These are not the year’s best video games, and some of them aren’t even that new. But they are the ones that helped us through yet another unexpected year.
The year in video games was good, bad and everything in between. It remained difficult to purchase new consoles like the Xbox Series X, the Nintendo Switch OLED and the PlayStation 5. (One fine day, we’ll play Deathloop.) Cloud gaming continued to grow in importance and Roblox continued to dominate. And, as a result of lawsuits or employee unrest, game industry giants like Activision and Riot Games were forced to confront their terrible records on sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
While the real world continued to oscillate between open and closed, video games remained a constant for some of us here at The Times. Below, a sampling of the titles that meant the most to us in 2021.
New Pokemon Snap
Kellen Browning, technology reporter
New Pokemon Snap is probably not what you think it is. There’s no catching vibrant monsters or sending them into battle. Instead, you’re on a mission to take the highest-quality photos possible of rare Pokemon as you travel along a set course through forests and seafloors. It’s a serene, meticulous game that rewards perfectionism and involves coaxing the wild creatures into picture-perfect poses by offering fruit, playing music and illuminating their silhouettes as night falls.
This was the title I anticipated the most in 2021. I played the original version of the game, released in 1999, for countless hours on the Nintendo 64, snapping hundreds of photos of Charmanders crowding around apples and discovering how to convince Jigglypuff to sing or Pikachu to surf.
Mario Golf: Super Rush
Maya Salam, senior staff editor, Culture desk
I affectionately refer to the summer of 2001 as the summer of 64, as in Nintendo 64. For those three months, my college friends and I largely avoided the steamy Kentucky days in favor of a dimly lit off-campus apartment where we spent most of our waking hours playing Mario Golf. We had our own language for every play: “Nestle!” being our favorite, for a ball that’s rolling a little too fast on the green. And when I closed my eyes at night, I’d see those rippling grids guiding me to the pin.
When Mario Golf: Super Rush was released on the Switch this summer (exactly 20 years later), I was transported back, a welcome anchor to less chaotic times. Thankfully, my wife also loves the game and doesn’t get too irritated as I repeatedly implore the ball to “nestle.” Most surprising was my muscle memory which, despite the decades, was as keen as ever. I’m pretty sure you still couldn’t beat me.
Escape From Tarkov
Mike Isaac, technology correspondent
Escape From Tarkov has ruined all other video games for me. It’s so hard, so punishing and comes with such a steep learning curve that once it clicks, other shooting games just don’t cut it anymore. It’s all I play now.
Like Call of Duty or Counterstrike, the game is a first-person shooter focused on player-versus-player combat while completing a difficult series of tasks across a half-dozen maps. Set in the fictional region of Tarkov in a not-too-distant future Russia, the game posits a single question: How would you, a paramilitary contractor, survive in a war-ravaged failed state? The answer is by shooting practically everyone you see while scavenging any materials you can find amid the wreckage.
It is not for everyone. Because Tarkov gives you zero help — no in-game maps, hundreds of different types of items and complicated gun customization options — it’s up to you to scour the many third-party sites devoted to helping people understand the game. Every time you are killed, you lose every item you were carrying into the raid. And you will die. Like, a lot.
Technically, Escape From Tarkov is still in development and calls itself a “Beta,” but anyone with a PC can purchase it and play. Do so at your own risk.
Kyle Buchanan, Culture columnist, The Projectionist
The recent retro-gaming boom owes a real debt to Metroid, since so many of these new titles, built to resemble ’80s and ’90s video games, were directly influenced by the iconic action-adventure series. So why did it take Nintendo so long to revisit this space and show everybody how it’s really done?
Metroid Dread is the first 2-D adventure in the series in almost two decades, and it’s a blast to play, especially when you’re sending Samus Aran into battle with hunter robots that follow her from room to room. Better yet, in an era where too many games are drowning in dialogue, Metroid Dread parcels out just enough story to keep you hooked and lets your imagination run wild from there. (The ending made me yelp!)
Persona 4 Golden
Axel Boada, video producer
The best moments of Persona 4 Golden take place outside of combat. They happen when you cook dinner with your little cousin, go to the movies with your friends or even just study for a big exam. Much of the game’s long run time is spent going through the everyday minutiae of high school life, but it always feels special because even the smallest interactions strengthen your bond with others.
The power of friendship is a common theme throughout the series, but this entry hit especially hard because I finished it around the first anniversary of the pandemic. I cherished the memories I made with my virtual friends because I knew what I was missing in real life. Persona 4 Golden is now a major talking point in a few of those relationships.
Jason M. Bailey, senior staff editor, National desk
I’m the target audience for Halo Infinite, released 20 years after the franchise’s debut normalized hauling a television and Xbox into a friend’s basement for night-devouring battles.
Halo Infinite’s multiplayer maps are exquisitely designed, with intertwined pathways and sight lines that reward teamwork. The starting weapon arsenal is potent, and success requires coordinating to acquire (or evade) the rocket launcher, gravity hammer or overshield.
But thrilling gameplay is not enough for some. Halo Infinite generates revenue by selling cosmetic upgrades, and a vocal contingent has complained about the pace of progression to unlock a new helmet.
I’m old and I don’t care what my avatar looks like. You won’t see it anyway: I’m sneaking in with active camo, then filling an unsuspecting enemy with pink needles before grabbing the flag.
Dark Souls III
Lia Nemeth, staff engineer, Games
In 2021, I became fascinated by FromSoftware’s notoriously difficult games like Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne. Dealing with their simulated bleakness was a surprisingly comforting way to cope with the harsh reality of living through a pandemic.
I think Dark Souls III, released in 2016, is the studio’s most polished game. It reuses the best elements of its previous action RPGs to create a compilation of what makes them most engaging — excellent art direction as well as innovative level and narrative design. Unlike many other games in the genre, its storytelling is not done through long exposition, but through information that is included on every item and with every short interaction.
Slay the Spire
Kevin Draper, Sports reporter
There were a few constant companions in a terrible year: my wife, my child, my dog, my house. Slay the Spire was another.
I had runs that were on a knife’s edge and took hours to complete. I had runs where I made absurd choices in the hopes they would work out. I had runs where I optimized my chance of winning and runs where I made decisions just to spite my least favorite foe, the shelled parasite. I played on the highest difficulty and mostly lost (which made the wins extremely satisfying) and crushed the lowest difficulty.
I had hundreds (thousands?) of runs in 2021. They all ruled.
Resident Evil Village
Renan Borelli, deputy audience director, NYT Audio
The Resident Evil franchise turned 25 in 2021, and with more than two dozen entries in the series, the best of the bunch is still 2005’s Resident Evil 4. What made RE4 special was its replay value; after beating it, you could start over and keep your items, making you more powerful with each playthrough. Because of this, I’ve played and replayed RE4 more times than I’d like to admit.
Resident Evil Village, released in May, scratches that same itch. When you first enter the village and meet its sizable cast of deranged, seemingly invincible villains, it plays as dread-inducing survival horror. In New Game Plus, it’s a completely different experience, allowing you to take on hordes of werewolves with overpowered revolvers and machine guns (or a light saber, if you’re interested). I started the game over immediately after finishing it, and didn’t stop until I unlocked all the best gear. Playing through Village, over and over again, was the most fun I’ve had with a Resident Evil game in years.
Brian Hoerst, senior staff editor, News Technology
Sometimes, all you want is to escape into a superhero power fantasy where you button mash your way to victory and look cool doing it. And for all of the criticism it has received, Marvel’s Avengers delivers that experience. In yet another year where it feels like I’ve tracked the passage of time through Marvel Cinematic Universe releases, it’s been satisfying to recreate that movie choreography with a controller in hand.
Plus, Crystal Dynamics, the studio behind Marvel’s Avengers, has continued to assemble a growing character roster since the game’s debut in 2020. Both Hawkeyes (Clint Barton and Kate Bishop), Black Panther and Spider-Man (for players on PlayStation consoles, at least) have joined the original cast, and with each addition there’s a new, unique set of moves to discover. The gameplay loop can become redundant after defeating thousands of enemies, but every so often a series of events will capture that cinematic quality for a moment. It’s that spark of joy that keeps me mashing away.
It Takes Two
Oskar Garcia, deputy editor, Sports desk
It Takes Two centers on a husband and wife who are magically transformed into dolls by their daughter, who is upset at them for fighting. The parents don’t want to be dolls, so they have to work together to regain human form.
Part of the game’s draw is familiar for anyone who has spent the past two years seeking creative ways to maintain connections with far-flung loved ones. Games like Among Us and the Jackbox Party Pack have demonstrated that demand.
For me, that desire often meets another reality: I’m terrible at first-person shooters, especially in multiplayer.
It Takes Two evens up novice and experienced gamers by introducing zany abilities that generally last a short time. The mechanics keep things fresh, and because they are specific to each player they challenge teammates to constantly talk to and help each other move throughout the game.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Gilbert Cruz, Culture editor
In spring 2020, when lockdown was in full effect, I introduced my now 7-year-old to video games. On the Nintendo Switch, we tore through Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Super Mario Odyssey. We worked up a sweat playing hours and hours of Just Dance. (I think I’d be fine if I never heard Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” ever again.) But it was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that obsessed us most — we both became lost in its vast open world and deep mythology.
Zelda games continued to carry us through 2021. We bruised our thumbs on the fighting game Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity and hunched over on the sofa together in hand-held mode playing the adorable Link’s Awakening. But the second half of 2021 was devoted to Skyward Sword. We spent 50 or so hours flying around Skyloft and performing spin attacks on dumb Bokoblins. The game’s Timeshift Stones, which allow you to make the past present, were among the more inventive game concepts we’d seen in our almost two years of playing together.