2017 was a remarkable year for video games, with a seemingly endless tide of inspired work coming out from the big money publishers and one-dev studios alike. Around every corner, a new idea: old-school arcade brawler mixed with classic cooking competition in Battle Chef Brigade, consciousness expanding ambition in Everything that tries to let you experience the totality of life on earth, the unsettlingly accurate cow milking in 1-2 Switch. The democratization of the medium, the sheer breadth of platforms and development opportunities, was staggering this year.
For despite that newness, I found when I looked back that the games I connected with the most this year were almost universally in established series. They were games that took long-established iconography and twisted them into profound expressions of human experience. 2017 held true to the pattern — this was indeed a revolutionary year. But my 10 favorites were evolutionary, exploring how far old modes could go in reflecting the soul of the world.
10. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Developer: Machine Games
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch (2018)
Truth: I didn’t enjoy playing Wolfenstein 2 as much as I did The New Order, Machinegames’ remarkable reimagining of the classic id shooter. Something about the gunplay didn’t feel as essentially guttural and satisfying, while stealth-centric strategies felt far more restrictive. I pushed through anyway, though, because the story of BJ, Anya, Set Roth, and the rest of the revolutionaries trying to take a world back from Nazis was so rich and well-written that I couldn’t stay away. In a nasty year where the threats of fascism, gun violence, and hate were real and omnipresent, it was remarkable to play a gun game that opens with telling its blonde-haired, blue-eyed Texan hero that his penis is broken and the world’s a wreck … but he’s going to be a father and that good things can still happen.
9. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
There are so many RPGs and strategy games that claim to hearken back to the style and spirit of 8-bit and 16-bit classics, but while they nail the visual and aural aesthetics they almost never nail the pace. Classic games move fast and don’t dilly-dally, modern games are chatty as hell and over explain. Fire Emblem Echoes remade a Famicom classic in a way that melded the best of vintage and modern aesthetics — love that character art, love those pixel soldiers, love those 3D dungeons — all while trimming away unnecessary bloat. It’s pure adventure.
8. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
After the catastrophe that was Resident Evil 6, I thought the best Capcom could muster for the granddaddy of Japanese horror games was meat-and-potatoes action romps like Resident Evil: Revelations. Resident Evil 7 proved me dead wrong with an absolutely horrifying game that simultaneously recaptured the precious detailed world design of the PlayStation originals and remodeled the series’ powerful tension with a new perspective that suited classic play and VR.
7. Golf Story
Developer: Sidebar Games
Publisher: Sidebar Games
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Sport has always lent itself to role-playing as much as action, even though examples of sport RPGs have been few and far between. Yes, the moment-to-moment thrill of athletics translates to the kinetics of video games, but so to does the athlete’s journey from scrub to star. Golf Story, with its rap battles between old dudes and young turks, punk rocker disc golf players, and ball snatching gators, isn’t exactly a vessel for the true golf pro experience. What it is, though, is a cartoon delight that takes the essential rules and setting of golf (the clubs, the manicured tracts of land) and marries it to a cartoon journey.
6. Sonic Mania
Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, Sega
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
Twenty-six years: Apparently, that’s how long it takes to make a near-perfect Sonic the Hedgehog game. Sonic Mania takes the absolute best aspects of Sega’s most famous series–the lurid pop art, the bitchin’ tunes, the sprawling roller coaster levels, and the pitch-perfect character design — and it polishes them all to a blinding sheen. Yet it also feels modern despite the callbacks and even repurposed stages; Sonic Mania takes the play that was memorable but imperfect from a quarter century ago and makes it feel just right.
5. Yakuza 0
Platform: PlayStation 4
With Yakuza 0, the world discovered what the series’ international cult following always knew: These games aren’t some kind of Japanese Grand Theft Auto — they are bizarre flurries of high melodrama, play experimentation, and surreal humor. Even in a sprawling, decade-old franchise like this, Yakuza 0 stands out as a series best thanks to its moving plot and characters. Goro Majima grew from zany supporting character to tragic leading man, Kazuma Kiryu found a chicken to be his bowling manager, and both of them brawled through Japanese cities with weight and class.
4. Ys 8: Lacrimosa of Dana
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 4, PS Vita, PC
So you want to play a grand adventure about a boyish anime swordsman exploring a rugged landscape peppered with beasts, weapons, resources, and recipes while uncovering the secrets of a faded, advanced civilization. Perfect. 2017 is the year for you. But why play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for that — the stuffy know-it-all action-RPG constantly pushing its glasses up its nose to tell you the proper way to play — when you could play Ys 8: Lacrimosa of Dana, the blazing hair metal guitarist action-RPG who says we should all just have a good time, man. Ys 8 gives you all the grandeur you want out of a fantasy ARPG but marries it to speed, in movement, in story pacing, in music, in everything.
3. Persona 5
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3
The teenage heart is desperate to change the world, but it is also waylaid by emotional volatility, inexperience, fickleness, the disrespect of authority, and limited reach. How can you change anything? You’re just a kid. Persona 5 is a story about idealistic young people fighting weird sex demons in dope anime outfits, yes, but it’s also an affecting story about what might happen if youthful SJWs actually had the chance to force humanity to be better. They’d probably do something right, mess up a lot, and then realize the world is more complicated that it first appears. Persona 5 nails it.
2. Super Mario Odyssey
Platform: Nintendo Switch
From the moment you start playing Super Mario Odyssey, it feels like it’s always existed. Of course Mario is throwing his hat onto a giant, living gust of wind so he can blow around blocks of ice. You know, so he can steal a shiny, tiny moon to power his rocket ship! Hasn’t he always been able to do that? So smooth are the controls, so natural the worlds, so effortlessly imaginative the whole game that Super Mario Odyssey feels like a cultural fact, not a brand-new work. Just like the greatest Mario titles that preceded it.
1. Nier: Automata
Developer: Platinum Games
Platform: PlayStation 4, PC
Nier: Automata shouldn’t even exist. The original Nier, a surreal and soulful but drab and sometimes even tedious PS3/Xbox 360 game, wasn’t the sort of commercial or critical success to warrant a sequel or even a spiritual successor like this game. But the house built by Final Fantasy took a chance on auteur Yoko Taro, and the result is 2017’s best piece of science fiction in any medium. Subtlety isn’t it’s strong suit, but even for all the bombast, fetish maid swordplay, and explicit exploration of vintage existentialist philosophy, Nier still delivers an absolutely crushing story about how strange it is to be, as the song goes, anything at all.