In early 2013, I ranked my top 25 video games of all time. The list featured a mix of childhood favorites and modern-day discoveries. Looking back, nostalgia played a big role—six of my top 10 were games I played before I was a teenager, and 22 of 25 before college (I was several years out of college when I made the list).
Today—for once—I’m finding it hard to make that same list. I don’t know how to sort out the nostalgia. I second guess whether a game I played two months ago outranks a game I played two decades ago.
But this paralysis led me to an opportunity: Suppose I throw out all the old favorites and just focus on modern games? Suppose I start the clock from the day after I did that list in 2013, and simply rank everything I’ve played since then? Making that list would be much easier, and my reasoning would be more consistent.
A list like that would also have a few advantages for people besides me:
- It would be full of games that are still easily accessible today, not old classics that have to be pirated or purchased for $100+ on eBay.
- Disagreements would lead to more interesting discussions than, “I associate this game with elementary school birthday parties and sleepovers; you don’t.”
- When I was young, I mostly had one console at a time (SNES→PlayStation→GameCube). Today, I play games across almost all major platforms: Switch, iPhone, PS4, and PC. The list would be more diverse as a result.
Note: Several of the below games came out on multiple platforms. I only list the platform I played it on. Meanwhile, the year represents the game's original release date--not necessarily when I played it, and in a few cases, not necessarily the date it came out on the platform listed.
Without further ado, here goes:
The hilarious collaborative cooking game! It's been a huge hit among friends of mine who don't normally play games. Quite possibly the biggest hit for "non-gamers" since Wii Sports.
Run-and-jump games—often called “platformers”—are my favorite genre. And this is arguably the best pure platformer of the last decade. It’s difficult, but not punishing. The gameplay and level themes complement one another beautifully. The secret collectibles are all well hidden, the courses tailor-made for speedrunning. The only reason it’s not higher? It doesn’t really do anything new. But most importantly, this entry deserves its place next to the iconic original Donkey Kong Country series.
I do a lot of eye rolling when it comes to video game stories. I find that most are mediocre at best. Worse is when a game is mostly just a glorified walking simulation, where I’m only there to stroll from one story beat to the next. I’ve got plenty of movies for that.
So imagine my surprise when Firewatch wound up being one of my top 25 games of the last six years. It really is the definition of a walking simulator. You simply make a few dialogue choices to shape the tone of a few conversations. But man…the performances, the writing, the emotional payoffs. It all works.
For people who play games, this is X-COM, But With Mario. For the uninitiated, it’s a little like chess meets battleship. For me, it was a delightful surprise. At first look, it seems like a bad marketing stunt cooked up by Ubisoft and Nintendo. But lo and behold, there’s a smart little game here.
It’s the first JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) I’ve every stuck with start to finish. The music is unmatched. The battle system is clever. The art style is polished but retro. The story is bad. The cutscenes are worse. But overall, it hooked me.
The latest 3D Mario adventure has fallen bit by bit in my rankings since the day it came out. Sure, I was smiling almost every second I played it, and yes, it was fun to explore such large, sandboxy levels. But ultimately, Super Mario Odyssey was a surprisingly safe game for a series that usually isn’t afraid to take risks. The game lacks the crisp platforming of its predecessors, leans too heavily on nostalgia, and never really presents a challenge (with a couple very small exceptions).
A rare treat from Microsoft: a vast, artistic adventure game with the polish of Nintendo but the performance of a first-party game from Sony. Other than a few jarring difficulty spikes, this was a joy to play.
In my 2013 post, I ranked Super Smash Bros. Melee at #1—at the time, my favorite game of all time. By all accounts, Ultimate is even better: way more characters, dozens more maps, (actually decent) online play, and on and on.
So why isn’t Ultimate higher on my list?
I’ve come to realize I loved the Smash series most for the “couch co-op,” the stuff-eight-friends-in-one-room-and-yell-at-each-other sleepovers, the moments when you’d laugh so hard you’d still be in tears while you ordered pizza on the phone. I miss that.
I’m still happy with the series as it exists today. I can sync up with friends and laugh over a few online matches. But I’ve come to realize I don’t have quite as much “fighting game” in my DNA as I once thought.
It’s the most famous game of the last decade, and some of that is deserved. Personally, I don’t really care about the dancing, the meme culture, the sub-Reddit, or all the celebrity endorsements. At the end of the day, I was just happy to be playing a Battle Royale game that didn’t take itself too seriously. Given the choice, I’ll take style and sense of humor over realism, and here, Fortnite delivers.
Most people will have played the near-identical Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Switch
Everyone has their favorite Mario Kart. The older crowd swears by Super Mario Kart on the SNES. My generation tends to ride for Mario Kart 64, complete with all the amazing shortcuts and exploitable glitches. Personally, I love Mario Kart: Double Dash, perhaps the best pure racer of the batch.
But here’s the thing: everybody loves Mario Kart 8. It’s the one entry in the series that brings together all the best parts of the franchise, while ironing out all the flaws. Even if it’s not your favorite, you’ll likely still place it somewhere in your top three.
At first glance, Nintendo Land just seems like a lesser Wii Sports. It looks like Nintendo’s half-hearted attempt to recapture the magic of the iconic 2006 party game. But if you can dig your way past the bad stuff, there are a handful of real gems in here.
The secret sauce are the 1 vs. 4 minigames, where the solitary player gets information only he or she can see on a private gamepad screen. Maybe she’s a ghost chasing four Nintendo characters in a haunted house. Or perhaps his screen gives him a bird’s eye view of a maze, while the four players must try to find him without the benefit of the overhead view. To this day, I still don’t think the poor Wii U gets enough credit for multiplayer innovations like these.
*While this game launched before my "2013-present" time-frame, I’m including it because I didn’t play it until 2014.
Let’s get it out of the way now: the game play is kinda clunky. It’s years after a zombie apocalypse, and you’re constantly fumbling for materials, fighting your pistol’s awkward controls, coaxing your allies into cover. But in a weird way, that clumsiness fits. The Last of Us is a game about survival, loss, and human darkness. A shooter with James Bond-level smoothness would never have felt right.
A reinvention of the classic Greek mythology action series, the 2018 game turns the franchise on its head. It’s slower, more thoughtful, more mature (and Norse instead of Greek). Unlike the arcade fluidity of the earlier titles, the battles in this game carry a tremendous weight: you can feel every axe swing (with the smart use of the PS4 rumble), and you can hear the regret in every line Kratos speaks.
Cuphead’s mechanical premise is nothing special. It’s a shmup (short for “shoot ‘em up”) where you blast baddies with a variety of toy guns while you hop around dodging attacks.
What makes Cuphead stand out is the art style and storytelling progression of the boss fights. It looks (and plays!) exactly like an old-fashioned cartoon, and the various phases of the boss fights form a hilarious plot worthy of a Saturday morning Looney Tunes episode.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone describe a game as a fantastic “pure racer” or “pure shooter” or “pure fighter.” This usually means the game nails the core mechanics of the genre impeccably well—even if it lacks secondary factors that aren’t as key to the game play.
This is how I feel about Stephen’s Sausage Roll. It’s the best “pure puzzler” I’ve ever played. The way the game twists a small number of discrete mechanics into a 30+ hour adventure is mind boggling. That said, I do have my quibbles about the art style, and a few sections were arguably too difficult, which is why I ultimately have two other puzzle games ahead of it on this list.
You’re an insurance adjuster. You board a wrecked ship filled with dead bodies and a variety of clues. Your job is to determine—just like the board game Clue—how each of the 60 passengers died (ex: “First Mate Tom Smith was strangled with a rope by Captain Morgan”).
Return of the Obra Dinn has been described as “murder Sodoku,” and it’s a fitting name. Most often, you’ll piece together the solution only by examining three or more murders at once, juggling various objects, faces and timelines together simultaneously. But the real showstopper are the scene of the crime freeze-frames, where you explore each and every murder at precisely the moment of death. The action is perfectly still, but your character is free to move about in 3D space. Even at death #60, I still got a Sherlock Holmes rush.
Stardew Valley dares to offer a slow-paced, low-res farming simulator in an industry full of sports cars, super heroes, and AK-47s. You’ll spend your time methodically watering plants, chopping down trees, or planting grass starter to make sure your animals get fed. The game succeeds not for its innovations—most of these systems exist in some form in other games—but for its strong sense of identity. In Stardew Valley, you stop, take a breath, and for a little while, the world slows down.
Every once in awhile, I’ll think of a certain kind of game that feels lost to the past. The so-called Metroidvania—a game that requires you to explore a big world, find tools, then open up previously inaccessible areas—is one such genre. The Metroid and Castlevania games did this best. Some recent gems—like Ori and the Blind Forest--almost recapture the magic.
But ultimately, you’d need to recreate the old feelings: the solitude of feeling lost, the bursts of discovery, the hard-won boss fights that allow you to eventually, finally, discover what’s behind the next wall. Somehow, where so few games succeed, Hollow Knight fills the void.
Take the zany platforming and hyper difficulty of Super Meat Boy. Now give it a smoother, more thoughtful difficulty curve. Throw in more level design variety, so each area feels distinct. Finally, add a story that feels real, important, and surprisingly affecting. Add it up, and Celeste is the best platformer I’ve played in 10 years.
2013 me would roll his eyes at a game series like “Hitman” ranking this high. Isn’t Hitman another one of those titles for tough guy bros who just like to shoot stuff? It turns out the last two Hitman games are just the opposite: clever, self-aware, creative, and even goofy. At its root, Hitman is a puzzle sandbox, allowing you to replay the same scenario dozens of times until you execute the perfect assassination. With penalties for messiness and incentives against unintended kills, the game is far closer to Agatha Christie than Call of Duty.
More than two years after the release of Breath of the Wild, I can’t help but think of all the things wrong with the game. The story is pretty dull. The shrines—the main stand-in for the “puzzles” or “dungeons” in the game—are repetitive. The combat, while initially intriguing, has all kinds of flaws (low enemy variety, imbalanced armor system, underwhelming attack-and-defend options).
So why is Zelda still sitting at #5? In short, the world, the sight lines, and the flow of the gameplay.
From the very first Zelda, exploration and discovery have been the heart of the franchise: the grand feeling of adventure, the fear of the unknown, the curiosity of what’s just over the ridge or around the next corner. Here, Breath of the Wild is a masterclass. Rather than giving you a giant map full of generic video game checkboxes, the game lets you discover it all in your own way, at your own pace. You’re not running toward a quest marker to trigger a cutscene: you’re noticing a billow of smoke, or the tip of a statue, or a strange orange light.
At any spot in Zelda’s truly sprawling world map, you can bet you’ll be intrigued by five or more objects in the distance. Where do you go first? Once you’ve chosen, do you go straight there, or peel off yet again when you catch a glimpse of even more opportunities?
To top it all off, the game’s climb-anything, paraglide-everywhere system means you can traverse huge swaths of the map in minutes. It’s the final piece of the gameplay loop, and it creates an ongoing experience unmatched in other open-world games.
“Build your own Mario levels!” is the kind of pitch that immediately clicks: it gets straight to the point and sounds like hours of fun. What Nintendo fan hasn’t wanted to be the next Shigeru Miyamoto, building a dizzying obstacle course of pipes, piranha plants, and p-switches?
Still, your enjoyment of Mario Maker will live and die based on a single question: Are you more of a “Maker” or a “Player?”
Makers love this game. The level creation controls and tools are truly revolutionary—creating a pathway is as effortless as sliding your finger or stylus across a screen. While games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet bring incredible depth to creation, Mario Maker brings accessibility and simplicity. Tap, swipe, and your ideas come to life.
Conversely, Players will find less to love here. Yes, you get a virtually endless stream of Mario levels. But a majority are bad. Many are indistinguishable from garbage. Makers will always find something to appreciate: the one element that works in an otherwise terrible course, the object lessons of what not to do. Players will enjoy the diversion for a dozen hours, then move along.
At its core, Overwatch is a team shooting game. But what Overwatch does so well is create stories in every match. The way the objectives are laid out—and the way the teams must keep adapting to one another to make progress—mean every match has a distinct ebb and flow. I still remember a dozen specific matches because of the cadence: the struggle to push past a seemingly insurmountable choke point, followed by a sudden team insight, then an epic success or excruciatingly close failure.
To be fair, just about everything Overwatch does well something else did well before. Asymmetrical map design, where one team pushes an objective while another team defends? Counter-Strike’s been doing it for decades. A class-based shooter, with wildly different roles for different types of play styles? See Team Fortress 2, which came out in 2007.
Still, the question remains: Has anything done the full package better than Overwatch?
If there’s one thing Overwatch absolutely does do best, it’s the characters themselves. All 30 “heroes” have their own backstory, incredible design, and unique move set. Whether you’re a first-person shooting veteran or a more methodical puzzle game fan, there’s a hero who will fit your play style and help you contribute to the team.
Besides platformers, puzzle games are my favorite genre. And The Witness is easily my favorite puzzle game of all time. The Witness features a giant island dotted with hundreds of panels. Each panel contains a line puzzle, and the solution is based on a series of rules.
Progressing through The Witness is about learning a language. What do the little dots on the panels mean? What about dots of a certain color? How about squares that look like Tetris blocks? Does the surrounding environment influence the puzzle on the panel (hint: sometimes)? The game never uses a single word to teach you any of this…it’s all based on your own intuition and observation.
The Witness doesn’t work for everyone the same way it worked for me. Some people prefer the more dynamic, physical puzzles of Portal. Others want more world building, like in Myst. Still others prefer the quicker, more tactile puzzle solving of Tetris or Sodoku. But in The Witness, when you’ve internalized 20 different rules and you’re in a state of panel-solving flow, it’s like nothing I’ve ever played.
You know how you always dreamed of an epic Nerf water gun fight as a child? How it was supposed to be like a Nickelodeon TV gameshow? But in reality, it would last 13 seconds?
Now imagine that the battle actually lived up to your expectations. Think of the Super Soaker stand off you always envisioned, but then make it colorful, fast-paced, and strategically deeper and more satisfying than you thought possible.
Splatoon gets it all right: brilliant style, fresh concept, gameplay that feels silky smooth. It takes just enough from the shooter genre to make it addicting (fast-twitch controls, team-based strategy, spacing and control), but removes all the nonsense (toxicity, gratuitous blood and violence, drab gray and brown color palettes).
Best of all, it’s just pure fun. It’s the rare game where I still can’t believe the developers made the concept work that well. Splatoon has no right to be this polished, this fresh, this smart. But it is.
I was sure these games would make my top 25, but in the end, they wouldn’t quite fit.
Forza Horizon 4 (2018) - PC
I’m not a car guy. But if I were a car guy, this would probably be my favorite game. It takes the racing DNA of the Forza Motorsport series, but then lets you loose in a huge open world, with slick roads, big jumps, and off-road races.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018) - PS4
Blame it on the missions. Most of what Red Dead Redemption 2 does feels fives years in the future: immersive story, beautiful world, pitch-perfect style, actually great acting. It all seems too good for a video game. But then there’s the core gameplay, which plays out over 100+ repetitive missions. Ride somewhere on your horse. Something goes wrong! Shoot-out. Escape. For a game that pushes the medium in so many commendable ways, it’s a shame the missions are still living 10 years in the past.
Honorable mention: Tier 2
I knew these games wouldn’t crack my top 25, but they made a big enough impact on me to be worth mentioning.
Planet Coaster (2016) - PC
Parkitect (2018) - PC
A duo of spiritual Roller Coaster Tycoon successors. Planet Coaster gets points for realism and an endless supply of customization options. Parkitect nails the retro look and feel. Neither quite capture the old magic.
DOOM (2016) - PC
The rare gritty, gray-and-brown shooter that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s an arcade-style game from the ground up. You move and shoot way faster than you should, but that’s all part of the fun.
Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) - PS4
Call me a hipster, but this one’s a bit “too mainstream” for me. It’s got everything most people want: high production values, polish to rival Nintendo’s best games, decent acting, a good story. I’m just burnt out on super heroes and standard AAA game mechanics. The fact that I’m still mentioning it—with my biases—speaks to the game’s achievements.
Superhot (2016) - PC
A stripped down shooting game where time only progresses when you move. It’s a neat little gimmick that turns a normally high-twitch genre into a puzzle game. What a cool mechanic.