Originals

The 10 Longest-running Video Game Franchises, Ranked

From Super Mario to Space Invaders and even the Game & Watch series, these franchises are almost as old as gaming itself.

June 20, 2022
For a “new” medium, video games are getting old. Some now major franchises had simple beginnings that have created legacies lasting five or six human generations. In this time, our understanding of technology has fundamentally changed, and some game franchises have evolved drastically. We will only be covering franchises originating in gaming, not licensed ones, which typically do not position games as the primary medium. Similarly, franchises here are categorized as intellectual properties, so this list will exclude series of “clones” or games based on real-world games. We’re also not counting announced games that haven’t released yet at the time of writing. The longevity of each franchise is taken here as the time between its first game and its most recent original one. With all of this in mind, the following are the most tenured game franchises of all time.

Microsoft Flight Simulator: 37 years, 9 months

November 1982 – August 2020

Flight Simulator has been impactful on many, inspiring some to pursue careers in aviation. In terms of the series’ evolution, no genre benefits more from technological advancement than simulation, as there’s nothing harder to digitally interpret than reality. Over time, Microsoft’s flight sims have become more and more convincing, culminating when Xbox head Phil Spencer, upon being shown footage of the 2020 edition, took it to be real footage of a plane in flight, as reported by The Verge. While maybe not consistently indistinguishable yet, the technology is a landmark in the quest for photorealism in games. Sophistication of gameplay dynamics and artificial intelligence remain to be addressed, but the Flight Simulator franchise illustrates just how far games have come in the last four decades.

Wolfenstein: 37 years, 10 months

September 1981 – July 2019

Though Wolfenstein is now a franchise with entries whose production budgets rival those of movies, it started out with a top-down maze game, one that was nevertheless original in its integration of stealth mechanics. The most innovative instalment, however, would come in 1992. The game that spawned Doom, Quake, and, more tangentially, GoldenEye and Call of Duty, Wolfenstein 3D is considered by many to be one of the most critical innovators among first-person shooters. This significance is undoubtedly part of what has allowed the franchise to resurface time and time again.

Elevator Action: 38 years, 1 month

May 1983 – June 2021

This unyielding franchise, like so many others, had its start in the 8-bit era. The title is concise, with the player character navigating a high-rise while fighting for his life against armed antagonists in a Die Hard-like scenario. The gameplay has remained largely unchanged across the generations, with elements such as powerups and multiplayer added over time. Still, the fact that the fundamental gameplay has stayed appealing for so long is a testament to the ingenuity of the concept, and evidence that the simplest ideas are often the most resilient.

Super Mario: 39 years, 3 months

March 1983 – June 2022

The first Mario-branded game, Mario Bros., was also the first title that the effervescent tradesman appeared in outside the original Donkey Kong games. It should be noted that the first release of Mario Bros. may not have actually been the arcade version, but the entirely different Game & Watch version. The G&W unit was released in March 1983 and the arcade game between March and July. The uncertainty here is due to the poor documentation occurring at this early stage of the industry, as video games had not yet been established as much more than diversions you could dabble with on a computer. Since then, Mario has become the single bestselling game franchise at over 700 million copies sold, according to Den Of Geek. Its hundreds of entries encompass almost every genre.

Space Invaders: 40 years, 4 months

April 1978 – August 2018

“Press button to shoot things” is a trope so central to the gaming medium that the first release in this series has been considered akin to the origin of all video games. This has also been an idea used to reduce the medium to fantasies of mindless destruction, with a common misconception being a belief that the puerile mentality such a format is sometimes associated with is inherent to the entire medium. Whether or not this is deserved is moot. Space Invaders is among the few franchises most associated with gaming itself. Visual effects and so on become more sophisticated over subsequent titles, but the classic blasting gameplay has changed little.

Game & Watch: 41 years, 7 months

April 1980 – November 2021

Game & Watch is variously presented as a franchise or merely a line of devices. Nintendo has marketed it increasingly as the former over time. G&W characters are alternately generic and specific. Some rereleases of G&W games have seen the standard ink-like blob reimagined as Mario. Super Smash Bros. games have expanded the G&W lore, with Melee giving the generic name Mr. Game & Watch to the player character. In Super Smash Bros. Brawl, he is amoral and made of an antimatter-like substance. Titles in the franchise have had remakes on other Nintendo handhelds, and the G&W concept has been built on in Nintendo Land and Game & Wario. Commemorative Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda Game & Watches have also been released, devices that oddly excluded the actual G&W games in those series. Regardless, G&W is the longest-running Nintendo franchise.

Frogger: 41 years, 5 months

January 1981 – June 2022

Frogger is iconic and brilliant in its simplicity: get from Point A to Point B and don’t die horribly along the way. This premise has led to countless permutations attached to the IP, including trivia, puzzle, and 3D platforming games. One of the game franchises that has become immortalized in popular culture through references such as those on Seinfeld, the series is more or less a household name. Frogger comes from the era that most strongly defined the perception of video games, and thus looks to remain in the collective consciousness indefinitely.

Pac-Man: 41 years, 7 months

May 1980 – December 2021

Between the labyrinth that is life, the ghosts of our past catching up with us, sustenance as motivation, and the need to keep moving or perish, the richness of Pac-Man’s symbolism is likely one of the reasons for its formidable longevity. It reflects the human condition. It remains simple and universally relatable. It also makes a fun wakka wakka sound. The series has seen various elaborations on its premise, and its evolution serves as an analog to our relationship with technology. The early titles lack even an explanation for the fictional scenario, reflecting an underlying unawareness. In contrast, the Internet’s inherent meta-awareness manifests in Pac-Man 256, in which a notorious glitch in the original game’s code serves as the premise of the gameplay itself. Pac-Man has been around so long and through so many titles that the character’s history is gaming’s history.

The Oregon Trail: 46 years

1975 – April 2021

It may surprise you to know that The Oregon Trail is not the longest-running video game series. When the survival game was originally produced for educational purposes in US schools in 1971, it used not a video display, but paper tape for output. Yes, the game was computerized, but without electronic text or graphics it didn’t meet the definition of “video game” in a strict sense. However, with the minimal graphical and gameplay requirements of the text-based adventure genre, the series was still able to get an early start in video games with its state-wide release to schools sometime in 1975, according to the Smithsonian magazine. A 2021 remake of the original is the most recent entry, extending the lifespan of the series to an impressive 46 years.

Pong: 47 years, 5 months

November 1972 – April 2020

When the first Pong was released, many TV displays were still black and white and entertainment still made your own imagination do a lot of the work. While its original entry is now pointed to as an example of a comically primitive video game, this illustrious series will always be historic in its innovation of multiplayer fun. Hit thing. Bleep. Now you hit thing. Bloop. It’s a story as old as time. Even the Super Smash Bros. series has not been able to deny the significance of the original, with Nintendo-developed clone Light Tennis from the Color TV-Game 15 featuring as an item to use in battle. In 2021, the Pong paddles came to life and became, maybe alarmingly, anthropomorphized. Regardless of the direction the Pong series goes in from here, it will forever be one of the most important and pivotal concepts in gaming.
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Originals
AM Nissen

AM Nissen is an aspiring author and has written for the magazine Scientia. He enjoys new media and has particular interest in the future of video games. He holds a PhD in the area of philosophy of futurology, having conducted research on the cultural, psychological, and epistemological implications of the Information Age. There is a hidden message in this biography, and the first five readers to find it will receive a prize.

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