This isn’t a best-of list. There’s no reason to bother with one of those, since I’ve already been clear about the fact that the best game of the last decade is Deadly Premonition, and there’s no reason for me to spend time trying to justify the obvious truth of that statement.
Instead, I’m going to offer a list of titles that might not be the best game of their year – or even my personal favorite – but rather, a list of titles that I most closely associate with the year they were released.
2010 – Deadly Premonition
As I said, I won’t bother singing the game’s praises here. I started a YouTube channel for that purpose. To me, though, it IS 2010.
2011 – Terraria
I spent countless hours exploring the randomly-generated chasms and peaks of Terraria. I’d been intrigued by Minecraft, but found it (at the time) to be such a directionless slog that I could never get into it. Then Terraria appeared and offered me the NPCs, bosses, and progression that I craved from an open-world crafting game. Other titles have since surpassed it and even Minecraft is finally an actual game, but 2011 was all Terraria, all the time.
2012 – Binary Domain
What if, instead of a ponderous point-and-click adventure, Snatcher was the best third-person shooter ever made? That might be a question no one asked, but it’s one that Binary Domain answered definitively. It’s smart, thrilling, brutally violent, and genuinely affecting. Even a completely superfluous and buggy-as-heck microphone mode couldn’t dampen my love for this game.
2013 – Spelunky (PC)
I’d already been obsessed with Spelunky for years when this version was released, and the addiction only grew more severe when I got access to the Daily Challenge mode. The randomized worlds on which the game is built offer endless replayablilty, but they kept competition out of it. With the Daily Challenge, everyone on Earth got a single chance to take on the same seed and truly test their skills against one another for the first time. A few months later cheaters showed up and ruined everything, but for a bright, shining moment, Spelunky was the ultimate leaderboard challenge.
2014 – Rogue Legacy
Speaking of roguelites, Rogue Legacy is quite simply the most accessible entry in the genre that I’ve ever seen. The cartoony art, the straightforward controls, the absolutely brilliant tree of unlockables – RL is the rare roguelite that makes every run feel consequential. There’s so much to discover, and it all appears so quickly that it pulls players helplessly along with it, as if they’re trapped by the very curse that the family at the core of the game’s narrative struggles against.
2015 – Yakuza 5
Every Yakuza game is incredible – they’re the most reliable source of great storytelling and brawler gameplay alike. Yakuza 5 is on a whole other level, however. Telling an expansive story covering five protagonists over four cities, with gameplay that ranges from big-game hunting to perfectly choreographed dancing, it’s more than a game – it’s all games, and the high point of a series that’s had nothing but peaks.
2016 – Atelier Sophie
I’ve never played a bad Atelier game, but there was something special about Sophie. Perhaps it’s the fact that this was the first time the franchise abandoned the strict timelines that defined the gameplay of each previous entry in the series, or maybe Sophie and her Magical Talking Book sidekick are such amazing characters that it’s impossible to dislike them. Whatever the key ingredient was, this was the game that moved the Atelier series from acquired taste to essential JRPG, and remains my favorite entry of all.
2017 – ELEX
People call this game janky, and they’re not wrong. There’s a lack of balance to the design that could break a lesser game, but ELEX pulls it off. The developers’ passion for cramming every good idea they had into a single package results in a game with ambition to spare. As a fantasy/sci-fi/post apocalyptic action-RPG, there’s something for everyone in ELEX. It also not only features one of the best maps I’ve ever encountered, but empowers the player by giving them a jetpack at the game’s outset so they’re free to explore it at their own pace. I don’t know if there’s ever been a game more willing to trust the player’s ability to engage with it any way they want to, secure that there’s unlimited joy to be found.
2018 – Fist of The North Star: Lost Paradise
Licensed games have a bad reputation largely because they’re afterthoughts — frivolities developed by hired guns who are told to be more concerned about a release date than whether they put out a product with any lasting value. This game is the antithesis of that mindset. It’s so good that I played it from beginning to end twice, and one of those plays was in Japanese. (I can’t read Japanese.) LP is the result of a developer with a long track record of making great games getting the chance to work with an IP that perfectly matches their sensibilities. It’s also an incredible game in every way. (Also, it suddenly occurs to me that three of the games on this list were made by the same developer. The Yakuza people had a pretty good decade, it seems.)
2019 – Terminator Resistance
The decade closed out with a game that seems to have been made specifically for me. Bethesda’s Terminator was one of the first titles I played on my own PC, and for nearly 30 years I’ve preached long and loud about how James Cameron’s future war sequences offer the most natural setting imaginable for videogames. A few have exploited it – Bethesda even made some major innovations in the FPS field while doing so – but there had never been a truly exceptional game set in that world until Terminator: Resistance. Mixing solid gameplay with a good story in a perfectly realized setting, the developers made the title I’ve been waiting for most of my game-playing life. There were better games made this year, but there was only one that felt like the developers had me in mind with every design decision they made.