The 10 Greatest Years in Gaming History

We are a couple of weeks into 2015 and it seems like all the "Best Of 2014" lists are just about wrapping up. As usual, early January sees the Internet flooded by top/worst/most/least looks back at the previous year in every conceivable category. I’m pretty sure there’s a subsection of rule 32 that says, “Rule 32.1: If it exists, someone on the Internet has ranked it.” This is by no means a bad thing, a bit of introspection does us all some good, but now that we’re done with 2014, I thought it was time to take a further step back and look at the best years in video games.

Now for the nitty gritty details on how this list was put together. In order be as objective as possible, the ranking method had to be quantifiable and of a large enough size to reduce individual biases. Metacritic (www.metacritic.com) already applies this concept by amalgamating all professional review scores for a game. Working off that, we took the top 50 rated video games for each year to represent that year’s score. Metacritic has multiple entries for a game released on multiple platforms, but don’t worry, no game was double counted on this list. The only limit with this is that it only considers the years 1996 and onward, which are the only years with data on Metacritic. So, here are your top ten years in video games since 1996 according to the critics.

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10 2004: Metacritic Score of 88.9

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Kicking off the list is 2004, the year of purse puppies and the soul crushing realization that the war in Iraq would not be wrapped up as quickly as advertised. For video games, it was a year marked mostly by much loved sequels of ground breaking games. Such sequels include: Half-Life 2, GTA: San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Halo 2, Burnout 3: Takedown, Unreal Tournament 2004, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and The Sims 2. These are all franchises that revolutionized their respective genres and the iterations that came out in 2004 all lived up to their names, doing their series justice.

However, there were two new IPs to come out that changed the gaming industry. While Fable did not invent good/evil alignment, this game definitely broke the dam and marked the mechanic which would spill out into countless games to follow. Also to come out this year was World of Warcraft, considered to this day as the benchmark in MMORPGs and printing money for anyone who isn’t a federal mint.

9 2005: Metacritic Score of 89.2

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2005 begins with the launch of Resident Evil 4, an incredibly well-made game changer for the series, which set it on a new path (a terrible, terrible path). With the Xbox 360 launching in March of 2005, the previous generation of console games were beginning to wrap up and started pushing the limits of their hardware. This set the scene for the release of some ambitious new IPs, including: God of War, Mercenaries, and Shadow of the Colossus. Two Fire Emblem games were also released to acclaim by fans of the series, but that still didn't help the majority of Smash Bros. Melee players who were in the forth year of asking, “What’s a Marth?” Meanwhile on PC, gamers were either having hours of their lives being sucked away by “one more turn” of Sid Meirer’s Civilization IV or they were purchasing new pants after having the shit scared out of them by F.E.A.R. Also, Guitar Hero came out to the reaction of, “Oh, now this is a thing, apparently.”

8 2002: Metacritic Score of 90.0

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Outside, the War on Terror continues and the 21st century “Axis of Evil” is named; gamers everywhere opt instead for make-believe violence and retreat indoors. Topping the charts, Metroid Prime is released in 2002. The game pulls off translating a 2D classic to 3D space, a task not easily performed (I’m looking at you, Sonic). Meanwhile, 80s music makes a comeback with the launch of GTA: Vice City and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater comes out with both their 3rd and 4th titles. Why we needed two skating game iterations in seven months, no one knows. Even less people know why they were followed by Kojimi adding skateboarding into Metal Gear 2: Substance, further solidifying Raiden as a joke. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos also came out that year, not only being a great RTS, but including the map creator and online community that would spawn the DOTA mod, the blueprint for MOBAs as we know them today.

7 2009: Metacritic Score of 90.1

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Jumping ahead in time, we find the release of the most successful early access game and the model that a plethora of indie developers would attempt to follow, Minecraft. Suddenly, it became acceptable to pay for an incomplete game on the good faith that it would eventually be completed and indie game development was forever changed. The fighting game community let out an inaudible cry of excitement when Street Fighter IV was finally let out of its arcade-only cocoon and released on home gaming systems. Being almost a decade since the release of the prior iteration, 3rd Strike, the giddiness among fighting game fans was understandable. Also, on the Japanese front was the release of Demon’s Souls, which reminded everyone of what difficulty in video games used to mean. While all this happened abroad, North America produced COD: Modern Warfare 2 and Assassin’s Creed II. While well received, players everywhere said, “Oh, now this is a thing, apparently” as it started to sink in that these series would become annualized. Speaking of which, this was also the year Guitar Hero 5 came out.

6 2003: Metacritic Score of 90.2

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2003 split Zelda fans into two camps. For those willing to accept the art-style change, there was Legend of Zelda: Wind-Waker, and for the unwilling purists there were GameCube ports of Ocarina of Time/Majora’s Mask. While the argument raged over what makes a Zelda game and how it should look, another kind of argument was tearing apart friendships in Soulcalibur II. “Stop taking Kilik and cheesing out the matches with his poke!” Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time also came out; both being the first and best games of their respective series, which would only disappoint fans in the following years. Meanwhile, Nintendo continued to learn how profitable handhelds are with their releases that year: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, Fire Emblem, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, and Warioware, Inc. and Mega Microgame$!. From 2003 until the launch of the Wii, Nintendo would experience an increasing disparity between handheld and console revenue from both software and hardware sales.

5 2012: Metacritic Score of 90.3

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I have to preface this entry with a reminder that these rankings are based on the top 50 games according to Metacritic and that Metacritic includes games released for mobile. The reason I feel compelled to mention this is that 2012’s ranking on this list is carried almost entirely by the scores of mobile games. The issue is immediately apparent when you see that 2012 has a critic score of 90.3, but a user score of 74.1 for the same games. To put that into perspective, 74.1 is the second lowest user scored year on Metacritic (2014 has the lowest at 72.6). Diving deeper, I found that the mobile games were generally the cause of the disparity between critics and users (also Mass Effect 3 was scored 5.4 by users; fuelled almost entirely by outrage over the ending). While I could have appeased most readers by removing mobile games from the data, I chose not to. Trust me, it saddens me too, but mobile games have become a reality of the industry. If it helps you feel any better, Journey, The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game, Borderlands 2, and Far Cry 3 also came out in 2012.

4 2000: Metacritic Score of 90.4

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The turn of the millennium didn’t cause a computer uprising or nuclear holocaust. Electronics were once again safe to operate and everyone was excited to game, and with good reason, because 2000 brought us: Perfect Dark 64, Counter-Strike, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Diablo II, C&C: Red Alert 2, Final Fantasy IX, The Sims, Mario Tennis, Quake III Arena, Spyro: Year of the Dragon, WWF No-Mercy, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Banjo-Tooie. To top it off, NHL 2001 had a big hit button, which allowed for flying crosschecks, and EA Sports was actually putting effort into improving new iterations. These were the simple days, when Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was still a novel idea and Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore was about fighting, not boob jiggle physics. Oh Team Ninja, you truly are doing God’s work.

3 2001: Metacritic Score of 90.5

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2000 was a strong year carried mostly by games launched on consoles nearing the end of their generation. In 2001, with the PS2, GameCube, and XBOX out and hungry for titles of their own, game developers did not disappoint. This generation of consoles experienced the release of: Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved, Metal Gear 2: The Sons of Liberty, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Final Fantasy X, Silent Hill II, Devil May Cry, Max Payne, Pikmin, and Red Faction. For those who were still on their N64s, their already vast library was bolstered further with the release of Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Paper Mario. PC gamers received some love that year as well with the releases of Black & White, Sid Meier’s Civilization III, and Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. That last title stood the test of time as its thriving online community continued to play it for over a decade until Diablo III finally came out.

2 2011: Metacritic Score of 91.0

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After a couple of entries that were a bit a blast in the past, forward we jump to 2011 and the rise of mobile gaming. I find myself hard pressed to put together a list of notable games that would compare to the preceding ones of 2000 and 2001. By no way am I saying that 2011 has no notable games. Portal 2, Dark Souls, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Gears of War 3, and Dead Space 2 were all great games. We also saw Terraria and Binding of Isaac strengthen the indie game scene. 2011 definitely had some strong titles, but at this point in a list like this, you would hope for more instant classics. Maybe I’m just being cynical, because out of fairness, World of Goo and Infinity Blade II were well made mobile games.

1 2010: Metacritic Score of 91.4

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Here it is, the number one year in gaming, 2010. Definitely a strong year for video games which saw the releases of: Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Bayonetta, Sid Meirer’s Civilization V, Fallout: New Vegas, Gran Turismo 5, Heavy Rain, and BioShock 2. Again I find myself wondering whether this is a lineup of games that is deserving of the top spot. I am completely aware that I may only feel like this because of a personal bias. I am 24 years old and more biased towards the early 2000s, which were the years of gaming in which I was at my most impressionable age. It would also be unfair to pretend as if the earlier years in gaming also hadn't produced some of the most buggy, broken, and terribly made games. There are poor souls who received Superman 64 for Christmas and somewhere, there is a landfill occupied solely by unsold copies of E.T. for Atari. Perhaps I’m too critical of mobile games and compare them to a perfect history that exists only in my head. What do you think and what would your top year in video games be? Let us know in the comments below.

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