Four of the best games of the decade came out last year. God of War, Insomniac’s Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar, and Nintendo’s video game equivalent of a touchdown dance, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. With 2018 representing such a leap forward for the industry, expectations were high for 2019. And while a lot of the top studios stepped up to the plate, we didn’t see the sort of towering achievements in gaming this year that we did in years past.
But that’s not to say the last year of the 2010s was a disappointment. FromSoftware gave us a spectacular re-assessment of its Dark Souls series that was in big need of an update, Apple Arcade empowered smaller, more intimate developers to get into the spotlight, and Nintendo finally, at long last, managed its first console Pokémon title. 2019 won’t be as memorable as 2018. Video games as an industry, however, will continue to grow and reshape in new and exciting ways, building on what 2019’s titles accomplished, as we push into the next decade. Until then, these are Esquire‘s top 10 video games of the year. Play one, play them all.
10. Kingdom Hearts 3
Release Date: January 25
Platform: Xbox One, PS4
Nearly 15 years after the last main series installment Kingdom Hearts 2, diehard fans leftover from the PS2 era finally got their hands on another home console Kingdom Hearts title, starring Sora and the original trio. Fusing the complex and darker tones of Final Fantasy with the charm of Disney into one ridiculously complex, twisty story should not work by any means, yet somehow totally does. This game has an incredible visual style, remarkably smooth combat, and inventive worlds and terrain, making it one of the must-play titles this year. While the release divided fans and the community, there’s no denying the game is polished, even if it leaves distant echoes of Donald spotting ingredients in the darkest corners of your memory. Plus, the ReMind DLC is set to release this January with a bunch of new content, making now the perfect time to hop in. —C.S.
9. Sayonara Wild Hearts
Between Google Stadia, Apple Arcade, and all the recently announced pay-to-play subscription services, 2019 has been an exhausting year for gaming platform news. But Apple Arcade turned out to be legitimately promising. The subscription service justified its existence by costing only $5 a month, and it gave players access to a rich and diverse cross-section of indie developers and bigger studios entering the mobile game ecosystem. Sayonara Wild Hearts from Simogo is a completely distinctive piece of work that feels downright insane to experience on a cellular phone. But that’s what makes the artform of gaming so exciting—it can resonate on screens big and small. With a sharp, vector art style and music video-inspired gameplay, Sayonara easily competes with the big, triple-A offerings from the year. And, most of all, at only a few bucks as part of the Apple Arcade subscription, it really makes you question the $60 price tag on main console games. —D.N.
8. The Outer Worlds
Release Date: October 25
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Video game developer Obsidian broke free from its Bethesda publishing chains, and showed us it’s better off alone. The Outer Worlds nails the choice heavy and customized action role play we came to love from the likes of Fallout and Skyrim. It takes place in a new, unfamiliar world with tons of quests, refined gameplay, and most importantly, choices, allowing players to become heroes, villains, bounty hunters, or anything else they want. It’s a dark look into your own psyche, because regardless of how noble you believe you are, you’ll still steal and loot the innocent because you’re just a few credits short of some shiny new armor. While Bethesda’s been stumbling lately, especially with the beloved franchise Fallout, it’s nice to see Obsidian picking up the slack and giving players the inventive experiences they really want. —C.S.
7. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Release Date: March 22
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Hailing from the team that brought us the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice introduces some fresh gameplay and a new style into FromSoftware’s signature tactile—and difficult—gameplay. Still present are the intense, ass-clenching, precision-based combat and dodging, as well as the large-scale epic boss fights, but they’re improved with feudal Japanese Samurai elements like jumping, grappling, and hefty stealth mechanics, so players get just enough of what they love while being challenged by updated gameplay. Sekiro is polished, exciting, and fundamentally fun. It also has an immense amount of replayability, seeing as I’m currently on my fifth journey through it. Maybe on my sixth I’ll try playing with a dance pad or a bunch of electrified fruits, just to take some years off my life. This game is truly a testament to strategic, fast-paced combat. —C.S.
6. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Release Date: July 26
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Fire Emblem is a Nintendo franchise sorely overlooked in the West, even though half of the Smash Bros. roster comes from it. I’ve been playing Fire Emblem for a while, and no game has kept my interest as much as Three Houses. This title is all about strategy and choices. With many vastly different playthroughs all taking nearly 60 hours to beat, permadeath in combat, and relationship development that matters, the game has a ton to do. What Three Houses really aces, however, is its characterization and rewards system. The cast of this game will have you willing to sacrifice yourself before you lose anyone on your team. The game also makes you feel genuinely rewarded for building relationships and taking the time to do the extra training and episodes. I can easily fizzle out on turn-based RPGs, but somehow this game has me on my third playthrough. If you’ve never tried a Fire Emblem game, or think it’s not your thing, I dare you to play this title. And if Three Houses doesn’t hook you, no adjacent games will. —C.S.
Release Date: August 27
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PC
This game is batshit—a wild, captivating narrative driven by intense telekinetic abilities and third-person shooter combat. Remedy Entertainment created one of the most independent and whole-package titles we’ve seen, not only from its studio, but in the industry in a long time. The game feels like what all those stylized, third-person shooters from the PS3 and early-PS4 era were trying to do, and failing at doing. In fact, the whole game has a sci-fi/Mr. Robot vibe, and it’s viewed from Jesse’s point of view, so players get a fragmented look at the world from her psyche. Needless to say, it has a plot that is as complicated as it is satisfying, even if it does make you second-guess your sobriety at points. Control is an ode to using masterful storytelling and inventive mechanics to create a truly unique experience in gaming. It’ll mess with your head and your reality. —C.S.
4. Pokemon Sword and Shield
Release Date: November 15
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Pokémon on the big screen. It’s something fans of the franchise have fantasized about for decades now. Nintendo has toyed with our expectations before, giving us console titles like Pokémon Stadium and Pokken Tournament, but until 2019, an adventure game in the main series of Pokémon was just a pipe dream. When Sword and Shield were announced, fans threw a fit after finding out that some key features of games past were being left out. This new Switch title would no longer allow gamers to import all of their favorite Pokémon into the game, mega-evolutions were gone, and even some basic elements of gameplay were dropped, like the ability to teach Pokémon to Fly or Swim. But GameFreak was right to make some changes to the decades-old formula. Sword and Shield are less a game-changing Breath of the Wild-level achievement than they are a massive improvement to the series overall. The series has finally entered the modern day. It makes us very exciting for the Pokémon games to come. —D.N.
3. Untitled Goose Game
Release Date: September 20
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac
Coming Soon: Xbox One, PS4
Honk. Honk honk. I’m a mischievous little goose. I’m here to ruin your day. Untitled Goose Game may look like just a pleasant little jaunt through the British countryside, but it’s actually the most punk rock video title in years. And boy is it satisfying to play a game that has no other narrative foundation than the joy of tearing apart the perfect little lives of the over-privileged. It’s not the sort of Hollywood-rivaling experience that rockets the medium of gaming into soaring new heights, but Goose Game does everything a video game has to do, and does it more efficiently than most of the other titles released this year. It earns itself the rare distinction of being a singularly joyful experience. There’s nothing in House House’s little goose adventurer that feels overzealous or frustrating. Every part of it is simple, fun, and entertaining. At the end of a very long day, there are few experiences more satisfying. —D.N.
2. Mortal Kombat 11
Release Date: April 23
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC
After three decades of Mortal Kombat games, it seemed like there was little left to be said for a series that has already ripped more than enough spines to fill an entire football stadium. But, NetherRealm’s risky shift toward narrative, Hollywood-level storytelling makes MK11 not only one of the best games of 2019, but also the best MK game of all time. Of course, the combat in the eleventh main series title of the franchise is as elevated and complex as it’s ever been—but what makes MK11 so daring is its single player mode. For years, the leading criticism of fighting games has been their hollow or otherwise forgettable single player campaign. The past few MK games have broken that mold a bit, but MK11 finally makes the case that fighting games are not only worth buying for the spirit of competition. The story of the latest battle for control of EarthRealm and the constellation of realms that it resides inside is actually quite affecting, somehow making us sympathize with these mindless ragemonster characters. With lots of DLC still yet to be announced, MK11 is a game we will be playing for years to come. —D.N.
Game of the Year
Super Mario Maker 2
Release Date: June 28
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Yes, Mario Maker 2 is Esquire’s Game of the Year. It is as close as we came to a perfect title in 2019, and not just because Arby’s made some levels. The concept of harnessing the imagination of a vast player base to create a game with a content stream that is quite literally endless is brilliant, and Mario Maker 2 expanded on the excellent blueprint laid out in the first title, adding a trove of new tools and styles. Those tools Nintendo gave us allowed for everything from extremely challenging levels, inventive Rube Goldberg-esque auto Marios, music-based levels, rhythm-based levels, recreations of other games, and so much more intense creativity. The game lit the world on fire when it came out; everyone and anyone was playing or talking about it. Hell, even brands started uploading their own levels in the community. Any title that is a challenge and also prompts you to listen to an 8-bit rendition of “All Star” by Smash Mouth is a hit in our book. Mario Maker 2 sparked a cultural phenomenon, much like what the Mario Brothers did in the early days. —C.S.