Modern video gaming has become a medium for telling epic stories. Games have a length and immersion that you can’t find anywhere else. To help their tales move forward and find their pace, games like to break up the button-mashing with cutscenes. They’ve been doing this for decades, and it’s led to some jaw-dropping cinematic moments. Of course, some of those moments are better than actually playing the game.
Video game cutscenes have stolen the show countless times. Sometimes, all it takes is an average cutscene to stand out from a crappy game, and sometimes even amazing games are out-shadowed by legendary cinematics. This list gathers a few of both. Here are ten video game cut scenes that were better than the game itself.
10 World of Warcraft
Young gamers in the late nineties and early aughts faced an unprecedented challenge: trying to figure out what video games actually looked like from their commercials. Most commercials were either totally separated from their games and leaned into live-action farce—think the “Happy Together” Smash Bros. spot—or, like World of Warcraft, crafted masterful, artful CGI short films that look nothing like the game itself.
The latter is the case for World of Warcraft, which dazzled this writer as a young teen in the early aughts with its (at the time) hyper-realistic CGI shorts. Of course, anyone who has played the game, especially at launch, knows that the graphics aren’t its main selling point. Even in 2021, the game looks like an early N64 project, making the cinematic cutscenes some of its best components.
9 Resident Evil 2 (The 2019 Remake)
Resident Evil 2 is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous remake. It’s also considered by many to be a textbook example of how to handle a remake: it’s faithful to the original, and any changes simply streamline and polish where necessary. But if it has one best feature, it’s those cutscenes.
The opening movie in particular—the much-lauded gas station scene—is one of the prettiest, most technically impressive scenes in gaming history. Never before has an in-game cinematic, or any video ever for that matter, made me say, “Holy cow, what a realistic burger!”
8 Basically Every Sonic Game
Most Sonic games have cutscenes that outshine their gameplay by default. If you’ve ever played a 3D Sonic game, like, for example, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Shuffle, or any Sonic Boom, you know what a mess the franchise can be. Frequent glitches and frustrating controls have vexed fans for decades, and they have turned the games’ video sections into much-needed breaks from the madness.
Even the good Sonic games, like 2017’s Sonic Mania, from which the attached video comes, sometimes find themselves playing second fiddle to their cutscenes. Truly, the opening animation to Sonic Mania is one of the coolest in recent memory.
7 Two Bioshocks for Completely Opposite Reasons
Depending on who you ask, the Bioshock series is either “flawless” or “flawless aside from the ending of Infinite.” That leaves one unanimously adored video sequence—the “Would You Kindly” scene—and one sequence that splits fans in half—the “Sea of Doors” in Infinite.
We can’t discuss the “Would You Kindly” scene at all without spoiling one of the better twists of all time, but suffice to say: it is a masterpiece of storytelling and helped make the first Bioshock one of the best titles in history. The “Sea of Doors” ending sequence in Bioshock: Infinite, however, is divisive. Regardless of your stance on the ending, and whether or not it essentially sucked all the stakes and meaning from the rest of the game, you have to admit that the cutscene was original and dazzling.
6 Nier: Automata
Nier: Automata is one of those games that deserves all the praise it gets—and all the criticism. It is undoubtedly a titanic achievement in the medium and, overall, an excellent gaming experience, but it has its issues. One of them, its disjointed sense of pacing, can dampen the otherwise awesome experience. Luckily, whenever the game drags (like the laborious slog that is its introductory mission), it always swoops in with an awe-inspiring, grandiose cutscene.
The developers likely wouldn’t argue that point, as the entire premise of Nier was assembled to justify hot robot sword-fighters/fighter pilots like heroine 2B. As you would expect from a game designed to look cool, the cutscenes look, well…cool. 2B slices through enemies and lands in an Iron Man pose; giant war machines rise from shallow seas to battle aircraft, and everyone duels each other with Akira Kurosawa cinematography. Geez, just writing this makes us want to play that game again.
5 Super Smash Bros.
The CGI cutscenes throughout the Super Smash Bros. series are a treat, and not just for their drama and artistry. In a franchise with little emphasis on story, they tease one of the greatest stories yet to be told: the inevitable, box-office shattering Nintendo Universe crossover movie.
The Avengers are great, and the Justice League is…something…but a movie that teamed up Mario, Sonic, Link, Kirby, Pac-Man, and Pikachu would break the world into pieces. Then add Donkey Kong, Sora, Snake, and Cloud, and at least one billion nerds worldwide would have a collective meltdown—us among them.
4 Halo 2
Halo 2 is a terrific game. Following up on the unexpected breakout success of Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2 improved on its predecessor in every way. The gameplay was tight and fun, the score was tremendous, the graphics were ahead of the curve, and the story was a thrill ride. Plus: Keith David. And yet, despite all of that, the moments we remember best from Halo 2 were its cutscenes.
Who can forget the unsettling introduction of the Grave Mind? Sergeant Johnson commandeering a scarab? Any scene with the Arbiter? And, of course, one of the greatest cutscenes in gaming history: known officially as Return to Sender. When you first heard Master Chief say, “To give the Covenant back their bomb,” you either got the chills, or you have a skin condition that makes chills impossible.
3 Jedi Knight: Dark Forces I & II
Like Halo, the Jedi Knight franchise almost exclusively delivered fresh, fun action games with few missteps. To this day, the adventures of Kyle Katarn stand up to scrutiny and remain some of the strongest entries in the massive collection of Star Wars games. And no matter how fun the gameplay was, those early, live-action cutscenes are Jedi Knight’s best moments.
Admittedly, part of what makes the cutscenes so great is their unbridled cheesiness and how they seem completely unaware of their awkwardness. Even so, the cutscenes were memorable for those of us who grew up as Star Wars fans and had waited for new movies for a decade. Pre-Phantom Menace (and in a way, even post), the live-action Star Wars cinematics in the first Jedi Knight games were all fans had to go on.
2 Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 is probably the game that did the most amount of damage to the most beloved franchise the fastest. Its final scenes are notorious for capping off an amazing trilogy of impactful character decisions with…an ending that completely disregarded them all. That’s why Mass Effect 3’s stellar cutscenes easily stand out as some of its best moments.
After two games that kept Commander Shepard’s adventures on alien planets and ships far out in space, the opening sequence of Mass Effect 3 brought action home in a big way. Right when the game starts, the evil, nigh-invincible Reapers begin an assault on Earth that decimates the planet and its populace. The ensuing cutscene in which desperate human refugees attempt to flee our solar system is powerful and moving. When that beginning is contrasted with the game’s ending, you get one of the biggest disparities in gaming history.
1 Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3
Yes, this entry is tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Well, actually it does, but whatever- we’re moving on. Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 is one of the best real-time strategy games ever. Along with Age of Empires, Command and Conquer basically defined the RTS genre. That makes its absurd, over-the-top, hammy video segments bewildering and memorable.
Anatoly Cherdenko is possibly the greatest video game character of all time, if only because he is portrayed—in live-action—by Tim Curry. Curry’s performance as Cherdenko is almost beyond words. Even from the man who stole the show in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Clue, It, and Muppet Treasure Island, Curry’s Cherdenko is insane. Just batsh*t insane. Even if you’ve never played the C&C games—even if you’ve never played a single video game—do yourself a favor and watch Curry’s cutscenes in Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3. “Space!”