Year ends always generate top ten lists, though most video game rankings are restricted to the output of a single calendar year. For something a little different, here’s a list of my own top ten games from 2021 – all of which gave me a lot of entertainment in an otherwise odd year.
I’m of the view that great games never go out of date, and this list reflects that. None of these games were released in 2021, though most of these games are pretty well known. The list spans multiple platforms and console generations – the latest title here was released in 2020, while the earliest dates back to 2006. One, however, has just been almost completely rebuilt as of December 2021, with the original 2020 version no longer playable – more on that later. The only thing really connecting these games is that they’re games I played this year.
This list is really just for fun on my part. If you’re interested in picking up some titles for the New Year, you could definitely do worse than these suggestions.
10. Mario Kart 8 (2017, Nintendo Switch)
No surprises here! Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has been the default party game for a few years now, and deservedly so. The only reason this game isn’t higher on the list is that everyone already knows about it.
There’s very little that can be said about this game that hasn’t already been said. Simplicity is the selling point; this racing game is immediately accessible. Matches are short and rarely outstay their welcome, with enough tracks in here to keep things fresh on every session. While Mario Kart 8 rewards skill, the gameplay is reasonably balanced through a decent weapon variety to help level the playing field. Few players are ever likely to completely flounder, and the gameplay is so innately fun that you’ll still have a smile on your face when you lose.
With an increasing industry focus on online multiplayer only, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a simple treat without pretension. This is a game for friends to just get together around the TV and have fun – something we all need a bit more of these days.
9. Uncharted: Golden Abyss (2011, PS Vita)
Sony’s threatened closure of the PS3 and Vita stores earlier this year drew me to the oft-overlooked PS Vita for the first time. I’m glad I finally picked one up; the library on this remarkable little console is fantastic, giving the Nintendo Switch a real run for it’s money all the way back in 2011. No title better exemplifies Sony’s core concept of console-quality gaming on the go than Uncharted: Golden Abyss.
A prequel to Naughty Dog’s iconic adventure series, Golden Abyss offers everything you loved about the console games in a pocket-sized format. The graphics are stunning for a 2011 handheld release, putting everything on the Nintendo 3DS to shame and only now beginning to show it’s age. The exotic locations make the player feel like Indiana Jones, while combat is weighty and satisfying (if by no means revolutionary). The production quality is equally superb; Nolan North reprises his role as Nathan Drake in cinematics and dialogue worthy of the series’ heritage. The only slight misstep here is the inclusion of a few too many awkward touch-screen prompts that often break the immersion.
Golden Abyss has never ported off of the Vita – a bewildering decision given the popularity of the series and the quality of the title. While its by no means the best in the series (lacking the narrative stakes or the grand scale of later entries), Golden Abyss is a fine addition. Fans of the series should definitely make the effort to track down and check out this entry for themselves.
8. Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013, PC)
GTAV has dominated gaming since it’s initial release in 2013 – so much so that many gamers are becoming sick of it. I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with it, losing a lot of motivation to complete after accidentally losing a save file halfway through the campaign on a previous run. After a prolonged break, returning to the title this year has been a joy.
Like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, this is easily one of the best-known games on the list. Most of what can be said has already been said, so I won’t dwell on it much other than to say that the level of immersion and scale here is exactly what open-world developers should be aiming for. The size of the world is impressive without bearing overwhelming, and the locations feel lived-in and worth exploring rather than empty and full of cut-and-paste assets. The driving is tight, the shooting is fun, and the characters (and their interactions) are memorable.
In short, GTAV is simply chaotic fun. The irreverent, nihilistic humour is a breath of fresh air to revisit in our message-obsessed times. GTAV represents an escape: not just to a world in which players can revel in absurd criminal spectacle, but to a time when the world was a little bit less obsessed with propaganda, offering media was meant to entertain rather than “educate”. GTAV is a reminder that sometimes it’s okay to just have fun.
7. Super Monkey Ball Banana Splitz (2012, PS Vita)
The second PS Vita game on the list! I had no idea this game existed until after I’d bought my own Vita and was researching the library. Discovering that there was a full sequel to Super Monkey Ball – some of the best arcade gameplay on the GameCube – made this an immediate buy. Banana Splitz is a return to form for the series after a few dodgy sequels, and by far the closest to the original games.
Super Monkey Ball has always had an incredibly simple concept: just roll a ball (complete with monkey) to the goal, avoiding obstacles along the way. In reality, it’s frantic and tense action in the classic Sega tradition. Even now, this feels like a Dreamcast title, yet it’s right at home in handheld format on the Vita. The short, colourful stages are perfect for quick sessions on the train or bus – coming in at a minute or so in length. This is a game that makes a case for handheld consoles over smartphones and tablets – the precision of control here could never be replicated without a thumbstick (something the lesser Banana Blitz on Wii made all too clear with it’s poor motion controls).
Like Mario Kart, this is simple, accessible, challenging fun with gameplay that’s instantly understood yet difficult to master.
Shortly after purchasing, I learned of the Banana Mania release for Switch, now available for purchase and – by all accounts – a worthy remake of the first two games. By all means, that may be the best and most accessible way to experience Monkey Ball for new players, with the Switch’s handheld factor making the novelty of this game an irrelevance. Even so, Banana Splitz deserves credit for being a worthy follow-up to the originals.
6. Super Mario Odyssey (2017, Nintendo Switch)
Another well-known title, here! Very few Switch players won’t know about this game as one of the console’s big hitters at launch. Super Mario Odyssey builds on the foundations set down in previous 3D Mario games and delivers something truly special, keeping the plumber just as fresh as if the original Donkey Kong had been released yesterday.
It’s hard to describe Odyssey as unique compared to it’s immediate predecessors. Instead, the magic here lies not in doing things radically differently, but in doing them better. Mario handles here in a way familiar to anyone who has played the earlier titles, yet he’s let loose in a new world of scale unlike anything seen in earlier titles. Whether riding a dinosaur or exploring a knock-off New York city, the environments are distinct and creative in a way few modern platformers manage to be – all the while feeling like a natural fit for the character. The additional gimmick of being able to take control some of Mario’s enemies – goombas, koopa troopers and more – adds variety to the gameplay without ever feeling cluttered or unfocused.
The plot is nothing to write home about (no prizes for guessing who’s been kidnapped again), but Odyssey represents the culmination of decades of fine-tuning. Whether a series veteran or novice, Nintendo has delivered a solid experience that stands among the series’ best.
5. Tomb Raider Legend (2006, X-Box)
Now we’re going back… I picked up my copy of Tomb Raider Legend for the original X-Box all the way in 2006, and remember picking it up after school, carrying it home wedged between textbooks. It remained unfinished – presumably, I got stuck.
My disappointment with Lara’s characterisation in recent series’ instalments motivated me to give the game another spin this year, and – having finished a full run of the campaign – I can confidently say this stands as one of the best in the franchise.
Legend is notable for being a reboot, resetting the series with a new timeline and a new developer. As a result, the controls here are much more fluid that the PlayStation originals – Lara doesn’t feel like a tank, but handles like an agile acrobat. While some of the gameplay does feel a little dated in 2021 (particularly gunplay, which isn’t as weighty or dynamic as it could be), the environments are imaginative and varied. This game is a clear inspiration for the Uncharted series that followed, with much of that series’ DNA embedded here. The only real problem is the presence of some flat motorcycle sections – a fun inclusion at first, but one which quickly outstays it’s welcome.
Recent games have portrayed Lara as a vulnerable, passive protagonist lacking agency and forced into circumstances beyond her control. Here, Keeley Hawes plays a Lara Croft with a quiet confidence and a daredevil demeanour, supported by a solid script that gives her personal stakes. The story here won’t win any awards, but the characterisation is spot on. After around a decade of “weak-Lara”, it’s a joy to revisit her in her prime – the badass heroine we deserve.
4. Resident Evil 7 (2017, PS4)
A late entry – but a good one! After a few false starts where Resident Evil 7 never “clicked” for me, I picked it up again in December and blitzed through it in a matter of days. A phenomenal entry in an already impressive series, more than making up for the bombastic-but-shallow Resident Evil 6. This game serves as both a soft-reboot and direct sequel; a comfortable entry point for new players, and a rewarding follow-up with connections for long-time fans.
Ditching the traditional over-the-shoulder gameplay, Resident Evil 7 goes first-person – upping the immersion considerably. The game feels akin to a twisted version of Metroid Prime; with cautious exploration at the fore, tempered with the gradual discovery of the backstory through scraps of notes and environmental clues. Anyone expecting a first-person shooter is sorely mistaken; resources – particularly ammo – are scarce, and running in guns blazing will get you killed. A lot. Combat is a last resort here, with the focus on avoidance and survival.
The game is dripping with atmosphere and tension. Exploring the house here feels like a natural follow-up to exploring the mansion of the original game, though this time stalked by Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired psychopaths. The sense of dread and isolation here is overwhelming, and there were several moments I felt myself genuinely panic. This is not a game for the faint of heart, but for those brave enough to try it, there’s a lot of glorious, gory satisfaction to be had.
3. Tearaway (2013, PS Vita)
The final PS Vita entry on the list! Tearaway was a genuine contender for my top spot: a charming, breezy, happy game that leaves you with a smile on your face and warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart. It’s a tragedy that this game isn’t better known (despite being ported to the PS4), and sad to think that there will likely never be a sequel.
Developed by the team behind Little Big Planet as a showcase for the PS Vita, Tearaway succeeds both as a feature-rich demonstration of the interactive potential of Sony’s handheld, as well as a carefree adventure in a unique papercraft world. The gameplay variety here is staggering – you’ll touch your Vita, twist and rotate it, shake it, talk to it, use your rear camera to create in-game textures, and use the front camera to appear in the game as a character. Players can customise their avatars with a variety of assets, and are even directed to online instructions on how to create your own real-world versions of the cut-out characters you’ll meet on your journey.
The unique control methods here give Nintendo and the Switch a run for their money, but the real star here is in the level of personality on display. This game alone is a justification for purchasing the PS Vita, and I’m making it a personal mission to get more people to play it. Tearaway is just far too good to be forgotten, and deserves a second chance at stardom.
2. Bioshock (2007, X-Box 360)
Fourteen years later, and Bioshock remains just as distinct, iconic, and “complete” an experience now as it did when first released. Somehow, I’d never gotten around to completing it despite completing it’s sequel, Bioshock Infinite. This year, I finally went back to restart and finish the game. In the process, I experienced one of the most impressive narratives in gaming, all leading to a phenomenal twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming.
Almost everyone knows about Bioshock, so – again – there’s little I can add that hasn’t already been said. For my own part, I found the art design and atmosphere to be the most impressive element. Few spaces in gaming have such a strong identity – most drawing on tropes from science fiction and medieval fantasy. The underwater art-deco world of Rapture is so fully-realised that it feels like a real place: a hidden city. Rapture isn’t just a setting, but a political allegory – the whole place crumbling, flooding, collapsing in time with the madness of it’s increasingly deranged, self-mutilated citizenry. There is a genuine sense of being trapped in these maze like corridors, and you wonder how your protagonist can possible escape this madhouse.
It’s not quite perfect. The combat can occasionally feel a bit clunky, and the sounds of security alarms and robots can become quickly grating. The latter portion of the game can drag at points, and the climax can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown after so much build-up.
Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. Bioshock is fantastical, unsettling, strangely authentic, and unforgettable. The environmental storytelling here is one of the finest experiences in gaming, and if you haven’t tried it yet, it’s one you need to experience for yourself to truly appreciate.
1. Call of Duty Warzone (2020, PS4)
The game I played most in 2021 was – without question – Call of Duty Warzone on the PS4. A spin-off from the (very good) Modern Warfare reboot in 2019, Warzone is the first time I’ve really gotten into an online gaming experience with friends since Phantasy Star Online all the way back on the Sega Dreamcast.
If you’ve played Call of Duty before, you’ll feel right at home, only this time you’re teamed with up to three friends in a match of up to 150 players in a gigantic battleground. Teams can strategize, hunt down other players, go on their own missions, and explore a gigantic map with many unique locations. At it’s core, though, you’re simply having fun with your friends; imagine a Zoom call with solid, competitive gameplay instead of awkward faces on a webcam. It’s remarkable to think that we can achieve something of this scale on modern gaming hardware, with players teaming up across different hardware – whether PC or X-Box or PS4. We could only dream about this in the olden days of Doom and GoldenEye.
I feel it may be time to think about stepping away from Warzone. For one thing, it’s a time sink. Friends are often busy people: we’re often arranging meet ups in the late evening after work, and – given the game is incredibly addictive, sessions rarely last less than three hours, often dragging near to midnight. Accordingly, the game can’t help but regularly impact my sleep cycle and send me to bed too stimulated to easily sleep. It’s just so hard to resist “just one more game” when you’re with friends and motivated to end on a high, and the game knows how to erode that willpower.
As much as I’ve loved running around these maps, there is a sense of repetition that’s started to creep in. The game glitches constantly, and the constant need to download updates before playing – often for hours at a time – has regularly prevented planned sessions from even taking place. The game demands an obscene amount of hard drive space, and it’s hard not to feel a bad taste about the expansive maps that developers have spent hours building being simply discarded whenever a new one appears, and the new pacific map hasn’t gripped me so far, simply feeling like an advert for another full-priced game (which it is).
There is a lot that’s broken here – often lagging, or crashing, and there are countless videos on YouTube of the bugs that still need to be ironed out. Features are regularly changed and removed on the whims of the developer – usually to promote the latest paid game release. The skill division is also very unbalanced; some players are clearly experts and dominate inexperienced players (to say nothing of the well-documented cheaters with hacked weapon lock-on), making the game a frustrating experience for newcomers. Additionally, the game barely explains the basic rules – unless someone experienced tells you how the mechanics work, you’ll be lost, making it an inaccessible and fairly unwelcoming experience.
For the moment, Warzone remains the best way to socialise with so many friends that I haven’t seen during the pandemic. Yet there’s a huge opportunity for a competitor to step in and surpass it – such as Halo Infinite or Battlefield 2042 (if they can get the bugs worked out). For all the thrills and memories it’s given me this year, it’s hard not to feel Warzone is on borrowed time.