Over the past decade, video game trailers have gone from blurry little montages bundled on magazine cover discs to a multi-million dollar industry that exists almost entirely separate from the actual games they’re representing.
This post has been updated since it was originally published in January 2016.
They have become perhaps the single most important part of video games marketing, and just like we see with movies (and sometimes TV), can be something that fans anticipate (and obsess over) almost as much as the game itself.
So vital have trailers become to publishers that around the world there are now studios that specialise in just making trailers and cinematics for video games. Even many indie games, which once might have got by via word of mouth and some gameplay, now spend time and money on trailers trying to hype their title.
Meet The Pixar Of Video Games
When we play a great game, we know who to thank. the developers. But when we see a great game trailer, did you know that sometimes the developers had little or nothing to do with it?
Because of this, trailers have gotten good. Really good. So good that we’ve moved well beyond the point of getting huffy over their lack of gameplay footage and usually assess trailers as their own distinct artform, a video intended to sell the mood of a game, if not the actual playable content.
Which is why you might notice most of the trailers below are relatively recent. A collection like this is always going to skew towards trailers that have had millions spent on them, instead of a quick and dirty montage of blurry gameplay set to public domain guitar tracks.
Here, then, are our picks. Some did their job as instigators of hype. Some are funny. Some are weird. All of them are The Best.
For many people, the gold standard in video game trailers. Memorable, emotional…and yet, it’s legacy is somewhat tainted, because people remember it as much for the impact it had on them at the time as they remember the feel of the actual game was nothing like this sombre, moving clip.
STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC
This game actually has a whole series of excellent cinematic clips, but as you’ll see as we go down this list, it’s usually the first that’s remembered as the best, as it’s a game’s debut trailer that often makes the biggest impression. As it did here, this clip making the most of people’s fond feelings towards the words “BioWare” and “KOTOR”.
STARCRAFT 2: HEART OF THE SWARM
You just can’t make a list like this without including at least one Blizzard clip, and my favourite is probably this one, if only for the way it comes closest to actually recreating what a StarCraft 2 battle should feel like, instead of the puny little skirmishes we see during a game. It’s cool they’re making a WarCraft movie and all, but I’d much rather watch a StarCraft movie that looked this good.
CRUSADER KINGS II
A left-field choice, but one deserving of its place on this list. Crusader Kings II was a very hard game to sell, since it’s about history, maps, menus and politics, so gameplay footage was never going to cut it. Instead, Paradox decided to sell how the game’s systems felt to actually play, and in a series of seven videos loosely based on the Deadly Sins (the one above is “Greed”) they somehow pulled it off. You can watch all seven clips here (the “piracy” one is excellent).
GRAND THEFT AUTO V
Rockstar’s games feature prominently on this list, and with good reason: few studios know how to sell the spirit of their experience better. This might have been one of the most-hyped video game trailers of all time, and what’s more — unlike a lot of other trailers here — it was made entirely with in-engine footage.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: TWILIGHT PRINCESS
This video was recorded at E3 2004. It’s a thoroughly unprofessional response from a room full of supposed professionals, but then, how would you react to seeing something like this? Remember, this was 2004: Wind Waker’s critical renaissance had yet to take place, so the last time fans had seen a more serious Link (the ones a maturing fanbase and press were clamouring for) was in…Majora’s Mask. A more “adult” look for Twilight Princess, a trailer heavily influenced by both Westerns and Lord of the Rings and Shiugeru Miyamoto’s sword-wielding cameo was a perfect storm.
METAL GEAR SOLID V
An absurd game deserves an absurd trailer. From the soundtrack to the ashes, this was the best way to be introduced to Metal Gear Solid V, and is also the best way to remember the game.
RED DEAD REDEMPTION
It’s easy to forget now, since the history books have recorded this as one of the all-time great video games, but before this trailer landed we knew very little about Red Dead Redemption. Aside from the fact it was a sequel to a weird shooter (partly-developed by Capcom) and had gone through serious development hell. Ninety seconds later we’d been introduced to the game’s world and lead, and all that uncertainty had been washed away by hype.
THE WITCHER 3
What is this, a trailer or an animated short? This sequence doesn’t even take place in the game, all we’re doing here is setting the scene for one of the best games of all time. A fantastic example of trailers having become an artform unto themselves.
FINAL FANTASY VII
One of the biggest games ever with one of the biggest spoilers ever and…oh, there it is, right there in the trailer at 0:11.
GEARS OF WAR
I fucking hate this trailer. It kicked off a super tedious trend of over-wrought trailers for games that didn’t deserve or deliver that kind of emotional punch. But enough of my sappier colleagues voted for it that I put it in.
NOT A HERO
Not every great trailer has to be for a blockbuster game, nor does it have to come from a bit and fancy content studio. Sometimes all you need is to make jokes and show some giant hairy balls (See also: Super Time Force’s launch trailer).
PRINCE OF PERSIA
Sigur Ros? Prince of Persia? Cel-shading? A beautiful and underrated game deserved a beautiful and underrated trailer. And once more, like Rockstar’s clips, Ubisoft show that you don’t always need to splash the cash on cinematic fluff to wow people with your visuals.
Halo has had a few memorable trailers over the years, but this one is probably the best. It somehow manages to straddle the game’s tonal poles of earnest military sacrifice and goofball military hijinx almost perfectly. Yes, the music is very sad, and yes, this is trying to evoke the feeling of memorial dioramas, but…it still feels a bit silly. Not enough to derail the trailer, but just enough to remind you that, yeah, this balancing act is what Halo — at the peak of its cultural influence — was all about.
MASS EFFECT 3
Another game with a long history of excellent trailers, I went with this one because it doesn’t tease an upcoming game so much as act as a short prequel, fleshing out an invasion that we actually see very little of in the game itself. Also, it’s a badass trailer.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST
Just because most quality trailers come from the past five years doesn’t mean all of them do. This Japanese TV commercial for Link’s Super Nintendo adventure was great, is great and shall forever be great (See also: this fantastic Link’s Awakening ad, with puppets!)
Another Japanese classic. What we know in the West as Advance Wars launched in Japan in the 80s as Famicom Wars. Like Crusader Kings II above, the gameplay itself isn’t terribly exciting stuff for a trailer, so instead of blocky little orange tanks we got…this.
THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM
We’re going to close with two examples from another company that has a long history of good trailers: Bethesda. This Skyrim clip is awesome, building excitement through that classic score before exploding into a montage of combat and scale that gave players a look at what remains one of the most memorable and expansive worlds in video games.
“Guys, we need to make a trailer that doesn’t just sell the game that’s coming, but allays the fears of millions of fans who are wary about the massive changes we’re making to a revered old franchise.”
“How about we run a camera through a busted old bus.”