The art of video games: From Super Mario Brothers to The Legend of Zelda

The Barbican championed the art of the video game long before it became the behemoth industry that we see today. Its first Game On exhibition opened in 2001 – now it’s gearing up for Game On 2.0, which will tour the world celebrating this cutting edge medium, offering visitors the chance to play classic games and learn how they are made.

The Barbican is already touring another exhibition, Digital Revolution, exploring the transformation of the arts through digital technology since the 1970s, including a section on video games.
And across the Atlantic, the Smithsonian in Washington DC is running its own show celebrating the beauty and wonder of gaming, featuring 80 titles from the inception of the medium in the 1960s, through to the triple-A franchises of the 21st century. The exhibition, The Art of Video Games, is “one of the first to explore the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies.”
We picked out some of the most finely crafted, innovative titles that either helped pave the way for the today’s big-hitters, or continue to push boundaries today. Every gamer has his or her favourite – leave a comment below to tell us which ones most affected you.


Dead Space is beautiful in the way Ridley Scott’s Alien is beautiful: in a really, really terrifying way. This space adventure sees you trapped aboard a ship with merciless, predatory aliens, and only simple tools with which to defend yourself. But it’s also a place where you can see stars drifting past the windows, and marvel at how lovingly the environment had been put together. Shame there’s blood all over it...


One of the undisputed all-time classics; the game that cemented the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto as the force he is today. His world of evil mushrooms, killer piranha plants and head-buttable boxes was visually arresting, surreal and infectious. It paved the way for countless imitators and pushed the boundaries of what the burgeoning industry was capable of.


Perhaps one of the less iconic of the early wave of video games, but no less accomplished, Future Wars was an early point-and-click that took you on a mind-bending adventure through time and space, taking in a selection of glorious 8-bit settings. It was also one of the first games to toy with heavy, intelligent science-fiction themes.


Any of the Legend of Zelda franchise could have been included in this round-up. The Wind Waker utilised cell shading to great effect to create a cartoonish 3D world for you to smash pots in – lovely.


This tale of a man and a young girl struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse is best known for its gritty realism: decaying streets and buildings filled with things you’d rather not think about. But it’s also a game of startling beauty; without mankind, nature reclaims the world, with birds and plants growing where concrete and glass once dominated. The scene pictured shows the characters encountering a herd of giraffes escaped from the zoo, now roaming free in the city.


Never has a self-contained video game world been so spectacularly imagined and executed as Bioshock’s Rapture. It’s an improbable, glorious underwater paradise where everything has started to fall apart; grand art deco ballrooms have fallen into disrepair but the sweeping seascapes visible from the windows are as spectacular as ever. You could spend all day watching wales and giant squid drift past (well, unless you get bludgeoned to death while your back is turned).

NI NO KUNI, 2010

Studio Ghibli is one of the most beloved animation studios in the world, the Japanese Disney producing classics adored by adults and children alike. So when it helped to produce a video game, people paid attention. Ni No Kuni (The Second Country) is a lush epic about a young boy learning to become a wizard.


Sure, Skyrim is in many ways a standard fantasy game in the Tolkien mould, filled with orcs and dragons, but it’s also far more than that. It was unprecedented in its size and ambition, featuring a playable map that took hours to walk across and months to properly explore. Its stunning vistas ranged from snowy peaks to lush woodland; sulphurous bogs to arid plains inhabited by wooly mammoths.

Related articles