I’ve spent the last few years recapping my ten favorite games of the year. These lists are fun to assemble, even though I usually don’t get them out until well into the new year, and most of the games on them tend to be over 20 years old.
This list, however, is a little different. This time, I’ll be covering my ten favorite games of the decade. It’s still well into the new year, however, so that aspect of the list has stayed the same.
Now, listen. I play a lot of old games, so to tell the truth, I haven’t played a lot of games from 2010-2019, especially if they aren’t Nintendo games or indie games (or remakes/HD remasters/compilations of older games, which don’t count). Your favorite games from the last decade, or what you feel are the most thought-provoking, intellectual, or important, aren’t on this list. There’s no Dark Souls, no Undertale, no Papers Please, and no The Last of Us. Don’t get discouraged! I don’t think they’re bad or unimportant. I simply haven’t played them. But, this is the best of the best of what I have played, and even though I’m not actually qualified to put this sort of list together based on the quantity of games played, I’m still doing it because it sounded like fun. Let’s get started!
Honorable Mention: Sword of the Stars: The Pit (2013)
This decade introduced me to a genre of game known as the Roguelike, in which players have one shot to make it through an entire, procedurally generated game. Death is permanent. If you blow it, it’s back to the beginning. However, each attempt nets more knowledge of the game world, and some Roguelikes even allow certain upgrades and perks to carry over to ensuing attempts. Roguelikes have many similarities to classic arcade games, which is probably why I like them—the challenge of making it as far into a game as possible or as high of a score as possible on a single credit can be both fun and addictive, and the same is true of trying to finish a Roguelike.
Sword of the Stars: The Pit is both a Roguelike and a science fiction-themed dungeon crawler, which it turns out I wish I had more of in my life. Guiding a marine, scout, or engineer (and I think they added more classes in later updates) into an underground research facility to find the cure to a plague ravaging the homeworld, players must overcome scads of creatures, traps, and overly aggressive robots (of both the security and janitorial varieties) while equipping themselves with better and better armaments and armor along the way. Cooking and crafting recipes can also be learned, allowing the creation of better health restoration items and other helpful tchotchkes. Once learned, these recipes carry over throughout each attempted playthrough, so when I died in my first game, I could refer back to how I made that delectable space omelet in my second game, which was pretty handy. It’s a really hard game—I only made it to the bottom once, and that was on easy mode. However, the sheer volume of content, including both enemies and equipment, and the unstoppable urge to make it one floor deeper than last time, resulted in me sinking an unhealthy number of hours into SOTS: The Pit. Not recommended for highly addictive personalities or the criminally insane.
10. Terraria (2011)
While I recognize the importance of Minecraft over the last decade, I gravitated toward Terraria, instead, no doubt because of its 2D, 16-bit aesthetic, where I have always been more comfortable. I was undeniably hyped when Terraria’s first trailer debuted with the promise of an open, sidescrolling world with immense caverns and multiple biomes to explore, endless treasures to unearth, and the ability to harvest resources and construct a base to call home and in which to store mountains of accumulated wealth and loot. It certainly delivered all of that, but I ultimately found myself losing interest over and over again. The first steps to establishing a base and exploring the surrounding area were intoxicating, but once I had a sizeable homestead and some decent equipment, I wanted to start over from the beginning. I have over 60 hours in the game, and that is spread across four or five new games. The mid to late game content never hooked me like the early game. Even though there were still many things to do, I felt directionless, which often happens to me in these sandbox-style games. On the other hand, the initial struggle of carving out a home in a grand new frontier never got old.
My attention struggles aside, Terraria is a game full of imagination, nearly endless content (good luck to those of you compelled to collect one of every item in the game, ’cus you’ll be at it for a while here), and a good mix of things to do, including building, fighting, digging, exploring, and more. Plus, I think new content still gets released from time to time, and it’s available on every modern console, so it’s never too late to pick this one up.
9. Diablo 3 (2012)
Diablo 3 was the co-op experience of the decade for my wife and me. I think we played through it and the Reaper of Souls expansion twice, possibly three times. Thrashing evil just never gets old for us, especially as a team. We had Diablo 3 on Xbox 360, and they stopped supporting that version of the game just a couple of years after we got it, which was a disappointment. However, I gave the Nintendo Switch version to Amanda for Christmas this year, and she’s already plowing through the undead and demon hordes once again, this time with the full benefit of all the updates we missed on the 360 version.
I like Diablo 3 a lot, but with this type of game, I tend to get into the weeds with regards to inventory management and trying to determine which items have the best stats, all the way down to the single-digits. In the late game, where we were inflicting tens of thousands of points of damage with each attack, that hardly seemed like it mattered, so I’ve tried to be a little less particular about it in more recent years. Still, it’s part of the experience to put together the best character possible and look cool doing it, so there will always be a place for taking way too much time here and there noodling with equipment.
8. Starcraft 2 (2010)
I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself and others that I was a good competitive Starcraft player. I never was. Turns out, this was also true of Starcraft 2, where I was soundly pulverized by large quantities of Terran Siege Tanks, Zerg Banelings, and Protoss Stalkers in almost every match and never made it out of the Bronze division. Luckily, there is also an engaging and highly replayable single-player campaign, complete with branching paths and tech upgrades, actions with consequences, fun strategy gameplay, amazing art direction, and compelling characters, all in a lived-in, well developed universe. And, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t even touched the Heart of the Swarm or Legacy of the Void campaigns, yet. Despite that, I feel like the amount of content, even dismissing the competitive multiplayer aspect, is staggering. I can go back to this game at any time and still have a mountain of things to do. It’s a good feeling.
7. Legend of Grimrock (2012)
Legend of Grimrock is not a horror game, by definition, but it might as well be. It was the scariest game I played in the last decade, but also one of the best. It’s a first-person dungeon crawler in which a party of four stalwart, honorable adventurers stand accused of a crime they didn’t commit, and are taken to the top of the towering Mount Grimrock and dumped inside like common trash. The mountain houses an enormous, twisting dungeon, constructed by an ancient civilization for unknown reasons. The king has taken an interest in this dungeon, and will award freedom to any prisoners who can learn the origins and purpose of the dungeon and escape with their lives intact.
Of course, that’s where the game starts, and where things get complicated. Not only must the adventurers endure the traps, puzzles, and monsters prone to any dungeon, they must do so with extremely limited inventory space that must be kept well stocked with torches so the party can see, food so the party doesn’t starve, potions and potion ingredients to give the party a quick health or mana boost in a pinch, and other survival/dungeon traversement gear like maps and keys. Not to mention the party will also need some weapons and armor to stand a chance against the monsters. The game demands practicality when managing inventory space—there is almost no room for trinkets, let alone a spare weapon or piece of armor. It creates a tough juggling act that adds to the stress of surviving the dungeon.
Speaking of stress, the atmosphere is what makes Legend of Grimrock. Twisting hallways, sputtering torches, and eerie shadows all contribute to the fear factor of the dungeon. Not only that, the party can often hear the growls and shuffling of monsters in nearby rooms and corridors, creating more dread and apprehension of what awaits around the next corner. It’s a truly immersive experience, and as much a survival horror game as it is a dungeon crawler. Take your anxiety meds.
6. Stardew Valley (2016)
I covered Stardew Valley in my Top 10 Games of “2018” list last year, where it finished in the top spot. This is also where I dubbed it, “Every Hallmark Channel Movie: The Game.” That’s not a knock—if there is any game in existence that makes me feel unabashedly warm and good and pure, it’s Stardew Valley. I get to farm, mine, help my community, woo one of the young single ladies of Pelican Town, and solve the mysteries of the valley. Other than trying to get my farmer to bed on time every night and remembering to water my crops, there’s not a lot of pressure or challenge. It’s a positive, relaxing experience. Except that no matter how many chests I put in my house, I never seem to have enough room for stuff. And I’d love to decorate my house some more, but my crops require too much attention. And I’d love to dive deeper into the dungeons, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day. Okay, maybe this game isn’t as relaxing as I thought.
I never played a Harvest Moon game, which is the series from which Stardew Valley draws much of its inspiration. However, I was a Sim Farm player (shout-outs to my junior high computer science class chums for introducing me to that gem, on a 3.5-inch floppy, no less), and Stardew Valley’s farming aspect is, in many ways, a streamlined, less serious, less realistic, but far more enjoyable version of that. The farming is the part of the game I like the most, but Stardew Valley is also a pleasantly competent dating sim, dungeon crawler, and adventure game. I can’t recommend it enough.
5. Axiom Verge (2015)
Exploratory Sidescrollers (or Metroidvanias, or whatever you wish to call them)—games similar to Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and so on—saw a huge resurgence in the last decade, especially in the indie space. I played a lot of them, and I like pretty much all of them, but Axiom Verge emerged as my favorite from the 2010s. It perfectly captures the lonely, cavernous, sci-fi atmosphere that I love from the original Metroid, controls like a combination of Contra and Blaster Master, and has a soundtrack worth a purchase of its own. It also includes a fun and intriguing “glitch ray” gimmick that can be used to the player’s advantage, such as glitching out floating enemies to turn them into platforms, or glitching out certain blocks to make them breakable, among a multitude of other uses. There are even optional glitch worlds, an homage (I think) to the “secret worlds” in the original Metroid, where the enemies and environments do not behave or appear as they normally would. I only found one glitch world, but I suppose that gives me plenty of incentive to play again and find more. Progressing far into the game, however, reveals an intricate story that goes well beyond glitches.
I think the only thing that hurt Axiom Verge—and this is my own fault—is that I was so hyped up for its release that I made it impossible for the game to live up to my expectations for it. I learned about it in 2012, and the first trailer I saw excited me beyond rational thought. It looked like Metroid, but if late 80s to early 90s-era Tecmo or KID or Natsume had made it instead of Nintendo, which was a curious proposition. I was hooked. I lived in anticipation for the next three years, and when I finally got to play it, Axiom Verge was still an amazing game, but it wasn’t quite what I envisioned or built it up to be. I’ve since tried to temper my expectations for very exciting future releases so I don’t sabotage my own enjoyment of them. Nevertheless, Axiom Verge is an extraordinary outing by its sole developer, Thomas Happ, and it is among the best, if not the best, of the 2010s Metroidvanias.
4. Super Mario 3D World (2013)
When Super Mario 3D World appeared in my Top 10 Games of “2017” list, I mentioned that it was what I always envisioned a 3D Mario game to be. Both it and its 3DS counterpart, Super Mario 3D Land, strongly capture the classic Mario trappings: lots of bricks and question mark blocks to break, goombas to stomp, pipes to traverse, fire flowers and super leafs, platforming challenges, and so on. I think the Super Mario Galaxy games (and what little I’ve seen of Super Mario Odyssey, thus far) are all fantastic in their own right, but they don’t have the pure “feel” of a Mario game the same way 3D Land and 3D World do. Honestly, there are even some things that I think Super Mario 3D Land does better than 3D World—it’s a more focused and streamlined experience for gaming on the go, and if I’m remembering correctly, feels even more like a classic sidescrolling Mario (but in 3D!!!!!) than its follow-up. However, 3D World includes Peach and Toad (my favorite) as playable characters, supports 4-player co-op, and has a sprawling world map full of secrets, a sweeping variety of clever levels and locales, and unexpected twists and turns. The Boomerang Suit harkens back to the Hammer Bros. Suit, my favorite power-up from Super Mario 3, so it was a welcome addition. 3D World achieves a perfect mix of nostalgia and fresh ideas.
Plus, I would be doing 3D World a grave disservice if I didn’t mention the overwhelming volume of secrets and unlockables. Every time I thought the game was over, whoops! Here’s another world to explore! Oh, not enough incentive to collect all the stars and stamps? Here’s something that might interest you…if you collect them ALL! I kept revisiting the game every couple of months for a period of at least a year to wrap up more content, and I still haven’t quite finished everything. It’s too bad this epic was on the Wii U—it simply didn’t get the attention it deserves. The last I checked, the rumors of a Switch rerelease were ramping up again, so maybe it will get more exposure one of these days.
3. Shovel Knight (2014)
Shovel Knight combines a remarkably dumb premise (a knight who fights evil with a shovel to save his partner from a cursed amulet) with remarkably stellar gameplay, resulting in one of the finest 2D platformers of all time. See? It’s okay for a game to not take itself too seriously. To be honest, it’s not that far off from other, similar combinations that also saw much success, such as “plumber stomps walking mushrooms to death to rescue princess kidnapped by giant turtle,” “dude with whip fights classic horror movie monsters led by Dracula,” and “teenager chases pet frog into pit and finds super-powered tank that he uses to battle radioactive underworld.” I could go on. Are video games art? Yes. The finest.
Anyway, Shovel Knight being one of the finest 2D platformers of all time is not a bit—it’s the real deal. The controls are tight. The level designs introduce the player to Shovel Knight’s abilities, then gradually demand a mastery of them. The secrets are fun to discover, but aren’t presented in such a way that I feel like I’m really missing out if I don’t find them all right now. I spent money to buy the soundtrack apart from the game, so I gotta figure it’s pretty good. The villains, dubbed “The Order of No Quarter,” are well themed and designed, from Plague Knight to Tinker Knight to that weirdo who runs the hat shop. Plus, the “dumb premise” doesn’t just apply to Shovel Knight, himself—every character in this game is an overexagerration, a parody, and a hoot. If there ever needed to be proof that a video game could not only be fun and technically sound, but also succeed at being funny and absurd, this is it. Shovel Knight captures the pure fun of video games like few other games of the decade, so don’t bury it at the bottom of your backlog.
2. Spelunky (2012)
Ah, Spelunky would be the other Roguelike besides Sword of the Stars: The Pit that grabbed and throttled me by my pixelated lapels this decade. I mentioned above that Roguelikes have a classic arcade-like quality to them, and I think that’s how Spelunky got its hooks into me. It’s a temple-dive through traps and hazards galore for riches beyond imagining, and it’s a short enough game that one could theoretically see the end within a half an hour or so, but the chances of reaching the end are so low that I could never help but play “just one more game” before bed. This is the same behavior I exhibit when exposed to Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Q*Bert, and many other arcade favorites. Naturally, just one more game almost always turned into just four more games, and well, I saw 2 or 3am a lot for a few months there after purchasing Spelunky. This game drove my wife nuts—she hates the music and obviously wasn’t too thrilled with me staying up so late so often trying to beat it. I only saw the ending twice, and I have never reached the “true” ending (hint, hint), so even after all these years, the replay value is still there.
Spelunky is a game in which, with just one wrong move or one freak chain of events, complete control and confidence can dissolve into complete chaos. Even with a surplus of health, a sack full of bombs, and maybe even a shotgun and some climbing boots, it wouldn’t matter. Whoops. A misplaced bomb knocked me into a dart trap, which then knocked me into a pit of spikes. Game over. Or the blast from an exploding frog hurled me into the path of a boomerang-wielding tribesman. Game over. In the Ice area, a UFO shot a laser at me, but hit something explosive, which then made the UFO crash into me, which then sent me flying into the arms of a waiting yeti, who promptly threw me over the side, into a bottomless pit. Game over. You can’t make this stuff up. No matter how good I ever felt about how I was playing, I knew death could come at any time, and that I’d have little control over it when it did. In a certain, morbid sense, I feel like there’s sort of an allegory here for real life. Nah, surely not.
Absurd deaths aside, Spelunky is an absolute joy. It’s well crafted, highly addictive, and a different experience each time. And hey, when you get that first win after 250 consecutive game-overs, you’ll know all the lack of sleep was worth it.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Like I said, I haven’t played many games from this decade, so maybe some other games do some of the same things The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does, and I just don’t know it. However, of any game I have played this decade, or maybe any decade, Breath of the Wild has felt the most…organic? The most authentic? It’s a game without facsimile. It actually feels like going outside to play and explore. For instance, if Link approaches a grove of trees, he can interact with each one of those trees independently of one another. Another game might take that same grove of trees and treat it as a single object that the player can neither interact with nor penetrate. Or, take the mountains. Link can climb to the top of any of them, permitted he can find a way and has enough stamina. In other games, the tops of the same mountains might be cut off by an invisible ceiling, their summits left to mystery because they don’t actually have anything to do with the scope or story. Because Breath of the Wild is free from such invisible gates and imaginary boundaries, it encourages exploration and futzing around more so than maybe any game I’ve ever played. It helps that it released right around the same time I rediscovered an interest in hiking, so exploring Hyrule offered some certain parallels to what interested me in my real life at the time.
It was nice to simply get lost for a while. So many other games push players along to the next objective or the next cutscene. In Breath of the Wild, however, there was always another peculiar mountain or ruin or something on the horizon to pique my interest and encourage me to keep exploring. I knew the main quest wasn’t going anywhere, and why save the world now when I could go check out that cave over there that probably just has a chest with ten arrows in it? Hey, I might need those! I will admit that I got a little too impatient with finding all the shrines and may have consulted some hints on where to find some of the more obscure ones. Luckily, by the time I play the game again, I won’t remember where any of them are, and it will be a brand new experience. I’m getting excited already!
As always, thanks for reading!