When it comes to video game genres, few are as all-encompassing as action games. Available on just about every console since the release of the Atari and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), there is something special about a game format that is so fast-paced.
Counting down the best action games of all time is a look at the different types of games that have become popular over the years. This includes first-person shooters, fighting games, and platformers, all of which are genres that can easily be lumped into the action category.
Let’s take a look at the absolute best action games of all time and see if one of your favorites made the list.
What is an Action Game?
An action game is broadly defined as one where you are challenged to assist the game’s protagonist through a series of physical challenges. These challenges often require excellent hand-eye coordination, mental dexterity as well as combat knowledge. Players taking part in action games will often seek to collect important objects, complete various objectives, or win by destroying the enemy. Everything from a platformer and beat ‘em up to first-person shooter and fighting can be considered an action game.
Ultimately, it’s best to view the action game genre as one that is open to interpretation but also one that is home to some of the best video game titles of all time.
#7: Halo: Combat Evolved
- Renewed copy
- Game of the Year Award and voted Game Of The Year by IGN.com, Electonic Gaming Monthly and Xbox Magazine
- All new multiplayer mode for up to 16 players
- 15 multiplayer maps and 6 brand new maps
The game that kicked off the Halo franchise, Halo: Combat Evolved is a 2001 classic that has since helped boost Microsoft’s video game ambitions with the Xbox into the stratosphere.
It’s this title where Master Chief first became a household name for any video game fan and spawned multiple sequels over the last 22 years. Earning a 97 Metascore, Halo: Combat Evolved has sold over four million copies worldwide and is widely regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time.
Everything around Halo: Combat Evolved centers around a fictional look at the 26th century when humanity has expanded its reach in the universe. The human race is embroiled in an intergalactic war between it and a group of alien races known as the Covenant.
Just when things start looking bad for humanity, Master Chief enters the battlefield and the rest, as they say, is history. Between the single-player campaign and multiplayer, Halo: Combat Evolved has a tremendous legacy and was recently made into a TV show for Paramount+.
#6: Super Mario Odyssey
- Nintendo Switch
- Standard or Starter Pack available
- Explore 3D kingdoms with different ways to interact with your environments
- Mario's new friend, Cappy, brings some new tricks
- Multiplayer compatibility
One of the more recent big-name action games to hit the top of Metacritic, Super Mario Odyssey is a staple for any Nintendo Switch owner.
Hitting a 97 Metascore, Super Mario Odyssey is a strong combination of platforming and action where hand-eye coordination and mental dexterity are the keys to helping Mario progress through every stage. This time around, instead of Yoshi or Peach, Mario has a new friend, Cappy, and these two set off to once again save Princess Peach from the evil hands of Bowser.
What makes Super Mario Odyssey so engaging is that it moves away from the more linear goals of previous Mario games and instead keeps gameplay more open-ended. It’s not quite an open-world game in the traditional sense, but it’s as close as Mario has ever gotten to that genre.
As of August 2022, Super Mario Odyssey has sold more than 23 million copies, making it one of the best-selling games for the Nintendo Switch and the fastest-selling Mario game of all time.
Gameplay itself revolves around Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach and trying to force a marriage while Mario’s attempts to rescue Peach are complicated by the need to travel to various Kingdoms and locate different objectives in order to obtain Power Moons.
#5: Metroid Prime
- Renewed copy
- Play as Samus as you fight the deadliest creatures in the galaxy
- Use bombs, missiles, lasers, and your ability to morph into a ball
- Wear new suits that give Samus all-new powers
- Flawless camera angles, fantastic 3D graphics, and massively detailed game worlds
Released on the GameCube in November 2002, Metroid Prime has long been considered one of the best action games of all time.
In the game, players once again take control of Samus as they play through a first-person game, which is a first for the Metroid series of games. Receiving a 97 Metascore, the popularity of Metroid Prime has lasted for more than two decades with a recent re-master of the original GameCube game releasing on the Nintendo Switch in February 2023.
As one of the best-selling games on GameCube, more than 2.8 million copies have been sold worldwide. For those gamers who played on the GameCube, they were treated with a story of Samus tracking a distress call from a mysterious ship and working to find herself fighting different alien species all while trying to save the day.
Among its huge popularity, Metroid Prime has been named to many best-of game lists, including those that rank it as one of the best Nintendo games of all time. That it has earned a re-release is a testament not just to its popularity but also to the longevity with which players have been clamoring for another opportunity to play this incredible action title.
#4: Perfect Dark
- Nintendo 64
- Developed by Rare
- Dolby surround sound, widescreen compatibility, and stunning special effects, including dynamic lighting, chest-thumping explosions and realistic smoke, dust and steam clouds
- 3D models rendered to create life-like characters
Perfect Dark is the perfect name for a near-perfect title. There may be a lot of “perfects” in that sentence, but they are necessary for a title that earned a 97 Metascore.
Often regarded as the best Nintendo 64 game of all time, Perfect Dark is a first-person shooter title that has all of the necessary requirements to qualify as an action game like fast-action, requiring quick reflexes and mental dexterity. More importantly, Perfect Dark is another game title widely considered to be one of the best video games of all time. To date, Perfect Dark has sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide.
Gameplay focuses on the protagonist, Joanna Dark, who, in the year 2023 (a much different 2023), is part of a fight between two alien races. Earth is home to two competing companies that want to utilize alien DNA to become the biggest company on the planet. As an employee of one of the two giant Earth-based companies, Joanna Dark must make quick decisions at nearly every turn to save her company, the President of the United States, an alien spacecraft, and one of the alien races. Just another day for Joanna Dark.
#3: Super Mario Galaxy 2
- Collect new Comet Metals which unlock harder levels with even more challenges
- Mario collects stars as he travels from galaxy to galaxy, sometimes upside-down, sometimes floating from place to place
- Mario can find an egg, smash it, and hop onto the back of Yoshi in some stages
- New power-ups include a drill that Mario uses to tunnel through the planet's surface all the way to the other side of a planet
- Every level is new, but the game retains the same charm, sense of wonder, and beauty you love
When it comes to action games on the Nintendo Wii, few are as joyful to play as Super Mario Galaxy 2.
This 2010 sequel launched with much fanfare and would go on to sell more than seven million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling Nintendo Wii titles. Earning a 97 Metascore, there was a ton of praise for the novel design of the game’s layout, character control, and level design. Arguably, Super Mario Galaxy 2 helped drive the 3D platformer genre well into the future as we know it today and away from the 2D platformers of old.
As you pair up with Yoshi on various stages, you see long-formed elements of Mario games of old where Yoshi uses his tongue to both grab items and spit them back to help remove enemies from the game. Another long-standing Mario plotline formulates the basis of the game as Princess Peach is once again kidnapped by Bowser and Mario must visit various levels and beat a variety of bosses, including Bowser Jr. on his quest to rescue his favorite princess.
To help differentiate from its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy, the environment of certain levels of Super Mario Galaxy 2 change at random making hand-eye coordination all the more valuable in completing the game.
#2: Super Mario Galaxy
- 1-2 players
- Nintendo Wii
- Players can run, jump, and battle enemies as they explore the many planets
- Press buttons, swing the Wii Remote and Nunchuk controllers, and use the Wii Remote to point at and drag things on-screen
You might think that Super Mario Galaxy is just another Mario game, and that’s okay, as there are a lot of Mario games in existence. What helped separate Super Mario Galaxy from the previous Mario lineup was its incredible action around the use of gravity as well as playing across different galaxies.
Using the Wii Remote and the Nunchuck was a truly unique experience from any other Mario title and solidified this game as a true hall of fame entry in the Mario lineup.
Earning a 97 Metascore, Super Mario Galaxy is the ninth best-selling game of the Nintendo Wii console and is also considered one of the best video games of all time with 12.8 million copies sold.
As the game is set in outer space, Mario must travel to different locations and collect different Power Stars as he jumps around and battles bosses in this incredibly unique 3D environment. As is generally the case with Mario games, Super Mario Galaxy once again revolves around Mario rescuing Princess Peach, but the wonderful action of the game easily overlooks the unsurprising plot.
- Sega Dreamcast
- Great graphics and animation
- Single and multiplayer modes as well as team mode, computer vs. computer, martial arts demo, and more
- Secrets and extra features are plentiful
Regarded as one of if not the best fighting games of all time, SoulCalibur is definitely all action.
As the only action game to achieve a 98 Metascore, expectations are definitely high and, fortunately, SoulCalibur delivers the goods. What makes this game so unique is its emphasis on weapon fighting which is atypical for fighting games.
Thankfully, the SoulCalibur developers in Project Soul found a magic formula when this game was released for Dreamcast in 1999. Centered around a weapon known as the Soul Edge, players must battle opponents in one versus one matches to claim the weapon for themselves.
Achieving the ranking as the fourth highest game of all time according to Metacritic is no easy feat, and it’s why SoulCalibur won multiple game of the year rewards. It’s unsurprisingly also regarded as one of the best video games of all time.
Players raved about the eight-direction system that made excellent use of the 3D environment so sidestepping and rolling away from attacks was truly different from previous fighting games. Only six other games sold more on the Dreamcast than SoulCalibur even as the game would eventually release on the Xbox 360 and later on iOS and Android.
Action games are some of the most competitive titles out there as proven by the sheer scope of how many games scored 97. While it might seem challenging to choose among so many excellent titles, Metacritic has done the heavy lifting even as so many amazing games like BioShock, GoldenEye007, and Tekken 3 all just barely missed the cutoff with 96 Metascores.
The good news is that there is a huge library of action games available, and this means your video game backlog should be filled for days, weeks, and years to come.