Video games have come a long way since Pong first hit the scene in 1972. The evolution of the industry was slow and mostly relegated to arcades, until Nintendo released the Famicon in 1983. Two years later it was released in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System, and a monster was born – his name was Mario.
Looking at video games then and now, Mario is still going strong, although he looks just a little different. Other franchises have proved to be just as lasting. Mortal Kombat is still the premiere fighting game. Madden moved from one of several NFL simulators to the only licensed one. And of course, all of these games today look unrecognizable from where they started.
The longest-lasting video game franchises have successfully survived graphical upgrades, lengthened game times (a few hours to sometimes more than 100 hours), and many other obstacles that left other franchises buried. These are the biggest and longest-lasting video games then and now, with a stunning look at where they started to where they’ve come! Did we miss any?
Super Mario Bros.
Okay, okay, you caught me. Mario technically debuted in 1983 in arcades with Mario Bros. But it was Super Mario Bros. on NES that changed the industry forever. The 2D side scroller was comprised of eight worlds with four levels each and infinite replay value.
In 1996, Nintendo revolutionized the industry again with Super Mario 64. 3D platforming became the blueprint for how video games would continue to evolve. The world was rich with several levels to explore and 120 stars to collect. And once again, the replay value was endless.
Super Mario Odyssey was released on the Switch in 2017 and once again became an instant classic. The game was more than just a Mario game, though, it was also Nintendo’s love letter to the franchise that changed the one-time trading card manufacturer’s trajectory and launched the entire home gaming industry. As you can see from these then and now images, for as much as the graphics have become deeper and richer, the lightness, whimsy, and charm that made us all fall in love with the Italian plumber are all still undeniably there.
Raise your hand if you knew the first Madden NFL videogame came out on the Apple II in 1988? That original football simulator took years to develop as John Madden made it clear he would not put his name on anything that didn’t offer traditional 11-on-11 style arcade action.
In 1990, John Madden Football was released on the Sega Genesis and SNES featuring the legendary head coach on the cover. The first non-Madden cover version of the game came in 1994 with Ricky Watters on the PAL version of the game. Throughout all the years, though, the games never really mimicked live football until graphical capabilities began to catch up to a more “true simulation” style.
Today, Madden NFL features top-notch graphics and gameplay that challenges even the smartest football minds. It is also the only officially licensed NFL game, although there are rumors of 2K returning to the arena – the company that made the game critics preferred for years but failed to reach the sales heights of the Madden-led juggernaut.
One of the oldest characters on this list, Donkey Kong had to be included on this video games then and now list. His origins were as an enemy for Mario, tossing barrels for him to dodge in arcade games. That arcade classic, oddly enough, was named Donkey Kong, even though he was the antagonist who was holding Pauline hostage from Mario.
The popularity of Donkey Kong led Nintendo to develop him into a hero instead of a villain. That game, Donkey Kong Junior, flips the script and turns Mario into the villain – the only time he has been portrayed that way. As consoles took over the industry, Donkey Kong made his move.
As side-scrolling 2D turned to 3D platforming, Nintendo kept their giant gorilla a side-scrolling hero while upgrading his looks to the third dimension and creating a gorgeous graphical world around him. The last game released was Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze, first for the Wii U, before being ported to the Switch.
Castle Wolfenstein was published in 1981 by Silas Warner and keeps chugging along with Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot coming out in 2019. You can imagine that between then and now the graphics and overall breadth of the game have only changed for the better, but that’s not the total truth.
Originally a stealth 2D game from a top-down perspective, the advance of gaming over the years can really be seen with the transition Wolfenstein has made while maintaining its wild popularity. In 1992, Wolfenstein 3D turned the franchise into a first-person shooter. The stealth aspects were then abandoned for fast-paced mayhem.
Although a lot changed over the years for Wolfenstein, especially the franchise’s publisher, one thing has not changed – killing zombies. It’s arguably gotten more fun, and obviously visually more impressive. So. Much. Blood.
From Metroid in 1986 to Metroid Dread on the Switch in 2021, this split-screen shows a video game then and now that has stayed true to its side-scrolling roots while upping the graphics and variety of enemies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth!
With the release of the Gamecube, Nintendo took a detour with Metroid Prime, turning the game into a first-person shooter. At the same time, Metroid Fusion was released on the Gameboy Advance as a 2D side-scroller. When development was announced on a new console version, we were all left to wonder if Metroid would continue on as an FPS or return to side-scrolling.
Metroid Dread, a pseudo-sequel to Fusion returned Samus Aran to her roots. Developer Mercury Steam did an incredible job designing the world of the new game, leading to a Game of the Year nomination at the Game Awards.
The Legend of Zelda
The more video games then and now have changed, the more The Legend of Zelda becomes epic comfort food in a scary world. It’s pretty easy to see just how much has changed with this franchise, and along the way, Nintendo has experimented with everything from extreme cell shading to more traditional 3D graphics.
With Twilight Princess the franchise even went more mature, creating a gorgeous game with a darker side. Breathe of the Wild brought the brightness back, as well as a seemingly endless world for Link to explore. And it is that open-world exploration and dungeon crawling that has kept the franchise connected with players for oh so many years..
Maybe the most important fighting game of all-time, Mortal Kombat has never done anything but stick to its roots. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The fighting franchise has never wavered from the side view with blood splatter everywhere and gloriously over-the-top violence.
If anything, the clarity of all that blood and violence has just become… clearer as the graphical capabilities of consoles have improved. The most recent game was Mortal Kombat 11, which has spent time over the last three years introducing characters from movies into the tournament including the Terminator.
Old school action with new school visuals doesn’t get more satisfying than the Mortal Kombat franchise. FATALITY!
For the absolute longest time I thought Mario Kart 64 was the first game in this iconic racing franchise. Little did I know that Super Mario Kart preceded it in 1992 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
With Mario Kart 8 on Wii U, which was then ported to the Switch, you can see how much the video game then and now changed. The core has always stayed the same, you race as your favorite Nintendo character and collect weapons to use against your fellow racers.
What has changed,? Other than the graphics, the epicness of the tracks. Now long and more complex than ever, the people behind the game have really been given a chance to share their imaginations with the world. Oh, and did I mention just how many tracks you can race now! With DLCs and console storage, Nintendo could essentially make new tracks forever and never release Mario Kart 9, although I hope that’s not the case!
As of September 2021, the Street Fighter franchise had sold over 47 million copies. It is not only one of Capcom’s flagship video game franchises, it is one of the best-selling game series of all time. The only thing Street Fighter has failed to do since first coming out is translate successfully to the big screen. But that’s not what this list is about.
First coming out in 1987, there have been five main franchise Street Fighter games released, with a sixth currently in development. Like with Mortal Kombat, the biggest change over the years here is graphical – other than that, the backbones of the game have never changed.
Released in Japan in 1987, Final Fantasy didn’t reach American shores until 1990, and once it arrived, it never left. Few video games then and now series I can think of have inspired more loyal, and in some cases rabid fans. Years between new main series releases are filled with spin-offs and remakes.
Looking at where Final Fantasy began in this split image to where it is now, shows one of the biggest changes a video game franchise has ever seen. A totally mind-blowing evolution as developer Square Enix has always worked to push the boundaries of what’s possible with every new release.
Square Enix also has never shied away from going back into the past to bring a new experience to fans of their older games. There have been three remakes by the developer – Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy VII. And don’t forget the spin-off series Kingdom Hearts, which almost made this list on its own merits.
Sonic the Hedgehog
You know that Sega’s flagship character and rival to Mario had to make this list. The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has seen it all. From 2D side-scrolling to 3D platforming and back to side-scrolling, is there anything this feisty blue alien can’t do? Hell, after Sega stepped away from the console game to focus just on games, Sonic even teamed up with Mario for Mario and Sonic at the Olympics.
At the end of the day, Sonic has always felt most at home in a side-scrolling format where his speed can really be experienced. As much as Sega may have tried to make Sonic work as a platformer, the speed element of the game just never seemed to feel quite right.
Surprisingly, Sega still doesn’t seem to know exactly how they want to handle Sonic moving forward. They still release platforming and side-scrolling games in the franchise, with a new platformer, Sonic Frontiers, scheduled for later this year.
FIFA International Soccer kicked off the FIFA franchise in 1993 and the changes in this video game from then to now are immense. In the original game, only international teams were included, player names were excluded, and an isometric view camera was introduced. The game was a massive hit in the United Kingdom. Unsurprisingly, the game wasn’t a huge hit in the United States, although the same can’t be said today.
As the global popularity of soccer has skyrocketed since, so has the complexity and popularity of the FIFA franchise. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing. For all the features fans know and love now that they didn’t know could ever exist over 20 years ago, the game still has its limits.
A new FIFA comes out every year, and every year I hear the same criticism – EA just copied the game from the year before with updated rosters for an easy cash grab. Madden gets the same criticism, but game sales still soar. I guess the question is, despite how far the FIFA video game franchise has come between then and now, how much further can it still go?
Built on its own engine, DOOM looks much differently today than when it was originally released. One thing hasn’t changed, though, the core FPS design of the game. Why change the game that helped kick off the FPS genre? Fun fact, before the term first-person shooter was popularized, other games were simply called DOOM clones.
Unlike other video games then and now I’ve covered, DOOM could have easily ended after DOOM 3 came out. The developer began fighting with the designers who worked so hard to create the game. The cracks began within the development of Quake and boiled over with DOOM 3, a remake of the original game that was sold as the third mainline series entry.
DOOM ETERNAL came out in 2020, proving that there was still life in the franchise that was, quite frankly, on life support a decade earlier.
Do you remember a time for Warcraft when it wasn’t a massively multiplayer online role-playing game? Before the release of World of Warcraft, the franchise was just Warcraft and it was a simple RPG. It wasn’t until the fourth game of the series that things changed, sending an earthquake through the video game industry and opening a path for where the future was headed.
With World of Warcraft, players were made to pay a subscription fee. This new online freedom not allowed Blizzard to start a pay-to-play model. It also allowed them to update the games and add content through patches.
In 2010, World of Warcraft peaked with 12 million subscribers. Today, the game is still going strong with several notable expansions, the most recent being Shadowlands in 2018.
It took nearly 30 years for Nintendo to embrace 3D storytelling with Pokemon, and it was worth it. First introduced to players in 1996 with Pokemon Red and Blue, these pocket monsters held out on evolving until the last possible moment. Part of the reason for that, undoubtedly, was the mainline series finally debuting on a console with Sword and Shield on Switch.
With the first Switch entries, Pokemon went 3D without changing the traditional mechanics of the game. A few new ideas were introduced, like being able to see Pokemon instead of being surprised by them in the tall grass. You could also buy items at stores to finally customize your character.
The biggest leap happened in 2022 with Pokemon Legends: Arceus. The game sent players into the past and into an open world. Something that had never been done in the franchise. With the success of Arceus, I can’t wait to see what Nintendo has in store next as the company decides gets the media ball rolling on Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.
Resident Evil was terrifying when it first came out in 1996. Looking back on it now, it’s amazing how many times I had to pause the game to catch my breath. The graphics are completely outdated. Bodies are boxy, and for as much atmosphere as the dead angle camera provides, it’s nothing I really want to revisit. Ever.
I also give Capcom a ton of credit for recognizing when the series wasn’t scaring players anymore and shifted the camera to a semi-third person view with more of a focus on action. Resident Evil 4 rejuvenated the franchise and introduced the franchise to an entirely new generation of gamers.
More recently, Resident Evil returned to its horror roots to critical and commercial acclaim. Oh yeah, they also remade RE 2 and 3, in case I ever decide I want to revisit my old haunting grounds, just with better graphics.
Grand Theft Auto
Sorry, I don’t have any news to report here on Grand Theft Auto 6. I wish I could tell you it was in development or even getting a surprise release this year. All I can tell you is that while GTA 5 and GTA Online both changed the game for the better, was GTA 3 that really grabbed everyone’s attention.
I would guess that most gamers weren’t familiar with the Grand Theft Auto franchise until GTA 3 came out. The open world where each player could find something to entertain or offend them was the first entry in 3D. Before that, the game was an overhead view and, on Gameboy Color, had maybe the worst controls I’ve ever played in a game.
It’s obvious that the move to 3D was made to broaden the game’s audience as home consoles became more powerful with the release of the Playstation 2 and Xbox.
Developed by Hideo Kojima and first published by Konami in 1987, Metal Gear stars Solid Snake and challenges players to be patient as they use stealth to move around. My first experience with the franchise was on Gamecube, and it took me forever that to beat that one boss you literally had to unplug your controller and put it in a different slot so your moves couldn’t be read by the AI.
Metal Gear Solid was the third game in the franchise and the first in 3D. It was this entry that turned Metal Gear into a worldwide success. After that, a truckload of copycat stealth games followed, but none could match up.
As of late 2021, Metal Gear had sold nearly 60 million copies as a franchise. The last game released was Metal Gear Survive – a spin-off from 2018 and the first game in the franchise made without the input of Kojima. It was a critical and commercial failure.
When it was first released in 1997, Fallout was a simple role-playing game. Its first sequel, released a year later, followed the same formula. It wasn’t until the game’s development switched studios it began to take a more action-forward style that it follows today.
There was a ten-year gap between Fallout 2 and Fallout 3, but the wait was worth it. With Bethesda in charge of the franchise, it became a cultural phenomenon. Fallout 4 continued the world’s love affair with the post-apocalyptic future shown in the game.
Unfortunately, the most recent Fallout game was filled with issues. Released in 2018, Fallout 76 was a launch disaster. The game was filled with bugs and fans turned their cheeks. Whatever comes next in the franchise has a lot to make up for.
Despite missteps, the video game between then and now are basically night and day.
Core Design began developing Tomb Raider in 1994 before releasing Lara Croft’s first big adventure two years later. The game was a huge success, and Tomb Raider 2 came out the next year, followed by Tomb Raider 3 in 1998.
By the sixth game, which was released in 2003, enthusiasm had died down. The Angel of Darkness put the franchise in a rut. Not even the Angelina Jolie-led movies could keep fans buying games. Crystal Dynamics took over development from Core Design and Tomb Raider came out in 2013. The franchise was back and looked better than ever with advanced graphics and more in-depth storytelling capabilities.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider was the last main series game released. Sales were sluggish, leaving Square Enix to figure out what to do next with Lara Croft – if they plan to do anything at all.
Six games have been released in the Halo franchise since Combat Evolved put Master Chief on the map in 2001. First developed by Bungie, 343 Industries took over development starting with Halo 4. The reception by fans wasn’t great, although 343 Industries’ most recent effort Halo: Infinite was met with wide praise.
Overall, the biggest difference between Halo then and now, aside from changing developers, are sharper graphics. The designs of the Spartans were immediately iconic and not much has been changed there. Even watching the new Halo TV series you can see how much was inspired by the first game.
Call of Duty
Could anyone have guessed when Call of Duty originally came out that the franchise would have evolved so much? The graphics are the obvious angle here, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Let’s discuss the setting. It’s hard to believe that when the developer first set the game during WWII that they ever imagined the franchise would eventually feature zombies and jump into the future. That’s the beauty of tracking the evolution of video games then and now, honestly.
With a new game coming out what seems like every year, Call of Duty kind of feels like the Madden NFL of war games. When a franchise is this popular, though, that kind of market saturation should be expected.
Call of Duty: Vanguard was released in November 2021, and might be the last one we see for a while. To put it nicely, the game’s developer has come under major scrutiny for disturbing business practices.
MLB the Show
Stuffed to the brim with features, there is literally no competition in the market for MLB the Show to have to fight against. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. For years, that exclusivity meant The Show could only be played on PlayStation (it’s developed by Sony San Diego).
Last year, The Show finally came out on Xbox. And this year a graphically impaired version was even released on the Switch. Still, if you want the true experience, PlayStation is the way to go.
The biggest changes then and now for The Show have been features and mechanics. Every new game sees a change in hitting and pitching mechanics as it strives for more realism. Features are added every year that feel fresh as well, unlike Madden, meaning there is plenty of reason to buy MLB the Show this year aside from roster upgrades.
Super Smash Bros.
I feel like not so much has changed then and now with Super Smash Bros. then has evolved and expanded. The main focus of the game has always been chaotic fighting using classic Nintendo and other licensed characters. Player v. player has always been the main draw, with the “story” being secondary.
Even when Nintendo has poured attention into the story, like with Ultimate on the Switch, players still gravitate to online play. And everyone has their favorite character, mine being Link (I will not be accepting your criticisms), even while exciting new “Challengers” are introduced.
Speaking of challengers, the first game in the franchise had eight playable characters. In 2022, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has 89.
A true experience that tries to put the player in the pilot’s seat, few video games then and now match modern realism the way Flight Simulator does. The most recent game in the franchise boasted gorgeous graphics and landscapes that would make anyone feel like they were actually flying.
That, of course, wasn’t always the case. While the game has never felt like an arcade version of flying, the graphics couldn’t always depict the real world the way they can now.
If you’ve never played Flight Simulator, now is the time to pick up a copy. Look at these split images and tell me that you’re not even a little curious about how the game plays in 2022. You know you are. Now, please excuse me while I add it to my Amazon cart.
Megami Tensei has been around since 1987, but I had never experienced it until last year, when I purchased Shin Megami Tensei V. Just a few hours into the most recent game of the franchise, it has also shown a rich world of gods and demons with an incredible number of hours to still play and explore.
The original game wasn’t nearly as complex. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei kicked off the long-lasting franchise – itself based off a trilogy of books. The turn-based battles from this game remain in today. The first-person perspective is now a more open-world-friendly third-person view.
Just as notable as the changes in the main franchise is the massive spin-off it inspired, Persona. First released in 1996, Persona has been just as popular, if not more popular, than its parent. Which one do you prefer?
Which video game do you think has most improved from then to now? Let us know in the comments section.