This decade has been a great one for video games. The medium has been around long enough for most developers to know what they’re doing, the technology has advanced to a point where games of any scale can be realized, and the internet has allowed niche communities to form for any game and given indie developers a chance to make their mark on the industry. Not everything from this decade has been the best, but the sheer number and variety of groundbreaking, polished, and fun titles has been amazing.
I’ve selected my picks for the best game of the decade by genre as objectively as I can. I’ve considered the quality of the gameplay and the impact on the industry first, putting the story and visuals second and considering my personal enjoyment of the title last.
Best 3D Platformer: Super Mario Odyssey, 2017
ESRB Rating: E
Mario titles have always been some of Nintendo’s most polished and fun, and Odyssey is no exception. The iconic plumber’s latest three-dimensional voyage is a return to the collect-a-thon style of the classic Super Mario 64, which ups the ante and introduces great new features. With over 800 individual power moons to collect, plus every kingdom’s unique currency, the sheer amount of collectables is staggering. The game makes it all digestible, though, giving moons for most tasks and making every kingdom intuitive to explore. Of special note are the excellent controls; as if Mario’s numerous jumps, air dives, rolls, and ground pounds weren’t all smooth enough, his new friend Cappy adds unprecedented depth. Mario can bounce off of Cappy by throwing him, extending his jumps to crazy lengths and heights. The game lets you use your incredible mobility any way you want, letting you skip whole portions of kingdoms effortlessly and making for an adventure you can approach many different ways. Cappy can also “capture” certain enemies and objects for Mario to control, adding a new way for Mario to interact with his surroundings. These innovations combine with the charming visuals to form an experience that is relentlessly fun, never letting the player down with a rough moment.
Best 2D Platformer: Shovel Knight, 2014
ESRB Rating: E
Shovel Knight is, by all accounts, a fundamentally great platformer. Smooth and reliable controls, well-crafted levels that offer a fair challenge, and unique mechanics that set the game apart from its competitors. While a solid game, this description alone doesn’t illustrate what makes it so important: the game was one of the first crowdfunded successes in the industry. Alongside the aforementioned gameplay, charming characters, a heartwarming story, and excellent music showed that indie developers could put together a project as well as any major studio. After fans had their investment rewarded with such a quality product, many other indie developers followed suit and made some great crowdfunded games. Without Shovel Knight, good as it is on its own, so many developers wouldn’t have found an opportunity to make their great ideas a reality.
Best Fighting Game: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, 2018
ESRB Rating: E10+
Super Smash Bros. is just a dream concept through-and-through: all your favorite Nintendo characters duking it out in epic, large-scale battles. Even back when it only had 12 characters in 1999, a perfect blend of chaotic party action and skill-based fighting mechanics made it an all-inclusive game. Now, after installments like Super Smash Bros. Melee established a competitive scene for the series, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate delivered on its timeless premise more thoroughly than ever. With every fighter ever included in the series returning, and new fighters continually being added through DLC, it’s easy to find a character you enjoy and stick with them. A variety of items, single-player modes, and versus rulesets offer a varied, long-lasting experience for casual players. For the first time, competitive players got some solid consideration with an option to turn stage hazards off, gameplay engine changes to mobility and defense options, and careful character balance, which helps everyone in the massive roster have a purpose and competitive depth. To the benefit of players on either side of the spectrum, the gameplay is smooth and fast and the presentation is more stylish than ever. The sheer amount of time and effort put into Ultimate shows in every aspect of the game, and it feels like a game that truly earned its title of the ultimate Super Smash Bros.
Best Shooter Game: Overwatch, 2016
ESRB Rating: T
Although not for everyone, Overwatch is pretty impressive for what it is. Blizzard, known for overhead RTS and MMO games such as Starcraft and World of Warcraft, decided it was time to put together a first-person shooter and made a huge impact on the genre. Functioning like a blend of shooter and MOBA, with unique characters that have preset movesets and abilities with cooldowns supplementing the shooter gameplay, Overwatch was a new take on the team shooter. By establishing every character’s own stories and lore with in-game lines and supplementary material, giving players ways to express themselves, and providing a variety of game modes both casual and competitive, it created a fun, team-based experience for a variety of skill levels. All those modes and lore wouldn’t amount to much without solid foundational gameplay, but the map designs and character balance are all carefully crafted to ensure a competitive experience for both sides. This game truly shines when you get friends together; jumping into competitive modes with up to six friends you can work with to build a solid team and constantly communicate with in-game can give a satisfying sense of teamwork, even after a loss.
Best Puzzle Game: Portal 2, 2011
ESRB Rating: E10+
The Portal series is truly something unique: a first-person puzzle game where you shoot portals instead of bullets to progress. When Portal first released in 2008, its well-designed puzzles, unique concept, intriguing setting, and use of a realistic physics engine made it a hit with all who played. However, it seemed like it still had a lot of untapped potential, and Portal 2 achieved that potential and then some. It introduced new, ingenious mechanics using the physics engine for the many puzzles, delved deeper into the lore of Aperture Science, and added an excellent co-op campaign with specially designed puzzles. On top of that, the game was a few hours longer than its very short predecessor, with better graphics and setpieces on top of the gameplay improvements. It’s a timeless experience that holds up playthrough after playthrough, despite the short length. However, the first playthrough, which challenges you to solve each puzzle for the first time, will be the most satisfying.
Best Adventure Game: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, 2017
ESRB Rating: E10+
The Legend of Zelda series, popular as it is, did start to grow predictable after some time. The formula of the 3D games following the revolutionary Ocarina of Time had its limits, and people started to see that those limits were being pushed after Skyward Sword. Thus, series producer Eiji Aonuma became interested in ways to mix things up, and Breath of the Wild was the revolutionary result. It returned to the roots of the first game with the innovations of modern times. After only a short starting area (which in itself can be approached freely), the game’s entire overworld is opened up to the player, who can explore it however they want. The large overworld is full of shrines, korok seeds, enemy camps, and other things to discover and conquer just on a gameplay level. A wealth of weapons, Sheikah Slate abilities, great enemy variety, and smartly-placed enemy locations makes combat engaging. The story, while optional, is solid plot-wise and rewarding to progress through. Underlying every aspect of the game, however, is this sense of being able to approach it however you like. The game doesn’t restrict you from solving problems the “wrong” way and encourages players to do whatever they want to succeed. Even better, Nintendo has crafted a world you’ll want to explore as freely as possible. With so much to explore and such beautiful graphical presentation, you’ll never want to put Breath of the Wild down.
Best Role-Playing Game: Fire Emblem: Three Houses, 2019
ESRB Rating: T
I’ll admit I’m not a fan of most RPGs. I find they often spend more time on whatever average story they want to tell than they do on the gameplay, but there are some exceptions. Three Houses is certainly one of those exceptions, not because it has no focus on story, but because it doesn’t let that story overwhelm the experience. It actually has an excellent story, split between four routes’ worth of interesting characters, lore, and worldbuilding. Top-notch voice acting supports that story, while support conversations and activities around the Garreg Mach Monastery let you learn more about the characters and story to your liking. The story itself progresses at an even pace with some excellent character development and overarching themes, which kept me interested in the proceedings. Now, this would all be wasted effort if not for the top-notch strategy gameplay. A variety of enemy types on diverse maps begets careful positioning of every character, while attack hit and critical chances must be carefully considered to ensure a safe strategy. The wide customizability of every character lets players build their teams to their liking as well, and the aforementioned variety of routes each have their own maps to conquer. This equal focus between story and gameplay makes Three Houses a game that can make any Fire Emblem fan happy, which is a difficult thing to accomplish.
Best Racing Game: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, 2017
ESRB Rating: E
No racing game has comparable status to the classic Mario Kart series. Thanks to creative courses, beloved characters, and simple-but-smooth driving mechanics, it’s a game that is easily enjoyed by players of all skill levels together. Mario Kart 8 is perhaps the most finely-tuned entry in the series, with the most creative courses and controls of any Mario Kart to date. The anti-gravity mechanic changes the way players interact with other drivers, providing speed boosts for bumping into them. This and the returning gliding and underwater racing allow the courses to be much more visually interesting than in the past, and this combines with the gorgeous graphics to make a visually stimulating experience. The new 200cc game speed introduces an even faster experience for those tired of the standard Mario Kart pace. Turning and drifting feel as tight as ever, and the three-part Kart customization allows every player to tune their kart to their playstyle with surprising accuracy. New and returning items help those who fall behind feel like they’re always in the race, even if more skilled players may sometimes find their efforts wasted as a consequence. Deluxe’s revamped battle mode, inclusion of all DLC, and portability introduced by being on the Switch make it the ultimate package for any Mario Kart fan.