with some new multiplayer maps. This year’s release - Infinite Warfare - is set in the future and features hi-tech space battles and the like, building on themes from 2014’s Advanced Warfare. But the initial release trailer went down badly with fans - as even though the setting is new it somehow feels like we’ve seen it all before. So whether COD will retain its position in the future remains to be seen.
First released: February 27th, 1996
It may not look like it but Pokémon is a game that is like Chess, but about fifty million times more complex. With countless combinations of monsters and moves, crafting the perfect squad is a task that could challenge even our greatest minds. It’s just that nobody realises this, because Nintendo has packaged up an intensely complex meta-game in some incredibly colourful packaging.
Amazingly, the original Game Boy was already 8 years old when Pokémon was first released in Japan in 1996. Unlike the western release, which offered two variations - Red and Blue - Japan had Red and Green, with Blue and Yellow variations joining later on (and, ultra-nerdy fact, the American versions were both adapted from Blue - hence why the sprites in the original Japanese games are different). And it was a fairly instantaneous smash hit - giving a generation of gamers hundreds of new characters to learn about.
The franchise’s fame even broke through to non-gamers, thanks to a hit TV show and endless other cash-ins. Perhaps most notoriously, there was one episode of the cartoon - Electric Soldier Porygon - which was banned in the west and never translated from the original Japanese, because a sequence of flashing light in it gave many viewers in Japan seizures.
Though the initial phenomenon has long since died, Nintendo has created many, many follow-ups which are essentially the same game, but with a different world map and with many new monsters to catch and train. And perhaps even better for older gamers, it has also released remastered versions of the origins on its newer handhelds, so today’s parents can can prove to their kids who are the real Pokémon Masters.
First released: June 1984
Tetris is obviously most synonymous with Nintendo’s Game Boy, it being the game that turned the handheld console into a huge hit. But the classic puzzler was first created in 1984. Amazingly, it wasn’t thanks to an American or Japanese coder, by Russian Alexey Pajitnov - a coder at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Since Tetris has appeared on pretty much every other format in existence. These all look different - but you can tell if it is real Tetris or a knock-off by looking at the Tetriminos - officially there are only seven different pieces. Amazingly, at first Pajitnov didn’t actually make any money out of the success, but luckily in 1997 the rights reverted back to him, so at least now he is being rewarded for his work.
Oh, and don’t watch this video below or you’ll have the tune stuck in your head all day.
First released: July 9th, 1981
And finally…. Well, it’s-a-him, Mario, of course! Nintendo’s iconic mascot has sold an incredible half a billion games - but that’s perhaps unsurprising given the mustachioed plumber has also appeared in around half a billion different games (estimate).
The best selling of all is unsurprisingly the original Super Mario (311m sold), which in addition to being the game that made the NES a must-own, has also been repackaged dozens of times and resold to gamers over and over again, such as packed in with Super Mario All Stars on the SNES, and on the Wii Virtual Console.
What guarantees Mario’s place is that like the most powerful of armies he is dominant across the whole spectrum of terrains: From racing games, to party minigames to RPGs and Tennis. With Nintendo, there really is no escaping Mario.
Though it does raise an interesting philosophical question: What exactly is a Mario game? Where does it end? Smash Bros is surely just a cameo. But Donkey Kong appears in Mario Kart - does that mean that DK’s solo games count as part of the shared Mario universe? And what about Luigi’s Mansion? Mario doesn’t put in an appearance, but the whole premise is that his brother is looking for him.
So even if some games have been excluded from this final total - or others have been erroneously excluded… we’re pretty sure that Mario is well deserving of his place at the top of this list of the best selling franchises of all time.