The past several years in gaming have all felt like they’re trying to one-up each other. I keep expecting a crash, a year in which every developer just happens to be busy working on a new game that won’t come out until later, so we’re left with the dregs and have time to catch up on our backlogs. But that never happens. Even with my limited budget and lack of an Xbox or PlayStation, I still managed a full top-ten list of excellent games.
This was basically the year of the free game for me. I would never have given the last three games on my list a shot had it not been for services like Twitch Prime and Xbox Game Pass. I’m still not entirely sure what makes those services profitable, but I hope they’re sustainable, because they let us not only try new things with no commitment but also play games we know we’ll love at a fraction of the cost.
As usual, my list is missing many of the “obvious” top games of the year, but whatever, they’re getting recognition everywhere else. I’ll play them at some point, and maybe they’ll show up at the end of one of my future top-ten lists as “best game of the past that I didn’t play until this year,” like a certain goofy space game did this year.
10. Q.U.B.E. 2 – PC, PS4, Xbox One
Q.U.B.E. 2 was my surprise of the year. I installed it on a whim from my list of free Twitch Prime games, and it ended up being a fantastic Portal–esque puzzle game that doesn’t try way too hard to just be another Portal. It stays just long enough to show all its tricks, then it waves politely on its way out and lets you move on. More games should do that.
9. Forza Horizon 4 – PC, Xbox One
Racing games aren’t really my thing unless they’re absurd like San Francisco Rush or Mario Kart, but the first time I crashed through a low brick wall and hurtled across the British countryside racking up a score multiplier for taking out fences and trees and sheep in Forza Horizon 4, I learned that the Horizon series fits neatly into the special little pocket of racing games that I actually enjoy. It’s not as absurd as it could be, but in a way, the ridiculous open-world shenanigans lured me into enjoying normal races as well. I ended up liking dirt races just as much as I liked driving as fast as I could off the edge of a cliff.
8. Sea of Thieves – PC, Xbox One
My favorite gaming moment of the year happened in Sea of Thieves, and that alone guarantees its slot in this list. After months of not playing, I headed back out to sea with a friend of mine when the megalodon was added, but that quest required a crew of at least five people to take on. Luckily, we happened upon a random group and set off with them. They turned out to be a wonderful group of people, a pure pleasure to play and chat with, and we ended up hanging out with them long after the quest was complete, getting drunk, puking on each other, and shooting each other out of cannons, ostensibly for achievements but really just to delay our goodbyes.
Sea of Thieves is full of stories like that. It’s a fun game to just hang out in, but you can only do so much of that before wondering why you’re still there. The more recent updates seem to have added a lot to do, but unfortunately, I’ve already moved on. If there were more structure or some kind of satisfying reward loop, it would’ve been much higher on this list, and I probably would have more stories to share.
7. Dead Cells – PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
I’ll admit it upfront: I never finished Dead Cells. I got to the final boss several times but never quite had the right loadout to beat him. Nevertheless, the flow of combat, the variety of combat styles through random drops, and the progression of the stages all come together into a fantastic rogue-like. It’s no Rogue Legacy, but it’s up there.
6. Octopath Traveler – Switch
I was expecting more of a traditional SNES-style JRPG from Octopath Traveler because of its visual design, but it’s not that. And that’s okay. It’s more simply structured and less epic than something like Final Fantasy VI, but it works. The stories are concise and heartfelt, and they avoid the typical JRPG trap of veering into melodrama and overbearing plot convolution. The combat is amazing at its best but a little repetitive at times, so having the option of playing it portably is a godsend. This game was a constant companion to me for several months this year, and I hope it clears the path for more tight, character-focused JRPGs in the future.
5. The Messenger – PC, Switch
The Messenger is an NES game, an SNES game, and a modern 2D Metroid-style game in one, and each part is fantastic, especially considering that the first two combine to create the map for the third. It’s an impressive feat of design, but it’s also just a whole lot of fun. It’s modern Ninja Gaiden but better. And the music is so good.
4. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate – Switch
This is the Smash Bros. game that finally got me on board. I’ve always had a certain amount of fun with the previous games, especially with friends, obviously, but Ultimate grabbed me in a way none of the others have. The tighter controls seem to help, and the breadth of single-player content has given me good reasons to actually spend the time to get better, even though my newfound confidence is consistently crushed as soon as I fight online…
3. Mega Man 11 – PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
While I enjoyed the throwback 8-bit style of Mega Man 9 and 10 several years ago, they didn’t do much to move the series forward. I didn’t know that I wanted an alternate history version of where the series could’ve gone if it had remained a sidescroller with modern game design, but I did, turns out. The look of Mega Man 11 is like the original artwork brought to life, and the gameplay feels like a natural step forward, not a huge diversion. It took awhile to grow on me, but after a couple playthroughs, Mega Man 11 earned a place at the very top of my favorite games in the series.
I just wish the music were a little better….
2. Monster Hunter: World – PC, PS4, Xbox One
I love Monster Hunter. But I don’t love everything about Monster Hunter. Monster Hunter: World fixes a lot of the tedium that’s been in the series forever while maintaining the core of what I love about it so much. The fights can still get intense enough for me to break my controller from pressing the shoulder button too hard, so that’s good….
1. Celeste – PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Perfect. It’s a perfect game. I have no complaints. Celeste and Ori and the Blind Forest sit in my heart as two perfect games.
The platforming is precise and tight and incredibly satisfying. It’s a do-it-till-you-can-do-it-right kind of platformer, with instant restarts and frequent checkpoints, and it nails it. There are sections that I look back on now and am seriously baffled as to how I ever finished them.
The writing is also fantastic. It’s a plain metaphor for overcoming anxiety (or depression, or any other mental challenge), and it works so, so well. The gameplay matches the tone of the story in every beat in creative ways, resulting in a joyous, literally uplifting final set of challenges, and the dialogue between the characters feels casual and genuine, like good people with minor flaws just trying to move forward.
And the music is SO GOOD.
I can’t leave this year without mentioning an unlikely game to completely consume me for several weeks this year: Kerbal Space Program. My goal was to build rockets from scratch until I could make it to the moon and back without save scumming. Every failed launch was a chance to improve. Every slightly better mission was a chance to apply what I’d learned and tweak things to do even better the next time. It ended up being one of my favorite games of all time. Every milestone felt significant, like finding a new upgrade in a Metroid game, except the upgrade is a reliable way to create a good orbit, not a wave beam. The learning in Kerbal felt completely self-taught, like I was discovering something brand new all on my own. Apparently I love that kind of thing.
Many of the games on my list this year have a heavy focus on practice and repetition for mastery. That may be why the resurgence of classic-style games over the last several years has been so welcome for me. I love a good story game that leads me gently forward every once in awhile, but overcoming a masterfully created challenge is what makes me fall in love. It’s great to see so many indie developers (and even some major developers) carrying that torch forward. In the coming years, I want to see more games like The Messenger and Mega Man 11 that take a classic game concept, weed out the old flaws, and deliver something familiar but fresh.
And more Celeste, please. I could play that game forever.