It’s the end of the decade and we’re looking back at what games we loved the most. I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite games of the last 10 years. Since lists are always divisive by nature, I feel compelled to say that I formed my list by using a very simple metric: What 10 games did I love playing the most?
That means my list may not be the most diverse one you’ll see, but it’s 100% honest. I didn’t throw in games for genres I don’t play just to tick off a box, I picked what I enjoyed. That being said, there is nothing wrong with a little healthy disagreement should you choose to engage with us.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
The original Super Mario Galaxy was everything I wanted in a Mario game. As someone who didn’t love Super Mario Sunshine as much as most, I wanted a game that took Mario to a variety of locations, utilized the power ups (new and old) in creative ways, and recaptured some of that pure Nintendo fun I felt was missing from Sunshine. Galaxy delivered all that and became my favorite Mario game at the time.
Super Mario Galaxy 2, released in 2010, initially gave off a Lost Levels vibe. It was the sequel to a smash where the gameplay and aesthetic stay the same. It was the subtle changes, along with one major addition, that made this game surpass the original.
Galaxy‘s main issue was that the levels were scattered inside the hub area, meaning you had to go to different areas to play different levels. G2 streamlined this with Starship Mario, an intentionally concise hub planet where you could travel to whichever planet you wanted by interacting with the starship steering wheel. The levels were displayed on a grid (Much like Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS). The ability to dive into any of the planets I had discovered immediately was a massive time saver. Some were disappointed there was less to do as far as hub world exploration went, but I care about the levels themselves, and this game trims all the fat and gets right down to it.
While Galaxy had an elaborate (for a Mario game) plot, Shigeru Miyamoto specifically wanted Galaxy 2 to have as little story as possible. I mean, this is why the man is a genius. Fun trumps everything. Get out of my way and let me play.
The main difference between 1 and 2 was the addition of Yoshi, whose moves and controls were actually better suited and easier to handle using the Wiimote and Nunchuk. When I look back at some of my favorite games of the Nintendo Wii, I often forget how much of a nuisance motion controls were. Donkey Kong Country Returns was an exceptional game, but going back to it I was unable to tolerate the shaking and the waggling. The Mario Galaxy games were always the exception (unless you count pointing the Wiimote at the screen to collect Star Bits, because I always hated that little bit of business).
Are there better overall Mario games? Yes. Are there more groundbreaking Mario games? Yes. So why is Galaxy 2 my favorite Mario game of the decade? It’s the one I had the most fun playing. I consulted the metric, and that checks out.
Honorable Mention: Super Mario Odyssey, Super Mario 3D World
The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ (2011 – 2017)
What started out as a Flash game turned into a bona fide indie smash. These days the indie game market is flooded with rogue-lite, procedurally generated titles, but Isaac is my all time favorite of the genre, and is in my top 3 favorite games of all time.
What drew me to this title was the look. It is heavily inspired by the dungeon layout of the original The Legend of Zelda title, so to me this was like playing a Zelda dungeon generator. A never ending supply of fresh gameplay perfection.
Through the years the game has received multiple updates, subtitle changes, added items and challenges. The greatest feature of this game is it’s ability to force you to use your judgment, make choices, and learn through experience how to become a better player.
Isaac is the first game I wrote about here because it meant so much to me. I’ve since become a rabid Edmund McMillen fan, who has the ability to make games I don’t normally like, and turn them into unforgiving, tough as nails experiences that will often turn you into a sadist.
Also, I got a Platinum trophy for it, and completed every single thing the game has to offer – which took me years. And I still play it every week.
Honorable Mention: Dead Cells, Spelunky
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2011)
Ni No Kuni is the perfect RPG. It has breathtaking animation from the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, known for the 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro. The battle system is simple, but has deep, layered functionality that you will need to master during the back end of the adventure.
You play as Oliver, a young boy who lost his mother and is dealing with the loss as best he can. You are joined on your adventure by Drippy, your doll that comes to life after your tears awaken him. He speaks in a charming Welsh accent and serves as your main sidekick. You will gain two other companions as well, Esther, the daughter of a great sage, and Swaine, a boastful petty thief.
As a kid, when RPGs were not yet popular, I used to dream of bright and vast worlds teeming with secrets to uncover. This is what my mind envisioned. A game that gives you dozens of different game play mechanics to play with should you so choose.
To this day I have never played a Pokemon game, but Ni No Kuni allows you to capture enemies, raise them, power them up, and have them fight alongside you in battle. You can control as many or as few characters and familiars as you want in battles.
The battles themselves unfold in a way that allows you to wander the play field instead of standing still like many of the RPGs at the time. I found the battles to be interesting, and when they started to become tedious, I would experiment with different weapons and attacks, which would lead to discovering new item drops and better methods of fighting.
The animation is stunning, but so is the music and the voice acting. When Ni No Kuni II released, I was disappointed that they severely scaled back the voice acting. The PS3 game’s use of voice acting made the game so much more immersive.
Now that Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has been released on PS4 and Nintendo Switch, you should do yourself a favor and pick it up. You won’t be sorry.
Honorable Mention: Dragon Quest XI: Echos of an Elusive Age
Slow down. That’s what I told myself when I began playing Skyrim back in 2011. I had gotten Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion when I first got a PS3 and I could not get into it. It was too confusing, too aimless. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what set townsfolk off. So for Skyrim, I went slow. I took it all in.
I wound up putting over 200 hours into my initial playthrough of the game. I’ve since played several other times as I’ve repurchased it for PS4 and Nintendo Switch (I’m a re-purchaser).
I remember finding out someone I knew played the game as much as I did. We spent hours talking about our techniques, our strategies, the funny quirks and bugs, and clever ways to exploit the game. When you have a game as huge as this, you adapt to the glitches.
As you play through the game, you’ll make a home for yourself, become an adept locksmith, an alchemist, a spell caster, a blacksmith, a loving (or indifferent) spouse, an intrepid explorer, and more. Seriously, the list could just keep going. It’s all there for you, and you get to pick and choose which things you want to do – which in my case was…everything.
Also, I’m not a PC gamer, but if mods are your thing, Skyrim has got the goods.
Honorable Mention: The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
Persona 4 Golden (2012)
I never played a Persona game until I owned a PS Vita and was told by everyone that it was the game to own for the system. I got it and was instantly distraught because it wasn’t what I wanted the game to be. There was too much story and not enough action. There didn’t seem to be enough time in the day to do everything I wanted to do. I was intrigued by the central mystery of the game, and found the characters to be engaging, but I wondered when the little voice in the back of my brain would start asking if we were having fun yet.
Then something happened: I stopped worrying. I just made choices. I lived with what I chose and didn’t live in regret for the choices I didn’t make. I slowed down, the exact thing I made a conscious choice to do from the get-go when playing Skyrim, and it made me totally fall in love with this game.
The game is part murder mystery, part action RPG, part life simulator, and part surrealist fever dream. Having since gone forward and back in the series as a player, I now know the general idea of a Persona game, but having played 4 first, I’m partial to it over the others, including the gorgeous 5 which I have not finished as of yet.
The gameplay is classic JRPG goodness, but what is really stunning is the depth of the characters, and the way they wrestling with their darker emotions. The game went places I didn’t know mainstream games went. There was an emotional honesty that is missing in games where your character is usually either a paragon of virtue or an amoral jerk. Getting me to care about gaming characters is tough, but I did with these, and I never wanted to fracture relationships with people I liked.
A game this good, this different, this honest, deserves at least a look from gamers to see if it clicks for you the way it surprisingly clicked for me.
Honorable Mention: Persona 5, Tokyo Mirage Session #FE
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
2013? I can’t believe it’s been this long since a new GTA game came out, although from what I hear, another one is potentially on the horizon.
I was slightly disenchanted with Rockstar’s fourth mainline entry in the series. It was overstuffed and excessive, and not in that good way that this series does so well. You were constantly bombarded with people vying for your attention and personally, it gave me too many options. The game map was littered with so many “points of interest” they often overwhelmed me, especially as someone who likes to do all the side missions before the main campaign.
Luckily, the franchise got me back with V, a return to my favorite location in the series, San Andreas. Here, you are in control of three separate characters: Michael, the presumed dead FIB informant living a pretty sweet life in witness protection; Franklin, a low level criminal dissatisfied with high risk/ low reward jobs and “friends” who don’t have his back; and Trevor, a complete and total sociopath.
The dialogue is classic GTA: over-the-top vulgar, offensive, and button pushing. It doesn’t hold back in any regard, and yet, has a lot of smart things to say about how society acts (or reacts) to people they deem to be “the problem.” Whether it’s through dialogue in missions, people on the street, TV programs and commercials (that you can lose an hour just watching along with your character) and even websites, the game’s satire is simultaneously grandiose and realistic.
The current gen systems also got First Person mode, which allows you to turn the game into a FPS for when shit goes down. I found this to be perhaps the greatest addition to the series, as you can approach gunfights several different ways.
The graphics are stunning, the AI of NPCs is worthy of its own article, and the gameplay is pure joy (if anarchy and an unleashed id are your bag).
Honorable Mention: Yakuza 0
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove (2014 – 2019)
It wasn’t the first 8 bit throwback game, it was just the one that mastered the art of making an old school game that replaces every boring tedious 8 bit game mechanic with a cool, often random, fun alternative.
The tight platforming, the level design that call to mind Mega Man and Castlevania, the pixel perfect art, and a metric ton of content make this not only a great old school game, but a great game overall.
I played it on WiiU and kept getting add on content for free. Recently I plunked down $24.99 for the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, which will entitle me to all the DLC Yacht Club Games has to offer (the price as of Dec 10, 2019 is now $39.99, and is still a deal).
Those who love an old school challenge will enjoy this game, which is tough but fair. I completed the main campaign myself, and still have most of the add on content to go through, and there is so much variety in gameplay that you are getting wholly new experiences, not reskinned characters and frivolous bells and whistles.
The team at Yacht Club Games outdid themselves, and I, for one, am looking forward to their next game, Shovel Knight Dig.
Honorable Mention: The Shantae series.
Super Mario Maker (2015)
The WiiU was a commercial bust of a system. It was marketed so poorly even I had no idea what it was trying to be. I’m a simple gamer when it comes to systems. I don’t need it to do anything except play games (and now have streaming services). It’s all about the games to me, and the WiiU had games. The fact most of its AAA library has been ported over to the Switch is proof of that.
When Super Mario Maker was announced it was a dream come true for me and millions of Mario fans that had always dreamed of creating their own levels. Not only that, having the WiiU pad meant you could design levels using a stylus on the screen. The controls were simple, intuitive and easy to do (and undo) anything you did.
You could instantly make the level playable at any point to see how it was in action. Make a jump impossible? Extend the floor a few blocks and have Mario try again. The game was all about experimentation and discovery. You had so many tools at your disposal, including special effects, sound effects, and clever new twists on items and enemies.
Sadly, I’m not much of a level designer. I could make beautiful looking levels (one inspired by Bubble Bobble got me the bulk of all my likes and stars), but never anything that was challenging in an inventive way. Luckily, the gaming community answered the call and created some brilliant levels. Some were good old fashioned platforming challenges, and some were Rube Goldberg contraptions, while others seemed to ape the punishing difficulty of Kaizo Mario levels.
Super Mario Maker 2 built on this, adding a Super Mario 3D World game style, a Story Mode (which is like a new Super Mario game inside a Mario Maker game), and just released DLC that allows you to create levels where you can play as Link from The Legend of Zelda, where you use your sword, shield, bombs and arrows.
I could’ve chosen either games for this list, but since the original was so revolutionary I went with that one even though most people will, and should, purchase 2 since the Switch is Nintendo’s latest console. And SMM2 has slopes and the Angry Sun. You have no idea how much people wanted those back when the original game was out.
Honorable Mention: Super Mario Maker 2
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
I love the Zelda series, but even I have issues with some of the games. I found Zelda II to be ugly and lacking replayability. I found the first few hours of Twilight Princess to be an interminable slog and overly hand-holdy (despite it having my all time favorite Zelda character in it, Midna). And Skyward Sword…goodness…did that game disappoint me in almost every way.
Breath of the Wild is a revelation. Its back to basics approach was married with open world exploration in a way that few games have been able to capture. There is literally no other game world I love exploring more than Hyrule in BotW. The world itself is gigantic. I’ve played the game for hundreds of hours and there are still several areas I have barely explored.
Anyone who has played the game will know this world is teeming with things to find. You can spend a whole day searching for Korok seeds (there are 900 of them total), or looking for hidden treasure chests under ground, underwater, or in hidden caves.
It’s not just about discovering items, it’s about encountering moments. I’ve seen whirlwinds scoop up fish and rain them down like a Biblical storm of frogs. I once froze an enemy in a block of ice and watched as his buddies chipped away at it with their spears.
There is also a renewed sense of agency in the game, as you can often complete tasks and shrines (which replace the standard dungeons) in dozens of different ways. This is a game where if you can dream up a possible solution, chances are the programmers have set you up for success. Nothing is more disheartening than having a clever idea, only to discover the people behind the game either didn’t plan for that, or couldn’t be bothered to include it.
There is a reason these games take so long to come out. Breath of the Wild is not above criticism and small, minor complaints, but it is a masterpiece that every gamer should experience to relive the feeling of freedom wandering the world of Hyrule in a way they haven’t since the original 8 bit game.
Honorable Mention: Horizon Zero Dawn
God of War (2018)
Mild Spoilers Ahead
The original God of War games were a product of their time. The ultra violent, nihilistic tone was part of their charm. I’m not a hand wringer when it comes to social commentary, and find the policing of art (whether it’s TV, movies, music or gaming) to be just as curious today as I did when I was a gamer in the late 80s and early 90s. Oddly enough, it seems like whatever side of the political spectrum you fall on, someone has an opinion about why the thing you like is bad, or problematic, or whatever buzzword armchair critics and people with a strong, aggressive Twitter presence are currently using.
Kratos, the main character of the series, has always been a bit of a lightening rod. Even someone like myself found him to be abrasive and downright unlikable at times. He went from a tortured warrior, to…well…an asshole.
I was not thrilled however when I heard the new game would try to evolve the character. Too often, that means “reckoning with toxic masculinity” or reshaping a character to fit more with standard societal norms, to which I am not opposed. However, it is often done in a clumsy, or preachy, way that extracts the heart of what made something different in the first place.
God of War (2018) is an evolution of Kratos, a brilliant, gorgeous, amazing evolution. Kratos is now older (the gray in his beard tells you this). He is a father now, to a young boy, Atreus (although more often than not he simply refers to him as “Boy”). He has left the world of Greek mythology behind in favor of Norse mythology. He disemboweled most of the Greek legends and gods anyway.
Where Kratos was once a perpetually enraged monster, he is now a survivalist, hell bent on teaching his son to survive in the brutal and often unkind world. He is not harsh with his son out of anger; he is that way because his son needs to learn how to survive in a world where good and evil are not always clearly defined.
The game is stunningly played out as one continuous shot beginning with the title screen. Atreus is almost always by your side, and if this gives you any apprehensions fear not, this is no escort mission where you have to protect a helpless NPC that constantly makes life hard for you. Atreus can be leveled up as well, and you can customize how he plays as well.
Many were upset when they found out Kratos uses an ax in this game, instead of his usual Blades of Chaos, but once you adapt to the mechanics of the ax, you may find that you love it more than the old familiar. Plus, if you don’t, you return to your home midway through the game, pull up the floor boards and retrieve your beloved Blades in a scene that gave me chills when I pieced together what he was doing.
This game did indeed reckon with the bad part of Kratos, and it did it with masterful storytelling. It didn’t excuse the past actions of Kratos, but it allowed him to move forward and continue to grow. He would scold his son, he would yell, but he would also listen, he allowed Atreus to express himself as well. Not to mention, there is probably no moment that better encapsulates this new Kratos than when we watch as he moves his hand slowly toward the back of his son, looking to simply comfort him, before pulling away his hand and holding back. It’s not that he is withholding, or incapable of empathy, he is just trying to figure out how to love his son the best way he knows how. It’s powerful and it’s real, and it honestly moved me in a way few games ever have.
Bring On 2020
That’s all she wrote, kiddos. The 2010s are over, and the ’20s are upon us. What did you think of my list? Are you upset I had no XBox or 3DS titles on it? Where were the sports games, or real time strategy games? Let’s talk about it.
Plus, what’s better than one list? Two lists! Our own Collin Henderson will be revealing his top 10 list soon as well. Then the debates can truly begin!