USG's Top 100 Games of the Decade: #25-1

USG's Top 100 Games of the Decade: #25-1

The 100 best games of the 2010s, as determined by us.

For #100-51, see the first part of our Top 100 Games of the Decade list here. You can find part two's #50-26 here.

Welcome to USG's Top 100 Games of the Decade! Strictly speaking, this series starts with #100, but we know that you skipped ahead to see the Top 25. After all, these games are the best of the best; the games that did the most to define this decade—true giants like Dark Souls and Minecraft. These are the games that created whole genres, or were just so overwhelmingly good that they became destined to go down as classics. Every game on this list is a brilliant example of its genre and comes highly recommended. Thanks for reading, and we look forward to your reactions in the comments.

Into the Breach is destined to be remembered as an all-time great tactics game. | Subset Games

25. Into the Breach

Release Date: February 27, 2018
Platforms: PC, Mac, Switch

I first played Into the Breach on a six-hour plane ride, and within the first half-hour I thought I hated it. My mechs seemed underpowered and helpless against the Vek hordes. I sent my first human pilot character to his doom in what I thought was a sound tactical move. Forests burned, entire city blocks collapsed (some due solely to my own stupidity), and a short while later, an entire timeline of Earth was gone because I simply wasn't good enough to save it. I wanted to stop playing.

I didn't, and shortly before my plane touched down on the other side of the country, I'd managed to save a timeline from the Vek. It was exhilarating. Once you start to understand one element of Into the Breach, you can start to get on a roll. Those mechs weren't underpowered; they could benefit from upgrades, sure, but I simply wasn't playing to their strengths. Good pilots are important, but you can—you must—move on from those losses. A single mistake will never doom your run, but a cascading string of them will.

What I thought would be a fun diversion that might scratch my Advance Wars itch quickly became my favorite turn-based tactics game of all time. I lost (and saved) so many more timelines after that first plane ride, and for all the dozens of hours I sank into the game, I know I could pick it up again and get sucked right back in. Really, it's for the sake of my IRL timeline that I don't. I only get one shot at it, after all. —Mathew Olson

You can even play Skyrim on your Amazon Alexa. | Bethesda

24. The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim

Release Date: November 11, 2011
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim has a tricky legacy. It has an absolutely massive fanbase, but also plenty of detractors. When we made our list of the Top 25 RPGs of All Time, we picked Morrowind instead of Skyrim.

So why put Skyrim on this list? Because it has one of the biggest, most engrossing worlds ever featured in a video game. It lets you be a werewolf, a vampire, a cat person… or heck, a vampire cat person. It's pure fantasy wish fulfillment. I put more than a hundred hours into Skyrim, and I didn't come close to "finishing" it. My endgame was marrying my werewolf girlfriend and buying the biggest house in the Imperial capital.

Nine years after its original release, Skyrim continues to be sustained by its vast fanbase and its even more massive modding scene. If you think Skyrim is too easy, you can make it hard. If you think the visuals don't hold up, there are some remarkable graphics packs out there.

Some would say that it's not exactly a compliment that Skyrim is sustained by its modding community, since it had significant flaws the community had to cover up. Maybe that's true, but I don't think you can just dismiss the strength of one of gaming's great modding scenes. It's thanks to this scene, not to mention its sheer scope, that Skyrim remains as relevant today as the day that it was released. —Kat Bailey

Most of us on staff lost dozens of hours cultivating our garden and relationships in Stardew Valley. | ConcernedApe

23. Stardew Valley

Release Date: February 26, 2016
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

I've been a fan of Harvest Moon since the first game came out at the tail end of the SNES' life. As a massive RPG nerd, I loved how the bog-standard "talk to everyone" mechanic was rearranged to make a game where you farm instead of fight.

It didn't take long for the Harvest Moon series to lose its way, sadly (for my money, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town was the last great Harvest Moon game), so I was simultaneously skeptical and intrigued when I heard about Stardew Valley. After spending a little time with the game, my skepticism gradually gave way to joy. Stardew Valley reaches much further than any Harvest Moon game, yet it never feels like it's spreading itself too thin. Where there's generally a couple of paths to riches in Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley offers up so many ways you can prosper. You can farm and raise livestock, sure, but you can also dig for rare ores, hunt monsters, collect treasure, and fish. And, in grand farming sim tradition, you can also settle down with a mate if you so desire. In fact, Stardew Valley's cast is one of its most compelling features. This game is four years old and social media is still filled with fans who love to spill the tea about how Marnie and Mayor Lewis are secretly knocking boots. ("Secretly"—as if the whole town doesn't know.)

Stardew Valley also dishes out some social commentary about war, PTSD, and the gradual encroachment of big box stores on small businesses. It's interesting stuff that's still very relevant in 2020. (Sigh.) Ah, but you can put yourself on the easy road to prosperity if you turn your back on restoring the Community Center in favor of letting Joja Mart bulldoze the hell out of Stardew Valley's very heart. Will you live the simple life of a farmer, or will you exploit the Valley for your own gain? Pick up Stardew Valley for yourself—preferably on the Switch, this is a game that shines as a portable experience—and find out who you are. —Nadia Oxford

Additional note: game designer Derek Yu's excellent book on the making of Spelunky will have you appreciating it in a whole new way. | Mossmouth

22. Spelunky

Release Date: July 4, 2012
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360

The height of my time with Spelunky coincided with my first summer living with a house full of college roommates. One by one, each roommate watched me play Spelunky, started to wonder how I could possibly be so bad at what looked like a simple and inviting platformer, and then realized what I had. Spelunky is simple and inviting, in a sense, but it also has too much respect for the player to ever make things easy.

When you've got a grip on its mechanics and your execution is on point, it feels like you're a part of the well-oiled machine that is Spelunky itself… and when you fail in spite of all your mastery, it's like you're a cog that spontaneously turned into Jello. Something so wobbly and fragile has no place in Spelunky's design, and so you'll keep getting shredded by its gears until you've become nearly flawless. You feel like you're never more one misjudged jump or poorly aimed toss away from disaster, until suddenly you're not—until you've internalized Spelunky's design so thoroughly that you've essentially merged with it.

Cumulatively, there's a very good chance that I've played more Spelunky than any other game from the past decade. It is still my favorite 2D roguelike of all time by a wide margin, to the point where I'm pretty much uninterested in playing any others until Derek Yu and company finally release Spelunky 2. If the sequel is even half as brilliant, it'll still be leagues better than many of the games that have followed its wake. —Mathew Olson

Joker of Persona 5 remains the most bewildering new fighter to come to Smash. | Bandai Namco Studios, Sora Ltd./Nintendo

21. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Release Date: December 7, 2018
Platforms: Nintendo Switch

When it was announced that a brand new Super Smash Bros. game was on the way so soon after the release of Super Smash Bros. Wii U, many were very skeptical. The prevailing theory was that we were about to receive a DX version of the Wii U game, in the same vein as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Oh, how wrong we were.

What we actually got was Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the most jam-packed, feature-rich entry into the series thus far. Every single character from previous Smash titles returned, and the game now boasts a roster of 75 impeccably designed fighters. There are over 100 stages to fight on, and a soundtrack made up of some of the very best video game music ever created. There's a truly dizzying amount of content to play, but also simple improvements which make playing with a group of friends better than it's ever been. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the best in the series yet (sorry Melee), and it's only getting better with each new content drop.

Not satisfied with the already insane amount of fighters featured in the base game, Director Masahiro Sakurai and crew have also been adding more fighters alongside bespoke stages and music packs. This is nothing new for Smash, but Nintendo finally seems to understand what it has with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: an everlasting hype machine. Every couple of months, a new fighter is teased and then revealed in pitch-perfect Direct-style presentations. Gaming forums are constantly abuzz with rumors and predictions, and with the addition of Persona 5's Joker and Banjo-Kazooie, the identity of the next fighter has become harder and harder to predict. The speculation and gossip that surrounds Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is part of what makes it so special, and is what has kept it fresh in the minds of gamers long after it launched.

With subtle changes to character movesets and a new focus on making technical moves more accessible, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feels like an absolute dream to play. Regardless of which fighter you pick, and whether or not you're familiar with them in the first place, you'll instantly get a feel for the character. The level of detail and the love shown toward every fanbase involved really elevates the game above other fighters. What you end up with is not just the best fighting game of the decade, but a masterful love letter to video games as a whole. —Jake Green

Fallout: New Vegas isn't just a peak for Fallout, but for developers Obsidian too. | Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda

20. Fallout: New Vegas

Release Date: October 19, 2010
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

Fallout: New Vegas didn't get much love when it was first released. Derided by many as a buggy mess, it seemed doomed to languish in the shadow of Fallout 3. Then something funny happened: It became a modern classic.

Given the distance afforded by time, fans have come to appreciate its artfully-designed quests, strong writing, and multitude of choices. Where most of Bethesda's entries tend to be fairly rigid, Fallout: New Vegas is far more open-ended, allowing you to side with any of the available factions, or to go it alone. Designed as it was by Obsidian, a studio with many of Fallout's original developers, it also has a special appreciation for the franchise's history. Like Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas boasts a robust modding scene. It also features some immense DLC, with Lonesome Road earning special notice for its combination of excellent writing and deep lore.

Its notable strengths have caused it to grow in esteem among fans and critics alike; to the point that The Outer Worlds earned immense hype simply on the strength of the idea of it being "Fallout: New Vegas in space." Thus, of all the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games released this decade, Fallout: New Vegas seems to have held up the best. It's a shame that Obsidian will probably never get a chance to make another. —Kat Bailey

19. Hotline Miami

Release Date: October 23, 2012
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch, Android

If I had to describe the gameplay of Hotline Miami in two words, it would probably be: Get mad. From the ground up, it's a game about insanity, in which you tear through hallway after hallway of armed thugs, shooting, stabbing, punching, crushing, only for the red mist to finally lift as you stare back in horror at the broken bodies in your wake. You just made Jason Voorhees look like a doe-eyed pacifist.

But unlike any number of violent games which try to conceal their murder sprees behind good intentions or patriotic fervor, Hotline Miami is about embracing the rage within. Whether it's the drunkenly swaying camera, the pounding synth music, the unpredictability of the enemies, or just the repeated failures—half of which you didn't even see coming and the other half you feel like an idiot for allowing to happen—Hotline Miami is trying to piss you off from the beginning. You are a grizzly bear, and it's got a whole barrel of poking sticks.

Threaded through this is a story of intrigue, conspiracy, and larger forces, all made hazy and surreal through the perspective of a main character who is clearly less stable than a unicycle on a tightrope. A less focused and less revolutionary sequel can't detract from a real gem of indie development, as even now Hotline Miami shows us how to use gameplay to tell an impactful story. —Joel Franey

The Last of Us' violence is memorably brutal, and never gleeful about it. | Naughty Dog/Sony

18. The Last of Us

Release Date: June 14, 2013
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4

Naughty Dog had already proven itself as a world-class developer with the first three Uncharted games by the time The Last of Us came around, though The Last of Us really signalled a new era for the studio, and for Sony as a whole. The Last of Us was darker than anything the studio had worked on thus far, swapping the pulpy adventure of Uncharted for existential dread and blood-soaked flannel. The game's take on zombies was relatively novel too, at a time when the world seemed oversaturated and bored with anything undead and gloomy. Instead of offering up yet another B-movie take on zombies, The Last of Us created a truly horrifying offshoot based on a real life ant-eating fungus.

Playing The Last of Us is a truly brutal experience at times. Your gun will sway wildly back and forth as you aim it, and some enemies can bust open your skull in a single hit. It's a mostly stealth-focused affair, as you sneak your way through ruined buildings trying desperately to stay as quiet as possible. Once combat erupts, and it will, you're forced to use whatever you can find as a weapon, crafting everything from vicious nail bombs to reinforced metal bats. Enemies will claw at your face as you choke them out, scream hauntingly as you strike them with molotov cocktails, and occasionally flee in terror upon realizing they are the last one left of their group. Killing things in The Last of Us feels terrible, and that's the point.

Upon release, The Last of Us instantly became the new standard for what a Sony first-party game could truly be, creating ripples that would go on to influence later Sony projects like God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn. The rest of the industry sat up and took notice too, realizing that players were craving story-driven single-player experiences. It was so successful that it was quickly ported to PlayStation 4, packaged with the excellent Ellie-focused Left Behind DLC. Games really started to come of age in the last decade, and The Last of Us is perhaps the best representation of it. —Jake Green

Karaoke is wonderful in Yakuza 0. | Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

17. Yakuza 0

Release Date: January 24, 2017
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4

Yakuza caught on fire during the latter part of this decade. While the series began all the way back in 2005 on PlayStation 2, it didn't really catch on outside of Japan until much later. The turning point was the Western release of Yakuza 0 in January 2017. Other games had come to Western shores, but this prequel to the series represented the franchise at its biggest and best, while the prequel story allowed newcomers to experience the world of Kazuma Kiryu.

On paper, Yakuza doesn't mean like it would differentiate itself. Every entry in the series follows Kazuma Kiryu, a criminal with a heart of gold, as he tries to navigate the seedy underbelly of Japan. Its combat is rather simple, rooted in old school arcade beat-em-ups. Most of the time, you're only exploring the familiar streets of Kamurocho, a fictional entertainment and red light district inspired by Japan's Kabukicho. Blink, and you'll miss what makes Yakuza special.

Kazuma Kiryu might be a well-worn trope of a man, but the world he inhabits is wonderfully odd. Kiryu will run into a dominatrix who wants to learn how to punish people by watching him work, or a young band who near his help to firm up their gangster personas. What makes it work is no matter who he meets, Kiryu always endeavors to help them with a combination of world-weariness and enthusiasm, making him one of the most endearing heroes in gaming.

Sure, you spend a lot of time punching and kicking thugs on the streets of Kamurocho (and Sotenbori in Yakuza 0), which are vastly smaller than the landscapes of games like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed. But Yakuza 0's environments are dense with things to do. You don't just help people, you can also play a host of games littered around town, including Mahjong, Poker, Pocket Racing, Fishing, and even perfect arcade recreations of Outrun, Super Hang-On, and Space Harrier. Yakuza 0 stuffs things to do in every little corner of Kamurocho, to the point that later in the game, you barely need the mini-map to find your way around.

Real people don't act like the characters in Yakuza 0, but that unreality makes Yakuza stand out even more. It's hard-boiled, but goofy. So very masculine, but also so open and accepting of everyone's specific path through life. It's full of great humor, but also has no problem turning deadly serious. There's no game that walks like the Yakuza series does, and Yakuza 0 is one of the best entries in the franchise. —Mike Williams

16. Super Mario Galaxy 2

Release Date: May 23, 2010
Platforms: Nintendo Wii

The question "What is the best Mario game?" is an endless one, given Mario's place in video game canon. Do you stick with 2D Mario titles only? Are you perhaps a lover of the 3D strain? Maybe you prefer the spinoffs, or have an undying love for Mario Party. I don't entirely know where I end up across the series' long history, but I do believe that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the finest Mario game released in this decade.

I also rate Super Mario Odyssey highly, but its structure means it lacks the pure feeling of Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. Odyssey trends toward a more sandbox presentation, focusing on exploration, while the Galaxy games lean closer to discrete levels. Every planet within a galaxy has a specific focus and obstacle to overcome, so your path forward is usually easy to figure out. It's just a matter of whether you have the skill to surpass the wall in front of you.

Super Mario Galaxy hosted nearly perfect 3D Mario platforming, and Galaxy 2 builds upon that foundation with more variety. There are more galaxies to leap, fly, and spin across, each with unique themes and mechanics. You have more unique and off-kilter power-ups, like the Spin Drill that sends you to the opposite side of a planet, or the Cloud Flower that lets Mario create cloud platforms. Galaxy 2 also adds Yoshi into the mix, allowing Nintendo to expand your capabilities for unique challenges. From the Wild Glide Planet, where Mario flies around a jungle with the help of Fluzzard, to the almost Zelda-like Starshine Beach, every galaxy is something new to see.

I find Nintendo is at its best when it's building on an existing foundation. When its developers can simply ask themselves "What if?" within a specific framework. I find those follow-up games to be more fun and inventive than their predecessors, which is why I wish Nintendo would follow-up more on generational releases. Super Mario Galaxy was a great Mario game, but Galaxy 2 is Nintendo saying, "Let us show you what we really can do." —Mike Williams

Rocket League has maybe the most genius concept of the decade. | Psyonix

15. Rocket League

Release Date: July 7, 2015
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

A lot of sports games are, by design, simulations. They are meant to imitate what real-life, professional athletes do on a weekly basis. But they often leave little room to explore the complexity of the action. A good football game can perfectly recreate Odell Beckham Jr.'s one-handed catches, but it can struggle to give the player room to explore their own personal style of play without speaking through definitions of what already exists.

Rocket League strips a sport down to the core basics. It is soccer with rocket-powered cars. But the level of finesse, allowed by a strikingly simple control scheme, opens up a world of opportunity for players to be themselves. There is no crossing shot button, no designated goalie, and no established names with their own quirks. There is simply the pitch, the ball, and the cars.

Every match of Rocket League feels like the best of pick-up soccer matches. It evolves rapidly, and gives so much room to explore all the ways you can strike or defend. Rocket League has more similarities to the likes of Sensible Soccer, or even QWOP, than most modern sports games, and it's all the better for it. —Eric Van Allen

14. Super Mario Maker

Release Date: September 11, 2015
Platforms: Wii U

If you were ever a snooty kid, you probably had the following thought cross your mind at least once: I bet I could make a better Mario level than Nintendo! Super Mario Maker, at last, granted rude kids (and adults) everywhere this wish. We finally can make any Mario level we want to.

The original Super Mario Maker, which released on the Wii U, was a novel idea. It took the "build it yourself" idea championed by games like Minecraft, and applied it to the most slickly designed platformer of all time: Super Mario Bros.. Playing Super Mario Maker feels like getting the keys to Peach's castle. It's cracking open a Mario game to see the gears and tools that make it all work. And now, we can slap it all together however we wish.

Super Mario Maker fostered a lively community of creators and players over the years. Regularly, Nintendo released adorable limited time outfits. I dressed up Mario as the manga character Chitoge from Nisekoi, for instance. It's also one of the few games on the Wii U to actually necessitate the dual screen functionality. I have many memories of making levels, and then passing a controller to my partner to have him test out my devilish creation as I watched intently, eyeing every mistake I made along the way.

Its sequel on the Switch, Super Mario Maker 2, loses this dual screen strength. Sure, you have more tools, but it doesn't feel as satisfying as its predecessor once did. Super Mario Maker is, however, still one of the greats of this decade, and is one of the best Mario games ever made. Or at least, fans have made its best levels. —Caty McCarthy

Disco Elysium is also an unexpectedly hilarious game. | ZA/UM

13. Disco Elysium

Release Date: October 15, 2019
Platforms: PC

Our game of the year for 2019 may have been a surprising one to some. An RPG with a Infinity Engine-like style, Disco Elysium ended up favorably being compared by many to the likes of Planescape Torment, and the ZA/UM developed RPG meets that weighty comparison merrily.

In Disco Elysium, you awake as a man with the world's worst hangover. He's nearly nude, and he doesn't remember his name nor the case he is apparently there to investigate as a cop. Soon, the pieces fall into place: You learn your name, you learn that you need to find out who killed the man who's been hanging from a tree behind the hostel you're staying at, and you learn about the world, too. You learn that the district you're staying in, Martinaise, has seen better days.

It's the history of the city Revachol, and the fact that you never leave a few blocks of it, that makes Disco Elysium feel unique. It's small in scope, but wide with ambition. And even for a game with so much reading and so little action, Disco Elysium at times feels like the most chaotic game ever made. After all, your brain is constantly at war with itself, as the skills you'd equip in any other RPG actually talk to you in Disco Elysium. All the time. They never stop talking. Even your clothes talk to you. Whether you listen to them or not, or rather who you listen to, determines the type of person you'll be. It feels, well, human.

It's a fascinating mechanical backbone that influences every move you make in the game. You're never blocked from a path in the traditional sense if you fail a dice roll; instead you live with your mistake, and see where the fault takes you. In that sense, it's the only RPG I've ever played that molded with how I actually played, even when I played "badly." Disco Elysium is an impossible game to write about in a concise manner, so I'll end with this: Play it this instant. —Caty McCarthy

Bloodborne took the Dark Souls formula in bold new directions. | FromSoftware/Sony

12. Bloodborne

Release Date: March 24, 2015
Platforms: PlayStation 4

If Dark Souls set the mold, perhaps Bloodborne was the one to break it. One of the most atmospheric games ever made, from the moment you start playing, the world of Yharnam practically drips out of the screen in front of you, almost limitless in scope and detail. The monsters feel weighed down with decades of history and unspeakable torment, the NPCs stare with cold, hollow eyes, and even reality itself bends, warps, and buckles the closer you get to the story's nightmarish epicenter, the damp cobblestone streets replaced by impossible geometry and towering, insectoid aberrations.

It's a tone that can go from somber to screaming in an instant, as werewolves come crashing through doors in a frenzied ambush, or a pile of oily rags turns out to be a dozen diseased crows lying in wait. The tension's reflected in a combat system that strips you of all meaningful defenses and leaves you frightened, twitchy, and paranoid. And yet, despite making you feel vulnerable and weak, it's still wonderfully cathartic combat. You never won't enjoy the snap of the Threaded Cane switching forms, the satisfaction of pulling off a riposte, or just recovering from your wounds in an instant as you cut through a crowd of maddened villagers like a scythe through grass. It's real and unreal. It's hideous and gorgeous. It's a nightmare and a dream. And in that sense I guess it captured madness perfectly. —Joel Franey

Dutch probably talking about one of his "plans." | Rockstar Games

11. Red Dead Redemption 2

Release Date: October 26, 2018
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Red Dead Redemption 2 might be the most polarizing triple-A game of the past decade. Its control scheme is, by all accounts, old-feeling. Rockstar, stubborn as ever, seems to remain content to march its own path, ignoring years of progress in action-adventure open-worlds. Still, we found ourselves loving the sluggish movement of Red Dead Redemption 2, and it ended up being our favorite game of 2018 in spite of it. Even moving Arthur forward feels like a challenge, as the clumsy, perpetually filthy man would bump into anyone within a foot of him.

I played Red Dead Redemption 2 mighty slowly. I would go off on multi-day hunts, bringing meat and fur back to my camp. Once, I was away from camp so long that one of my fellow gang members rode up on me one day, asking why I hadn't been home in so long. The story of Arthur Morgan and everyone around him gripped me as it weaved a tragic tale of how illness can strip a person of all they once were. Red Dead Redemption 2 may break your heart, but like no other open-world game in the 2010s, it makes you feel like you actually lived every step.

However, The astounding qualities of Red Dead Redemption 2 are impossible to divorce from the developer who made it. It was developed by all of Rockstar Games' studios, rather than just Rockstar San Diego like the first game, under immense crunch. Employees reported the company cultivating a "culture of fear" due to the tough pressure they had to work under. Sadly, triple-A studios pressuring their employees to work unhealthy amounts of hours—often under low wages—was a startling trend this past decade. It was nothing new for Rockstar when reports first surfaced, but hopefully, the spotlight it got will make it the last. Don't overwork your employees; trust us, no one cares about the realism of horse testicles. —Caty McCarthy

10. Mass Effect 2

Release Date: January 26, 2010
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

In the first few minutes of Mass Effect 2, BioWare blows up the Normandy and launches Commander Shepard, the protagonist meant to evolve with the player's choices over the course of the series, into the vacuum of space. When they come to, years have passed and the events of the first game have faded in the span of seconds.

You're not a paragon of the Citadel's elite Spectre force. You're a rogue agent brought back from the dead. Humans are being abducted from the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and the only people who care are some former antagonists. Commander Shepard spends most of the game operating outside of the law. The Paragon and Renegade interrupts reflect this—you're not making speech checks, but the choice to sabotage a helicopter or throw a henchman off a skyscraper. Commander Shepard makes for a good Paragon of humanity, but they can also make a good space outlaw when the need arises.

Mass Effect 2 modernized the series, overhauled the combat, and added a fresh batch of characters that filled out the darker, seedier edges of the galaxy Shepard would explore. It's a constant ramp up to a Dirty Dozen-style suicide run to stop the Collectors, where your crew's lives are on the line with each choice you make. That deadly crucible forged one of the most lasting pieces of Mass Effect, heightened by the attachment built for each one of the new Normandy's squadmates, from returning members like Garrus and Tali to endearing newcomers ilke Mordin and Thane. It was one of the best RPGs of its time, and easily stands the test of time today. —Eric Van Allen

Undertale has the whole package: a moving story, an excellent soundtrack, and a combat system where you can respect someone's boundaries. | Toby Fox

9. Undertale

Release Date: September 15, 2015
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch

Undertale made me a better person.

Whenever somebody asks why I love this game so much, that's always the response that comes to mind. Undertale took the "choice" that so many RPGs and action games always seemed so proud of—to kill or not to kill—and went further with it than any game before or since, turning its mortal characters into something more than a scoreboard for morality or resources to be managed. There's no mechanical benefit to being a good person, no prize to be won or special achievement to be awarded; just natural consequences and all the characters' hopes and dreams on the line. Toby Fox doubled down on the idea that the strength of the writing would be enough to make his audience want to do the right thing, and in doing so made one of the most affecting games of all time.

Even beyond that, there's something endlessly lovable about a game that reflects the sheer effort and care with which it was crafted. Each monster is memorably charming and offers new challenges. The meta-commentary on gaming is smart and sly enough that it never gets annoying, the soundtrack is almost unrivalled and the emotional moments hit like a punch to the gut. It's a game that can switch between humor, guilt, triumph, sadness, and horror in an instant. And yet, somehow it never feels discordant. It just feels human.

And no, it's not perfect: Some of the puzzles are a bit vestigial and the mid-section is probably longer than it needs to be, but when I look back on Undertale, I never find myself thinking about those things. I find myself thinking of a soft, tearful hug shared between two kids in striped jumpers at the end of a long, painful journey, forging a moment of connection as brief as it is undeniable, and it breaks my heart a little every time.

Undertale made me a better person. And because of that, I'll love it forever. —Joel Franey

The approval process gets more and more invasive as Papers, Please goes on. | 3909 LLC

8. Papers, Please

Release Date: August 8, 2013
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation Vita, iOS

Are you altruistic, or do you care more about your own family? Papers, Please is a game that doesn't let either decision go down easy. In Papers, Please, you play as an immigration officer working at the border of a fictional communist country. Day in, day out, you overlook immigrants looking to come into the state, ensuring all their documents are there and correct. You let some through, you reject others.

The deeper you get into the partially scripted, partially procedurally generated game, the more harrowing it gets. The rules for which you can approve people for entry grows stricter; the stories you hear from foreigners trying to come into the country just get sadder and sadder. All the while, you're hoping you can do your job well enough to keep making money to pay for heat, food, and maybe medicine for your family back home.

Papers, Please is never a pleasant game, and it never pretends to be anything else. That's what makes it so particularly affecting in the scope of indie games of the decade. It was discussed on mainstream media like NPR for how it challenged complicity when living under an oppressive government. Today, its message rings louder than it ever did before, like the chimes of its theme. —Caty McCarthy

Titanfall 2's campaign is short and sweet. | Respawn Entertainment/EA

7. Titanfall 2

Release Date: October 28, 2016
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Titanfall 2 has one of the best first-person shooter campaigns ever. Anyone who is into shooters should play it. People who're interested in level design for all kinds of games should study it. Electronic Arts should, someday, hand over a large pile of money to Respawn Entertainment for a sequel, along with an apology note for having scheduled it for release right between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Campaign aside, Respawn also made a ridiculously fluid and fun shooter sandbox that both elevated the multiplayer experience from the original Titanfall and serves as the basis for everything that feels great about the movement and gunplay in Apex Legends. Everything from the slick mantling and sliding to the plodding gait of your Titan feels so refined that when you play other games that go for something similar, they'll almost assuredly feel "off."

Heck, it even feels like some of the best character moments with BD-1 in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order are just trying to recapture the magic of BT-7274. Titanfall 2 has enough great ideas, inspired moments, and polished mechanics in it to prop up three or more full games. You could argue that other recent first-person shooters fall short of a bar Titanfall 2 set, but there's a difference between being a great game and a game that endures in the memory. Other ludicrously well-made shooters will come and go, but Titanfall 2 has just the right stuff to make it last forever.—Mathew Olson

Hitman's episodic structure meant that each level got its own little spotlight for months at a time. | IO Interactive

6. Hitman

Release Date: March 11, 2016
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Rig an ejector seat to trigger early. Put a bomb in somebody's smartwatch. Suffocate a man in his own birthday cake. Throw a target's replacement heart into a trash can before they can get their scheduled transplant. Poison, choke, stab, shoot and scheme your way to another gruesome victory, then disappear into the crowd like you were never there at all. Or throw a pair of scissors at the target's head and run away whooping like a chimp, it's up to you.

After the disappointing Hitman: Absolution, 2016's reboot of the franchise feels like a bolt from the blue even today, made fantastic by some of the best level design in the business. Its textured, vibrant locales disguise multi-faceted puzzles that are all designed to lead you to the same prize: a chalk outline. I always take a moment in each mission to just stop and appreciate the landscape, at least before I smear it with blood.

And then of course there's the episodic structure. Releasing a game in chunks is certainly nothing new—Telltale had that covered for years, and even Valve was doing it with Half-Life at one point—but Hitman was the first to build its game around the episodic structure. Missions themselves are hugely replayable. Every time you enter a level you can do it differently, the whole dynamic changing depending on whether you go in with a thin syringe or a coil of wire.

So that makes Hitman clever, but perhaps what makes it genius is its subtle approach to humor, and the pervasive idea that Agent 47 is only so good at what he does because everybody else is an idiot. Older Hitman games tried to ignore their own silliness or conceal it with a grindhouse aesthetic. But the reboot embraced it, playing up its own absurdity and adding a tonal goofiness to proceedings; one that works very well when the world is full of obvious death traps that nobody else has noticed. It's not a gritty spy thriller, it's a dark comedy about an incompetent murderer in a world where every other person is a self-absorbed fool. We wouldn't have it any other way. —Joel Franey

5. Nier: Automata

Release Date: February 23, 2017
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

On paper, it seems like a miracle Nier: Automata even happened. Nier was a cult classic, but for a sequel, PlatinumGames was brought in to help deliver a more action-oriented game. It was a completely new experience: a world of robots, left behind to carry out endless wars by distant creators.

Throughout Nier: Automata, you play as the various androids that battle it out in the ruins of Earth and grow increasingly attached to each one. Automata is ostensibly an action game, though it isn't the action itself that gets really interesting, but the way it folds its systems over and over again. When you hack an enemy, it turns into a top-down shooter; when you get to some segments, it's a 2D action game instead of 3D. When you take to the skies, it's almost bullet hell. Throughout its story, Nier: Automata rarely dawdles.

As the narrative moves forward, each protagonist struggles to deal with developing senses of independence and original thought. All the while, things fall apart around them. Nier: Automata is rarely a happy story, in the conventional sense. As each ending repeats stark conclusions over and over, it seems like there is no hope for every character to emerge unscathed.

Then you reach Ending E. Backed up against insurmountable odds, you decide these androids deserve a better future, and you literally fight the game itself to build it. And when all hope seems lost, you're joined by countless others. It's incredibly good, and ends on a single choice, asking whether you're willing to be as selfless as those that helped you. Nier: Automata feels so self-contained and singularly excellent that it's hard to ever say it's the best of something, whether some genre or platform or other definition. It is simply good, in a way that shines brighter than almost any other game this decade. —Eric Van Allen

Minecraft ignited the creativity of a whole generation, and then some. | Mojang

4. Minecraft

Release Date: November 18, 2011
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Nintendo Switch, New Nintendo 3DS, iOS, Android

Minecraft wasn't the first game of its type. Zachtronics had already released the open-source multiplayer game Infiniminer in 2009, and that title was key in the development of what became Minecraft. But the history of games and art is littered with homages, clones, and mutations. Infiniminer might've been first, but Minecraft is what captured the imagination of people everywhere, especially young kids.

What Minecraft harkens back to is when we used to play with Lego blocks as children. It's a wide open sandbox with clearly defined rules: these parts go together in this way. It has aspects of survival games, but it's not bound to them too tightly. There's death, but it's not punitive or permanent. There's no score. There is an ending, but that was added after the game's initial release, and many of Minecraft's most fervent players have never even seen it.

Minecraft just drops you into a randomly generated world and says, "Go out there and have fun." You get out of it what you're willing to put in. Maybe you build a simple house, a vast farm, or a majestic castle. Some players spend weeks creating grand projects, whether it be recreations of Star Trek's Enterprise or Lord of the Rings' Minas Tirith. Others have created complex calculators or fully functional Game Boys. That openness and flexibility is why Minecraft is so important. It allows young children to engage with their imaginations in an almost limitless way.

There are even more "gamey" examples of the Minecraft formula, like Terraria, Starbound, and Dragon Quest Builders. Minecraft works because it's part game and part tool; It's a toy box that you can enjoy alone, or with your friends and family, making creations and learning the limits of your imagination. Few games can say that, while still remaining as fun as Minecraft. —Mike Williams

"Hearts of Stone" is a superb 10-hour campaign, and possibly the highlight of all of The Witcher 3. | CD Projekt Red

3. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Release Date: May 19, 2015
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

We have written ad nauseam about The Witcher 3's greatness in the past. It landed at number three on our Top 25 RPGs of All Time list for a myriad of reasons, one of them being its excellent host of characters, from Geralt to Ciri. It's the story between those two in particular that helped The Witcher 3 stand out this past generation. In a decade where games about dads became commonplace, The Witcher 3 was easily the best among them—and Geralt's just a surrogate dad, at that.

Even if you haven't played the first two Witcher games, The Witcher 3 is nonetheless enthralling. It takes RPG storytelling in bold directions; where a world torn apart by politics sees its citizens trying to pick up the pieces in any way they can. The Witcher 3 is full of digestible monster-of-the-week tales just as it is with grandiose plotting, and it all feeds into what makes The Witcher 3 a truly outstanding RPG: You're shaping Geralt, and how he sees the world rather than the world itself. Your relationships with characters like Ciri directly reflect all your choices, right up until the very end.

Its influence nowadays is seen far and wide. Practically every open-world game nowadays opens with a region akin to The Witcher 3's White Orchard—a soft open-world that introduces you to all the mechanics before it really lets you loose. Assassin's Creed Odyssey copied the vocal "haaaah" that signals you've completed a quest in its own way. The pedigree of The Witcher 3's storytelling has been cited by many developers as an immediate influence in recent years as well.

The Witcher 3 even houses two of the best DLC expansions, period, of this generation, like the haunting Hearts of Stone and the bittersweet Blood and Wine that introduces us to the fairytale-esque Toussaint kingdom. No matter how you slice it, The Witcher 3 is a fantastic adventure, and one of our absolute favorite games of the decade, and ever. —Caty McCarthy

Dark Souls' influence is everywhere. | FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

2. Dark Souls

Release Date: September 22, 2011
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

A few years back, we named Dark Souls the best game released since 2000, and little has changed in the years since. It's a hugely influential action game; one that still enjoys a significant following to this day.

When it was released in 2011, it made no bones about flouting the design conventions of the period. Where many games dismissed death penalties as outdated and overly punishing, Dark Souls unceremoniously dumped you back at a distant checkpoint and took away your money to boot. The need for tutorialization was accepted as a given, but Dark Souls rarely told you more than you needed to know (and would even allow for other players to intentionally mislead you). It presented a gothic world full of mystery and intrigue, filled with sun-saluting knights and huge talking cats.

It's been fascinating to watch the community that has grown up around Dark Souls in the years since. Entire books are dedicated to unraveling its dense lore. A whole culture has grown up around its competitive multiplayer, with its own set of customs. It transformed FromSoftware into one of the most revered studios in gaming.

And it holds up. We're still talking about Dark Souls after all these years, and still finding new ways to play and enjoy it. People speedrun it; they play it blindfolded; they play it with Donkey Kong Bongo Drums. When a new action game comes out, like last year's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, or God of War the year before, it's automatically compared to Dark Souls. It speaks to why we shouldn't get too hung up on bugs or frame rate issues when playing a game. Those problems can eventually be fixed, as Dark Souls' issues were fixed in the 2018 remaster, but great design lasts forever. —Kat Bailey

Hyrule has never been more exciting to explore. | Nintendo

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Release Date: March 3, 2017
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U

Every Legend of Zelda game has its own unique strength. A Link to the Past set a standard for puzzles that modern games are still measured against. Ocarina of Time revolutionized how we play 3D adventure games. And Breath of the Wild set a bar for overworld design that's high enough to touch the Goddess' domain. Whenever I turn on Breath of the Wild—even if it's just for a moment to verify something for an article—I automatically summon one of my horses and take off across the rolling hills. I don't need a goal, I don't need a final destination. I just take great joy in galloping to the ends of post-Great Calamity Hyrule.

Hyrule's always been one of my favorite game worlds to visit because it has so many identifiable traits that endure from game to game. Nintendo took everything that makes Hyrule special and built an enormous world that sprawls, but never feels boring. Breath of the Wild has icy peaks and deep trenches, and none of them are cut off from you. Whatever you can see on the horizon is yours to conquer. Is a mountain in your way? Dust off your hands and climb over it.

There's only one problem with Breath of the Wild's majestic overworld: The game's dungeons feel a little confined by comparison. It's clear where Nintendo put its focus when designing Breath of the Wild, and I'm OK with that. We never got a chance to explore much of an overworld in Skyward Sword on the Wii, so getting to cut loose for the first time in years felt exhilarating. Just hook me up to an I.V. when Breath of the Wild 2 comes out, because I have no plans to surface until I'm good and ready. —Nadia Oxford

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