Here we go!
Since it’s been one of the best years for video games this generation, it was almost impossible to (1) rank my favorite games and (2) make sure that I include as many as possible that deserve recognition during such a competitive time. It was difficult, but I’ve managed to narrow it down to a ranked list of my top ten favorite titles then a five honorable mentions for your reading pleasure (or disdain, if you happen to disagree.)
One disclaimer of course is that I will be sharing screenshots and exposition that may contain spoilers. If you haven’t finished your most-anticipated games of 2017 then.. wait, why haven’t you finished them if they were your most-anticipated? Seriously though, fair warning that there may be spoilers starting.. Now.
1. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo)
Platforms: Nintendo Switch.
Estimated Sales: At least 5 million units, based on around half of Switch owners purchasing it (there are 10 million consoles sold to date).
During a year in which Nintendo rebounded to achieve an array of accomplishments, its most relevant to me is fully rejuvenating the Mario franchise with this magical, exploratory open world 3D platformer. Super Mario Odyssey is a sprawling adventure of our favorite Italian plumber along with his new sidekick Cappy, and is a pure joy to play while “Cap-turing” enemies to take over their abilities and grabbing each one of its hundreds of collectibles. I’m left with the closest feeling possible to how I felt playing Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System during Christmas Day when I was little more than a toddler. Especially during a sequence in the city-themed Metro Kingdom that hearkens back to a timeless arcade title from the Japanese company.
It’s a game successfully split in two parts: The first tailored to a more casual audience wanting to experience the story of Mario attempting to save Peach from Bowser’s slimy grasp, this time under the guise of the villain kidnapping the Princess and planning their wedding on the Moon. Though by the end, I’d argue this is a distinctly clever take on the “traditional” Mario story. Princess Peach ends up dismissing the advances of both Mario and Bowser, in a wink-and-nod moment from the designers. Instead, she takes a trip of her own alongside Cappy’s sister Tiara, smartly bucking the tired trope of the damsel-in-distress we’ve seen her play since the 80s.
Then, the 2nd part is a surprising post-credits sequence targeting the most die-hard of completionists with brand new kingdoms plus a ton of puzzles and collectibles in existing areas. I’m treated to playing as Yoshi in the iconic Mushroom Kingdom, finding a theater in the Metro Kingdom with a playable version of the aforementioned Super Mario Bros and ended up conquering one of the most difficult levels in the franchise’s history. This final endeavor is a true delight, as it incorporates both platforming elements and the “Cap-turing” mechanic in fun, impressive ways.
If a video game that both tickles my nostalgia bone and stands as the pinnacle of its genre with new gameplay hooks, an unrivaled attention to detail and extreme polish doesn’t top my list, then I don’t know what does. It’s hard for me to find a glaring flaw with, except maybe that I wish Nintendo would hurry up and announce new future content (maybe a kingdom or two..) so I never have to leave the world of Super Mario Odyssey.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U.
Estimated Sales: Similar to above, more than 5 million units. Likely even more than Odyssey because of Breath of the Wild releasing earlier.
Nintendo’s rebound began in March with the release of its Switch console and *probably* my 2nd favorite mainline Zelda game ever behind Ocarina of Time. Breath of the Wild is an action-adventure starring familiar characters like the timeless hero Link and Princess Zelda is the epitome of the “emergent storytelling” buzzword, a label often bestowed but rarely achieved. It’s set in the fantastical world of Hyrule, again haunted by the dark force Ganon, and the wonderful part is the world is wide open after a brief tutorial area for the player to run, explore and (most importantly) climb everywhere they can see. It features beloved areas like Goron City, Rito Village, The Lost Woods and countless others complete with their respective cultures and characters.
Now it doesn’t have the most engaging story, and lacks traditional “dungeons” that certain fans will miss. But I believe it MORE than makes up for this with intricate gameplay systems and an array of puzzles (i.e. shrines, mazes and collectibles) that allow for personal, powerful moments. If I thought I could do something, I could. Like of course a metal object conducted electricity. Absolutely it’s hard to climb when it’s raining. See that snowy mountain? Better bundle up before scaling it! Plus I’d often be rewarded with a useful in-game item, and ultimately a feeling of child-like awe inspired by so few games these days.
Admittedly, I was skeptical of Breath of the Wild prior to release. I was hesitant on weapon degradation, limited stamina and the necessity to prepare for the weather or elements. But I ended up actually really enjoying these systems within the broader world because each forced me to try new things, improvise under duress and consider a variety of factors when fighting, exploring or facing puzzles. The game is downright magical, and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
3. Assassin’s Creed Origins (Ubisoft Entertainment, Ubisoft Montreal)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Estimated Sales: Hard to say. Launch sales were twice as much as 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, but that title had soft figures compared to others in history. It has almost 500K owners on Steam, but without specific console numbers I won’t speculate.
Ubisoft is another company that had a stellar year, and its best 2017 game is also its most important since it signaled a new direction for the decade-old Assassin’s Creed series. Set in Egypt around 50 BC during the occupation of Greek and Roman forces, Origins is hands-down the most beautiful game I played this year in terms of technical accomplishment and general art direction. (Note I played the Xbox One X Enhanced version. 4K, High Dynamic Range, all that). Not only that but it also implements a loot system where I’m constantly earning new gear with which to experiment, and its upgrade options allow me to spec my character in a way that aligned with my intended play style and equipment load-out.
Speaking of character, I appreciate that it leans into original ones more than historical figures this time. Though Cleopatra is a key part of the overarching narrative. The protagonist Bayek is a kind of super-cop of his era, while his wife Aya is more of a freedom fighter. Its characters are enriched by the story and especially its vastly improved side quests that build out Bayek’s legend. Mini-stories remind me of games like The Witcher 3 and Fallout in both their world-building and character development. In one such quest, an older man begs Bayek find a very important book that will allow his wife to pass safely into the afterlife. But when Bayek returns, the man has since passed away. Bayek is left to find the gentleman receiving last rites and in a bittersweet moment, he leaves the book alongside his body in hopes that it allows both him and his wife to rejoin each other in the world beyond.
My only knocks against the game is that the modern day sequences are not very engaging, and its huge map is daunting when you first enter the world. Even so, Origins has vaulted ahead of great entries such as the aforementioned Syndicate and even 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag to settle as one of my top picks in the entire franchise, because it takes risks and distinguishes itself as being able to stand on its own merits while also connecting with the underlying lore.
4. Horizon Zero Dawn (Sony Interactive Entertainment, Guerilla Games)
Platforms: PlayStation 4.
Estimated Sales: At least 3.4 million units, near launch. I’d wager close to 4.5 – 5 million by now based on the PS4’s user base rocketing above 70 million consoles.
Horizon Zero Dawn is the first “brand new” game on my list, as Guerilla Games creates a post post-apocalyptic world in which a small group of people has reestablished tribal communities after barely surviving a major calamity. Cool twist is in the 31st century, the main relics of the past are actually massive, mysterious robot creatures that resemble real-life animals or dinosaurs and are super hostile to humans.
But alas, Aloy is the playable character here and she’s a bad-ass, bow-wielding hunter-gatherer with an ability to combat these crazy mechs and even interface with them using technology from millennia past. After her mentor is tragically killed, she sets out on a quest to see why she’s so special and what actually happened to humankind. It’s a gorgeous, majestic open world action game with a gripping narrative and varied combat encounters as enemies require different tactics to outsmart and overcome.
The reason Horizon is so good is it borrows elements from a variety of games within the 3rd person action and open world genres then integrates them into a setting that is pure eye candy. For instance, take “Cauldrons.” These are cool-looking underground areas featuring light puzzles and tough combat engagements. Picture lots of neon lighting and man-made structures combined with natural formations. Emerging victorious from each Cauldron allows Aloy the ability to control a new set of machines, tying back into the lore of the world while also advancing the player’s set of powers.
In the end, Horizon features two parallel story lines: A brewing tribal war, and Aloy’s search for her past and discovery of the ultimate fate of ancient humans. These both pay-off in a big way, marking one of the most memorable blends of gameplay and narrative of 2017.
5. Destiny 2 (Activision Blizzard, Bungie)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Estimated Sales: Well over 6.3 million units, based on Activision announcing it has outsold its predecessor. Activision also noted it’s the 2nd highest-selling console game in North America this year based on dollar sales, behind only Call of Duty: WWII.
Rounding out my Top 5 is what began as my most-anticipated game of 2017, the sequel to Bungie’s 2014 shared world, multiplayer shooter Destiny. Let’s be frank: Anyone that knows me or reads my Twitter timeline already knows how much I love this sci-fi franchise, so it shouldn’t be a shock that this ranks as high as it does despite mixed reactions from critics and community alike.
Destiny 2 is not a perfect game. But it is among the best in the business at what it does well. It has a most amazing art design, especially its wonderful sky-boxes and stunning color pallet, which players can now enjoy in 4K on premium platforms and an uncapped frame rate on PC. It has an intense, entertaining campaign that vastly improved on the original game. Its character customization and equipment options are varied so that no two players look the same, and the feeling of snagging that one piece of loot you’ve been hoping for is always triumphant. Its co-op activities, especially the high-level “strike” missions and its difficult six-person raid, are unlike anything you’ll see in a modern first-person shooter.
Though what really stands out and keeps me coming back is its stellar gameplay. Its moment-to-moment mechanics of moving through environments to encounter and take out enemies is the best of any shooter maybe of all time. I argue this is its most important feature, outweighing any trouble it has with stagnant progression, end-game incentives and weak player-vs-player competitive play in the “Crucible” game mode. Like I said, Destiny 2 has its fair share of issues, but it’s still my favorite game to play alongside friends and I keep returning to it months after initial release.
6. NieR: Automata (Square Enix, Platinum Games)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4.
Estimated Sales: 2 million units.
I didn’t expect to even play Platinum Games’ follow-up to its cult hit NieR until I tried its short demo, available shortly before release. But this odd, way out-there action game with elements of JRPGs, arcade shooters and bullet hell genres stands out in a competitive year mostly because of its magnificent soundtrack, unique structure and absolutely outrageous story that forced me to contemplate the very nature of existence and what it means to be “alive.”
Deep stuff, I know. But when a game takes place in a distant future where androids, created by humans, are locked in a perpetual battle with machines, created by ancient aliens, you know it’s going to go places. And go places it does. I don’t want spoil too much, but what NieR: Automata does so well is it tells its overarching story from the perspective of multiple protagonists: Androids with “designations” like 2B, 9S and A2 instead of actual names. The androids and machines of this future world are mostly fighting each other, true, but are also learning about themselves and the world as this fight wages on. It shows how the created begin to take on characteristics of their creators, and what happens when these artificial intelligences begin to discover what, and eventually “who,” they actually are.
Some of the knocks against the game are it isn’t the prettiest-looking (and it ain’t), its map is a jumbled mess, its systems are opaque and the second “act” drags on because the player is revisiting a major story line from the first but in a slightly different way. This is why it’s not higher on my list. And it’s so difficult to talk about the genius of NieR: Automata without doing a full analysis of its story and themes, but suffice to say that if you are into games with killer soundtracks or narratives that weave themes of philosophy, science, AI and existentialism, then you will dig the heck out of this one.
7. Cuphead (Studio MDHR)
Platforms: PC, Xbox One.
Estimated Sales: 2 million units.
Since Cuphead’s reveal during E3 of 2014, I had been using the same (bad) running joke: Whenever someone brought up the game, I’d say “Believe it when I see it. And I don’t think I’ll ever see it.” Think about it: A super ambitious, hand-drawn title using the animation style of a 1930’s cartoon being developed by a tiny studio run by a family that had never commercially released a game. A niche Microsoft exclusive showed at every trade show for years, rumored as nothing but an onslaught of very challenging boss fights in a two-dimensional play area. Then, it was updated to include platforming levels that felt “tacked on” by those that saw them behind closed doors. Plus, for a long while, there was no release date in sight.
Boy am I glad that I was wrong, as were those that previewed those early builds, now that it’s hit the market. Sibling tag-team of Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, along with help from Chad’s wife Maja and others at Studio MDHR, have made one of the most extraordinary video games I’ve ever played. A run-and-gun platformer that literally looks and feels like a cartoon made during the time between the Great Depression and World War II. Yes, it’s still mostly an onslaught of bosses with a handful of collectible platforming levels scattered between. But it *works*. Each foes is expertly-crafted and animated with such nuance and skill that I’m still in awe it exists. Plus it has a snappy overworld, a multitude of weapon types and purchasable power-ups allowing different styles depending if a player wants more health or the ability to teleport. And it’s music.. Spectacular. Imagine an epic boss battle amidst a backdrop of an iconic jazz or bouncy swing tunes playing live as you methodically dismantle your opponent.
Its main downside is the barrier to entry is high, as many players will be turned off by its difficulty including an especially frustrating sequence right before the final encounter. However for those that are fine failing over and over again just to experience that one moment of monumental triumph, Cuphead is best-in-class.
8. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (Bluehole/PUBG Corporation, Microsoft Studios, Tencent)
Platforms: Mobile, PC, Xbox One.
Estimated Sales: 30 million units. (And it will probably be, like, at least a million more by the time you read this.)
Here it is. Better or worse, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG for short) is the biggest story in gaming this year. And it wasn’t even a full commercial release until just a week ago, spending the bulk of 2017 in a preview mode on PC. It’s even still an “early access” title on Xbox One. The battle royale, Hunger Games-style multiplayer game that started as a mod for survival games is a phenomenon because of its simple yet elegant premise: One hundred players parachute out of an airplane onto an island full of weapons and armor, and the last person standing wins.
You might say: “That’s not original! I’ve seen this before!” And you’d be right. It’s one of many in the battle royale, last man standing genre. But I’d argue why PUBG is so beloved (and hated, by its detractors) and ultimately successful is a much more nuanced discussion. It’s a game going for realism, but its charm actually lies in its rough edges and “jank.” Its natural pacing is impeccable, as players experience the endorphin rush of a good loot game every single match between moments of high intensity and much-needed recovery. Its combat is very difficult to master, which means every successful kill feels like a victory in and of itself and an actual victory feels like bliss.
Similarly, every mode echoes a different genre: Solo play is a stealth-action horror game, where death can be behind any corner.. or bathroom door. Duos becomes an intricate, technical tango between two players calling out drops and enemy locations. And squads mode is a frantic, fast-paced feud of four-person teams. PUBG offers something for every type of competitive player, and its “circle” mechanic where the map slowly shrinks forces the action no matter the mode, resulting in memories and YouTube videos galore.
From a technical standpoint, PUBG has a long way to go. It only has two maps on PC, and just one on Xbox. It crashes and drops connections regularly on console, to a maddening effect. Though it has a solid foundation in place, and an addictive gameplay loop can hold players over until its tech is cleaned up and more variety is offered in terms of map locations. Here’s to your next Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner!
9. What Remains of Edith Finch (Annapurna Interactive, Giant Sparrow)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Estimate Sales: Yet another one where it’s hard to tell. Almost 120K owners on PC, but indie publishers often don’t disclose exact overall sales figures.
Indie studio Giant Sparrow’s spiritual successor to The Unfinished Swan is a masterwork in storytelling and world-building, and an emotional journey into one family’s tragic history. It follows Edith Finch, the last remaining survivor of her family, returning to her childhood home in the Pacific Northwest to delve deep into the memories of her deceased relatives. As the player, I walked and explored this makeshift house that seemed to reach into the heavens, climbing until I reached its pinnacle which both physically and figuratively acted as the climax of the overall narrative.
Its story is told via a sprinkling of vignettes showing each relative’s last moments, from a food-poisoned young woman who believes she is transforming into animals to an infant playing gleefully in a bathtub to a grieving uncle who opted to live in secrecy in a bunker underneath the property. In its most poignant mini-story from both a gameplay and story perspective, Edith’s brother Lewis is a drug user and cannery worker who daydreams of being a prince in a fantasy world. The game sees you controlling Lewis cutting fish with one hand while simultaneously moving about through his fantasy world with the other. The scene plays out as him traversing mythical lands to find his true love, the princess, all the while conducting the mundane task of his day job. It’s bittersweet in its message, and flawless in its execution.
Some of What Remains of Edith Finch is predictable because of its linear nature, and it’s a dreary game in terms of its overall look, but its unconventional story and final payoff outweigh these flaws to become one of my major indie recommendations for 2017. Its vignettes perfectly encapsulate snapshots in time, right before tragedy strikes. Moments that the main character, and I, end up cherishing.
10. Nioh (Sony Interactive Entertainment, Koei Tecmo, Team Ninja)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC.
Estimated Sales: Over 1 million units. Likely more, since that was a figure based on the weeks after release way back in February.
Rounding out my personal “Top 10” is Team Ninja’s challenging, hack-and-slash RPG Nioh. Set in feudal Japan, the protagonist is an Irish sailor turned samurai (yes, you read that right) named William who embarks on a quest to take down a devious villain with supernatural powers. One twist is this dark version of Japan is infested with not just human warriors but otherworldly foes called “yokai,” some of which tower over William in foreboding fashion or evolve into different forms. Upside is William can also call one of a number of spirit animals to his aid, and he builds an arsenal of melee and ranged weapons to support his effort.
Nioh is far from an easy game, especially early on when you have limited options in terms of armor, skills and upgrades. Many enemies can take out William in one or two swings of their weapon or a well-timed elemental attack, so cunning and timing are essential in combat. I needed to carefully consider my path through each level, unearthing shortcuts along the way that help when I respawn after my inevitable demise. But its epic boss fights are the real treat: Beating adversaries like a former mentor turned massive, pipe-smoking toad, or a hybrid lion-dragon chimaera monster or even a gigantic multi-headed sea snake is akin to the ecstasy felt if succeeding in games like Dark Souls or Battletoads.
Another draw of Nioh is it’s extremely rewarding in terms of loot and currency, seeing each battle result in a literal explosion of items to pick up from the ground. It also integrates a number of smart systems. When you die, a version of your character can then be summoned in other players’ games as a ghostly “Revenant.” You can also summon co-op partners to support in your current mission, or even have the ability to run most missions with a friend. Lastly, it offers higher-level versions of its missions that reward the most coveted gear. It’s this cross section of rewarding gameplay, intricate systems and the jubilant feeling after each encounter that makes Nioh so special.
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order):
Call of Duty: WWII (Activision Blizzard, Sledgehammer Games)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Estimated Sales: Best-selling console game of the year globally, and has generated over a billion dollars in revenue. Quick calculation leads to around 16-17 million units assuming it sells most of its copies at full-price. But if we assume discounts & exchange rate conversions etc, I’d wager 14-15 million already.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4.
Estimated Sales: Over 500K units. Ninja Theory disclosed that the game has exceeded expectations and is now profitable.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Capcom)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Estimated Sales: 4.1 million units.
Splatoon 2 (Nintendo)
Platforms: Nintendo Switch.
Estimated Sales: 3.61 million units.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (Bethesda Softworks, MachineGames)
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Estimated Sales: Unfortunately not a huge commercial success. Just above 370K owners on Steam. No word on exact overall or console sales.
There you have it! What a year. I hope you gamers out there were able to play some of these titles, and got as much enjoyment out of them as I did. Thanks so much for making it this far, and let me know how you feel about these in the comments or on Twitter! Here’s hoping 2018 can live up to its incredible predecessor.
Sources: All screen caps taken by yours truly on one of the listed platforms, usually Xbox One for multi-platform titles. Estimated sales from an amalgamation of sources, including company announcements, financial statements, NPD Group, GfK/UKIE, equity analysts, social media posts etc. If you are interested in details behind sales stats, please drop me a line.