Old Money Games: The 10 Best-Selling Video Games of Their Day

Selling millions of copies is easy today. It took real talent to do it in 1982.

Andrew Johnston
7 min readOct 3, 2023
“Pac-Man and Ghost” by avlxyz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The entertainment world is growing at a breakneck speed. It seems like every year, we have a new raft of world records for movies, music, and especially video games. Getting ten million sales or a billion dollars in revenue is nothing anymore, or at least that how it looks.

It’s one thing to sell an enormous number of games now, when the game industry is bigger than it’s ever been. But to be a mega-seller in the 2000s, or the 90s, or the 80s — that took real talent.

For this list, we’re looking at the best-selling games of all time — not in terms of absolute sales, but in terms of sales relative to the size of the market when they were released. Games get more credit for doing well in years when the industry made less money overall.

To determine which games made the list, I looked up sales figures on various games — only for the original version, and within 12 months of release when possible. I then compared this against the revenue generated by the industry during the year it launched.

This is, admittedly, a fairly sloppy methodology — the numbers can vary by source, and one could make a case for using different metrics. That’s why I invite you to correct me. If you believe that there’s a game that belongs (or doesn’t belong) on this list, please leave a comment and let me know about it.


10. Donkey Kong Country

While it’s a relatively minor IP today, the original Donkey Kong Country was a very important game for Nintendo. Coming along at a time when they had lost a lot of ground to Sega, DKC proved that Nintendo still had a competitive edge. The first game even managed to get mainstream press attention at a time when video games were largely ignored.

But it wasn’t merely a culturally significant game — DKC also sold incredibly well. It was the top-selling game in the U.S. for two consecutive years and kicked off one of Nintendo’s biggest fourth-generation franchises.


9. New Super Mario Bros.

Mario is arguably the largest pure video game franchise there is, far eclipsing all but a few competitors. Even so, it’s easy to lose track of Mario amid flashier, more prestigious series, at least until a game like New Super Mario Bros. comes along.

With 31 million confirmed sales, New Super Mario Bros. is one of the best-selling games ever. In particular, it the best-selling game on the best-selling handheld ever, which is no small feat for a system as successful as the DS.


8. Pokémon (Gen 1)

Pokémon is widely considered the world’s largest media franchise, though only a relatively small amount of that is due to the games. The world “relatively” is doing a lot of heavy lifting, though, as mainline Pokémon games are consistently some of Nintendo’s best-selling titles.

But even with all that success, the best-selling Pokémon titles are still the very first ones. The Gen 1 games are the second best-selling games on the Game Boy, only losing the top spot due to the overwhelming drawing power of Tetris. That’s pretty good for a game that no one really believed would do well outside of Japan!


7. The Legend of Zelda

I’d argue that The Legend of Zelda was one of the first prestige titles, the kind of games that made people take the industry seriously. Nintendo seemed to feel the same way, putting a lot of marketing muscle behind this little action-adventure title.

That effort paid off in a big way. While the first Zelda game didn’t sell as well in absolute terms as many of the other games on this list, the 2 million copies it sold in the U.S. was a big feat at a time when the industry was still very much in recovery from the death of Atari.


6. Grand Theft Auto V

This one’s probably the least surprising entry on this list, apart from the fact that it’s fairly low in the standings. I really don’t think I need to expend too many words to describe how big GTA V is or what kind of impact it (and its forebears) had on the overall market.

GTA V fails to rank higher solely because the market had become so large when it was released. As you’ll see, it is the most recent game included on this list.


5. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

In describing the size of the Call of Duty franchise, I’ll say only this: It has been fourteen years since Modern Warfare 2 came out. A CoD game has been the best-selling game of the year in eleven of those years, with it being a close second in the other three.

I could have made a case for a few of the CoD games making this list. I picked this one because it was the one that made the franchise. Several other CoD games have far outsold this one, but all of those came out in a post-MW2 market where people were primed to buy them. This was the title that dragged us into a Call of Duty world.


4. Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic the Hedgehog was the defining game on the Genesis, to the point that I’d argue that Sega wouldn’t have survived the fourth generation without it. In a previous article, I mentioned that at least half of all Genesis owners had this game, but even that doesn’t put across how much Sonic affected the market and pop culture more broadly.

Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel were best-selling games on consecutive years, with Sonic 2 breaking records for how quickly it sold. However, it was the original that took the scene by storm and made Sega a contender.


3. Super Mario Bros. 3

Many people list Super Mario 3 as their favorite Mario game, and I’d be one of them. It brought a lot to the table, both as a platformer and as a Mario game. To this day, Mario titles use elements first introduced in Mario 3.

Mario was very well-known by the time Mario 3 came out, which probably explains a lot of its success. It sold millions of copies (8 million in the U.S. alone), which was an impressive feat given that it came out so late in the NES lifespan.


2. Pac-Man (Atari)

Pity the poor souls who bought and played Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. Notorious for glitches, sprite flicker and some hideous design changes, it was raked over the coals by the gaming press. To this day, it’s a game that even people who obsess over bad games will rarely touch.

So it speaks to the power of Pacmania that this dismal port ranks so high. This game sold over 7 million copies, a figure that many modern AAA companies can’t consistently reach — and it hit that figure in 1982, making it the oldest game featured on this list.


1. Super Mario Bros.

Look up a standard list of best-selling games, and you’ll see it dominated by recent titles. The best-selling games of all time are, by and large, a product of an age of mammoth global installation bases, giant marketing pushes, and an all-pervasive media environment set up to push big games. These are games from an era when we’re numb to games that sell in the eight figure range.

But right in the middle of that list, you’ll see a little platformer from 1985 — the nadir of the industry — that sold more copies than anyone could have dreamed.

Of course Super Mario Bros. is at the top of this list — that’s the safest bet you’ll ever find. Nothing really comes close. GTA V isn’t in the same league, and Sonic couldn’t catch Mario on his best day. And this is just the original release — not the later Mario/Duck Hunt release (which topped the bestseller list for a while and could have been on this list as well), not the GBA port or the version in Mario All-Stars. The original game built the industry, and that’s all there is to it.



Andrew Johnston

Writer of fiction, documentarian, currently stranded in Asia. Learn more at www.findthefabulist.com.