Normally I would be taking this opportunity to analyze the titular object, metaphorically tearing it to the basics, and explaining why you are wrong about it. But this time is different. This time I am going to just have some retrospective fun. Instead of doing the easy thing and coming up with some discussion-bait about why “Game of the Year” awards and discussions are totally bogus, I am going to do the even easier thing and look back at my personal games of the years throughout the years of the past decade. So hey, maybe this could be one of those “end of the decade” articles; whatever you need to justify it, just please read and validate my opinions.
Each winner that I pick is going to roughly be my personal favorite game that was released between January 1st and December 31st of X year, but other factors like cultural impact and reception will be considered where I feel necessary. That being said, let’s get into it.
Obviously I can’t pick a winner for the present year, it’s only May and some of the best games of this year are probably either unannounced or prepping for a delay into 2021. However, an Animal Crossing game released in 2020, and not just any Animal Crossing, but the best selling title in the series by a wide margin with the largest reach of potentially any game since Fortnite. So of course, my 2020 Game of the Year winner is Paper Mario: The Origami King.
Winner: Hopefully the world
The first tricky decision and the first real decision at all, 2019 is home to some of my favorite games ever, and it was only six months ago! Some popular picks from last year were Resident Evil 2 Remake, Outer Wilds, The Outer Worlds, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Death Stranding, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and others. It was overall a simply great year that somehow lacked as much personality compared to others. My personal favorite games were Fire Emblem, Outer Wilds, and Dragon Quest XI S, and while I’m sure I’ll enjoy Death Stranding and Sekiro, I haven’t played them yet. My gut reaction would be to select Dragon Quest, you know me, but the game was released in 2017, so it’s out as well. Outer Wilds man, it’s a majestic slice of gaming. The ideas it presents with the heart and emotions it conveys with a minimal world are just unreal and unparalleled. It is a one of a kind experience that every game-enjoyer should give a shot, but Three Houses. I love Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The characters, the gameplay, the world, the writing, the characters, it is such a beautiful, emotional experience that has somehow sucked away more of my life than any other single player game has before. This is purely by bias, Three Houses has essentially become my favorite game of all time, the game with the new Smash character wins 2019.
Winner: Fire Emblem: Three Houses
2018 is a big fan of the “a bunch of games Caden didn’t even get close to playing” genre, and because of that, an indie wins. General nominees were God of War, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Spider-Man, Monster Hunter World, Red Dead Redemption 2, Celeste, Octopath Traveler, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It was a splendid year for Sony and the PS4, easily one of the heights of the console—I still don’t have any PlayStations. My personal favorites were Octopath, Celeste, and The Messenger. So far, all of my favorites have been titles I have thrown out an article about, I doubt this pattern will continue. It goes without saying that Celeste is my winner here. The fact that an indie game broke through the nominees for Geoff Keighley’s Game Awards alongside some of the largest entertainment productions ever just goes to show how good of a game it truly is. Celeste is as close to perfect as a 2D Platformer can hope to achieve in 2018 these days and stands today as an essential experience. The Messenger was really good too though.
It only took under 700 words to reach my ultimate trial. Selecting my Game of the Year of 2017 is as close to impossibly difficult as writing an opinion article on the internet can get. Super Mario Odyssey, NieR: Automata, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Dragon Quest XI, Horizon Zero Dawn, Splatoon 2, Persona 5, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Night in the Woods, Cuphead, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Destiny 2, this is one of those glorious years where almost every major publisher was defining series and genres on a monthly basis and is home to more of my favorite games than any other year. I played NieR: Automata in 2020 and it reshaped my perspective on video game storytelling, and life in general. I played Dragon Quest XI in 2019 and it turned me into a massive fan of a genre that I hardly knew I could love. I played Night in the Woods in 2018 and while it was great, it was no Game of the Year so I don’t know why I listed it. And of course, in the actual year of 2017, Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey blew everyone away and gave the Nintendo Switch one of the best console launches in history. There were just so many amazing games in 2017. I am sure I’ll love the year even more once I get a chance to play Horizon Zero Dawn and Persona 5, how am I supposed to even consider deciding between such masterpieces? One on hand, Zelda easily had the largest impact. It reached so many players who never got into the franchise and completely redefined what an open world should be. But on the other, Dragon Quest XI. Inevitably, Breath of the Wild is the pick for 2017’s Game of the Year, but it had some massively steep competition. Why don’t publishers make 2017 every year?
Winner: Breath of the Wild
It’s Stardew Valley.
Come on, it has to be Stardew. Overall I felt that 2016 was not much of a great year, especially for Nintendo, but there were some highlights with Doom, Inside, Uncharted 4, and Overwatch. While Overwatch took home the prize from many outlets during this year, I lean away from considering multiplayer-focused games as “Game of the Year.” Something in my mind just doesn’t put the two together, and while Overwatch is a fantastic shooter that was massively successful, I wouldn’t say it’s quite as an amazing game as some other titles. Even Doom in the same year is far more interesting mechanically as a shooter. But Stardew Valley. I love this game to death and even though this pick is going to be one that is most skewed towards my bias than others, I’d argue that Stardew was relatively massive for what it is. The game revived the farming simulation genre and showed exactly how much passion one developer could put into a game, while it may not have defined the year for everyone, it impacted the many that it did so much farther than some other games.
Winner: Stardew Valley
Finally, the year that Breath of the Wild was supposed to release.
This is a bit of a weirder year for me, I played most of its best games many years later. This could indicate that the year was full of well-aging titles or it could show you that we’re approaching the years where I wasn’t an “avid gamer.” Regardless, the major hitters included The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Super Mario Maker, Bloodborne, Splatoon, Metal Gear Solid V, Undertale, and Ori and the Blind Forest. This is another year with a few titles that are widely considered masterpieces. The Witcher 3 is celebrated to this day for its expansive narrative and beautiful world, it deserves every bit of praise it gets for its uber high quality production value that shows the increasingly thin line between gaming and Hollywood. Super Mario Maker offered so many players their childhood dream of creating their own Mario stages and it even did it in a highly refined package; but it would be tacky to make a Wii U game the winner. Bloodborne, Fallout, and Metal Gear are all sizable games that I definitely haven’t played. Bloodborne is the one that I see still getting the most praise to this day, so it’s on my list to get to eventually (That list is no “backlog”—I will play every game on it.). And here we are, while the 2015 list is also packed with some of the most splendid indie games to this day, that list contains the cultural oddity that is Splatoon. Splatoon was a milestone that not a lot of people witnessed because there was one too many U’s on the box. It completely redefined what a third person shooter could be and offered a multiplayer experience to so many non-shooter fans. I can’t think of a single game with core mechanics as innovatively fun as Splatoon. The fundamental ink and squid mechanics are so genius that it hardly mattered what the rest of the game was to make it interesting. And yet, Splatoon, the first new large Nintendo series since Pikmin was loaded with style, humor, and content. The singleplayer campaign was reminiscent of Mario Galaxy, the constant stream of free updates forced it to stay fresh, and the breath of fresh air that it offered in the gaming landscape (following up from an era of shooters with too close of ties with “grey” and “brown”) was unmatched. While I am tempted to give it to The Witcher, Splatoon is my 2015 Game of the Year. I don’t think it’s better than The Witcher, Yoshi’s Woolly World, or Ori somehow, but it made the biggest lasting impact for me and defined the year back when it was actually happening.
Can someone please tell me what a Dragon Age: Inquisition is? It was the Game of the Year winner from several outlets, but I never hear anything about this game except for seeing it named here and there. The fact that it was nominated for the Geoff Keighley Game Awards before it was even released definitely gives some “insight” on why it took so many awards, but I can definitely say this was the least impactful of any “general year winner” so far. Some other notable releases included Bayonetta 2, Dark Souls II, Shovel Knight, Super Smash Bros. 4, Mario Kart 8, Hearthstone, and Bravely Default. Smash and Mario Kart were huge releases for Nintendo and dominated a lot of the discussion this year, but, like many years, there were just a lot of generally great games releasing. I’m giving the win to Shovel Knight, mostly because it is an insanely polished experience that continued development into 2020. While Stardew is the de facto indie success story, Shovel Knight is the king (knight) of indies in general. I don’t think it’s an outrageous claim to say that Shovel Knight is the most recognizable indie-created character; he got into Super Smash Brothers, the game with Mario, Sonic, Banjo, Pac-man, and Mii Gunner. The game showed the feasibility of Kickstarter games which is only a good thing for the industry. Can you imagine if every crowdfunding story was a Might No. 9?
Winner: Shovel Knight
Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Grand Theft Auto V, Bioshock Infinite, Gone Home, The Last of Us, Super Mario 3D World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, there were once again many great games in a year. I think the most common winner was Last of Us, which is unfortunately another title on my list. If I had played it between my birth and the day I wrote this, it would probably take 2013. This is a surprisingly difficult choice, in fact, too difficult. I played a lot of the great Nintendo games that released this year, there was a Luigi, Mario, AC, and Zelda all releasing within a year, and they were all great titles. New Leaf had the largest lasting impact and was probably overall my favorite game of the ones I played here. Therefore, my semi-reluctant decision is the game with Tom Nook in it.
Winner: Animal Crossing: New Leaf
I dunno, probably Zombie U?
XCOM, Gravity Rush, Far Cry 3, Journey, Mass Effect 3, Fez, and many others that I’m unsure of their qualities and afraid to list. The games I played the most in 2012 were Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land so my qualifications are out the window. Journey and Gravity Rush are on my previously mentioned “will play once I have waited for the PS5 or it drops on PC” list, and alongside that, Journey took many shows’ award this year, so to make the decision that will age the least poorly, I’m going to assume that I’ll enjoy Journey the most. We’re getting to the end here, so rules are changing on a per-sentence basis, alright?
I’d be lying if I pretended like I remember 2011, so based on my quick Wikipedia dive, the major nominees were Portal 2, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Minecraft, Uncharted 3, and Batman: Arkham City. Of course, Skyrim generally won the most. It’s Skyrim, it was a massive deal at the time and relatively holds up today and being ported to every platform imaginable means it had incredible reach. But there’s one title in this list that was ported to even more platforms, with an even larger reach, with an even smaller budget, with even crazier sales, obviously again: Minecraft. The game makes one of the strongest arguments for “Game of the Decade”, you better know I’m picking it for 2011. The 1.0 release of the game was this year, so 2011 is the year it gets to steal. There’s no way around it, my hands are tied, it’s Minecraft, guys. And if you’re thinking you can replace the previous sentence with “Skyrim” and it has the same power, you’re not wrong, just silly.
And there we have it, ten years of my Nintendo bias holding strong. There’s something fascinating about looking back at a simple list of titles that are released each year. Every name has such a huge story behind it, and being one person, I can only know about so many games. Each mystery game just seems like an opportunity to add it to the radar to learn about it someday, or even potentially play it. I was hardly a “gamer” from roughly 2013 and before, but I’ve made my way back to experience the renowned games released before then.
I’ve heard nothing but praise for the Portal series and I absolutely hope to play it when the time is right. Uncharted is an uncharted world to me, I have friends who have raved about it forever, but I hardly know what it is besides Nathan Drake with a gun. Journey seems like exactly the type of experience I enjoy from time to time and with it coming to PC this year, I won’t have to wait for the PS5 to try it. Gravity Rush seems like the exact definition of a hidden gem. After playing The Witcher 3 very recently, I am inclined to want to try out the previous entries, same goes for the Fire Emblem, Dragon Quest, and Chrono franchises—playing a single title in a franchise invokes a lot of curiosity about the rest of them. There are so many games from the past that we all want to play but will probably only get to a fraction of them. It’s a sad inevitability that comes when a lot of modern players are juggling old games with recent releases, but as time goes on it just gives each player more of a unique history with different franchises and titles.
I don’t expect a single person to agree with all of my ten winners, but the point wasn’t to objectively say what the metrics for Game of the Year are and exactly decide winners, mostly just a chance for some retrospection and sharing my thoughts on some experiences throughout the years. If you think I’m wrong about one of my choices, seriously do tell me so I can change the author name to yours.