Video game trailers reside in a precarious nexus between games and cinema, art and advertising showcase—which makes them all the more crucial as mediators between the developers’ beloved games and the outside world. Interest in new releases can often live and die by these first-look trailers, either igniting the imaginations of eager crowds or failing miserably, doomed to be dismissed and discarded into the heap of competitors.
In the olden days of pre-broadband, folks attentively monitored video files being downloaded at whisper-thin bandwidth rates from hosting sites like GameSpy, a ritual which could take upwards of hours for the larger presentations. Kids would cycle through demo discs in electronics store kiosks or in the plastic packaging of trade magazines. Dorm connections would lag to a crawl preceding group screenings in common rooms across the world.
We’ve come a long way since then. So in homage to the great art of the video game trailer, we’ve selected our favorite ones from the past two decades. You can chime in with your remarks about what gems we left off this list in the comments below.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time — 1998 trailer
The mid-90s advent from two to three dimensions, an era typified by the graphical leaps of Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy XII, was breathtakingly ushered in by the one-minute trailer for Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Many children of the ‘80s recall the first time they were stopped in their tracks by a N64 kiosk. Mouth agape, they’d watch Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf in the digital flesh, set against that now familiar triumphant soundtrack, and impatiently wait for the trailer to circle back in the rotation.
Halo – Macworld Trailer 1999
Before Halo was the saving grace of Microsoft’s maiden voyage into the console wars, it was supposed to be a Mac-exclusive, third-person RTS (real-time strategy). This unveiling of the latest project from the makers of Myth and Marathon at Macworld 1999, introduced personally by Steve Jobs, was streamed and ripped all over the web. The scope was simply unprecedented. The Alien-inspired military vs. aliens combat and vehicular mayhem was a promising dispatch from a compelling new universe—a key introduction that contributed to the ultimate success of the Halo franchise.
Grand Theft Auto III — 2001 TV spot
Rockstar always placed a premium on music as a singular element of their Grand Theft Auto series, evidenced in their impeccably curated period soundtracks. In the iconic TV spot for GTA III, Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” scores the mafia shootouts and car chases of Liberty City, Rockstar’s stylized, mayhem-prone counterpart to New York City. The pairing embodies the high/low art dynamic of the final product and conjures up images of gangsters and grandeur, with the opera aria implicitly (and correctly) identifying the title as an instant classic.
Half-Life 2 E3 03 – Traptown footage
In an arena then dominated by WWII shooters and sports games, Valve unleashed what stands to this day as the greatest pre-release footage of all time. Half-Life 2‘s hard sci-fi dystopia of City 17 featured fluid, intelligent combat and a new physics-bending gravity gun, opening up imaginative possibilities for environmental manipulation. The live-played footage was as much a coming-out party for Valve’s new Source engine, a first-of-its-kind open-source engine that would deeply impact the modding community for years to come. From a sales perspective, Valve called the bluff of the rest of the industry, for if they’d opted to package their demo showcase into a trailer, they’d have been swiftly accused of faking the footage.
BioShock – X06 trailer
Violent, shocking, and empathetic—this BioShock announcement trailer is probably still not safe to watch in the dark, nevermind at work. The Ayn Rand-ian rantings of capitalist-entrepreneur Andrew Ryan give way to reveal his failed, underwater objectivist-monolith of Rapture, burdened by the weight of the ocean and the awe of enthralled players. Rarely do new IPs have such memorable, effective introductions as this trailer—a seamless blend of CG and gameplay, which climbed a mountain of buzz to the top of the Xbox Live download charts shortly after its release at X06.
Portal — E3 06 announcement trailer
The faux-instructional film of the Portal trailer introduced us to the black humor and ominous atmosphere of Valve’s mind-scrambling FPS (first-person shooter) physics puzzler. At the center of the laboratory testing structure were brain-bending feats of the portal gun, which shot two portals at will on ceilings, walls, and floors to inspiring and unpredictable results, capturing the imagination and anxiety of eager players. Portal grew to be the breakout hit of Valve’s The Orange Box release, outshining Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2, and birthing its own cult following, replete with reverent cosplaying and exquisite fan films.
Tony Hawk’s Project 8 — E3 06 trailer
Before the decline and fall of the once-dominant Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, doomed by the incessant yearly updates demanded from publisher Activision, developer Neversoft tried their hand at stabs of novelty. For the hardware upgrade to seventh-generation consoles, Neversoft rebuilt the skate mechanics and character animations from the ground up, debuting their elegant redesign with this show-stopping, slow-motion trailer, touting intricate board motions and fluidity previously assumed impossible. The result was a far cry from the previous clutter and chaos of past button-mashing THPS installments, and was likely influenced by Spike Jonze‘s legendary Yeah Right! intro. The trailer’s feel and composure contributed in no small measure to EA’s later Skate series, with its emphasis on slo-mo slickness and intuitive flick controls, eventually stealing the mantle of the skate game for skaters.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl — E3 06 trailer
If you listen closely during this roster reveal of the Wii’s installment of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. franchise, you can hear the shrieks of fanboys having every button pressed on their overloading nervous systems. All the old favorites were upgraded and back with new friends in tow, including the out-of-nowhere surprise of Solid Snake entering the fray for cross-platform synergy.
Metal Gear Solid 4 — E3 06 trailer
Hideo Kojima has a rich history of not only peppering his Metal Gear Solid series with extended cutscenes, but also preceding their releases with runs of highly-stylized and memorable trailers. The idiosyncratic developer debuted this mammoth 15-minute (!) first trailer for MGS4 at E3 06, doubling as a graphical showcase for the PS3 powerhouse and immersive re-introduction to the war-riddled future of Solid Snake within the labyrinthian, high-tech plot of Metal Gear Solid.
Fallout 3 — E3 07 trailer
After the heart-wrenching layoffs of Black Isle Studios mid-development in 2003, it seemed that the successor to Fallout 2—the much-beloved, turn-based PC RPG (role-playing game) set in a post-apocalyptic America where Cold War anxieties came to fruition—was dead in the water. Coming off a string of successes with their Elder Scrolls titles, Bethesda Softworks rescued the IP and quietly resurrected the franchise, revealing their work with this teaser trailer at E3 07, a single-shot reveal of The Capital Wasteland running on current-gen consoles scored to Fallout’s hallmark soundtrack of post-war jazz numbers.
The Last Guardian — E3 09 trailer
Team ICO, the AAA-auteurs behind the PS2’s Ico and Shadows of the Colossus, are nothing if not ambitious. The Last Guardian, their latest grand-scale, minimalist masterpiece, chronicles the journey of a boy and his giant pet griffin through the ruins of ancient Japanese castles. The E3 09 first-look trailer underscored the surprising and palpable emotional attachment between these two new characters, unfortunately not yet within our grasp due to the outsized design aspirations of the developers.
The Beatles: Rock Band — 09 intro cinematic
Harmonix’s lavish fanservice to the Beatles’ legacy culminates in this awe-inspiring visualization of their career-spanning iconography. The piece has since been canonized as among the best animatics in game history.
Limbo — E3 2010 trailer
It’s apparent after glancing at this list that the entrants skew towards both the present day and high-profile projects. Perhaps this can be attributed to the boosted relevance of these trailers over time, with their paramount releases and the audience’s increased access to digital video, garnering larger budgets and scrutiny from every level of the industry. On the flipside, when an independent title strongly executes an experimental art design, as evidenced by the foreboding, hypnotic atmosphere of the sinister Limbo trailer, the effect can be all the more refreshing and gripping. Playdead’s haunting gothic XBL Arcade title depicted the morbid noir platformer, looking like a paranormal Mario trapped inside a draining Edward Gorey illustration. The cryptic story can be interpreted as a parable about industrialization, a commentary about nature and religion, or a coming-of-age-story about a boy traveling through the underworld to find his dead sister.
Bioshock: Infinite — 2010 announcement trailer
After the sly, expectations-subverted fake-out of the underwater opening, the massive Bioshock: Infinite trailer showcased a steampunk open world set in Victorian-era 1912, which promised to expand upon the gameplay complexities and alternate history thrills of its spiritual predecessor. Ken Levine’s next project would take the player out of the depths of the sea and into the heights of the sky, an effective manifestation of turn-of-the-century American exceptionalism and Federalist hubris.
Dead Island – 2011 announcement trailer
This cinematic trailer, along with E3 08’s unveiling of Mirror’s Edge gameplay, are the latest major barbs in the timeless charge of “the game wasn’t as good as the trailer.” All overhyping considered, Dead Island’s somber announcement trailer excelled in accomplishing the task which grows more difficult with each passing year: introducing a new property, compellingly. The slow-motion backwards retracing of a family torn apart on vacation abroad is gorgeous, gruesome, and moving. It holds up; a simple success which places it fairly in the company of the rest of this list.