5. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, Wii U/Switch, 2017)
I’ll be frank in proclaiming the Wii and DS era bookend what I dub “The Dark Age of Zelda“. This is said with much respect as I can muster for both Twilight Princess and Phantom Hourglass — the former for whatever ambition wasn’t tethered to an exhausted formula, the latter for thinking outside the box with DS’s touch controls — yet those and the mediocrity that followed in Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were routinely peppered with bloated tutorials, endless back-and-forth fetch quests, and ill-conceived concepts in repeated landscapes/dungeons. 25th Anniversary orchestras and golden Wii Remotes couldn’t mask series burnout, leaving Eiji Aonuma’s Zelda team no choice but to brush up their sleeves in reinventing the wheel.
Cue The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — designed with the purposes of demolishing everything we knew about Zelda for its “open-air” environment, this post-apocalyptic Hyrule is now a massive puzzle in itself. Bokoblin forts are stationed everywhere, prime for frontal assault or sneak attacks with sniped arrows or Remote Bombs. Shrines and little Korok puzzles litter the landscape, grabbing our attention with misplaced rocks or flower circles cultivated by violent anthophiles. Wildlife teems about, falling prey to our endless quest for recipe experimentation. Simply because you can, the cliff beckons behind Hateno Village’s resident professor’s home, and we para-glide off into the deep blue sea below; who knows, you might find a side-quest waiting just for you.
My observation of Breath of the Wild as a rough draft is hardly meant to dissent from its universal acclaim; indeed, I have no qualms with Link’s open-air odyssey running away with innumerable Game of the Decade honors. Yet when I look back upon its most cited flaws — homogeneous, cookie-cutter dungeons being one, weapon-breaking discouraging use of our most powerful tools being another — I bear no grudge at Nintendo’s missteps, for I’d much rather they to fail at reinventing the wheel than stubbornly clinging to suffocating, patronizing ideals. Most of all, I take solace in knowing none of it smothers the game’s innate physicality and curiosity — that I can begin my adventure anew and still find new methods of play speaks to its mystifying spell of discovery. That the prospect of a Rune Bomb-only run continues to tempt is Zelda to me.
Best Moment: Can you say, Hyrule Castle? A solitary march to save our princess, these Guardian-ridden ruins enforce every strategy from stealth to combat as we trek through lasers, rain, and hidden Lynels throwing down the gauntlet. Of course, that’s only if you didn’t rush in first thing for speed-run daredevil purposes. Such dauntless flexibility renders it a masterclass in engagement, difficulty, and storytelling.
Worst Moment: “Woohoo, I just survived Hyrule Castle! Alright, now to fight Gan-wait, that’s it? Really? Uh…”
Best Song: Hyrule Castle, again. I was hard on the dungeons earlier, but I’d like to think phenomenally-atmospheric pieces like Van Medoh and the Final Trial match the ambition their set-pieces attempt to achieve.
Final Thoughts: So…will Breath of the Wild 2 drop this year?
4. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Nintendo, 3DS, 2012/2013)
In a way, I’m glad 2008’s creatively-bankrupt Animal Crossing: City Folk received such tepid reception, as that little “let’s just brush up the DS game and call it a day” mishap inspired Nintendo to get their rears in gear and “make something our customers can really enjoy.” Given the hundreds of hours that ensued over the span of 4+ years in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I’d say that goal was achieved — as an introvert who spares far too much time for video games, the appeal in Animal Crossing lies within its capitalist-friendly escapism in doing whatever I want. Yes, the daily grind of trading fish and gemstones for Bells can tire, but it’s how I ultimately hoard money that that makes it click — I could, for instance, lay about in the village and shoot the breeze as I hunt for ore or go fishing or head down to Tortimer Island to catch rare bugs and go for a swim. I expand my house, install benches and merry-go-rounds, and occasionally indulge in frivolous shopping sprees.
But I don’t always feel like working, and Animal Crossing respects that in my circle of bipedal talking animal friends (all evocatively voiced by a wonderfully-localized Treehouse script), my drive for downloading clothing patterns (as seen above, I made a Woody outfit; naturally, aside from constructing a Toy Story-themed home, I abused my position as Mayor — personally dubbed as “sheriff — to initiate made-up curfews; a bug net wallop for any hapless loiterers!), and, yes, penned my neighbors raving gibberish for no reason other than laughs and their automated bemusement. Cathartic as it is riveting, New Leaf celebrates the incidentally mundane, lauding our completed Town Projects in the same reverence as engaging its small wonders; to elaborate on the latter, I continued stumbling across little facets years after release that continually enriched my bachelor pad, not the least in learning I could renovate K.K. Slider’s air-checks into shell-powered music boxes. Naturally, that mind-blowing reveal instilled a mad rush towards Cyrus’s crafting services to satiate my aural curiosity; one after another, I’d place these sentimental machinations within my silent Sunnyside-inspired playroom — their wistful echoes resounding across my eternal neverland.
An endless cycle of inquisitive depth driven home by the Welcome amiibo update — an expansion riddled with Happy Home Designer-inspired QOL updates (no longer would I temporarily shelve the game fearing a beloved villager could move out!) and initiating Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival damage control in an amiibo-compatible trailer park (prime for new goodies!) all the while transplanting its awesome island survival mini-game — Nintendo’s commitment to refining one product (one embracing the value of community, as echoed by its passionate fanbase) years after the fact is a laudable feat of goodwill nearly without parallel within their game-making history. Topping it off with the decade’s cutest character in your lovely Shih Tzu assistant Isabelle, Animal Crossing: New Leaf wasn’t just the most wholesome Nintendo game I played this past decade; it was their most enriching 3DS game if only for granting the homely social life I never had — one I could tirelessly refine and dictate as I saw fit.
Worst Moment: I’d say when my favorite villager (Del, a grumpy alligator) moved out, but thankfully the magic of amiibo cards brought him back, so I guess I’ll cite that one time a friend came over donned in Fi gear from Zelda: Skyward Sword. STILL NOT FUNNY.
Final Thoughts: I’ll confess: I appreciated Animal Crossing: New Horizons‘s delay if only in that it wouldn’t compete for this spot! Couldn’t they have made the name a little less redundant, though?
3. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Namco-Bandai, Switch, 2018)
Following the intensive, life-consuming exhaustion of working on two Smash Bros. at once — a level of commitment involving everything from supervising spec documents reviewing every last line of code to circulating video instructions around the team — Masahiro Sakurai naturally honored the request of his late friend Satoru Iwata and diligently plunged right back into all that for a Switch entry. Topping off the hard work across two versions would already render itself a Herculean task, yet it turned out there was but one bullet-proof method: “Everyone is Here.”
In satisfying fan demands by achieving the impossible (that being, not enforcing a single character cut), a full-on miracle endures in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate — long has the series dispensed with handicapping itself about Nintendo’s celebration; no, the entire industry is its oyster. Everything from Mario to Persona to Shovel Knight melds together from nearly a thousand songs (and counting!), Spirit Battles cleverly representing characters from history’s past within the game’s roster (Pop Quiz: what lazy Pokémon is a giant, motionless black King K. Rool portraying?), Classic Mode playthroughs referencing the most obscure of gaming factoids (why is Ness fighting a blue-colored alt in Magicant?), Mii costumes (can you say, Sans from Undertale?), and yes, an endless treasure trove of meme-filled stage creator stages. (As the former No. 1 SpongeBob fan, you better believe I download every meticulously-recreated frame I scavenge from the online’s depths.)
True to form, it’s impossible to discuss the full appeal of Smash Bros. in three short paragraphs, so I’ll close it with this: alone, it’s admirable Mr. Sakurai continues looking out for the beginner player in everything from intrinsic controls and customized match set-ups; when applied to a monument as passionate and dedicated to gaming as we are, it’s an affirmation there’s a beating heart behind Ultimate‘s giddy geek-out over famous gaming landmarks (The Legend of Zelda) and esoteric one-offs (Hajimari no Mori). It’s a miracle I’m reminded of every day whenever I’m taking pics of flawlessly-timed character gaffes, setting hilariously unfitting final boss music on the nintendogs stage, and yes, every time my deceased brother takes to the stage as a Mii Fighter back on our old N64 haunts. Even if future games somehow supersede “Everyone is Here”, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a once-in-a-lifetime treasure I’ll cherish forever.
Best Moment: The impossible golden grail in Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie — after twenty godforsaken years of waiting — joining the battle to international delight was only the beginning of a long-held dream. My first eight-player match on Spiral Mountain — complete with Rare’s entire legacy and fellow N64 stars in Mario, Pikachu, Yoshi, and Young Link — duking it out to Masafumi Takada’s Banjo-Kazooie Main Theme was cartoon anarchy made reverence. Man tears were shed, I assure you.
Worst Moment: Realizing that even after a decade and the span of three (four?) games, Smash Bros. still can’t supply satisfactory online multiplayer. Also, hyperbole alert, but retaining abridged Melee arrangements in DK Rap and Pollyanna might possibly constitute as a war crime.
Best Arrangement: Oh dear, must I spoil our inevitable Top 25 Music Remixes list already? Let’s just say I still haven’t stopped channeling the joy a particular DLC track instills in me and leave it at that for now, shall we?
Final Thoughts: Who’s ready for the final Fighter’s Pass character reveal tomorrow? I know another swordfighter would be redundant, but at this point, nothing would make me happier than Tales of Symphonia‘s Lloyd Irving.
2. Pikmin 3 (Nintendo, Wii U, 2013)
Considering the excruciating anguish that was the nine-year wait between 2004’s Pikmin 2 and this Wii U sequel, that we’re repeating the same exact process with Pikmin 4 — a fleeting, offhand announcement by Shigeru Miyamoto, year after year of E3 no-shows, and an all-but-confirmed console shift — should be positively maddening. And yet if the end product’s anything like this slice of gaming perfection, I shan’t complain, for Wii U’s finest masterpiece in Pikmin 3 brilliantly bridges player choice and stress management into a most malleable survival adventure. With the help of those too-cute-for-words alien Pikmin, the Koppai recon team’s siphoned juice rations serve as our deadlines; in other words, the more fruit we gather, the more time we spend on PNF-404. It is a perfect marriage of the previous games’ time limit system, receptive to any player objectives in high-pressure speed-runs or slow-going completion.
For my tastes, however, there’s something poetic about how Pikmin straddles the line between comical jest and raw beauty. The contrast between its squat, inch-tall astronauts — our hapless avatars thrust into an uncharted world just as alien to us (or is it?) — and its tragic embodiment of the circle of life in our Pikmin soldiers — who wail away as hapless ghosts after being munched, burned, crushed and, well, you get the idea — appeal to the most evocative of human reaction throughout its hauntingly beautiful wildernesses. PNF-404’s romantic rainfalls are as hypnotic as they are dreary, coating our loss in numbers with bleak desolation. Life-like food’s littered about as enticingly delectable collectibles, the cold sploshing of refrigerated fruit juice rendering me parched for my golden nectar in Welch’s White Grape Juice. I find myself arrested when encountering bizarre new creatures (“how will they prey upon my army?”, I wonder), gasp upon sliding down snowy hills like water park rides, and leisurely embark on lily-pad rides. My curiosity’s lit aflame when, after wandering into a hollow oak, I whip out my GamePad camera and spot this etched within its wooden walls.
Inviting us further into its pint-sized world not merely in challenge (and I mean that literally — Challenge Mode is already a limitless source of replay value, what with the unique concepts in ant-farm perspectives and Christmas festivities) but in the incidental, Pikmin 3′s gentle curiosity encourages us to prod about its diminutive niches even as certain death looms ever closer; sometimes imminently, other times far off. A lesson in balancing responsibility while appreciating the little things, Pikmin 3‘s as precious as a fleeting dream, as cathartic in risk-taking accomplishment as it is joyfully reverent of china pot encampments.
Best Moment: Much of Pikmin 3 was shrouded in relative secrecy before its launch, so being gently coaxed back into the series’ oddball whimsy was a real treat.
Worst Moment: Boy, that Bingo Battle sure is an awesome multiplayer mode. Shame I haven’t played it more than three times thanks to no CPU options.
Final Thoughts: Switch port please, Nintendo! That Photo Mode was too good to die with Miiverse.