As the releases of the Xbox Series S and X and the Playstation 5 bring an era of gaming to a close, The Ringer looks back on the best of the previous generation. The following is a list of the best video games made in the past seven years. Only games released for either Xbox One or PS4, not including rereleases or remasters, were considered.
25. NBA 2K17
You can say what you want about the current iterations of NBA 2K, but there’s no denying that the 2K series was the best sports video game for nearly a decade. It was and is, to this day, the best basketball game ever made—and 2K17 was without a doubt the best one in the series. There was a run from 2K10 to 2K17 when the gameplay continued to improve each year, paving the way for an extremely realistic experience. What set 2K17 apart from the rest was the culmination of the MyCareer, undoubtedly the pinnacle of this game mode. For this short, sweet time, you were able to advance and improve your player in a comfortable manner without having to worry about VC spending to keep up with the rest of the community. Nowadays, the game—specifically MyCareer mode—has become a toxic environment that focuses less on actual gameplay and more on the online community leaderboard. Take me back to 2017 so that “Shan Yu” can drop a 60-point quadruple double in the playoffs. —Sean Yoo
Platformers, and “difficult” games writ large, are oftentimes rituals of confidence. Mastering a difficult puzzle or trick of hand-eye coordination to defeat a boss or overcome a difficult stage requires a player to say to themselves “I can do this”—often after failing many times. Celeste understands this.
Celeste is a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer adventure game, in which you lead a pixelated heroine up a treacherous mountain, overcoming increasingly difficult and at-times masochistic levels. Celeste is also an effective examination of a woman battling depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and other challenges.
If it sounds to you like that kind of game would be difficult to pull off, or that it wouldn’t be fun, well I’d agree with you. But that’s what makes Celeste so special. Paralleling the brilliantly challenging levels and the progresses and setbacks of the protagonist’s quest for personal growth is clever, and it works better than you think. Celeste does not make this journey easy. The levels are fiendishly tricky and unforgiving, but never unfair: The game controls extremely well, and respawns (there will be many) are almost instant. It also features an absolute killer chiptune soundtrack—filled with catchy bangers that also weave the thread of Celeste’s story throughout. You can do this—and you’ll want to do this. —Mose Bergmann
23. Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley opens on the deathbed of your grandfather, who offers a sealed envelope in the glow of his fireplace. “There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life, and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness,” he tells you. “When that happens, my boy/my dear, you’ll be ready for this gift.” It might as well have been sealed up, shipped off, and postmarked for 2020. This is a perfect daydream of a game. It is ostensibly a farming sim—the most satisfying one ever made—but it becomes something bigger every time your character wanders from one area to the next. It manages to be complex without ever feeling complicated. There is always something on the next screen over that you don’t quite understand: fully realized characters you’ve only begun to know, an abandoned community center yearning to be restored, or a mine of untold depths and secrets. Those little mysteries, along with the incremental progress of cultivating crops, make Stardew Valley amazingly propulsive. I defy you to go through a day in this world without wanting another, to inch closer to the sort of balanced life your grandfather insisted was possible. —Rob Mahoney
If there’s one game on this ranking that couldn’t have been made during a previous console generation, it’s Moss, our only virtual-reality-reliant title. This was the generation when VR was supposed to go mainstream, and while the, um, reality fell short of the promise yet again, some of my most memorable gaming experiences of the past several years have come while I was wearing an unwieldy headset. The PSVR library is pretty robust, and Moss, which came out at the beginning of a breakthrough year for VR, was one of the first full-fledged games for the system that truly figured out its emerging medium. Developed and published by Polyarc’s team of Bungie veterans, Moss melds the joy of reading Redwall with the thrilling experience of entering the fairytale realm and helping the protagonist complete their quest. A friend of mine from college used to mock the hype about the future of gaming by joking that one day we would “be in the game,” but Moss’s platforming and puzzle-solving made me feel like I was, especially when the game gave me glimpses of my giant, visor-clad face through the eyes of the tiny mouse I was trying to protect. The cry Quill emits as she slays Sarffog is still ringing in my ears. —Ben Lindbergh
Inside is a masterful, visceral sensory experience. Like its predecessor, Limbo, Inside excels at creating moods via beautiful, lonely settings, and suggestions of plot rather than spelled-out story lines. But that doesn’t mean the game has nothing to say—there’s a rich subtext of both damning observations about the modern world and the power of collective action.
The sound design and art direction are impeccable and serve as primary storytelling devices—like the sound of the boy’s gasps for air as you steer him away from danger, the way light hits underwater relics as he swims through a sunken city, and how the camera tracks across shadowy research labs as you near the game’s shocking denouement. The game’s brief length and minimalism are often brought up as downsides, but its master class in atmosphere and level of immersion are what has stuck with me. —Cory McConnell
20. Persona 5
I’m discussing Persona 5 and Persona 5 Royal as a singular contribution to the canon here. I’ve played both. I’ve given so many hours of my life across the two releases and three different difficulty settings. I’ve watched YouTubers nitpick this game for several hours at a time, over several years, and every overconfident takedown has only hastened my confidence in Persona 5. The troublesome high school student Joker and his friends, and also his cat, infiltrate the collective subconscious of mankind in order to purge the will to misdeeds such as molestation, blackmail, and theft. It’s a morality tale with a profoundly childish outlook. It’s a youthful ensemble drama with erratic, ridiculous shifts in personalities and plotlines. But, far more importantly, Persona 5 is engrossing in style and design. It conspires to steal your time—100 gameplay hours by the end credits—and all along has the nerve to make you delight in so much melodrama and micromanagement. Not to mention the music—don’t even get me started on the soundtrack. I’m reclaiming my time! —Justin Charity
19. Batman: Arkham Knight
How does Arkham Knight make you feel? Somehow, like both Dominic Toretto and Sherlock Holmes. The streets of Gotham are yours to cruise, and whipping through them in the Batmobile is an inexplicably joyous experience. But the game goes deeper, and positioning Batman as a crime solver—with the ability to rewind crime scenes or find clues to help investigations—keeps it in rotation. If you give me an open-world game and tons of side missions, I am going to try to complete everything. You bet your ass I spent too much time trying to figure out all of Riddler’s puzzles. —David Lara
There’s a boss early in Nioh that took me probably 30 to 40 tries to beat. I walked away, I took breaks from the game, I thought about giving up entirely. I thought about my life, the time I was sinking into this game I was very bad at. I thought about putting my PS4 in a river.
These cycles of frustration, anger, and despair will be familiar to anyone who has played Nioh. But the game eventually rewards those patient enough to master its punishing combat mechanics, and there are few gaming experiences as satisfying as defeating one of its towering bosses with a perfectly timed combo or spirit animal. Nioh’s art style and lore is also easily my favorite of the Souls-like canon. The game is set in 1600s Japan, and historical events are heightened by the game’s mythical retelling. For those willing to deal with the learning curve, Nioh is one of the most rewarding games of this generation. —McConnell
17. Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain
I should detest The Phantom Pain, a monument to corporate sabotage against geniuses, a half-baked and wholly compromised title that drove Metal Gear Solid, as a series, well past its dead end and into profound anticlimax. “You are leaving the mission area,” I shout at this discombobulated mil-sim with Ubisoft characteristics. In MGSV, Hideo Kojima and Konami overcorrected for the previous title’s super-ultra-mega-narrative with a plot so thin it could slice speeding bullets. It leaves a slight bitterness in the righteous gamer’s mouth. And yet.
The Phantom Pain, chronologically and energetically, walks the series back several thousand kilometers from Guns of the Patriots. During the Soviet-Afghan War and the immiseration of Zaire in the 1980s, Venom Snake cultivates the warlord millenarianism behind the series’ antagonist, Big Boss. Venom Snake gallops through Afghanistan with robotic legs and a cassette player, dueling the bikini-clad sniper, Quiet, slapboxing a prepubescent Liquid Snake, and tranquilizing the Soviets so he can clip hot air balloons to their waists and recruit them to his offshore base in the Somali Sea. Scouring such a broad and inconspicuous landscape, you’ll struggle to locate the game’s charm in its characters, and then in its intrigue when the charm turns out to largely reside in the game’s peculiar rhythms, stupid routines, and profound half-deadness. It’s the rare Kojima game that shuts the fuck up sometimes, if only to reveal its creator’s brilliance and exhaustion, his best and worst quirks, altogether at once in a critical twilight. Kojima Productions would go on to improve upon such solitude and nonsense in Death Stranding, but The Phantom Pain persists with me, for whatever reason, on its own, compromised terms. —Charity
16. Final Fantasy VII Remake
This is the most daring game of 2020. The clamor for a remade, visually updated version of Final Fantasy VII was nearly as old as the game itself—a rallying cry for a 23-year-old fandom. Square Enix fulfilled that wish with a loving re-creation that also manages to consistently surprise, culminating in a mind-expanding ending that revolutionizes what a remake of a beloved, blockbuster game can be. I remain genuinely amazed that this version of this game exists. It can be achingly beautiful; for fans of the original, new arrangements of the game’s soundtrack alone make the Remake experience worthwhile. From there it builds into one of the richest aesthetic experiences of this console generation, all while never losing sight of how much this source material matters to so many people. The result is the most energizing Final Fantasy entry in almost two decades. The (poorly localized) dialogue has been punched up, the visuals have been brought to the cutting edge, and the story opens itself to a rich new reimagining. The team behind Remake did far better than update Final Fantasy VII—they managed to recapture the wonder of playing it in the first place. —Mahoney
15. Death Stranding
Death Stranding gets much, much closer to realizing what I have to imagine Metal Gear Solid V set out to become: a vast, lonesome, bewildering meditation on the wilderness and its disintegration against technology and politics. The cross-country courier Sam Bridges, armed with a semi-automatic slingshot and ammunition crafted from his own fluids, escorts a magic baby through space-time spanning World War I through a postapocalyptic present day. I enjoyed Breath of the Wild as much as anyone else, but Death Stranding strikes a profound balance between the sparseness, verging on vapidness, of that game and, say, the verbose overdetermination of Horizon Zero Dawn. Granted, Death Stranding does occasionally leave me feeling like I’ve stumbled into the third season of some underrated or overrated sci-fi drama on Netflix, but that’s Kojima for you. —Charity
14. Hollow Knight
Acid bubbles hiss and pop as I explore the lush forestry grown over the remains of a great kingdom. I do not own a map for this area, and I head forward with caution, wary of any enemies or traps that I may encounter in my journey. Agile harps begin to swell in the background, and another faint tune joins them. What is that? Is that humming? I head toward the mysterious tune, especially eager after exploring these strange and dangerous lands, to find a friend.
The singular joy of discovering Cornifer, the mapmaker, in an unexplored area of Hollow Knight’s labyrinthian kingdom, is shared among all players. The game sets players off on their adventure—playing as an unnamed bug knight, whose goal is to save what remains of the formerly great bug kingdom Hallownest, or something—with minimal direction. Plopped down at the outskirts of the underground kingdom, the player does not receive quests or objectives; you must simply follow where the path leads you, downward. As you explore and overcome the many dangerous creatures, enemies, and obstacles, the only way to track your progress becomes filling in the empty pathways of your map.
What makes Hollow Knight so impressive is its deceptive triumph. The game might stand out for its incredible, painstakingly hand-drawn, straight-out-of-a-graphic-novel animation; or for its best-of-its-generation gameplay and fiendish-but-fair bosses; or its sneakily awesome nuggets of lore; or its lush and stirring soundtrack. But the way it requires the player to create his or her own path creates a real sense of discovery in a way few games are capable of. —Bergmann
13. What Remains of Edith Finch
It’s not hyperbole to say that What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the greatest successes in storytelling in the history of video games. It’s a fantastical journey through the untimely deaths, across several generations, of a cursed family in a sprawling, isolated house. Have you ever walked into someone’s home and felt decades of life lived in that space? In Edith Finch, you explore an abandoned house overflowing with family history and unravel all its mysterious and secrets, one room at time. Discovering a family member’s bedroom transports you into a short vignette in which you experience the end of that family member’s life and learn more about the Finch family’s complex relationships. These vignettes vary greatly in visual style, tone, and even control scheme; some of them blur the lines between reality and metaphor, and they often have an unreliable narrator. It all adds up to an unforgettable experience heightened by brilliant voice acting and an enveloping, atmospheric original score.
Edith Finch is a short game, but there are very few games of any length as memorable. It somehow manages to exceed the sum of its impressive parts—a perfectly executed, unique vision and an important waypost along the road to the future of video games. —Matt James
12. Titanfall 2
In an era of gaming increasingly defined by online-only multiplayer games, it’s nice to have an old-school single player with a new-school feel. Titanfall 2 is an underrated gem, truly one of the better games to come out in this console generation. The gameplay is fantastic; the shooting handles well and while the platforming aspect of the game isn’t brand new, it adds an element that energizes the game. Titanfall 2’s narrative, however, is where the game really shines. No one outside of Respawn Entertainment knows why Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation and the Frontier Militia are fighting, but it really doesn’t matter; the bond formed between the player as Jack Cooper and their titan BT-7274 is one of the most wholesome and enjoyable relationships in video game history. Their banter throughout the game carries you from great action set pieces to engaging boss battles, helping to create an engaging and fulfilling story. It’s essentially The Iron Giant in space, which is just as awesome as it sounds. —Jomi Adeniran
Set in a Montana national park in 1989, Firewatch is the story of a man named Henry who’s taken a job as a fire lookout for the summer. Right off the bat, some weird stuff starts going on and it’s up to Henry to suss out the mysteries of Shoshone National Forest. A largely solitary experience, Henry’s only real human interaction is with his supervisor Delilah over walkie-talkie. You constantly choose between several dialogue options in these supremely well-written and well-acted exchanges, and it’s through your own choices that you shape your relationship with Delilah and the world around you.
Firewatch is a gorgeous game with an incredible original score that emphasizes the majesty of the forest and the uncertainty of the protagonist’s journey. It offers no on-screen map overlay, instead requiring the player to navigate the great outdoors using an old-fashioned map and a trusty compass. You’re in a constant state of discovery, whether you’re finding a new path around an obstruction or unearthing meaningful backstory. There are moments of significant humor, joy, and disappointment. There are also twists that induce a fear that is shockingly powerful for a game that features no health bar.
This is a story about someone in a transitional period of his life. It deals with trauma and the role that human connection can play in healing. Facing a disorienting challenge alone, with each step Henry takes forward into the wilderness, he is slowly finding a way forward in life. —James
10. Horizon Zero Dawn
For a time, Horizon Zero Dawn was one of Sony’s biggest gambles. After the lukewarm success of Guerrilla Games PS4 launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall, Sony entrusted the studio to launch their next big exclusive. Touted as the game to fully display all the awesome power of the PS4, it was too big to not fail. But then it came out.
Horizon is just a great game. It wows with its top-of-the-line graphics, sound, and unique postapocalyptic world filled with all sorts of robotic beasts. It also threads the needle of creating an original massive open-world experience with an engaging sci-fi story and hinges the gameplay on the idea of man fighting back against more technologically advanced creatures dominating the earth. Now, while the overall story is fun if forgettable, and while some of the side quests and performances range in quality from “pretty great,” to “Is this an I Think You Should Leave sketch?” Horizon is still the game I’d choose if I had to select something to show off the PS4’s power. There are few gaming experiences from this generation that can match this one. The thrill of defeating one of Horizon’s monstrous T. Rex–like Thunderjaws by outwitting and outrunning the beast by a few hairs—while hearing the creature’s mechanisms boom, wheeze, and roar as it chases after you before you finally take it down—is exactly the experience you want in a game about fighting robo-dinosaurs in the far fallen future. —Bergmann
It’s easy to look at Overwatch as Team Fortress 2 with a Marvel Studios budget (even down to the quality of animated shorts they both released), but that would undersell just how important Overwatch has become to the gaming community in the past four years. It’s now its own sport—and for good reason. In its enormous roster of 32 playable characters, every one of them is different—not only in how they look, but how they play and feel. The maps are gorgeous and even though the game modes are the same as every other team-based multiplayer shooter in the past 20 years, there’s so much variety that it feels like every game is brand new. As time has gone on, many games have tried to duplicate Overwatch’s success. That none of them have been able to says all you need to know. —Adeniran
8. Ghost of Tsushima
Ghost of Tshushima is the best game of 2020 and if you want to argue with me on that, we’ll just have to duel to the death. There’s been a plethora of samurai-themed games in the past two decades, but none of them match the level of greatness from the team at Sucker Punch. Ghost is a rare open-world game (with zero load time) that allows for seamless gameplay as you go from village to village wiping out enemy Mongols. While the gameplay itself isn’t hard or impossible like its counterpart Sekiro, the cinematic aesthetic and story line is unmatched. It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve played on the PS4, and the camera mode within the game turned me into a professional photographer. The story mode doesn’t take too long to beat and finishing the game just requires some extra hack and slash—but Ghost also leveled up recently by launching their multiplayer mode. I haven’t had a better experience playing a video game this year. You should take my word for it because I have the honor of a samurai. —Yoo
7. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Beyond the stellar gameplay, graphics, and mechanics, Uncharted 4 is one of the few narrative games to truly feel like a blockbuster movie. (Maybe that’s why it is becoming a blockbuster movie.) With the foundation of Nathan Drake’s story laid by the first three installments, this final chapter of the story weaves a tale of buried treasure, brotherhood, fate, and compulsion with a shocking level of convincingness. Every level is carefully constructed; every character has been drawn in color; every moment is earned. It’s one of those that you actually don’t want to race through, which is a sign of a great game; you know that the sooner you beat it, the sooner the thrill will end. —Andrew Gruttadaro
6. Rocket League
I’ve long since given away most of my old consoles, but for more than 20 years, I’ve toted around my Nintendo 64, almost solely so I could keep playing one game: the original Super Smash Bros. Backward compatibility, subscription services, and remasters may make it unnecessary to keep consoles around in the digital gaming age, but if there’s one game from the PS4/Xbox One generation I can see myself wanting to boot up for decades to come, it’s Psyonix’s Rocket League. The magic of Rocket League is its blend of accessibility and mastery: It’s instantly fun to pick up and play without feeling overmatched or bewildered, but its advanced techniques reward continued practice. The game’s floaty physics aren’t for everyone, but they hit the sweet spot for me, and the points system rewards unselfish play, helping prevent multiplayer matches from becoming pileups under the ball. Fast, chaotic, and almost impossible to put down, soccer as played by rocket-powered cars is the indispensable sport I never knew I needed. —Lindbergh
5. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
A word of warning: The Witcher 3 is so fully realized that it will forever alter your experience of playing other open-world games. It’s also so enormous that it might take a lifetime to complete. Taken together, those two qualities make it an honest-to-God triumph—an adventure of incredible possibility and rewarding fiction. An open world is generally no way to tell a good story; there’s little guarantee, after all, that a player will actually learn of a quest before accidentally stumbling on its reward. The Witcher 3 makes those occasions feel like mysteries to unravel rather than glitches in the system, whether they involve political intrigue, potential romance, or eerie monsters lurking in the dark. The sheer amount of (crackling) dialogue puts most other RPGs to shame, and much of it is hidden away in decision trees that would take countless playthroughs to unravel. The more games you play, the more they can feel like a formula propped up by random number generators. The Witcher 3 manages to hold its spell throughout, for hundreds of potential hours and through two vast DLC spinoffs. It’s an all-timer in its genre, its format, and its generation. —Mahoney
4. The Last of Us: Part II
Maybe it was inevitable for such a highly anticipated game, but upon the release of The Last of Us: Part II, the discourse quickly became a minefield of complaints both valid (a game about the pointlessness of retaliatory violence sure requires you to do a whole lot of retaliatory violence) and less valid (“I can’t believe they killed __, screw this game!”). But months later, what we’re left with is one of the most thrilling, heart-wrenching games of this generation. Escaping on horseback through a burning cult village as war breaks out, dodging sniper fire on a Seattle highway, tiptoeing across the rusted beams of a postapocalyptic skyline hundreds of feet in the air—these are just some of the jaw-dropping set pieces from the second half of the game, the half that some vocal fans claimed to have hated.
The Last of Us: Part II is not an open-world game like many of its AAA contemporaries (Spider-Man, God of War, Red Dead 2), but it is the most polished example of an on-the-rails type of game I’ve ever played. The score, the voice and character acting, the unconventional narrative structure, and graphics equally gorgeous and horrific reveal a level of care that shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s everything you could want from a sequel, an unforgettable playing experience that will long outlive the reactionary takes. —McConnell
3. Marvel’s Spider-Man
You could literally spend endless hours just web swinging across Manhattan or skydiving from Avengers’ tower perfecting your web swing. You also could customize all of your tech and weaponry. You could figure out the best way to defeat your enemies, either with web traps or hand-to-hand combat. You could appreciate that this is the story that introduced many to Miles Morales and pulled in obscure villains like Taskmaster, Mr. Negative, and Tombstone. Marvel’s Spider-Man is a must-have, worth wasting hours upon hours on—no matter how you choose to do it. —Lara
2. God of War
God of War is so gorgeous and emotionally affecting that it has been written about no less than five times on this very website. Everyone can agree it was one of 2018’s best games, but because there was no DLC or multiplayer, because it ended when it was released, BECAUSE YOU ONLY GOT TO FIGHT THE LESSER NORSE GODS, maybe God of War isn’t being discussed as much as it should as one of the PS4’s best releases.
Here’s something I haven’t already said about this game: As of now, I have played through the story five times. Truthfully, once you beat the story there’s nothing to do but fight the corrupted Valkyries. There are nine of them; it took me 14 tries to kill the first one. But every time, there really is something new to find in the game’s immense scale—a new tale about the darker corners of the halls of Asgard, some fun new quirk in Kratos’s frustrated relationship with his son. Smiting Fafnir’s ruin on the Shores of Nine literally never gets old; I cry when the family feuds, I laugh at all of Mimir’s jokes. It’s like a Spike fantasy movie marathon you can actively participate in. —Micah Peters
1. Red Dead Redemption 2
More than any other game from this generation, Red Dead Redemption 2 makes me feel homesick. Not because the turn-of-the-20th-century America that the game brought to life looked like such a pleasant place to live; far from it. More because it seemed so brimming with vitality that every session inside it was a Westworld-esque excursion. Scenic, sprawling, and overflowing with a depth of detail that only several years of big-budget development (including months of crunch) could impart, RDR2 transported players to a world that one would almost swear existed independent of the person on the other side of the screen. As the sun rose and set, NPCs went about their routines, buildings and railroad tracks proliferated, and wildlife roamed the wilderness. In those acres of picturesque landscape, players could lose themselves in hunting, treasure-seeking, or sightseeing and, for a few hours, forget about the plot. But the story of Dutch’s doomed gang was equally compelling, saddled as it was with the familiar Rockstar tension between providing a sympathetic protagonist and empowering the player to behave badly. In its follow-up to one of the best games of the previous generation, Rockstar broke the prequel curse, reimagined the Western, and set a new standard for convincingly crafted immersiveness. —Lindbergh