The 30 greatest British video games

Batman Arkham Knight

Britain has always punched above its weight in the video game industry.

For many years it was in the world's top three games developing countries, just behind the US and Japan. And although Canada has crept ahead in recent years, the British Isles remain a stronghold of innovative and often idiosyncratic design.

So to celebrate the county's profound contribution to interactive entertainment history, here are the 30 best British games of all time, as selected by three of the Guardian's regular games writers. Rather arbitrarily, we've gone for whole series' if the quality is consistent, and single titles if not. Sometimes we've just plain cheated.

As ever, please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section – we're bound to have missed some wonderful titles.

Batman Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, 2009, various platforms)

Rocksteady approached DC's venerable comic book crime-fighter with a degree of care and respect matched by no other previous game-maker. The design draws inspiration from 2D classics such as Super Metroid and Castlevania Symphony of the Night. It presents a relatively small, gated world; each area within is accessible only when Batman unlocks the requisite skill. In this way its mysteries unfurl with rare elegance. But it's the feel of the character that proves most alluring. In combat Batman strikes with power and grace. In the shadows, he moves with cat-like grace, flitting from pillar to gargoyle in silence. In dialogue he growls through his lines. A definitive treatment.

Burnout Paradise (Criterion, 2008, various platforms

As brash as it was slick, Burnout was always an arcade racer with teeth to spare. But Paradise was a revelation. It replaced 'Next Race' and menus with twenty-six square miles of open-world, squeezing a country's worth of diversions into its packed terrain, and then let everything happen on-the-fly. Effortless to drop into, gorgeous from any angle, and always easy to lose hours to, Burnout Paradise is also remarkable for Criterion's free post-launch support. Six years on, Paradise City still looks and feels like it.

Cannon Fodder (Sensible, 1993, various platforms)

"Cannon Fodder" is a pretty horrific phrase, but a game where your little soldiers mattered more than anything. Jools and Jops were your earliest, ever-so-vulnerable troops in Cannon Fodder, and the longer you kept them alive the better they got. The game is a top-down shooter that alternates between deadly precision and ice-rink mayhem – where, if a soldier falls, the size of the tombstone reflected their time with you. Developer Sensible Software's genius shows in how Cannon Fodder is so anti-war, yet the intro song remains accurate: "War! Never been so much fun!"

Championship Manager / Football Manager (Sports Interactive, 1992-, various platforms)

Set up by two brothers, Paul and Oliver Collyer, Sports Interactive has been making football management games for over two decades. But to compare 1992's Championship Manager '93 to last year's Football Manager 2014 (the name changed in 2003) would be like men against boys. This is because Football Manager, more than any other series, shows the value of iteration and regular releases. Over two decades the game has become more detailed, in-depth, slicker, smarter, and knowing about the crazy job it simulates. There are more superficially exciting games, but few as all-consuming and rewarding.

DJ Hero (Freestyle Games, 2009, various platforms)

DJ Hero wasn't the first videogame exploration of turntablism – that accolade belongs to Beatmania, the Japanese game that formalised the use of plastic peripherals in video games to approximate musical instruments. DJ Hero's set-up was more serious, however, in both the design of the controller and the game's mechanics too, which involve crossfading between two pieces of music according to on-screen directions, as well as reversing and scratching a turntable to rouse a virtual crowd. The soundtrack was created in collaboration with DJ Shadow, Z-Trip, DJ AM, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Daft Punk, a studded line-up that, unfortunately, failed to reignite the audience's waning interest in music games at the time.

Dungeon Keeper (Bullfrog, 1997, PC)

The perfect blend of concept and content, Dungeon Keeper is an RTS where you play the bad guy – setting up a deathtrap of many rooms, tinkering until it purrs, and then watching the heroes try to invade. Dungeon Keeper was one of many great games from Guildford's Bullfrog Productions, sadly now defunct, and perhaps the best example of its mischievous humour and ability to put a a distinctive spin on familiar ideas.

Elite (David Braben and Ian Bell, 1984, various platforms)

It must say something that the greatest game of the 1980s presented a cold-hearted world where the only rules were get rich and don't get caught. Elite began as a game about dogfighting but, when co-developers David Braben and Ian Bell found this a little dull, a layer of amoral capitalism was added on top – the player can trade everything from food to weapons to slaves. What makes Elite resonate even now is the vast scale of its eight galaxies; the feeling that there's always something new to find. What makes it a classic is that there always was.

Fable 2 (Lionhead, 2008, Xbox 360)

Fable II is a celebration of the disorderly English fairytale, all fart jokes and buxom maids serving sloshing tankards of ale mixed up with Robin Hood-style chants of revolution and seasoned with the old magic of the countryside. As you canter through Albion's green and pleasant land, sheepdog by your side, thwacking trolls and flirting with the local men or women (this progressive game allows you to role-play any sexuality) you're free to choose whether you'll be good, evil or some more honest shade between. It's story is well-told, its soundtrack glorious. But most of all this is a generous, forgiving game that charms as much as it challenges.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (Bizarre Creations, 2005, Xbox 360)

Originally made as a tech demo by a bored programmer, Geometry Wars, would come to define Xbox Live Arcade as the premier platform for new games created in an old style. An analogue twin stick shooter the game takes the principles of Robotron 2084 (the 1982 arcade classic where one stick is used to direct movement and another to direct bullets) and pares the venerable arcade shooter back even further. You play to delay the inevitable: dodging the incoming aliens and bullets in the midst of a symphony of exploding lights and sounds till you're finally overwhelmed. Pure and beautiful.

Goldeneye 007 (Rare, 1997, Nintendo 64)

Originally designed as a light-gun game in the style of Sega's arcade classic Virtua Cop, Rare's eventual take on the Bond myth – by far the most successful video game adaptation of Ian Fleming's series – demonstrated that the First Person Shooter could translate from the PC to the living room. From its cast of flailing Soviet soldiers to its elegant level design to its assured multiplayer, nobody's done Bond in video game better than Rare. Launched two years after the film on which it's based had left the box office, Goldeneye 007 sold slowly but steadily, breaking the ground from which Halo and Call of Duty would later grow.

Grand Theft Auto (DMA/Rockstar North, 1997-, various platforms)

The term 'virtual world' always has and will be thrown around thoughtlessly, and yet how few games deserve such praise. The first two instalments of the Grand Theft Auto series had, in embryonic form, freedom and chaos – but DMA Design's Grand Theft Auto 3D changed everything. It's not just the technical achievement, the vistas, crowds and cars that improve with each instalment, or the sheer production values – licensed tracks, famous comedians, TV shows, and voice talent. It's the choice. Players can be criminals, sure, and go on pyrotechnic rampages. But just as many put on a nice suit, get their favourite car, and set out for a country drive with the radio on. GTA is one of the few games to promise freedom, and then deliver something like it.

Lego Star Wars (Traveller's Tales, 2005, various platforms)

The idea to combine Denmark's most enduring toy with the cinematic imagination of George Lucas' most enduring science fiction myth was simple, unexpected and, with properties this gargantuan, risky. Traveller's Tales succeeded by striking a delicate balance of childlike irreverence and keen respect towards the source material, reducing the films' narrative down to a series of un-voiced pantomime scenes, while swapping out the fire and fury of its climactic battles with a shower of plastic bricks and coins. Parents and children could play together, breaking down the scenery with gleeful swipes of their lightsabers before rebuilding the pieces into unexpected shapes. The result established a template that has subsequently been used to rebuild colossi of contemporary family cinema, from Harry Potter to Indiana Jones.

Lemmings (Dma Design, 1991, various platforms)

Some games defy categorisation. Lemmings is like a puzzle game crossed with a tech demo, one that marries leisurely yet short play sessions to strategic thought and twitchy timings. It is unique and, over twenty years later, there's still nothing like it. DMA Design created 120 stages filled with devilish traps and fiendish puzzles, and every Lemming animation was imbued with more floppy-haired personality than entire other games. The British industry went on to produce glitzier masterpieces, but will it ever top the originality and purity of Lemmings? Oh no!

LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule, 2008, PlayStation 3)

LittleBigPlanet started life as am indie project, conceived by a handful of breakaway developers before, as the idea gained shape and momentum, it became global poster-boy for Sony's PlayStation 3. Sackboy is the side-scrolling platform game's star, a knitted doll seemingly propelled by joy, leaping through the air from platform to platform like a puppy launching itself to bite at a Frisbee. It's handcrafted world, all cardboard and fabric texture, is quite unlike the futuristic surfaces that define most current video games, and, once the game is done, players are able to fashion their own levels and send them out into the world for others to try. Media Molecule's creation is both a humble platform game, and a platform for others to make games on -- at once, big and little.

Manhunt (Rockstar North, 2003, various platforms)

Time was that Rockstar North revelled in being the bete noir of British tabloids. And so was born Manhunt, a brutal game too clever by half for its many critics. Manhunt is nasty. You play a death row inmate given a surprise second chance, 'directed' through levels where you hide from and kill gang members. An unblinkered examination of the agency, nature and pleasure of videogame violence, Manhunt was unfortunately taken at face value by many – but, in 2014, is as relevant as ever.

Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy (Software Projects, 1984, various platforms)

This is your 2-for-1 cassette tape of the day, the main productions of designer Matthew Smith, a man with an eye for the surreal that made these classics then upped and left the industry behind. Manic Miner casts you as Willy, trapped with a dwindling air supply in a 20-screen mine filled with toilet seats and poisoned pansies. But Jet Set Willy is Smith's lasting achievement – a complex twitch platformer full of tricks, where Willy has to clean the mansion he bought with the proceeds of the first game. JSW remains fondly-remembered for set-pieces like 'The Nightmare Room' – filled with ghostly housekeepers, Willy suddenly turns into a flying mouse and has to dodge giant feet.

Micro Machines (Codemasters, 1991, various platforms)

Codemasters would later become one of the UK's best-regarded racing game studios, stewards of valuable licenses such as TOCA and Formula One. But in 1991 the studio kept its vision small, racing inch-long cars along billiards tables, kitchen counters and through the tall grass in Micro Machines. The game's appeal reflects that of Joe Johnston's film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, released two years earlier: the opportunity to view the world's from an insect's perspective. Moreover, the game allowed children to bring their toy car races to vivid life, where every table edge becomes a cliff-top drop, every paperclip a hazard on the track.

New Star Soccer (Simon Read, 2012, iOS)

A mobile phone game that meets the apparent restrictions of its platform with towering ambition: to recreate both the on-pitch drama of the beautiful game as well as the off-pitch detail of the footballers' relationships and lifestyle. In Simon Read's BAFTA-award winning game you play as a single player. Whenever the ball lands at his feet you take control of the game. You draw your finger back to set the power of a shot or pass and then watch to see how the interaction affects the flow of the match. In between games you can train to improve certain character parameters, purchase new equipment and spend cash earned from matches and sponsorship deals. The result is a game as nuanced and comprehensive as many multi-million dollar franchises.

Paradroid (Andrew Braybrook, 1985, various platforms)

Set over several decks of a vast spaceship, this stylistically ingenious puzzle shooter put the player in control of a weedy robot, looking to destroy all the other droids roaming the craft's many rooms and corridors. The blasting action is fun, but the innovative addition of a mini-game allowing you to attack and over-take the circuits of other more powerful bots is the defining achievement. Programmer Andrew Braybrook, who also made the surreal Gribbly's Day out and stunning space shooter Uridium, squeezed every pixel of graphical performance out of the 8bit platforms – and the tension of exploring the labyrinthine space ship decks remains as compulsive as it was 30 years ago.

Populous (Bullfrog, 1989, Amiga)

The game that established Peter Molyneux as one of Britain's most storied and, at times, controversial designers, came about through a misreading of the phonebook. The PC manufacturer Commodore called Molyneux's company Taurus to offer the use of its computers by accident: they meant to call 'Torus'. Molyneux went along with the call, secured some computers for his studio and the result was the first 'God Sim', a game in which the game assumes the role of a divine protector who must increase the number of his followers so that they are able to decimate their rivals.

Race Driver: Grid (Codemasters, 2008, various platforms)

Driving games tend towards extremes: shell-tossing whimsy or straight-faced simulation. But Grid saw a gap, weaved through, and took off – this was a racer with character. The cars are iconic, the tracks are fine-tuned racecourses rather than authentic recreations, and it has a masterful gamey touch. A rewind button. Grid's production values are off the charts, but it's the ability to correct your mistakes – especially as you get better and they become fewer – that makes this a permanent game. Other racers have other priorities. Grid is simply an amazing ride.

Rome: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2004, Mac/PC)

The first game in the Total War series to be fully-3D also happened to hit upon the greatest possible subject matter. The battles of Rome are among history's greatest and developer Creative Assembly doubled the impact by recreating its armies with historical fidelity. And for the first time, Total War meant Total War. The battlefield is one thing, but here your success depends as much on trade routes, technologies, and spies; get caught out of position, and Hannibal may well re-write history to his liking. A world of miniatures that zooms out – and out and out, Rome: Total War is one of strategy gaming's pinnacles.

SingStar (Sony London, May 2004, PS2)

By 2004 the music game revolution was in full swing, led by Konami and its exacting approach to rhythm detection in Japan, and Harmonix with its air-guitar posturing in the West. The London-made SingStar was unlike either tradition. Rather, this easy-going, stylish karaoke game that was approachable in a way that neither Dance Dance Revolution nor Guitar Hero could equal. The game could detect the pitch of its two players' singing, scoring each on their performance and turning the drunken revelry of the karaoke bar into something approaching a competitive sport.

Skool Daze (David and Helen Reidy, 1984, Spectrum/C64)

A genuine charmer as well as an original, Skool Daze shows that you don't need mega specs and 8 gigs of RAM to create something truly memorable and evocative. You play schoolboy Eric, and on-screen can see the whole school and other characters – the headmaster, teachers, the bully, the swot and so on. Your goal is to get Eric's report card out of the headmaster's safe, but there were countless ways of doing this. And the pleasure of Skool Daze wasn't in beating the game anyway, but in playing around with it – causing mischief for others to take the blame, setting traps, or just watching the little people tick over.

Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe (Bitmap Brothers, 1990, Atari ST/Amiga)

Video games more often imitate sports than invent them, but Speedball 2 is a glorious exception, a futuristic cyberpunk amalgamation of handball and ice hockey that reward violence and accuracy in equal measure. This sequel is the stronger game: increasing the size of teams from five players to nine and placing targets on the floor and walls that can be hit for bonus points. There's a pornographic delight to the game's cartoon violence, but its true joy is in the speed and jostle of play, where each goal is a triumph accompanied with a dopamine jolt.

TxK (Llamasoft, 2014, PlayStation Vita)

Jeff Minter, who lives on a farm in Wales, has been making games for just under four decades. An indie developer before there were indie developers, Minter has created countless games but will always be synonymous with Tempest. The original 1981 arcade game was created by the brilliant Dave Theurer, but over the decades our maverick has refined and reworked the tube shooter into a psychedelic hedonist's delight. Tempest 2000 is oft-cited as the highpoint, but the relatively recent TxK somehow manages to be even more colourful and intense – and as reliably brilliant as ever.

Timesplitters 2 (Free Radical Design, 2002, various platforms)

What do you do when you've made Goldeneye and Perfect Dark? For five former employees of Rare the answer was setting up their own studio, Free Radical Design, and hitting the Playstation 2's launch with the smooth-as-silk multiplayer-focused FPS Timesplitters. But it was Timesplitters 2 that really showed Free Radical's talents – the greatest local multiplayer of its era, hundreds of characters and ways to play, 60 FPS and stylised art that looks good even now. In a world where every device is online it's clear that the only thing Timesplitters got wrong, ironically enough, was arriving too soon.

Tomb Raider (Core design, 1996, various platforms)

Lara Croft, the 27-year-old archaeologist daughter of Lord and Lady Henshingly-Croft may not have been video gaming's first cultural icon, but she was the first to grace the magazine covers of Face, Time and Rolling Stone and to model for that bastion of middle English propriety: Marks and Spencer. Croft's handsome frame sold magazines and lingerie but her success was founded on a more resolute foundation: the taut, imaginative puzzle platform game she fronted. Since 1996 she has proven an inexhaustible icon, both in terms of her athleticism (the endless games, filled with endless tombs) and her marketing power.

UFO: Enemy Unknown (Mythos Games, 1994, various platforms)

Better known as X-COM: UFO Defense, from developer Mythos' small studio in Chipping Sodbury came an RTS balancing small-scale engagements and global management that, at first, chewed up and spat out the unwary. Minute in detail yet allowing freeform progress in each playthrough, X-COM is an oft-terrifying game about facing an alien invasion that depends on brass balls as much as careful plotting. Every player has tales of derring-do, last-minute escapes and determined hold-outs – and the stories they don't want to tell, about the time no-one came home.

Wipeout (Psygnosis, 1995, PlayStation)

Wipeout, a hover ship racer launch title for Sony's PlayStation in the West, marked the passing of video gaming's perception from childish diversion to the cultural zeitgeist. With futuristic, Japanese-esque packaging designed by the now-defunct Designers Republic agency, and a soundtrack from mid-90s club artists such as the Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Orbital and Prodigy, the game is often remembered for its style more than its substance. But Wipeout's appeal runs deeper than its presentation: a racing game that demonstrated Sony's new machine's power, and a fresh way to paint Mario Kart's hustling road races. The sequel, Wipeout 2048, is the more refined game, but the debut's impact is unrivalled.

• The 30 greatest video games that time forgot

Powered by article was written by Simon Parkin, Rich Stanton and Keith Stuart, for on Tuesday 3rd June 2014 15.51 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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