We’ve been saying it over and over, but that doesn’t make it any less true: 2017 was an exceptional year for video games. Most notably, it was a time of renaissance for Japanese developers, where even the most established of series took bold, genre-shifting leaps forward. I’ve been making game of the year lists since 2013, but this year marks the first time that I’ve thrown one together while still actively playing every game on it. It’s even more impressive when you think about how long it’s taken me to write this! But I digress - out of all of the games I played last year, here are the three that I liked best:
In today’s gaming ecosystem, I seem to find myself jumping from one giant adventure to the next; always searching for meaning in another bespoke fantasy setting. Having recognized this pattern, I’ve learned to make time for smaller experiences to balance out my diet, often in the form of artistically-driven indie projects. It’s for that reason that I tried out Monolith, a small-scale roguelite shmup with charming pixel art. Honestly, I think I’m still feeling whiplash from how quickly it went from mere distraction to main attraction.
If it’s not obvious at a glance, this peculiar cocktail of genre and progression systems is immaculate. Shmups are, inherently, at least a little vexing: their campaigns crawl forward relentlessly, as wave after predetermined wave of enemies assault from all directions. Their path to mastery is riddled with technical minutiae, memorization, and divine execution. Monolith, unlike most shmups, arranges challenges into randomly assembled Zelda-like dungeons, in which it’s impossible to know what enemies lie around the next corner. Weapons, ammo, and upgrades litter each floor as you hunt down mini-bosses, which act as the “keys” that unlock the next main boss. This structure arguably guides the player into comparable skill bottlenecks, but it does so gently, maybe even invisibly. I didn’t set out expecting to become proficient at shmups, but in the process of playing a few runs, I subconsciously honed my reflexes into something resembling actual skill.
For an $8 game, the depths of this dungeon are staggering. I’ve been banging my head against the same boss for some time now, yet I still find myself eagerly coming back week after week. Every run feels like it could be “the one,” and I’m still finding joy in the unique ways they play out. Making a game so fun to play is an achievement in and of itself, but something that’s fun and surprising even when losing is a rare treat.
2. Persona 5
In its opening seconds, Persona 5 makes its presence known by screaming out in vibrant red, white, and black, over the jazz organ and funk bass of Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There. “Take your mask off and be free,” the vocals cry, as the main cast make Tokyo their playground, soaring between rooftops and figure skating down highways. These motifs are reflected in every facet of the 100+ hour experience, creating what is without a doubt one of the most stylish games ever made.
It’s a story about outcasts, identity, and civil unrest, and while the expression of those ideas can be clumsy at times, it resonates in spite of its occasional fumbles. In Persona 5, complacency is literally a prison. Our colorful cast of teenagers make use of “Personas,” the fantastical representation of their self-confidence, to break free from the shackles of society. They take on the guise of “Phantom Thieves,” and set out to reclaim their future from their oppressors.
Each villain is confronted in a “palace,” an alternate reality where their perceptions are made manifest. For example, a prosecutor becomes so disillusioned with their job that they see criminal justice as a gamble, transforming a courtroom into an opulent casino. These environments are impeccably designed, at once providing unconventional backdrops for RPG combat and fulfilling the thief’s fantasy of pulling a heist.
What excites me most about Persona 5 aren’t even its major thematics (as impressive as it may be to fight the embodiment of all human apathy) - it’s the dazzling flourish put into every detail imaginable. From all-out attacks, to leaping into hiding, to simply opening a menu, every action has a unique animation that overflows with energy. The soundtrack takes on a life of its own, using sullen grooves like “Mementos” to turn a dungeon crawl into a dungeon transgression. It all feels so excessively cool, like some kind of wild Platinum Games x Studio Trigger collaboration of an RPG. Persona 5 is so aesthetically fascinating that it’s worth dipping into, even if only for the spectacle.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
It would be hard to find some form of praise that hasn’t already been heaped onto Breath of the Wild, so in a sense, it’s not surprising at all that it’s claiming a place at the top of this list. On the other hand, sometimes it goes unsaid how phenomenally enduring Zelda has been throughout video game history. Not only has Zelda remained prominent for 30 years, it’s responsible for the most acclaimed game in one of the best years of games ever. In my eyes, Breath of the Wild’s praise is earned in how endlessly rewarding it is to explore.
Every hill, valley, lake, and shrine feels like it’s holding its own secret treasure. That “treasure” could be anything: a new weapon, a clever puzzle, an incredible view, or maybe just the experience brought out by some extraordinary circumstance. Something is going to happen wherever you go, and more than that, you’re immediately given all you need to go anywhere you want. You’re set free to visit Hyrule in your own way, whether that’s trailblazing straight to the final fight with Calamity Gannon, finding all 120 shrines and 900 korok seeds, or what I did: simply adventuring, wherever it happened to take me.
Even my frustrations and hardships have become fond memories, like trials I overcame, rather than flaws in the game design. One of my most memorable “battles” was when I found an enemy encampment at the base of a small mountain, and I was sorely lacking for weapons. I decided to keep my distance and approach from behind the summit. I began by lobbing a single bomb down the slope, taking out the nearest Bokoblin while throwing the rest of the camp into confused panic. So, with few other realistic options, I stayed out of sight and went bowling, rolling down bomb after bomb until no survivors were left. Later, I was struggling against a boss, so I decided to back down and take some time to prepare. I put on my sneaking gear, crafted some potions to make me move quickly, and crept through Hyrule Castle, looting out the enemy’s strongest arsenal. I crushed the boss by the time I got back, but what’s more important is that I was able to twist my struggle into something new and exciting. Every inconvenience I faced, I countered with a plan, and win or lose, that plan would go on to become a one-of-a-kind story.
An adventure worth having can only take place in a setting worth exploring, and the beauty of this game’s world is never more apparent than in its softest moments. Even now, these vague rumblings of recollection are enough to yank me back to Hyrule. I remember once running across a beach towards a mysterious shrine, when I happened to turn the camera to the tallest mountain in the kingdom. The warm, coral rays of the setting sun were scattered across the peak’s jagged edges, shaping a powerful silhouette out of an iron shield, the Master Sword, and the brave warrior who held them. It wasn’t even one of those “oh wow, that’s gorgeous” impulses, where your thumb instinctually smashes the screenshot button. I just…stopped. I paused to reflect on how impossibly far I had come: the challenges I’d surpassed, the distance I’d crossed, and each of the many other stunning vistas I had seen before. It was through countless, beautiful scenes like this that I realized that perhaps an imperceptible amount of craftsmanship went into this setting. I mean, games have stunning sunsets, that’s a fact, but this one felt “accidental.” It felt special; it felt like my sunset. I did eventually realize I should take a screenshot, and it’s become my most prized souvenir from my vacation in Hyrule.
There was a point where I began to see the coming end, and my dread became so strong that I actually made myself stop playing. What would I do after I had seen it all? How many more ridiculous battle plans would I be able to devise and pull off? By now, I know better than to expect to ever find everything. There’s always going to be a “next time” in Breath of the Wild, whether it’s something I overlooked, or some scenario I couldn’t possibly have predicted. I don’t have a clue where I’ll go next, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out, and it’ll be worth it when I get there.