While people love to say it every single year, 2018 really has been an incredible year for games. As we near the end of the console cycle for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, studios and publishers have been ratcheting up production of AAA games, bringing us more big-budget games with each passing month than anyone could possibly hope to play. Meanwhile, the Nintendo Switch has been out for over 18 months now, bringing with it an incredible array of independent and first-party games that are only enhanced by the Switch’s portable screen. While there are literally tens—scores, even—of games I’d love to highlight for my Top 5 list, in the end, there’s only room for the very best.
Favorite Game Released Before 2018, Played in 2018: Hollow Knight
The Hollow Knight Switch port had been one of my most anticipated games of 2017. Nintendo Direct after Nintendo Direct, I found myself praying for a timely release of Team Cherry’s Metroidvania epic, and while I’d end up having to wait until 2018 to get my hands on it, the wait was certainly worth it. A Metroidvania with unparalleled scope that’s absolutely dripping in style, Hollow Knight made a 17-hour flight from Boston to Seoul bearable for myself as I discovered new zones, felled dangerous creatures, and learned more about the world of Hallownest and its mysterious history. The fact that it’s a 40+ hour adventure at the price of a movie ticket didn’t hurt, either.
2018 Honorable Mentions
God of War, Octopath Traveler, Yoku’s Island Express, Fortnite, Minit
Top 5 Games of 2018
5. Marvel’s Spider-Man
I didn’t expect to enjoy Marvel’s Spider-Man nearly as much as I did. As much as I enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve never been the biggest Spider-Man fan, and though I love the Ratchet and Clank games, I had my doubts that Insomniac Games would be able to deliver a fresh superhero game that could rival the quality established with the Batman: Arkham series. Color me surprised to find that Spider-Man not just proves that there’s enough room in the genre for two superhero giants, but also that Insomniac is more than capable of crafting a compelling open world with a truly gripping story. The side missions are repetitive, the bosses are lackluster, and the stealth is undercooked—sure. But never have I cared more about Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and the rest of the heroes, big and small, that protect Manhattan than in this game, and that’s gotta count for something. Plus, J. Jonah Jameson is an absolute riot.
4. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate hasn’t even been out for a month yet, and it’s already made its way onto my list of favorite games played this year. Despite not bringing a ton of changes to the Smash formula with the newest entry, Ultimate offers just enough new features and gameplay hooks to make things feel fresh. Everyone is here (as coined by Sakurai earlier this year), and they play better than ever thanks to tweaks to the existing engine; meanwhile, the ability to turn off stage hazards has made nearly all of the staggering 103 stages in the game enjoyable battlegrounds this time around. And while Ultimate‘s online was shoddy at launch, to say the least, things have drastically improved as time has gone by. Add to this the addictive, challenging new spirit battles—I’ve collected something like 200 out of 1297 spirits—and the lengthy World of Light single-player campaign, and I imagine that my fun with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is only just beginning.
3. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
As someone with increasingly less time for playing games, due to both a full-time job and a lengthy daily commute, the idea of tackling a 60+ hour open-world RPG can feel daunting. Surprisingly, however, playing through Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has been a breeze. The game offers one thing above all else, and that’s convenience; from instant looting to autopilot horse controls, the game always seems to have my time in mind as I sail the Seven Seas, pillaging island after island. Kassandra and Alexios are compelling protagonists, each backed by talented voice acting that brings their characters to life in ways I haven’t felt about an Assassin’s Creed hero since the Ezio trilogy. Throw in tense naval combat, rewarding dialogue options, and a vast world that rivals The Witcher 3 in terms of scope, and Odyssey has all the makings of a great role-playing game. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve played in recent memory.
Celeste is a rare breed of a game. Disguised for much of its playtime as merely a challenging platformer, Celeste slowly layers on its complexities the more you play. Madeline’s trek up the mountain is one of self-identity and coming of age, full of personal struggles to overcome and inner demons to face. It’s an emotional game that doesn’t mince words, especially when it comes to the subjects of depression and mental health. At the same time, the nature of Celeste’s gameplay—climbing to the top of a mountain—is as much about dealing with failure as it is about determination, perseverance, and ultimately triumph. The game is also filled to the brim with collectibles, ranging from optional strawberries hidden in secret areas, to cryptic blue hearts to discover, to uber-difficult B-sides and C-sides of levels to complete. And that’s not even counting speedrunning times, 100% runs, and an insane flying gold strawberry challenge that requires completing the first level of the game without dashing. Good platformers are rare enough, but good platformers that tell an important story, both through its characters and through its gameplay? Only Celeste fits that bill.
1. Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a boring pick for Game of the Year. It’s developed and published by Rockstar, was built over eight years by hundreds of talented and hardworking employees, and is the follow-up to one of the most respected open-world games of all time. We all knew Red Dead Redemption 2 was going to be good, and to an extent, perhaps that expectation is what makes this seem like such an uninspired choice. At the end of the day, however, the fact remains that Red Dead Redemption 2 is an incredible game. Vast, gorgeous, and polished to a sheen, Red Dead 2 is a game that I’ve found myself lost in, time and time again. Whether it’s hunting animals near Valentine, wandering the streets of Saint Denis, or singing by the campfire alongside fellow gang members, I’ve always found a new reason to get excited about booting up Red Dead 2. And, time and time again, these reasons almost never have any relation to the main story itself.
It may have problems. It may be bloated and exhausting at times. It may have that patented Rockstar jankiness. But Red Dead Redemption 2 is unlike anything I’ve played before, and it stands tall above the competition as the very best game that I played this year.