In the video game world, 2018 will likely be remembered as the year that Fortnite became a cultural force that enveloped everyone from your little brother to your team’s star athlete to your favorite rapper. But there was plenty else to celebrate in the medium besides that game, which was released last year. Big-ticket releases lived up to their hype, smashing sales records and earning heaps of critical praise. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, independent publishers released quietly innovative titles that incorporated elements of retro gaming and told unique, heartfelt stories. Here, The Ringer counts down our top 10 of a special year for gaming. And for more video game coverage, read Justin Charity’s piece on the rise of Ninja and livestreaming.
10. Dead Cells (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux)
Dead Cells is an example of how classic Nintendo-era themes, gameplay, and art styles can be combined with modern advances in game design to create something familiar and fresh. You control a nameless warrior consigned forever to roam a dungeon-like afterlife and dispatch hordes of enemies, fight pitched boss battles, and unlock weapons, armor, and abilities. The Warrior is inevitably killed, at which point the Warrior is respawned back at the beginning of the dungeon to do it all over again.
Dead Cells is a “rogue-like Metroidvania” which, for the uninitiated, means it combines randomly generated levels with the hack-and-slash adventure exploration style of games like Castlevania and Metroid. What makes the game really addictive, though, is the mind-boggling amount of unlockables. There are scores of weapons and armor pieces just waiting to be discovered in Dead Cells. Each object comes with a random set of attributes—a sword that freezes enemies in ice, or causes bleeding damage, or emits a cloud of toxic gas, and so on and so forth—which can be “rerolled” for (hopefully!) better perks in a special area between map levels.
The result is addictive as the Warrior, with each life and ensuing death, gains access to better and better gear. —Jason Concepcion
9. Overcooked 2 (Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows)
No one should get married before beating Overcooked 2 with their partner. If two people who love each other can’t efficiently cook and serve seven different plates of food while putting out fires, dodging traffic, and avoiding pits of acid, then how are they going to survive out in the real world?
Overcooked 2 is both sweat-inducingly stressful and euphorically rewarding. Anyone can learn the three-button controls in minutes, but no matter how adept you are with a game controller, you’re going to suck at this game if you’re not a good verbal communicator. Each level of Overcooked 2 requires chefs to formulate a system for how food is prepared, cooked, and served. Who’s cutting the tomatoes? How many orders of pasta can you realistically cook at once if you’re also managing the dirty dishes? Through repeated plays of a level, you refine the systems you’ve devised. If you’ve balanced responsibilities evenly between your chefs and you’re talking through things with each other, you’ll do well. But sometimes your systems are flawed and you find yourself screaming “I NEED A FUCKING CARROT” while a saucepan catches on fire. It’s at those moments that you either break off your engagement or you start talking out how to better help each other. There is true, earned joy in working together to bring your score of negative-47 up to 720. You’re basically ready to buy a house together at that point.
8. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows)
Treyarch Studio’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a rare occurrence of a game that lived up to its hype at release. Activision’s flagship title boasts wildly impressive gun mechanics and stunning graphics—but the main attraction this time around is newly introduced game modes. “Blackout,” COD’s foray into the ever-necessary battle royale mode, was met with huge excitement at the community reveal event this spring. (I even got a sneak peek with JuJu Smith-Schuster.) It’s the most formative challenger to America’s (and Bill Simmons’s) favorite game: Fortnite.
After a successful esports debut at last weekend’s Call of Duty World League in Las Vegas, the franchise feels, to an extent, revitalized. The cult-favorite zombies mode shipped with three full stories, including an undead riff on the sinking of the Titanic. Long-time COD fans can agree that the game falls short of Modern Warfare 2’s greatness, but I am certainly still fulfilled by the substance of this title. However, updates and downloaded content in 2019 will certainly test this game’s longevity. —Stephanie Snowden
7. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Nintendo Switch)
Nintendo had the audacity to begin the latest Smash Bros. title with just eight of the 77 characters unlocked. The starting cast is the same crew from the original Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64, and the quest to expand the roster one “Challenger Approaching” battle at a time puts into perspective just how massive this franchise has gotten over the past two decades. For players who haven’t played Smash since the Wii or GameCube days, Ultimate will be a revelation, with its vivid high-def visuals, massive soundtrack, and frenetic, deceptively complex gameplay (Ultimate is not as fast as Melee but not as floaty as Brawl). For the Nintendo diehards who played Smash on the Wii U, there’s still plenty new here, including a single-player adventure called World of Light that couples Smash’s old Event Mode scenarios with RPG mechanics and a bevy of collectible stickers.
Beyond the various modes, though, the core appeal of Ultimate is seeing the Nintendo All-Stars premise pushed far beyond its logical extreme. The game corrals every last fighter in series history in one title, then adds the standard mix of classic gaming icons (Ridley from Metroid) and bizarre also-rans (the piranha plant enemy from Super Mario Bros., arriving next year as DLC). But the mayhem also includes plenty of non-Nintendo characters, such as Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Simon Belmont from Castlevania. Next year Nintendo will add Joker from the PlayStation–exclusive Persona 5 to the lineup, along with four unannounced characters. Fans have been speculating about everyone from Goku to the dude from Doom (my personal wish list: Skull Kid from Majora’s Mask, Banjo-Kazooie, and Steve from Minecraft).
The ever-expanding roster makes for a game that feels overstuffed in the best possible way, like a house party that’s already a fire hazard but still has guests trickling in. Nintendo has made the definitive Smash Bros. title, a celebration of both the company and the medium it helped popularize. The game’s sparse online options hold it back from its fullest potential, but in single player or on the couch screaming at your friends, Smash has never been more fully realized. —Victor Luckerson
6. Destiny 2: Forsaken (Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows)
If you’ve been pondering getting back into Destiny 2, there is no time like the present. After Bungie received heavy criticism for a complete lack of incentive post-campaign content, the game’s publisher unleashed a fundamental rework of the game. September’s Forsaken expansion was an attempt to woo back the core player base—and I am here for it. Much like what The Taken King did for the original Destiny, this game plays entirely different than it did just six months ago. Ground-up systemic changes—including new subclasses, weapon slots, and the reintroduction of Destiny’s best exotic weapons and armor—are incredibly satisfying. Forsaken also brought a new raid and multiple new landing zones in the universe.
Just this week, season-pass holders were treated to the most recent update, Black Armory. While you can expect Eververse’s microtransactions to become more integral to protecting the Traveler, triumphs and seasonal events promise continued satisfaction to willing guardians. The grind is back, and better than ever; this surprising rebirth is certainly one of the year’s most rewarding game experiences. —SS
5. Octopath Traveler (Nintendo Switch)
Contrary to what you might assume, this game has nothing to do with octopuses. To my knowledge, there is not a single path you can travel that’s made out of octopuses or by octopuses. Nonetheless, this absolutely gorgeous Square Enix game about eight adventurers is a must-play for anyone with nostalgia for ’90s RPGs.
If you’ve never been a fan of RPGs, Octopath Traveler might not change your mind. It rather unabashedly learns hard into all of the common trappings of the genre. Octopath isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s just trying to make a real nice wheel. The graphics are a unique blend of 2D and 3D elements, sewn together with shimmering lighting tricks and depth-of-field effects. Every setting of this game is beautiful to walk through. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year, bringing added life to every corner of the continent of Orsterra. The combat system is fantastic, with smartly varied character classes and just the right amount of customization. The skills of each character add interesting wrinkles to party management. Octopath gets rather complex without ever overwhelming.
There are eight main story lines, and some are stronger than others, but the way they weave together is a refreshing approach to a genre that often struggles to escape strictly linear storytelling. But the plot of Octopath is not what you’ll remember most about the game five years from now. As with most great single-player experiences, it’s the rich, detailed game world that will stick with you. That, and the fact there weren’t any octopuses. —MJ
4. Celeste (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Linux, macOS, Windows)
Celeste is game about failure and perseverance. I want to be upfront about the first bit. In five hours of gameplay, I died over 1,000 times. That’s three deaths per minute, plus change. That’s a lot! But these constant setbacks, and the opportunity to transcend them, are what makes Celeste magical.
You play as Madeline, a troubled young woman who, as a means of dealing with some recent unexplained trauma, is driven to scale a mountain, Mount Celeste. The ascent takes place as a two-dimensional platformer, with Madeline climbing up sheer walls and traversing bottomless chasms, from map to punishing map, each more difficult than the last, higher and ever higher. On the way, Madeline is pursued by foes who represent her fears and doubts. One of these, a dark and bitter version of herself named Part of Madeline who emerges from a mirror, does everything in her power, through word and deed, to halt her journey.
There are friendly faces, too. Granny, an old woman who lives alone at the foot of the mountain, provides begrudging guidance. Theo, a backpacker lost on his own enigmatic voyage, appears at different points to provide moral and emotional support.
Celeste is something utterly rare—an affecting, introspective story about the importance of mental health and self-care told through the simple design language of a classic video game, accompanied by the best soundtrack of the year. Celeste hits you right in your feelings. —JC
3. Marvel’s Spider-Man (Playstation 4)
Spider-Man is an open-world brawler licensed from the biggest entertainment franchise in the world, but it’s better regarded as a seasonal character drama about Peter Parker and friends. The fighting is fast and fun, but the art styles are far more dynamic, and so, too, is Yuri Lowenthal’s lead voice performance as Peter Parker. There’s plenty to dislike about Spider-Man—the tedious collectibles, the lab side-games, the counterproductive stealth missions, and the overall wait-for-DLC outlook on the game’s many secondary story beats. There’s also a gorgeous Manhattan landscape and high-flying Olympian athleticism at the game’s core, bolstered by a story that keeps the characters and their city in conversation with one another. The results are messy but fun. There’s something to be said for playing the game intuitively, from start to finish; explore every rooftop, by all means, but don’t fuss too much about the game’s byzantine systems. The stories are strong, and they do more than two decades worth of Spider-Man cinema to fully dramatize the heroes and villains of this universe. Outside of the comics, Spider-Man redeems Spider-Man, among the superheroes most poorly served by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in theaters. The game’s take on Mister Negative really does split the difference between comics and cinema to wonderful effect that cinema, itself, rarely achieves. —Justin Charity
2. God of War (Playstation 4)
God of War’s arrival seems more distant than this past spring, and not just because eight months in 2018 time generally feels like a lot longer than that. It’s also partly because even bigger blockbusters are fresher in our minds: God of War’s PS4 sales record stood for only five months before Spider-Man snapped it, only to be bodied by Red Dead Redemption 2’s colossal launch. Mostly, though, it’s because unlike almost all modern massive sellers, God of War actually ended when it came out.
In August, Sony Santa Monica patched in a New Game Plus mode, but other than that, there’s been essentially no new content for God of War post-release. It’s the rare recent, ultra-successful Triple-A title that’s completely rejected the “games as a service” revenue model. There’s no downloadable content, and unlike God of War: Ascension, the game lacks a multiplayer mode. It is what it was on Day 1.
It's wild that Sony Santa Monica went from a canceled game and rumors that it could be in serious trouble if its next game wasnt a hit to GOTY at The Game Awards— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) December 7, 2018
It wouldn’t be a bad thing if there were more ways to experience one of the year’s greatest games, but the fact there aren’t may have helped make the one way so sublime. Director Cory Barlog explained in April that he didn’t want to hold anything in reserve for future DLC; everything the studio created is in the main game. Although co-op (another Ascension inclusion) could have been cool, AI Atreus was a worthy companion. And while it would have been fun for a few hours to throw the Leviathan ax at some online opponents, the inclusion of a multiplayer mode wouldn’t have been worth any delay or diminishment of the painstakingly curated campaign’s surprisingly resonant story, less linear path through a rich, original world, gorgeous graphics and animation, and accessible but still complex and well-crafted combat.
God of War may not seem as much a part of the present as games that are built to be played for years and parcel out content continuously. But it’s the best kind of gaming memory, one we’ll regularly revisit in our minds if not with our wallets.—Ben Lindbergh
1. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Playstation 4, Xbox One)
Since the release of 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar Games has carved out a reputation for publishing hyper-violent open-world games which push the envelope of acceptable video game content. Who could forget the infamous “Hot Coffee” affair, in which it was revealed that the designers of 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas created a hidden mini-game which, if accessed, would allow players to direct the game’s protagonist to engage in extremely graphic sexual intercourse. Rockstar’s games are known for their humor and their often cynical perspective on the way wealth, politics, and crime overlap.
In that sense, Red Dead Redemption 2 is something completely different for the company. The game, a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, is at times unnervingly sincere and sad. Set in 1899 as the frontier and its iconoclastic way of life are being devoured by the modern world, Red Dead is by turns a rollicking shoot-’em-up, a pastoral walking simulator, a hunting game, and a horse training game. The game challenges players by purposefully imposing a slowed-down pace which flies in the face of the kind of experience we expect from big-budget video games, but it’s thematically perfect for 1899.
What will stay with me, though, is the elegiac notes the game hits. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a self-aware ballad for a natural world that’s disappearing before our eyes. —Concepcion