10. MLB The Show 17 (Sony, PS4, March 28th)
It’s tough to be consistent in gaming, especially in terms of annual releases. How does one reinvent the wheel in a genre that can only do so much to simulate the experience of a sport? The answer is that they usually don’t. While radical steps were taken by Madden and FIFA to inject their experience with a story mode, MLB kind of went the other way. MLB’s career mode has a role-playing component but very much just as a loose thread to tie together the experience with a few cute touches. The main one I really enjoyed was having a soundalike of Liev Schreiber, the actor famous for his narration work on shows like Hard Knocks, to guide my player through the arduous road to the major leagues.
And then that’s about it. You kind of have little moments with the team that are a little more cinematic because it’s your manager telling you and not a menu screen. After that, you play baseball, which is shockingly fun. If The Show can get me intrigued by as a non-fan, then it does something right time and time again. Sure, that’s just consistency at work, but The Show is still the best at simple sports game satisfaction.
9. Yakuza Kiwami (Sega, PS4, August 29th)
2017 was the breakout party for the Yakuza series of games, one that took a long road to be accepted in the States. While Sega made a desperate effort to grow Yakuza in the States in the mid-2000s, that effort didn’t really take in the same way the games did in their native Japan. Likely the culprit for this is trying to take the rounded peg of the series’ mix of brawling, mob intrigue, layered storytelling and genuine heart into the square frame of what fans expected out of Grand Theft Auto and its ilk at the time. The dub for the first game even tried to lean hard towards the big names that GTA grabbed, namely Mark Hamill, Eliza Dushku, and Michael Madsen.
Despite all of this, the first Yakuza didn’t really catch on for American audiences. Later games didn’t even bother hiring actors for an English dub, a cost-saving measure for sure but one that secretly mined the actual charm of the series. Yakuza is uniquely Japanese in the same way that works like Atlus’ Persona games (the newest one which will make this list later on). It almost feels like a general tour of Japan. Moreover, the storytelling has only gotten more elaborate but never patently ridiculous. We still like our protagonist, the hardened but good Kazuma Kiryu, through his adventures.
So yeah, Kiwami is a remake of that very first game. It really does feel at points like a first effort in story and is just a smidge lesser than the other Yakuza release of the year, Yakuza 0, but honestly not by much. Fighting still feels amazing. Yakuza really has the most intuitive “beat up dudes” system since like, I don’t know, the Streets of Rage games or like Virtua Cop or something like that. Most importantly, Kiryu actually succeeds at feeling like a guy into bad shit that we still like. He isn’t a GTA sociopath or even a character filled with ludonarrative dissonance. He does a lot of bad shit and doesn’t apologize for it, but has a moral code and not like the cheesy Batman-style one, either. Even in an over-the-top world, Kiryu’s just a human, albeit devilishly handsome and able to wreck any kind of weird riffraff.
8. Horizon: Zero Dawn (Sony, PS4, February 28th)
It took a decade plus since Grand Theft Auto III for the open-world format to finally click for me once again in the way game makers really intend, and a lot of this has to be attributed to the double shot of open-world goodness that came in March from new Zelda and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Horizon does have a tendency to get off the rails just a bit, a byproduct of an insane vision for a story that works a lot more than you’d think. I mean, you’re fighting robot dinosaurs that glow and none of that feels ridiculous in the vision of the game. Moreover, Aloy is a strong warrior type, but more akin to Jade from Beyond Good and Evil in that she is allowed to be feminine but not marginalized or sexualized, something even the best games have a severe issue with accomplishing.
But honestly, it would be nothing if not for the fact that Horizon takes a lot of mechanics namely done in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry games and figures out just how the hell to make them feel intuitive. This is likely the first game where I understood bow-and-arrow combat in a manner that didn’t feel tedious or obtuse for me as a player. Even though the clashes with monsters aren’t easy, they’re never all that tough to get around and Horizon understands this balance better than any game I’ve played before this. The crafting also works in a manner that feels like you don’t just have to warp to and fro to find ammo (shoutout to Far Cry 4, which seems to punish the shit out of me for liking automatic weapons by giving me like barely enough bullets).
I will say this doesn’t go higher because the story’s balancing act can veer into traditional tropes of dystopian science fiction. I don’t think you’ll be too surprised by how this world comes apart by any means and the game can act like it isn’t all too obvious when it is. But like, this game is just damn fun, beautiful as all get out, and is shockingly easy to come back to for when you might have other stuff to do.
7. Everybody’s Golf (Sony, PS4, August 29th)
There was a time in everyone’s life where the demo disc was the main key to discovering just what the hell was out there when it came to gaming. That’s how I learned about the first entry in the Hot Shots Golf series, known in Japan as Everybody’s Golf. Hot Shots Golf brought to the fold easily the definitive series of golf game controls, which is a complex way to say it did the three touch methods. If you’re still lost, find a copy of Mario Golf or play this game. See how you press a button to start, press again for power, and press one more time for accuracy? That’s the three-touch method. Hot Shots as a series has always had this mechanic and its always ensured that no player dipping back into the series feels lost, unlike say, EA’s PGA Tour series. Yet despite this, it’s really hard to earnestly recommend one of the litany of games from the PS2 and PS3.
Thankfully this changes with Everybody’s Golf, a soft reboot with a now universal title casting off the Hot Shots name for good. Everybody’s Golf has a goofy premise. There’s a golf island. You and a lot of random avatars are on it. You golf. There are golf cart races. YOU ARE ON A GOLF ISLAND. Then you get your bearings and you golf in tournaments and match play. So what’s so different about this? Everybody’s Golf brings in an RPG system akin to Skyrim. Are you really consistently good at drives? Before you know it, you’ll be able to blast balls from further distances. Putting your forte? For expert putts, you get a control bonus for chipping it in from farther out. And so on. This is probably the most rewarding sports simulation in ages because instead of simply maxing out in ways to not feel weaker, you actually grow by how good you are.
And sure, like Hot Shots, your reward is more of the thing you’re playing, but it really is one of the best refinements of this form in ages. And between this and Picross S (unranked but will be mentioned in a future list), it is a fine game to chill and listen to podcasts and so on. This is a great luxury in this hell year, might I add!
6. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, Switch/Wii U, March 3rd)
I’ll be honest, I may regret this placement in a few years. Breath of the Wild really grasps its open world and it does so without feeling thread-bare. It perfectly fits the Switch in that, like Horizon, it’s really easy to stop at a set time and pick up a time later. Zelda does a fantastic job of making a lot of mechanics I don’t like make sense in the world. Degrading weapons is a truly annoying facet of open world games like Fallout 3 and whatnot. Stamina is something I don’t really dig into as a game mechanic, either. I get it in sports sims and the like, but it really seems to make a goofy fantasy adventure tedious for no reason. But hey, they actually kind of work here.
Breath of the Wild actually gets at what we think a Zelda game could be. For all the times I’ve played a Zelda game, Ocarina of Time included, it has always been weird to realize that for all the focus on combat and heroic feats, the greater focus is on the puzzles. I’m not saying these are bad things. I’m planning on playing through Ocarina again and Link to the Past for those exact reasons. And obviously, Breath of the Wild has all kinds of puzzles in its shrines. It is so gratifying to play a Zelda, though, that actually doesn’t feel like a waste to just spend time beating up enemies or hanging out at random spots on the map, though. It really feels like this is a grasp of the potential of both Zelda 1 and Zelda 2’s game worlds.
But, I mean, I probably should play more and I’m kind of bummed I haven’t. As I said, maybe this is too low. Ah well.
5. Puyo Puyo Tetris (Sega, PS4/Switch, April 25th)
When it was released in Japan a couple of years back, Puyo Puyo Tetris was one of the biggest surprises of this console generation. While there were some unsatisfying Tetris games coming to Xbox One and PS4 (looking at you, Tetris Ultimate) at the start of the generation, Puyo Puyo Tetris was a shocking jolt to this system simply by placing the gameplay American gamers might most remember in Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine with a Tetris game that just feels right. I imported a copy of Puyo Puyo Tetris with the honest thinking that it would never come here stateside (even in Japan, the game is only allowed to be distributed physically and not through digital shops presumably due to Ubisoft’s agreement with the Tetris folks) and it wasn’t like the game had a complex language barrier to deal with.
So of course Sega found a loophole to this once the Switch launched and put the damn thing out in English in 2017. Another nice surprise! Also a surprise is just how wild the story gets, made a smidge funnier by the fact that many of the main names in the serious Persona 5 English voice cast are suddenly shifted to this far lighter thing in which we meet a captain named Tee, a lady named Ess, a dog doctor named Ai, and a creature named O. Yes, those are all names taken from the tetrimino that they represent. And it just gets wilder from there, with challenges that can get very tough for even the most ardent of players and a story about time travel, falling bricks from the sky, and the Devil. I’m probably the person most into plain weird things and PPT accomplishes this all over while still being a compelling new puzzle experience.
4. Yakuza 0 (Sega, PS4, January 24th)
As I mentioned with Kiwami, this was truly the American breakout year for the Yakuza games and their beautiful mix of melodrama, humor, and badassery. And in lieu of just repeating what I said with Kiwami, I want to touch on one aspect of 0 that made me truly fall in love with this game and series and it is from a side quest called Arakure Quest. I will probably spoil a lot of what makes this quest great but here goes.
Arakure Quest III is a new game for either the NES or the Master System (the game’s console isn’t mentioned but these are assumptions from the game’s time period of the 1980s). The local game store, Don Quixote, has a line around the block for this new game’s anticipated launch and our man Kiryu speaks to a boy in line who reserves the last copy of the game. Kiryu is amazed that video games have become so popular that people wait in line for them, apologizes for bothering the kid, and goes on about his day. A little while later, he sees the kid, but a high schooler has stolen his copy of the game. You’d think from here, it’d be a rote quest about beating up the high schooler to get the game back, but it spirals on from here, a hilarious quest with a spectacular running gag punctuated by phenomenal writing and localization. It is easily the most I’ve laughed from a video game this year and it immediately shows just what Yakuza can do right. Watch it here, please, and find this game.
3. Persona 5 (Atlus, PS3/PS4, April 4th)
At around the midpoint of the year, I thought P5 would be a lock to top this list. Persona 5 is just massive. The main game tends to clock in at 100 hours. Cutscenes occur near every moment. And despite all of that bulk, I kept going through everything, devouring the story until I was full. That achievement in itself made me feel like Persona 5 was a transcendent experience simply because I really gravitate to games of a shorter ilk in terms of the games I want to play. I still think a lot of this is true but playing through earlier entries in the franchise, as well as feeling annoyance based on the treatment of characters like Ann Takamaki and the lovable Yusuke, it is easier to immediately sour on Persona 5 moreso than even 4’s sudden shift into lighter territory.
P5 is about a dark reality filled with awful people rewarded with power and while most definitely done with a Japanese bent and intended to speak to Japanese culture, there’s obviously a lot of parallels. There’s a political leader who sparks distrust of the prior government in an effort to make Japan, uhh, great again. Another person is guilty of sexual assault of several teenage girls but the stories are swept under the rug because of power. And, you know, corporate greed, corruption, dealing with familial loss, all the happy subjects. And it tends to bat above the average in terms of tackling these specific themes, although it didn’t deliver so much in terms of avoiding homophobia or sexualizing young women. I also realize there isn’t anything new to tackling globalist figures with similar evil aspirations as our 45th President. Hell, Metal Gear Rising’s most famous character said “we’re gonna make America great again” way back in 2013. It still feels satisfying to take these figures down, though.
Moreover, Persona 5 gets a lot of points for solid refinements to its battle system, a brilliant acid jazz soundtrack composed by Shoji Meguro and crew, and for having the most stylish interface and engagement in a Persona game up to this point. The translation effort could have been better but the voice acting is still top notch (as you kind of should suspect when Matt Mercer and Robbie Daymond are among the cast). And maybe it’s just latching on to that experience that made me think of this more fondly even as some soured on it and its admittedly off the rails final act that seems to hue too closely to what people expect out of a Persona game and not what actually would be a satisfying conclusion to this world. And look, I wouldn’t have poured 100+ hours in a game I hated. I’m not that much of a masochist.
2. Sonic Mania (Sega, PS4/PC/XB1/Switch, August 15th)
It might unfortunately say a lot about 2017’s nightmare that nostalgia actually played very well this year. Case in point, a Sonic game that plays exactly like a game an insane 90s Sonic superfan would drum up. Well, insane is a bit harsh. But the four person team behind Sonic Mania, an almost absurdly low amount of people considering the amount of resources poured to even the worst of Sonic games, were certainly a bit obsessed. Project lead Christian Whitehead made an engine solely to recreate fully the physics and action of Sonic, an engine so in tune with past Sonic that it actually is the basis for mobile ports of Sonics 1-3 and Sonic CD on iOS and Android.
But here’s the thing. Sonic Mania isn’t just great at reinterpreting Sonic’s 2D style into a form both retro and modern. It isn’t just fantastic at making a game that runs great with little issue on every damn thing it’s put out on, including a damn portable console hybrid barely months into its lifespan. Hell, it isn’t even just the best Sonic project of this millennium. Sonic Mania is the game that most understands why people played Sonic’s platformers in the first place. It leans on nostalgia but then pivots, playing with the familiar along the way. It sounds and plays like a natural evolution of Sonic 3, the key word in that being “evolution” even as much of the game takes levels wholesale from the past. And honestly, it doesn’t feel predictable in its choices, either. Even the fantastic Sonic Generations leaned a lot on “well, this is a classic Sonic level” while Mania feels free to just throw in oddball picks from the past that properly expand the game’s mechanics.
I wish the chaos emerald stages were so grueling and maybe I don’t love Blue Sphere. I also have bought Sonic Mania on three platforms, all feeling just right. So like, if I disliked any bit of it, it is for the most minute of reasons. And I liked a hell of a lot in Sonic Mania, the game that reconnected me to my childhood for a little while longer.
1! Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo, Switch, October 27th)
I think it’s easy to liken Mario to how you grow and mature into gaming. We all likely got into Mario games at an early part of our lives. I still think Super Mario World is one of the greatest games of all time and while it took a lot of this form from Super Mario Bros. 3, the sheer amount of pleasant secrets and stuff that can blow your mind really got me in Mario World most of all. Super Mario 64 did a similar balancing act with the wizardry Nintendo can only accomplish. I’ve never played Galaxy or Galaxy 2, but they’ve earned raves for this as well. Still, at points, it almost feels like the me that is 28 and jaded would sort of graduate from this style of game. I still like Mario and I don’t think there are many people that dislike the feeling of a mainline Mario game, but it’s hard to imagine they could reinvent the wheel and hit at what makes World so special.
They actually did it, though.
Super Mario Odyssey is a whole bunch of things smashed into a package and normally that would feel wrong or such a wild shift in tone and gameplay that the overall product would be hurt by it. There’s a rainy scene that looks like it came out of Metal Gear Solid 2, a weird robot garden that looks like Nier, a photorealistic dragon that looks straight out of Skyrim. Hell, there’s a song that outright sounds like another hard 3D take of a platformer icon in Sonic Adventure. And guess what? It all works. I don’t know how they do it. I feel like my descriptions really cheapen what Odyssey really is so let me try again.
Mario Odyssey understands what Mario is, how the player explores a Mario game, and immediately seeks to comfortably alter that experience. You’re still jumping over things, albeit with a truly insane hat possession mechanic. And then it’s off to the races. It’s an easy thing to say these days that a game rewards you doing whatever the hell you want to try to collect the game’s collectibles (Moons in this instance), but it’s really true. It can be as simple as following a dog or as tough as climbing a platforming gauntlet with a hard to find crevice. The game even eases its own death punishment. You lose 10 coins. If you have fewer or no coins, you just get to try again.
Ugh, I’m not explaining this well other than just pure gushing but that’s also the beauty of Odyssey. I can mentally recap the countless moments of times that I laughed or felt rewarded by doing something in the game, even for stuff as simple as “put Mario in a funny costume” or beating the hell out of a more difficult version of a boss rush. Even the music is all around spectacular when Mario games could easily fall back to their wah wah New Super Mario Bros sound. “Jump Up, Superstar” is cheesy and sweet. There’s surf rock, Danny Elfman, big band jazz, et al. among the levels and it works. Also, Odyssey looks gorgeous on either the Switch’s handheld or docked modes. Like, just wow. I’m happy to come back to this hopefully for years to come.