Edited 3/30/2022: I updated the list to include Half-Life: Alyx, which I more recently completed, compared to the other games on the list.
It is hard to believe that this Spoiler Media platform has been operating in some capacity for two console generations now, but here we are! I am so excited to share my picks for greatest games of the PS4, Xbox One, and Switch/WiiU generation. While this generation brought about many wonderful experiences (outlined below), it is perhaps best defined by what is NOT on my list.
High profile sequels from both of Naughty Dog’s latest acclaimed series? The next release from the acclaimed creator of Metal Gear Solid? A long awaited, open world, cyberpunk adventure? They were all hotly anticipated and overhyped, and all not here.
How I arrived at this list
I followed a new process for this list, which I really enjoyed, mostly because I’m a nerd. I started with late 2013, as this is when the console generation started.
- I first simply generated my favorite games from memory, which unsurprisingly favored more recent titles.
- I then went on Metacritic and filtered the 100-200 best reviewed games on each console to spark my memory on what was actually a part of this generation–7 years is a long time.
- I captured my 26 favorite games of the list I curated (there were certainly more than that on the original list)
- Using the pairwise ranking method, I ranked all of the top 26 to generate the final order. This method allows for a cleaner comparison between say, a racing game and a massive action/adventure game, because you rank everything against each other, mano a mano.
Numbers 26 – 11
26. Red Dead Redemption 2
It is telling that Red Dead Redemption 2 probably had the largest budget and number of people behind it out of every other game on my top list and is also the furthest from #1 on said list. As even larger budgets resulted in fewer chances taken, I felt that Red Dead Redemption 2 took the most chance and risk in pursuing a vision. This is not to speak to the crazy development crunch, which is a different topic altogether that we cover quite a bit in the podcast.
For better or for worse, the game makes you feel like a major player in a Western. It can be slow and plodding at times. There is a lot of just trotting around on horseback… mid-mission. But the storytelling and characters are some of the best of the generation, and the game really does capture the magic of living out that old west fantasy.
25. Destiny 2
Destiny 2 isn’t the greatest thing ever, but it is-minus a few Activision hiccups-one of the purest examples of a game as a service, a new trend this generation. Bungie’s vision was to make the original Destiny last for a decade. Their more recent departure from Activision and continued support of Destiny 2 suggests that they could have achieved it if stakeholder expectations didn’t get in the way. Above all else, Destiny and Destiny 2 probably have the best gun feel of any game I have played in recent years.
24. Fallout 4
While the prior generation was dominated by the “Bethesda Game” formula (Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout New Vegas), the latest generation slowed the role as other developers caught on and some of the mechanics and glitches became tired. Still, I can’t deny playing the crap out of Fallout 4 and really enjoying myself. The game being based in my home city of Boston sure helped, and focusing more on what made it a Bethesda game and less of what made it an RPG in the traditional sense helped.
23. Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight takes everything great about the NES era of games and brings it to the latest generation of players. Pretty much everything it does is a perfect representation of what made those games great. Shovel Knight marked one of the first games that was constantly supported by a litany of free content for players after launch.
22. Stardew Valley
Speaking of “free content after launch,” the sequel to Stardew Valley just released a few days ago, except developer ConcernedApe disguised it as a free patch/DLC to the original game. Stardew Valley is the ultimate life simulator and ultimate way to get absolutely addicted to a game. The mechanic of only saving progress at the beginning of a new day makes it impossible to stop playing. And the developer just keeps adding stuff to it!
Did I mention the developer is literally one person?
Speaking of “being made by one person,” Undertale is largely the brain child of one person as well (though they did receive help from others). This generation was about the tools becoming so powerful, that 1-3 people with a unique vision could make something special.
Undertale is a spiritual successor to classic NES/SNES JRPGs like Earthbound, but is also very much its own beast. At the time of release, the pacifist run was a revolution, and the story and characters were funny, endearing, and heartfelt. And the music, ahh… the music.
20. Persona 5
Speaking of “heartfelt…” TAKE YOUR HEART! (ok… I promise I will stop with this ridiculous “speaking of” train)
I have not paid attention to much in the way of modern JRPGs or the Persona series in the past few years. After all, 50-100 hours is a lot of time to devote to one single-player game. Persona 5 also takes about 20 hours to become anything, which is a huge barrier to entry. Still, I persevered.
Persona 5 came out of freaking nowhere and won me over with sheer style. When you really take the microscope to the story and characters, there is not a lot of depth beyond many other JRPGs. However, clouding that disappointment are some of the coolest visuals, UI, battle moves, and music that gaming has ever put in one package. If you like RPGs and haven’t played it, you really should.
19. Dragon Quest Builders 2
Of all the games in my 25 list, Dragon Quest Builders 2 is probably the most traditional game pick on my list. It is one part Minecraft and one part Dragon Quest, and if that piques your interest, you need to play it.
DQB2 improves upon nearly everything from the original and is downright addictive, yet I feel it flew under the radar… including my own. I forgot how much I loved playing this until I started ranking my favorite games of the generation, and it showed up!
18. Return of the Obra Dinn
Lucas Pope makes work fun. After making a compelling game about processing border documents, they decided to make an even more compelling game about an insurance agent assessing property damage.
In doing so, I feel that Return of the Obra Dinn sets the stage for a new genre of mystery/logic puzzle game, wherein you explore a 3D environment and solve problems through leaps in logic and process of elimination. Being set on a supernatural pirate ship certainly sweetens the pot.
17. Super Mario Maker 2
This award could really go to either game in the series, but Super Mario Maker 2 adds so many new tools and quality of life improvements that it is hard not to pick the sequel.
Nintendo took the feedback of an entire mod community and turned it into a feature, allowing for the creation of meme stages, music stages, and hard-as-nails platforming adventures. There is a complete experience here, whether you are making your own obstacle courses of doom or simply playing an endless supply of levels made by others.
16. The Witness
A puzzle game about drawing lines made my top 15.
The Witness is about more than just line puzzles, but to say any more would spoil the surprise. As a fan of puzzle games in general, this was my second favorite puzzler of the generation, and it is in large part due to the way that the game consistently subverts expectations and makes you rethink everything with its meta game.
15. Doom (2016)
I wonder if kids who grew up on Halo or Call of Duty will consider this a revolution or just hate it. The reality is simple: Doom (2016) is 90’s game design with current-gen polish.
Doom (2016) gives you a bunch of guns and a limited health pool and throws you into complex arenas with varying types of enemies. In many ways each room is just a gory puzzle moving at 100mph. Propelling you forward is old-school fun and a killer soundtrack. While the sequel Doom Eternal is equally good, it is good for different reasons that didn’t hit me as hard as Doom (2016).
14. Baba is You
Baba is You starts as a simple puzzle game, but turns into game design at its most devilishly brilliant. The typical experience of playing Baba is You is as follows:
- Boot up game.
- Start one puzzle.
- Mind is mush for about 10 minutes, staring into empty space, banging your head against a wall.
- Aha! A solution! Spend 5 minutes executing said solution.
- Not only did your solution not work, the developer knew you would think of this solution and created a bunch of noise to generate an “ALMOST!” string of events, tricking your brain into thinking it would work.
- You audibly laugh out loud at the genius, scaring your partner.
- You turn off the game.
If the above sounds like a fun, you need this game. Otherwise, stay far away.
Celeste tickles the same gameplay fancies as last generation’s Super Meat Boy for me. It is a brutally difficult platformer with a lot of optional “even more brutally difficult” platforming if you want it.
What sets Celeste apart from contemporaries, however, is its story. I am a sucker for simple yet effective storytelling that is dictated through gameplay. Celeste weaves a yarn about mental health, old ghosts, death, and the importance of friends, all within a metaphor of climbing a mountain.
Control is a solid game and work of fiction, marrying the elements of the underrated Psy-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy with the wacky, extended universe of developer Remedy’s games. It is Men in Black, but the main character has telekinetic powers.
Most importantly, it was a game I could not put down and its atmosphere and characters will stick with me for a long time. The two musical numbers towards the end of the game are magic.
11. Jackbox Party Packs
This is probably where I will lose a swath of people reading this, but I don’t care. When I think of both fun and innovation in the last 7 years, Jackbox is a game that is very much towards the top of the conversation.
It is really a game that anyone can play, and it’s not just because the gameplay is accessible and hilarious. The developers smartly made the game available on every platform and made smartphones the controllers. Typing in answers, drawing characters, and voting are all handled on your smartphone over the Internet.
Whether together with a huge group of people on a weekend or over a Discord server with others during the pandemic, Jackbox Party Packs were an institution of the past generation.
Numbers 10 – 1
10. Apex Legends
The console generation saw the rise of battle royales. It started with games like PUBG but was most popularized with the phenom that
was still is Fortnite.
Most BRs are either too goofy or too realistic for my escapist needs. Enter Apex Legends, which is the perfect combination of the two and centers around hero characters with their own unique abilities (more on that trend further down the list).
Apex Legends provided me the escape I needed with friends before and during the pandemic. It is a prime example of a good game as a service. And it is totally free if you want it to be.
9. Half-Life: Alyx
VR is one of those weird technologies that is like QR codes. It is not a fad, and I see tremendous potential at a future time and place. I also had a QR code reader when it was underutilized. The VR hardware isn’t quite accessible or cheap enough to be in most households yet. When the day comes that it is, Half-Life: Alyx should be the first thing you play.
Half-Life: Alyx was built in tandem with Valve’s own VR hardware, and it shows. The unique, VR gameplay encounters are numerous and each chapter is one incredible set-piece after another. Many of the solutions to VR problems were so perfect that they became institutions in most other VR games made since. As a lifelong Half-Life fan, I consider this effort as groundbreaking as the first two games, so much so that I think Valve kicked themselves by not putting the number “3” next to the title.
8. Rocket League
Rocket League is now easier to pick up and play than ever, since you can play across platforms with friends and since the game is now free.
That being said, I have been playing from the days where it cost good money! The concept is simple: 3-on-3 cars drive in an enclosed arena trying to shoot a giant ball into the opposing team’s hoop. But anyone who has played the game knows that this concept stretches over many hours of enjoyment.
7. Smash Bros Ultimate
What more is there to say about the Super Smash Bros. series that hasn’t already been said?
I initially hated myself for putting this on the list, since it was an easy pick. But you know what, I played hundreds of hours of this game, and it is the biggest collection of characters, stages, and more. It wouldn’t be my list without putting Smash Bros. in the top 10.
6. Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is a game I can’t really talk much about without spoiling, but I will say that you should really play it.
Created by a small team, Outer Wilds focuses on mystery and space exploration, where the only power up you receive is more knowledge about the world and how its systems interact.
This is a game to be savored, and if you do that, you will be provided with a myriad of “oh crap” moments and environmental storytelling.
I don’t like roguelikes. I love Hades.
This is a sentiment you will see regurgitated throughout the Internet, but it really does apply to Supergiant’s best game yet.
Hades is the perfect example of executing a gameplay concept from end-to-end. As you play it feels like the story and characters feed off the gameplay, and vice versa, which is impressive for a game about trying a run over and over.
I spoke about Apex Legends earlier, but it is hard to praise Apex Legends for what it does and not recognize the work put in by Blizzard’s Overwatch, which was and still is a revelation among multiplayer first-person shooters.
Overwatch mastered the gameplay loop established by games like Team Fortress 2, focusing on objective based gameplay and a bizarre cast of characters.
Overwatch made a big impact, both positive and negative, on the influence of this generation. It had a big eSports presence, popularized legend-based games, was consistently updated and supported, and also… ughh… made loot boxes a normal thing in the industry.
3. Disco Elysium
Have you ever played a game and wished you had more dialogue options to build out your character?
Disco Elysium is an RPG with a strong focus on dialogue and effectively no combat, but it tells a very personal story and allows you to build your character with minute detail, strengths, and flaws. Actions and choices have repercussions.
Disco Elysium succeeds in two ways where many RPGs fail. First, its world is so bizarre that you don’t have to “pretend” to fly by the seat of your pants. Second, it twists the familiar RPG skill system by contextualizing it with frames of mind that, well… have a mind of their own.
2. Hollow Knight
I didn’t truly understand how I felt about the world of Hallownest until I sat down to make this list. As I pitted each and every game against each other, one name kept bubbling to the “Win” column. Hollow Knight.
Hollow Knight was a breath of fresh air for the genre-bending Metroidvania. While the movement set was pretty standard for this type of game, the combat, story, and atmosphere were all top of their class. The design of the game fills a first playthrough with very personal triumphs and tragedies. It is hard to describe how remarkable an experience it is without playing it, so give it a shot if you haven’t and then sit with me, waiting for the sequel to (hopefully) arrive.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is everything I love about video games and all the reasons why I play them.
It is something that you get lost in for hours. It is filled with those “why haven’t other people thought of that?” game design flourishes. It is fun and inventive. It looks and sounds incredible.
But most importantly, it is Zelda. It is nostalgia, and I won’t apologize for it. When your favorite series of all time moves in a courageous new direction, keeps up with the times, evolves the genre, AND sticks the landing, it is tough to beat on a personal list like this.