25 Best Years In Video Game History

Where does 2023 rank on our updated list of the best years in video game history?

Best Years in Gaming History
Photo: Nintendo, Activision, 2K Games

While it can sometimes be difficult to separate one gaming year from another when we try to recall them from memory, the fact of the matter is that some years are significantly better than others. Indeed, it can sometimes feel…strange to realize that a handful of years played host to a stunning collection of some of the absolute best games ever made.

Before we get into our picks for the best years in video game history, though, let’s take a look at some of the criteria I used to determine the selections and rankings you’ll find on this list:

  • The number of quality games released in a given year was the biggest determining factor when it came to both the years they were selected and where they are ranked. Simply put, the more great games released in a particular year, the better.
  • The historical significance of the games released in a particular year was one of the biggest “tiebreaker” factors. If the games released in a specific year had a bigger impact on the industry over a longer period of time, that year was more likely to outrank other great years.
  • Other determining factors included the diversity of those great games released in a given year, how evenly those great games were spread across all available platforms, and, when appropriate, how well those games have aged.
  • In most cases, a game’s release year was considered to be the year that it was first made available in any country or for any platform. For instance, Pokémon‘s 1996 release in Japan makes it a 1996 game. However, I will mention a few times when the widespread release of a game was accounted for when talking about the highlights of a specific year. There may also be times when a game was significantly altered for one region (or platform) in such a way that basically made it a different title.
  • While industry events such as the release of a new console may have impacted the overall rankings, it ultimately all comes back to the quality of games released that year. After all, a new console doesn’t mean as much at first if it doesn’t come out of the gate with some truly great games.

With that out of the way, here are the 25 best years in video game history:

Super Mario Bros. NES

25. 1985

Notable Game Releases: Super Mario Bros., Gauntlet, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Gradius, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, The Oregon Trail (graphics version)

Ad – content continues below

It’s oddly appropriate that we’re kicking off this list by talking about 1985. After all, that was the year that really kicked off the modern video game industry following the great video game crash of 1983. 

By successfully launching the Nintendo Entertainment System in the U.S., Nintendo was able to restore faith in the entire concept of at-home console gaming. Aided by the revolutionary (and still remarkably fun) Super Mario Bros., Nintendo was starting to make it clear that console gaming now had an identity that was so much more than “lesser versions of arcade games you can play at home.” It would take them a little while to really get where they were going (more on that in a bit), but the NES’ debut remains nothing less than a minor gaming miracle. 

At the arcades, titles like Space Harrier and Hang-On were furthering the golden age of Sega arcade classics, while Gauntlet introduced many to the joys of multiplayer dungeon crawling. Elsewhere, Ultima 4 was defying role-playing expectations that the Ultima series helped create, while the visual version of The Oregon Trail would soon give children everywhere an excuse to play games at school. 

While not the heaviest hitter ever from a sheer software perspective, it could easily be argued that 1985 helped pave the way for the rest of the years we’ll soon be discussing. 

Batman: Arkham Asylum

24. 2009

Notable Game Releases: Left 4 Dead 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2, Demon’s Souls, Dragon Age Origins

There were quite a few years fighting for the bottom few spots on this list. Nearly all of them were years either defined by a few major titles or the release of a series of somewhat underrated games. Choosing between them wasn’t easy, but the more I looked at 2009, the more I realized that it was a really good year that happened to be surrounded by slightly better ones. 

Ad – content continues below

This really was the year of sleeper hits. Borderlands, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Trials HD, and Flower truly came out of nowhere, while Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Killzone 2 all exceeded the expectations set by their (still very good) predecessors. Elsewhere, Modern Warfare 2, Dragon Age Origins, Forza Motorsport 3, and Left 4 Dead 2 met the considerable expectations set by those franchises and developers. 

However, I feel like this year was truly defined by the release Demon’s Souls. That game properly kicked off the Soulsborne genre and started some necessary (if divisive) conversations about the state of game design that continue to impact the industry to this day.

2009 is one of those years that keeps looking better as time goes on. 

Sonic the Hedgehog

23. 1991

Notable Game Releases: Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter 2, Super Castlevania 4, Final Fantasy 4

Like some of the years at the bottom of this list, 1991 is filled with obvious highlights (such as the games listed above, just to name a few), and a slightly weaker collection of smaller new releases. However, the thing that elevates this year over some close competition is how it illustrates the diversity of successes the gaming industry was beginning to enjoy. 

This was a year that saw Street Fighter 2’s arcade release top the overall revenue charts ahead of some considerable arcade competition (and kick off an arcade gaming renaissance in the process). It was the year that saw the handheld Nintendo Game Boy win the hardware sales race while Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog became the best-selling console game of the year. Even still, the Game of the Year awards that existed back then were split between those titles and other masterpieces like Final Fantasy 4.

Ad – content continues below

1991 is perhaps best remembered as the year that confirmed the industry was not only healing but was about to grow in ways that nobody had anticipated.

22. 1987

Notable Game Releases: Contra, Punch-Out!!, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Double Dragon, Metal Gear

I really struggled with how to rank this year against another great year from the ‘80s we’ll soon be discussing. While the historical significance of that other year’s best games gave it a slight edge, 1987 really was a tremendous year for a golden age of gaming. 

Contra, Punch-Out, Metal Gear, Double Dragon, Mega Man, Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy…this is the year that some of the biggest and best console franchises in gaming got their start. The industry was expanding, and developers were doing whatever they could to help stand out. There were even a few great games released this year that didn’t become massive franchises (such as Rygar, Sid Meir’s Pirates, and The Magic of Scheherazade) that arguably deserved that honor. 

Strangely, this was also a big year for controversial sequels to popular games. Zelda 2, Castlevania 2, and Super Mario 2 all offered something different, and while I can’t say I think all of those games are great, I love the fact that developers were already willing to think outside of the box. 

This is quite simply one of the most stacked gaming years of the ‘80s. 

Ad – content continues below

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

21. 2003

Notable Game Releases: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Call of Duty, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, Final Fantasy X-2

For me, 2003 was defined by its incredible collection of what you could perhaps refer to as the “other” games. 

Titles like The Simpsons Hit and Run, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Call of Duty, Beyond Good and Evil, Rise of Nations, and Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge weren’t really on everyone’s radar at the start of the year in terms of the biggest new releases. Yet, each of those games (and more like them) would forge a legacy that lasts in our hearts to this day. 

Even some of the seemingly biggest games of the year caught many by surprise. Most notably, Knights of the Old Republic came along and introduced a generation of console gamers to role-playing concepts that had previously been limited to the PC gaming scene. It’s arguably the best game from a year that saw hits come from the most unexpected places.

Doom game

20. 1993

Notable Game Releases: Doom, Myst, Mortal Kombat 2, Day of the Tentacle, NBA Jam, Star Fox, Kirby’s Adventure

Though 1993 featured its fair share of notable sequels, it is ultimately a year that should be remembered as a uniquely experimental time for the video game industry. 

Ad – content continues below

Yes, that applies to “weird” titles like Shadowrun, Illusion of Gaia, and Syndicate which were most certainly a little ahead of their time. Yet, that experimental tag should also be applied to some of the new releases that ultimately defined 1993. Games like Doom, Myst, Star Fox, and Star Wars: X-Wing may feel like cultural cornerstones now, but they were all considered to be bold new swings at the time of their releases. Even some sequels like Day of the Tentacle and Sim City 2000 were trying to take their franchises into bold new places. 

It would take a little while for the industry to pick up some of those ideas and run with them, but 1993 was a tremendous year for those who root for something a little different. 

Earthbound SNES

19. 1994

Notable Game Releases: Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound, Donkey Kong Country, Mega Man X, Killer Instinct, System Shock

By 1994, it was becoming abundantly clear that the future of console gaming was near and would offer sights, sounds, and experiences rarely dreamed of. Before all that happened, though, one of the greatest console gaming generations ever was going to go out with a bang. 

The SNES’ already bountiful collection of RPG classics welcomed two of its most beloved entries (Final Fantasy VI and Earthbound) in 1994. SNES gamers who preferred a little more action found it in Super Metroid, Mega Man X, and Earthworm Jim. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Country was shattering expectations for what a SNES game could look like. 

Not to be outdone, Sega gifted Genesis fans with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Shining Force 2. Over on the PC, Wing Commander 3, System Shock, and DOOM II helped justify the significant barrier to entry PC gaming still suffered from at that time. Even the arcade came out swinging with Tekken, Killer Instinct, and Alien vs. Predator

Ad – content continues below

It’s a testament to the quality of 1994’s best games that so many of the best titles from this year are as enjoyable now as they ever were (maybe even more so). 

Mass Effect 2

18. 2010

Notable Game Releases: Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, Starcraft 2, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Metro 2033

Like some of the other years on this list, I feel like 2010’s proximity to other obviously great years in gaming makes it easy to overlook how incredible of a year for gaming it truly was. 

This was the year that Red Dead Redemption proved to be so much more than “GTA on a horse.” This was the year that Mass Effect 2, Starcraft 2, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 arguably surpassed their historically great predecessors. It was also the year that gave us one of the absolute best RPGs of the 2010s, Fallout: New Vegas

Elsewhere, Super Meat Boy and Limbo strengthened the argument that “indie” was the future of gaming, while Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Metro 2033 offered very different shooter experiences. If that wasn’t enough, Pokémon HeartGold & SoulSilver proved to be some of the best Pokémon games ever. 

I initially hesitated to put so many years from around this time on this list, but it was ultimately hard to deny what a great time for gaming that era really was. 

Ad – content continues below

Metroid NES

17. 1986

Notable Game Releases: Metroid, Dragon Quest, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Kid Icarus, OutRun

If 1985 was the year that restored many people’s faith in the very idea of home gaming, 1986 was the year that showed everyone that the industry was advancing in ways that even optimistic gamers couldn’t have quite anticipated. 

The incredible trio of Metroid, Dragon Quest, and The Legend of Zelda changed so many expectations for what a console game could (and should) be. Console games were suddenly much bigger and more complex than ever before but still somehow accessible enough to retain that crucial fun factor that drew people to gaming in the first place. It’s truly incredible that three of the most important console games of the ‘80s were released so close to each other. 

Rounding out the year was the exceptional Castlevania (which could honestly be lumped in with the other three games mentioned above), underrated games like Kid Icarus and Adventure Island, and the exceptional OutRun. There were just so many games released this year that either destroyed expectations in the best way possible or otherwise offered an exceptional version of an existing concept. 

GoldenEye 007 N64

16. 1997

Notable Game Releases: Goldeneye 007, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy 7, Mario Kart 64, Fallout

This was undoubtedly one of the toughest years to properly rank. The very best games of this year are simply exceptional and are rightfully often included among the most beloved games ever. However, the bottom of 1997’s lineup does start to fall out a bit from there. 

Ad – content continues below

Rather than focus on the negatives, though, let’s share some love for the year that gave us GoldenEye 007, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Final Fantasy 7. There are few “big three” releases from any other year on this list that can stand up to the strengths of those titles. 

Beyond that, you had games like Parappa the Rapper, Star Fox 64, Mario Kart 64, and Tomb Raider 2 becoming instant console hits, while Ultima Online, Total Annihilation, and Fallout were shaking up the PC gaming scene. Any gamer of a certain age will feel nostalgic for quite a few of the games of this year. 

While some of the biggest titles from this year haven’t aged as well as others, it’s ultimately hard to disparage this incredible time. 

Red Dead Redemption 2

15. 2018

Notable Game Releases: Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Celeste, Tetris Effect, Fortnite, Hitman 2

Like some of the other years on this list, 2018 is sometimes overshadowed by another year it’s near (in this case, 2017). However, 2018 is an ideal example of what the relatively modern gaming industry often strives to provide. 

2018’s biggest releases (Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, and Marvel’s Spider-Man) weren’t just exceptional games but the kinds of intelligent and innovative blockbusters that used famous names as an excuse to try something new (even if it was just something new for their developers). 2018 is also the year that gave us Fortnite and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: two titles that would occupy hours of millions of gamers’ time for years to come. 

Ad – content continues below

Yet, some of 2018’s best “other” games deserve to be talked about more than they sometimes are. Games like Divinity: Original Sin 2, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, Into the Breach, Return of the Obra Dinn, and The Messenger may have not set the world on fire upon their release but they remain exceptional experiences that recent years have been very kind to. Modern gaming is often at its best when indie and double-A developers are exploring new horizons between blockbuster releases, and 2018 is a nearly perfect example of the benefits of that (ideally) harmonious industry relationship.

Super Mario 64

14. 1996

Notable Game Releases: Super Mario 64, Resident Evil, Diablo, The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, Donkey Kong Country 3, Super Mario RPG

With the possible exception of another year we’ll talk about later on this list, few years offered a glimpse into the future of gaming as clearly as 1996 did. 

The highly-anticipated launch of the N64 also meant the debut of Super Mario 64: a game that did as much for 3D gaming as any other. Over on the PlayStation, Resident Evil introduced many of us to the concept of true horror gaming, while PC gamers enjoyed a look into two equally important futures for RPGs thanks to Diablo and The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall. Some of those games would be improved upon in recent years, but the best games of 1996 certainly helped draw the blueprint for the future. Meanwhile, the launch of the first Pokémon games in Japan would soon start one of gaming’s biggest and most impactful cultural phenomenons.

Yet, there’s a part of me that will always remember this year as a kind of bittersweet swan song for the SNES. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Kirby Super Star, & Donkey Kong Country 3 all showed that while the future was certainly on the horizon, there was still room for a classic style of gaming. We honestly wouldn’t see that kind of love for the past and present again until the indie scene helped show that retro games are so much more than games with worse graphics. 

It’s too easy to be nostalgic for the past, but something about the way the best games of 1996 promised a bright future, honored the past, and offered a lot of fun in the present really puts a smile on my face. 

Ad – content continues below

Dark Souls

13. 2011

Notable Game Releases: Skyrim, Dark Souls, The Witcher 2, Batman: Arkham City, Dead Space 2, Minecraft

Look, it’s kind of hard to not give one of these spots to a year that gave us both Dark Souls and Skyrim. If you only played those two games this year, you’d honestly probably have more than enough great gaming to keep you occupied. 

Of course, this was also a year where the “other games” included Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City, The Witcher 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Dead Space 2. Those paying attention to the indie scene at the time were blessed with the brilliant Bastion, The Binding of Isaac, and To the Moon, while the sometimes divisive L.A. Noire, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and Uncharted 3 still managed to please many. 

Throw all of that out, though, and you’ve still got the fact that 2011 marked the official release of the best-selling game ever: Minecraft. It was a year that would eventually shape the future of gaming in ways that weren’t always easy to appreciate at the time.

The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild

12. 2017

Notable Game Releases: PUBG, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Resident Evil 7, Cuphead, Persona 5

I remember writing about the best games of 2017 not long ago and thinking “Wow, this really feels like one of the best gaming years ever.” Five years later, I stand by that assessment. 

Ad – content continues below

The launch of the Nintendo Switch also gave us the nearly unbeatable combo of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario Odyssey, while the debut of PUBG announced that the battle royale genre had properly arrived. Elsewhere, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Persona 5 lived up to some considerable expectations, while Resident Evil 7 reminded many why Resident Evil is the premier name in horror gaming. Fans of original gaming franchises also got to enjoy the start of a fascinating new sci-fi franchise thanks to the debut of Horizon Zero Dawn

As is sometimes the case, though, it’s really the strength of the smaller games from this year that put it over the top. Cuphead, What Remains of Edith Finch, Battle Chef Brigade, Prey, Nier: Automata…great games were coming from every direction in 2017, and most of them catered to very different needs and wants. It was an instant classic year indeed.

Resident Evil 4

11. 2005

Notable Game Releases: Resident Evil 4, Shadow of the Colossus, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, God of War, Guitar Hero

I went into this list with some idea of what I thought the top years might end up looking like. In the process of doing due diligence, though, I quickly discovered that 2005 was one of those years that I had mentally overlooked for reasons that I can’t quite explain. 

While this was the year that saw Shadow of the Colossus and Resident Evil 4 battle for the majority of GOTY awards, titles like God of War, Psychonauts, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Sid Meier’s Civilization IV could have easily taken home that honor during lesser years.

Then you have a slew of 2005 titles that have only really grown in acclaim since their debut. From franchise starters like Guitar Hero and Forza Motorsport to stellar sequels like Devil May Cry 3 and Call of Duty 2, 2005’s lineup looks even better now than it may have at the time. Even games like Jade Empire and The Warriors remind of us when major developers still took chances on something different. 

Ad – content continues below

It’s a testament to the quality of that era that 2005 doesn’t immediately jump out as one of the best years for gaming ever. It’s truly worthy of being in that conversation, though.

Diablo 2

10. 2000

Notable Game Releases: Diablo 2, Baldur’s Gate 2, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Final Fantasy IX, WWF No Mercy, The Sims

Heading into 2000, I remember a lot of talk about the future of gaming. While the future turned out to be absolutely incredible, I kind of wish I could go back and really appreciate what a tremendous year this was for many kinds of swan song experiences.

At the very least, 2000 was an incredible year for sequels and spiritual sequels. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Diablo 2, Baldur’s Gate 2, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Final Fantasy IX, Grandia II, Banjo-Tooie, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, WWF No Mercy…some of the sequels released this year still rank comfortably among the very best entries in their respective franchises.

Yet, it’s the original games that really help set this year apart. The Sims and Deus Ex rightfully steal the show as far as that conversation goes, but games like No One Lives Forever, Vagrant Story, Skies of Arcadia, and Perfect Dark should have been the start of franchises that just never ally hit that next level for various reasons. It’s also worth noting that the PlayStation 2 was released this year, though it got off to a bit of a slow start in terms of its launch games. At least we got SSX to go along with our new DVD player. 

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater

9. 1999

Notable Game Releases: SoulCalibur, Gran Turismo, 2, System Shock 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Planescape Torment, RollerCoaster Tycoon

Ad – content continues below

Every time I look at the games of 1999, I’m torn between whether or not I’m underrating the year or overrating it. What I can tell you is that it was undeniably a very, very good year for gaming. 

There is no runaway favorite for GOTY this year, but SoulCalibur, Gran Turismo 2, System Shock 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, Everquest, and Planescape Torment are all still arguably vying for that title all these years later. It’s rare that such races are too close to call some 23 years after they ended, but there is really not one title that stands out clearly from that considerable pack. 

Rounding out the year were truly incredible games like Silent Hill, Final Fantasy 8, Super Smash Bros., Homeworld, Age of Empires 2, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver which…well, honestly, I wouldn’t fault anyone who considers any of those games (or more) to be their personal best game of the year. 

Maybe that’s the strangest thing about 1999. It wasn’t highlighted by one or two undeniably all-time classic games in the same ways that some other years on this list were, but it’s filled with these games that were undeniably great and often fascinatingly different. 

Elder Scrolls Morrowind

8. 2002

Notable Game Releases: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Super Mario Sunshine, Eternal Darkness, Metroid Prime, Splinter Cell, Neverwinter Nights

As the PlayStation 2 entered its second full year, and the Xbox and Gamecube entered their first full year, one of the greatest console wars in gaming history was fully underway at the start of 2002. While it would take a little while for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft to reload their arsenal of heavy hitters, 2002 showed how each console was going to offer something different yet equally compelling. 

The Xbox came out swinging with a stunningly good console port of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the jaw-dropping Splinter Cell, and the underrated Mechassault. Not to be outdone, the GameCube offered an all-time great single-year lineup that included masterpieces like Super Mario Sunshine, Animal Crossing, Eternal Darkness, Resident Evil, and Metroid Prime. The PlayStation 2 arguably had the weakest year of the new consoles, though PS2 owners certainly weren’t complaining about Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Sly Cooper, and Ratchet & Clank.

While everyone was focusing on the new consoles, the PC actually had an absolutely incredible year. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault ushered in a new era of cinematic shooters, while Warcraft III, Medieval Total War, and Age of Mythology offered three distinctive and incredible RTS experiences. Add Mafia, Neverwinter Nights, No One Lives Forever 2, Hitman 2, Battlefield 1942, and Star Wars: Jedi Knight II into the mix, and you’ve got a year of PC gaming that put the new consoles on notice. 

This was one of those years that asked gamers to try a lot of new things and often rewarded them for their curiosity. 

Mortal Kombat Arcade

7. 1992

Notable Game Releases: Super Mario Kart, Wolfenstein 3D, Ultima Underworld, Mortal Kombat, Contra III, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

I previously called 1992 the year that changed gaming forever, and I’ll stand by that claim. The historical significance of the games, hardware, and events of a certain year was one of the factors that helped determine these rankings, and 1992 certainly benefits from that “X factor.”

This was also just a great year for games. Mortal Kombat was lighting up the arcades, while console players were enjoying Super Mario Kart, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, Streets of Rage II, Contra III, and the Western release of A Link to the Past. Some lucky gamers even got a head start on underrated titles like Landstalker, Shining Force, and Soul Blazer.

PC gamers were arguably enjoying an even better year. Between Dune II, Alone in the Dark, Wolfenstein 3DIndiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Ultima Underworld, anyone fortunate enough to own a PC at that time didn’t have to look hard to find something thrilling and different. 

It’s no coincidence that quite a few years on this list followed 1992. We’re benefiting from the innovations of this year to this day. 

Baldur's Gate 3 Classes Ranked

6. 2023

Notable Game Releases: Baldur’s Gate 3, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Alan Wake 2, Final Fantasy 16, Starfield, Diablo 4, Street Fighter 6

Some were ready to call 2023 one of the best years in gaming history before the year had even started. It’s not hard to see why. A series of circumstances had pushed what should have been some of the biggest games of previous years into 2023. Indeed, some developers shuffled their intended release dates around in 2023 just to avoid directly competing against some of those titles. 

While a few delays and disappointments ultimately reared their ugly heads, 2023 was nearly as good as advertised. Few suspected that Tears of the Kingdom would surpass its considerable hype and fewer suspected that arguably all-time great game would ultimately “lose” many Game of the Year races to Baldur’s Gate 3. Of course, both titles faced considerable competition from the likes of Street Fighter 6, Spider-Man 2, Diablo 4, Alan Wake 2, Super Mario Bros. Wonder, and Resident Evil 4, as well as a host of titles that few saw coming or expected to be anywhere near as good as they were. 

It’s those games that ultimately helped 2023 live up to much of the hype. This may sound cruel, but when titles like Lies of P, Octopath Traveller 2, Dave the Diver, and Hi-Fi Rush run the risk of going overlooked, you know they were released amid a historically great year for games. 

The Last of Us

5. 2013

Notable Game Releases: GTA 5, The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Assassin’s Creed IV

We’re down to the final five years on this list, and this is the point where the rankings go from “tough” to nearly impossible. There’s a strong argument to be made that any of these five years deserve to occupy the top spot. 

2013 was undoubtedly highlighted by the releases of Grand Theft Auto 5 and The Last of Us. The former would go on to become the second best-selling video game ever, while the latter is one of those rare titles that nearly everyone agrees is a narrative masterpiece. 2013’s BioShock Infinite may have been anything but universally acclaimed, but that somewhat divisive title remains a compelling lightning rod. This was also the year that saw Final Fantasy XIV transform into Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. The significance of that transformation has become more and more apparent with each passing year. 

Beyond that, you had an incredible Tomb Raider reboot that few saw coming, smaller titles like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Papers, Please vying for GOTY awards, and continuously underrated games like Rogue Legacy, DmC, and Metro: Last Light. All of that, and I barely have time to talk about DOTA 2, A Link Between Worlds, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Saints Row IV, Blood Dragon, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Assassin’s Creed IV. Imagine trying to play all those games that year. 

Honestly, one of the best things you can say about 2013 is that we’re still playing some of that year’s best games to this day. 

4. 2001

Notable Game Releases: Halo: Combat Evolved, Grand Theft Auto III, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy X

If you ever hear gamers of a certain age lament that the start of new gaming generations aren’t as exciting as they used to be, try to forgive them. After all, some of us were fortunate enough to be kids in the incredible year for gaming that was 2001. 

Few doubted Microsoft’s ability to eventually make an impact in the console market, but fewer still suspected that Halo would go on to become one of the most impactful launch games ever. Mind you, those that bought a GameCube instead were too busy playing Super Smash Bros. Melee, Luigi’s Mansion, Super Monkey Ball, and Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader to mind. 

During its first full year, the PS2 turned in one of the best single-year software lineups ever. Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to believe that Metal Gear Solid 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Gran Turismo III, Grand Theft Auto III, Silent Hill 2, Devil May Cry, SSX Tricky, Final Fantasy X, ICO, Red Faction, and Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy were all released in the same year. 

Even the N64 got in on the fun with the release of Paper Mario and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Add Max Payne, Golden Sun, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Dead or Alive 3, and Aliens vs. Predator 2 to the mix and…well, the only way I can justify not putting this year at the top of the list is to move on to the remaining three years. 

3. 2007

Notable Game Releases: Portal, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3, World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade, Rock Band, Super Mario Galaxy

In 2022, Den of Geek celebrated its 15th anniversary. However, I know many of you entered 2022 ready to celebrate the 15th anniversary of what many consider to be the absolute best year in video game history. 

2007 was the kind of year that gave us Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and Portal in the same collection. It was a year when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare arguably offered the peak of one of the biggest game franchises ever, while Halo 3 delivered what was essentially the end of an era for another FPS series (though Bungie would still give ODST and Reach). If this is the first time you’re realizing all those games were released in the same year, that’s probably because the noise they generated was being drowned out by your Rock Band sessions. That, or you were too lost in WoW’s Burning Crusade expansion to notice anything else. 

More than anything, though, I’ll remember 2007 as a golden time for bold new ideas that became franchises. It was the year that gave us the very first BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, Crysis, and Mass Effect games. Even Super Mario Galaxy was good enough to become the brief future of the Super Mario franchise. 

There’s something bittersweet about looking back at 2007. It’s easy to blind yourself with rose-colored glasses, but there really was something beautiful about this time when the future of gaming seemed so bright because the present was so great. 

Metal Gear Solid

2. 1998

Notable Game Releases: Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Fallout 2, Resident Evil 2, Starcraft

I went into this list fully expecting 1998 to take the top spot. It wasn’t just a great year in gaming; it’s one of the only years in gaming that I would argue was undeniably great. I certainly can’t fault anyone who considers it to be the absolute best year ever. 

Above all else, 1998 will always be remembered as the year that gave us Half-Life, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Metal Gear Solid. More than just three great games, they were three very different games that represented the best of the three biggest platforms available at that time. 

If you need more evidence of 1998’s greatness, you’ll find it in Starcraft, Fallout 2, Resident Evil 2, Starsiege: Tribes, Tekken 3, Grim Fandango, Banjo-Kazooie, Thief: The Dark Project, or even the NA debut of Pokémon. Many of those games (and more from 1998) are rightfully considered to be the very best in their respective genres to this day. 

That’s the thing about the best games of 1998. Like the best movies of the beloved summer of 1982, the best games of 1998 have stayed in our collective conscious for so long that it’s sometimes hard to forget that they weren’t released just yesterday. Many of them could likely still win GOTY this year if they had been.  

1. 2004

Notable Game Releases: Halo 2, Half-Life 2, Metroid Prime 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, World of Warcraft, GTA: San Andreas, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2

If I told you that Counter-Strike: Source, Killzone, Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Everquest II, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Halo 2, Half-Life 2, Jak 3, Need For Speed: Underground 2, Metroid Prime 2, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Spider-Man 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, and World of Warcraft were all released in the same year, you’d probably agree that was one of the best years in gaming history, right?

Well, what if I told you that all of those games were actually released in the same month: November of 2004?

That’s the funny thing about 2004. In a year where the conversation should have been dominated by arguably the best month in video game history, we still got The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, GTA: San Andreas, Ninja Gaiden, Rome: Total War, Burnout 3: Takedown, Katamari Damacy, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, ESPN NFL 2K5, The Sims 2, Far Cry, and more spread out across the rest of the year. Mind you, that’s only the games that were generally considered hits at the time. There are many more titles from 2004 that have only grown in acclaim since then. This is even the year that gave us the Nintendo DS (though its launch lineup only offered a glimpse at how great that handheld would be).

If you’re one of the many who consider the PS2/Xbox/GameCube console generation to be the best console generation ever, then there’s a good chance you also consider 2004 to be the peak of that particular era. We may never see the likes of this kind of year again, and I’m strangely almost grateful for that. It’s the kind of year for gaming that demands long holiday breaks with friends, lazy summer nights, and many of the other highlights of youth that we are often truly nostalgic for when we talk about the best games of years gone by.