Sometimes a game’s story doesn’t have to be particularly rich or detailed to have a great ending. Sometimes it’s just the right combination of elements that come together in the last 10 minutes to create a truly memorable ending.
For this list, I’ve limited it only to games that I have finished (sorry, Chrono Trigger, one day I’ll finish you). These are the video game endings that had the biggest impact on me, and have really stuck in my mind long after the credits finished rolling.
And, obviously, spoilers for all the games below.
Best Sequel. Period
Red and Blue? Silver and Gold? Generation 1 vs Generation 2 is a debate that continues among Pokémon fans to this day, but one thing can be agreed on: the “ending” of Pokémon Gold /Silver is probably one of the most unexpected and joyous surprises in the history of gaming. After getting your 8 badges and defeating the Johto Pokémon League, a train opens up. You hop on and soon find yourself back in the Kanto Region, the country from the original game! You get to revisit the towns from the first game, fight the original 8 gym leaders and go through the Kanto Pokémon League. It’s basically a whole game’s worth of content tacked on as a love letter to fans of the original and it culminates in a showdown on top of a mountain with your trainer from the first game. Oof, I got shivers just thinking about that.
Super Mario 64
Best Celebration of Your Adventure
Super Mario 64 was an unforgettable experience for me. I first played it at a demo kiosk in ToysRUs and my little 8-year-old brain was blown at the rich 3D playground at my disposal, and the seemingly limitless potential of going anywhere as Mario dashing and flipping with a “Yah! Wahoo! WA-HAH!” in 3D space. I followed many a preview in many a gaming magazine, pouring over ever screenshot and detail. After I got my Nintendo 64, I played Super Mario 64 in chunks over the next couple years. I played it slowly, savouring each moment that I could. When the time came and I faced down Bowser for the last time, I had grown up in the real world but the game still held it’s child-like glee. The game’s ending is a montage of swooping aerial shots from all the levels you had just been through, coupled with a beautiful score. There were so many “I remember that place” moments. Up until that point, I don’t think I had ever experienced a credits scene that served as a gentle reminder of the adventure you’ve just been on. Plus, you get to see that cake Princess Peach promised us from the beginning of the game.
And, as a sidenote, if you collect all 120 stars a cannon opens up in the main castle courtyard, and if you shoot up to the roof Yoshi appears to give you 100 lives. I had read there was a way to get to the top of the castle without the cannon, and after many frustrating, near-controller-breaking attempts, I managed—and only found an empty rooftop.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Most Perfect Ending
Ocarina of Time is still my favorite game of all time. It was the first Zelda game I completed, and I fondly remember playing it at the same time as my Dad (we each had our own save files), which would be our tradition up until Twilight Princess. I remember beating the game on a dinky TV/VCR combo we had in our family trailer in Radium, BC, but I was no less taken by the ending. Zelda and Link say their goodbye’s, and we’re left to assume they go their separate ways. Much like Mario 64, the ending shows off many of the locales you’ve visited on your adventure, and builds up to a party where you get to see all of the major characters one last time as they celebrate your victory over Ganon. But the best part is the final scene where a young Link returns to Zelda’s garden, and the young princess turns around and is surprised to see him. The scene freezes as the two met once again. What your left with is a quietly emotional coda with so many questions, none of which need answering. Does Zelda remember Link? Do they both remember the adventure they just had? Where do they go from here? Any attempt at answering these questions would just undermine what is, to be, a perfect video game ending.
Mass Effect 2
Best Sustained Dose of Adrenaline
Mass Effect 3 gets a lot of flak for it’s ending, and while it’s a little underwhelming, I didn’t think the outrage was completely justified. That said, Mass Effect 2 is definitely the peak of the Mass Effect series. The whole game is really a journey of beefing up you, your team and your ship against the Collectors. Then the final mission starts (aptly titled “Suicide Mission” because it can actually end in Commander Shepherd’s permanent death). That half-synth, half-orchestral score comes on, your team gets ready to storm the Collectors ship, and you’re like, “Yeah! Let’s freaking DO THIS!”
Then you lose half your squad like an idiot because you didn’t select the right squad configuration for the mission and/or didn’t get the right upgrades for your ship. So you look up the optional upgrades you need, and the right squad configurations for the right sections of the mission, possibly start your game over, and try again (all explained in chart form). The whole mission is a war of escalation, ending with a face off against a colossal human/Reaper hybrid. The whole thing is epic , and when it’s all done you’re ready to start over and do it all again (which I did).
Best Approximation of a Religious Experience
When I first heard about Journey, I was worried it would just be a long, boring walk through the desert. Thankfully I was wrong. Thatgamecompany (not a typo) crafted a mysterious and engaging world revealing only pieces of the back story through environmental cues and dialogue-free cutscenes. The game relies on emotion and intuition to tell the story, and it does so masterfully. The finale sees you trudging slowly, painfully through a blizzard near the top of the mountain you have been walking towards the whole time. Your movement slows but you push on. Slowly, you realize you aren’t going to make it. All seems lost, and your traveler sinks into the snow. And just then, shadowy figures revive your fallen traveler and you blast through the storm and find yourself finally at the peak, dancing in the air. It has to be experienced to be understood. And, at the end of it, your traveler calmly walks through a valley, and into the light. A flit of light then glides gracefully through all the places you’ve just been to on your journey, before going back to the guideposts where the game began. Then, a new traveler wakes up and begins it all again.
Best Journey of Self Discovery and Cramped Fingers
I’ve already written about how much I loved Celeste. It’s a graceful but challenging game with an underlying theme of self discovery and a surprisingly nuanced focus on mental health. The final level is an ascent to the peak of the mountain, with both Madeline and her once-evil reflection (known as “Bad-eline”) working together. The soundtrack gives you shivers and pumps you up as you go through a gauntlet of areas that call back to the levels you’ve before it. At this point, all of the skills you’ve learned are put to the test, and guideposts keep counting down how close you are to the summit. And at the end, Madeline reaches the top and you’re treated to a calming denouement of Madeline sitting on the peak, watching the sunrise. You feel the relief with her, and there’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment. Like Journey, Celeste’s ending is an emotional rollercoaster, albeit with a much happier outcome.
The Walking Dead: Season One (Telltale)
Best “In Not Crying, You’re Crying” Moment
The Walking Dead, as a franchise, isn’t really known for subtlety. That’s partly why the Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” is such a surprise and why it continues to be one of my favourite games today. Throughout the game you play as Lee, a good-natured man with a dark past and surrogate father to Clementine, a young girl who managed to survive the zombie outbreak. The Walking Dead is a game about choice, and often you’re presented with difficult or morally questionable situations with no clear “right choice”. Usually both choices suck in their own way. So when Lee gets bitten and is chained to a pipe to prevent himself from harming Clementine, you have to choose not only Lee’s final words to Clementine, but also whether or not she (chokes back tears) has to shoot the only family she has left. The game has some of the best written characters in a video game, and watching the relationship between Lee and Clem grow, only to have it taken away in the end, is a tragedy— but a testament to just how invested you become in these characters.
Curse of Monkey Island
Best Vanilla Happy Ending
Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a plain vanilla happy ending. I grew up with the zany Monkey Island series. I played the first game with my Dad, and by the time I was in high school I showed Curse of Monkey Island to my friends and it became instantly quotable (“Is it a really evil-looking doorstop?”). Even though the final section of the game was drastically cut down to meet deadlines, the rest of the game is still a blast. Sure, it’s a little easy to pass through (and this being a LucasArts game, you can’t actually die), but the sight of long-time will-they-wont-they lovers Guybrush and Elaine sailing off into the sunrise with a “Just Married” sign strung across the rear of their ship is simple, sweet and satisfying. Sometimes, all you need is a simple, heartwarming ending.
Super Mario Odyssey
Super Mario Odyssey is a celebration of the many decades of Mario. As usual, Mario is in pursuit of Bowser, who has kidnapped Princess Peach, and by now you get the drift. On the way he meets Cappy, a humorous and lighthearted brain-parasite lovingly shaped like Mario’s hat that can hack into the minds of whatever Mario throws him at — don’t think too much about this one, just enjoy the colorful visuals, bouncy music and great level design. The end has you facing off against Bowser in a lava-filled underground cave on the moon (as one does) but as you land the final blow, the cave starts to collapse around you. And then, without any button prompts or text telling you to do so, you instinctively toss Mario’s hat Cappy onto an unconscious Bowser, taking control of him. What follows is a gleeful rampage through a collapsing, lava-filled cavern as you smash your way through rock walls and boulders to escape. It’s just pure gaming joy.
Dead Space 2
Best Fake Out
Dead Space is what Resident Evil 5 should have been. However, it carved out its own story with detailed lore, gross creatures and peek-between-your-fingers tension. The first game ends in a typical “the monster isn’t dead!” fashion typical of 80s slasher flicks. Protagonist Isaac Clarke escapes the infested Ishimura and, while mourning his dead girlfriend turns to see her crawling on the floor where she pounces, eyes glowing and then – – cut to black. Dead Space 2 tops this with a double fake-out. For starters, after the final boss, the facility around Issac starts to collapse, and after seeing no way out, Issac sits and accepts his fate. The credits start to roll as the facility collapses around him, and you’re left thinking this is the end. Then fellow survivor Ellie chimes in on the radio, chastising Issac for giving up. An anti-gravity chase through debris and explosions occur, and Issac boards the escape ship. The following scene mimics the original game’s ending almost beat-for-beat, with similar camera movements, similar actions, and as the camera pans over we’re expecting something awful yet again–but instead we just see fellow survivor Ellie (name) who just asks Issac, “What?” Cut to black. It’s a clever fake-out, and I feel it’s where Issac Clarke’s story should have ended until EA did what EA do and we got Dead Space 3.
King Kong (2005)
Best Wish Fulfillment
Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid almost a hundred years of cinematic and pop culture history, you know the monkey dies in the end. Beauty killed the beast (and left the New York Sanitation Department with a bad surprise the day after). But in the surprisingly great (and excessively titled) Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, you can unlock a secret ending in which you save Kong and return him to Skull Island. In doing so, you’ll play the final level as Jack Driscoll, shooting down the planes that are targeting Kong (which I’m sure would probably qualify as treason). If successful you’re treated to a much happier ending where Kong is returned to Skull Island to his life of… terrorizing natives? What does Kong do in his spare time? Maybe Jack hops ship and chills with Kong for the rest of his life to escape conviction. In any case, if you saw the 2005 movie and really wanted Kong to survive, the video game offers some closure in that regard.
Best Anticlimactic Ending
Mother 3, like it’s predecessor Earthbound, is bizarre. Just Google “Mother 3 enemies” and you’ll see the kind of strangeness you’ll be up against when you play. But, like Earthbound, it’s equal parts funny and emotional. The ending, however, is surprisingly apocalyptic. Lucas pulls the final pin out of the ground, awaking a dormant dragon. The island starts rumbling, volcanoes explode, tornadoes form, rocks and debris fly everywhere. A massive, glowing crater opens up on the island and then: fade to black. The words “End?” appear on the screen and that’s it. It’s only after waiting and staring at a blank screen for a few minutes that you realize you are still in control of your character and you keep walking through the darkness. As you do, characters through the game greet you and thank you for all that you have done, and reassure you everyone is ok. It’s weird, anti-climactic, but surprisingly sweet as everyone says goodbye to you.
Best game that never ends
Sometimes a game is just so good that you don’t want it to end. Thankfully, the combined total of user-created levels across all the LittleBigPlanet games is enough to keep you occupied until the sun dies out. I have the most fond memories of LittleBigPlanet 2, with its assortment of playing styles. The user-made levels are (usually) a blast to play. Some of these levels are freaky, some of them are genuinely surprising, and some make you want to build levels all on your own.
Best “What?” Ending
I’m actually referring to the “bad” ending for this one. In Pikmin, pint-sized astronaut Olimar is stranded on a strange planet that may be a post-apocalyptic version of our own (link) and has 30 days to recover his ship parts before running out of life support. To help him, he enlists (and I use that word very literally) a small army of creatures called Pikmin that he can command like a general. At the end of the 30 days, if you haven’t managed your time well Olimar will run out of life support. But then, the Pikmin will take him back to one of their little ships (typically where you harvest fallen enemies into more Pikmin). The ship will suck him up and spit out a little seed that hits the ground and sprouts a little Olimar-shaped face. I mean, technically he survived. But it’s just such a weird ending.
To The Moon
Best “I’m still not crying” ending
What if you could implant memories of a life you never lived? That’s the gist behind indie game “To The Moon”, a narrative-driven game where you play as a scientist going through the memories of a dying client to implant a memory of them going to the moon. If it sounds like Inception, it kind of is. The game touches on grief and regret, and by the end credits with its tear-jerking piano solo you’re left with a bittersweet conclusion as the client dies happy believing he went to the moon, while we live with the knowledge that it was not real.