It feels like a distant memory at this point, but it wasn't too long ago that Nintendo was facing its darkest stretch of the last 30 years.
Commercially, the Wii U was an abject failure. The 3DS was getting long-in-the-tooth right as conventional wisdom determined that dedicated handheld gaming was dead, replaced by a smartphone and tablet gaming scene for which Nintendo had little enthusiasm and less experience. The 'Nintendo is doomed' crowd had plenty of raw material to work with.
Not so much these days. We can point to a variety of reasons for that, but it's hard to argue any of them have played a bigger part in resuscitating Nintendo than Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The company was relying on it to carry a deliberately weak Switch launch lineup, reasoning it would be better to release a steady stream of high-profile software than to blitz players at launch and risk them going months later on without big new games to play.
It sounded like a risky strategy at first, but seemed increasingly rational once the initial wave of reviews for Breath of the Wild hit. By and large, they shot straight past the question of whether or not the game was worth buying a system for and straight for plaudits like "masterpiece," "revolutionary," and "greatest game of all time."
"Breath of the Wild earned its instant classic status is for everything it does beyond the basics, and how much of that it gets right"
So what made it such a transcendent experience? It's gorgeous, of course. The puzzles are clever, the characters charming, the controls smooth. None of that makes the game special. In a write-up for a game of the year, it should go without saying that the title in question nails the basics of what it's trying to do. The reason Breath of the Wild earned its instant classic status is for everything it does beyond the basics, and how much of that it gets right.
Zelda accomplishes the tricky task of reinventing a franchise while staying true to its predecessors. Breath of the Wild scrapped the established formula of 3D Zelda titles for an open world, introduced a complex physics system that can be creatively exploited, made weapon degradation a key part of the gameplay, added a crafting and cooking system and, perhaps most important of all, introduced the ability to climb virtually anything in the game. The reason all of these changes work so brilliantly in a Zelda game is that they encourage the experimentation and exploration that were at the heart of the very first Zelda game back in 1986.
Breath of the Wild's open world let players spot an interesting grove of trees or rock formation in the distance and take a detour from the main quest just to see what's over there. Being able to climb trees and cliff faces meant they could plot their own optimal path along the way. There would likely be enemies to fight, and the breakable weapon system ensured players wouldn't become overly reliant on a single blade, encouraging them to become adept with a variety of combat styles.
The at-times punishing difficulty of combat meant players needed health replenishing meals they would have to make from scratch, improvising recipes with foraged ingredients. That's to say nothing of the physics, which gave players a plethora of creative new ways to travel, solve puzzles, and dispatch enemies.
However, these overlapping systems and the emergent gameplay they produce are only part of the magic. Breath of the Wild also benefits from a human attention to detail it shares with Nintendo's best efforts. The game's side quests tell stories all their own, and the town-building of From the Ground Up or consoling of Koko the recipe girl are as affecting and heart-warming as anything to bear the Nintendo name. Some of the best moments are entirely separated from storylines or checklists of things to do. There are beautiful discoveries that are their own reward and play no part in player progression or plot advancement, like teaching dogs simple tricks or discovering the Lord of the Mountain for the first time.
"Breath of the Wild creates an incredible possibility space, a world controlled by both numbers and creators"
Combining the best of scripted polish with complex systems, Breath of the Wild creates an incredible possibility space, a world controlled by both numbers and creators. It lets players come up with specific scenarios and see whether or not the systems or the creators have accounted for them. And more often than one might expect for a AAA blockbuster, the game supports those scenarios.
More than any other major release of the past 12 months, and more than most Game of the Year candidates in any year, Zelda: Breath of the Wild taps into the basic joy of play. At every step, it encourages players to think, "Wouldn't it be cool if I could do this?" Then it lets them do that. And more often than not, the answer to the question is an unequivocal "Yes."
Games this good don't come around every year, or even every console generation. Breath of the Wild is a towering achievement, a reminder of what Nintendo is truly capable of, and our Game of the Year.
Favourite Game - Assassin's Creed: Origins
In truth, the break Ubisoft granted Assassin's Creed from its bruising annualised schedule arrived too late. When Brotherhood was released, it was my perhaps my favourite franchise in gaming; by the time Syndicate rolled around, even the Victorian London setting wasn't enough to stimulate my interest. I was bored of Assassin's Creed, and Ubisoft was to blame.
What difference an extra year can make. Origins' world is vast and detailed and beautiful, the series' familiar elements have been improved in intelligent ways, and it is the first entry in a long time that seems to really care about the player's time and quality of life. Ubisoft has been criticised for leaning too heavily on bloated open worlds - Assassin's Creed: Origins is a shining example of how to get the balance right.
Biggest Surprise - Data Wing
As a website that covers the business of games, we write a great deal about the mobile industry. However, that is not reflected in my personal gaming habits, which are almost exclusively focused on console and PC. The fact that a mobile game is among my choices here is a surprise in itself, then, but Dan Vogt's Data Wing is surprising in so many other ways
A top-down racing game that calls to mind Wipeout, Asteroids and Portal all at once, Data Wing's relatively brief lifespan hums with quality from beginning to end. The racing is gratifyingly weighty, the music woozy and seductive, and the whole thing is underpinned by an engaging narrative featuring and a mordantly funny AI.
What's more, Data Wing is free; no ads, no IAP, and a grateful community that helps Vogt to produce a growing number of localised versions. Download it now.
Biggest Disappointment - Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
This is the first of two mentions Monolith's eagerly awaited sequel will receive for disappointing the GI team, and while I have no desire to dwell on negativity, it would simply be dishonest for choose any other game. Shadow of Mordor was an imperfect experience supported by a truly brilliant concept, the Nemesis System. The potential for refinement and improvement in a sequel was both obvious and truly exciting.
However, while the Nemesis System is present and correct in Shadow of War, it is stifled by a quite staggering amount of bloat; every moment of emergent mayhem a lush island in a sea of map markers and busywork. This is my biggest disappointment because it's so simple to recognise the game that Shadow of War could have been, and the loss is felt all the more keenly for it.
Favourite Game - Overcooked
Yes, technically this came out in 2016, but it's new on Switch and new to me. Overcooked is absurdly delightful. The level design, with each kitchen posing a new challenge, creates that the perfect blend between compelling you to succeed and sending you into a frustrated rage. The game shines in multiplayer where co-operation is imperative, but not necessarily civil. A constant timer and a never-ending stream of orders turns your impeccable teamwork into a frantic storm of shouting at each other. One minute, you're flawlessly prepping burgers, the next you're putting out fires all over the kitchen - but laughing all the way.
Biggest Surprise - Sniper Ghost Warrior 3
By the developer's own admission, this title was too ambitious, but that makes Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 more impressive for me. An open-world shooter emphasising stealth and sniping is right up my street, but I didn't quite expect the quality and freedom CI Games accomplished here. The moody hills of Georgia make for a refreshing setting - the regular checkpoints and signs of oppression bring back memories of Far Cry 2, one of my favourite games of the last generation. My only gripe is the protagonist is another world-policing US soldier, rather than a Georgian trying to free his homeland.
Biggest Disappointment - Star Wars Battlefront II
No, not because of the loot boxes and all that kerfuffle. Instead, it's the offline content that once again leaves me wanting. The campaign is impressive and gets off to a strong start, but some missions shoehorn in classic Star Wars heroes seemingly just to encourage players to use them in the multiplayer. Also, EA originally promised a unique story told from the Empire's point of view - but it takes a predictable, 'safe' twist very early on. Finally, the Arcade mode feels even shallower than the Missions mode in 2015 Battlefront, with only five maps and two modes. Here's hoping the free DLC includes offline content.
Favourite Game - Resident Evil 7
Capcom has struggled with Resident Evil's dual identities. There's the fans that want to shoot zombies, and those that want to creep around haunted mansions. The developer tried to satisfy both with Resident Evil 6, which played out like a brand suffering an identity crisis.
With 7, Resident Evil has found its voice again. The game throws out the last ten years of convoluted storylines, character arcs and schizophrenic gameplay, to deliver a perfectly paced first-person horror game. The focus on scares over action may have held it back commercially, but critically Resident Evil has reclaimed its throne as the king of horror.
Biggest Surprise - Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Is there anything more satisfying than a game lambasted by angry gamers before it's even revealed, only for it to turn out fantastically - and a real commercial hit, too.
How Mario + Rabbids got through its pitch meeting, I'm not sure. It's XCOM in the Mushroom Kingdom, where Mario wields a laser cannon and teams up with the irritating Rabbids. Yet this is a deep, accessible and beautiful strategy game. The animation is joyful (and often hilarious), with the landscape dancing to Grant Kirkhope's score. If it wasn't for Odyssey and Zelda, this would probably have received more attention. Even so, Mario + Rabbids is 2017's most pleasant surprise.
Biggest Disappointment - Breath of the Wild DLC
A disappointment doesn't have to mean bad, and Breath of the Wild's DLC is pretty good. The new shrines and dungeon are great, the extra difficulty mode and Master Trials add some real challenge, and the new items augment the gameplay well.
But we've been spoiled by Nintendo in 2017, so for $20 we expected something meatier. The Champions' Ballad was pitched as story-based DLC, but it's more like a series of unnecessary deleted scenes, linked together by challenges - some of which seem to exist purely to extend the experience (some of them involve literally jumping through hoops). You do very little of the exploration that made the game so remarkable. Perhaps Nintendo is busy on a full sequel.
Favourite Game - Rime
If this was any other year in my life, I'd probably have selected Breath of the Wild as my favourite game. Not only am I a huge Zelda fan, but what Nintendo achieved there is truly remarkable. That said, on a personal level I was deeply impressed and emotionally impacted by Tequila Works' Rime.
When I first booted up the game, I thought it would be an above average adventure. Then I came to realise how much Rime deals with the human condition and invites players to interpret loss and grief in their own way. Meaningful games - that is, games that people can connect to deeply and reflect upon - are something this industry needs more of.
Biggest Surprise - Metroid: Samus Returns
Metroid has always held a special place in my heart, ever since I played the NES original in the late '80s. When I discovered that Nintendo was finally going back - in partnership with MercurySteam - to create a new 2D entry in the series I was elated. Metroid: Samus Returns immediately follows the events of the first game and gives fans everything they could want from a Metroid adventure. Samus Returns refines the franchise's controls, visuals and 2D gameplay, while giving 3DS owners hungry for content something to talk about in a year dominated by the Switch.
Biggest Disappointment - Yooka-Laylee
As much as nostalgia can work in a game's favor, sometimes it can backfire. Such was the case with Yooka-Laylee when I tried to get into the platformer earlier this year. I loved the old Rare platformers, and while Yooka does indeed capture the spirit of those titles, Playtonic also managed to replicate a lot of things about that bygone era that perhaps should have been left behind.
The endless collect-a-thons, the (at times) wonky camera angles and controls, the somewhat uninspired level designs all started to sour the experience for me. It's certainly not a bad game, but with so many other choices on the market, it quickly became a title I did not want to slog through.
Favourite Game - Night in the Woods
Set in a once prosperous rust-belt town now in decline, Night in the Woods perfectly captures the experience of being a directionless millennial, free from responsibility, but so utterly shackled by circumstance.
Brimming with lovable characters, hilarious secrets, and relatable moments, it's a brilliantly observed story about change and stagnation. Night in the Woods isn't just a great game in 2017, it's an absolute classic that sits comfortably alongside the likes of Journey and Undertale as one the genre-defining indie darlings.
Biggest Surprise - Super Mario Odyssey
I have a confession to make - I've never played a Mario game, and never have I wanted to… until I saw Super Mario Odyssey. A rare gem in the gaming sphere, Odyssey exudes the kind of charm and intelligence of design that only Nintendo can deliver.
The fact that I literally bought a Switch just so I can play a Mario game is probably the greatest surprise of my life. I'm not sure what that says about me as an individual, but when I enter my chrysalis on New Year's Eve and emerge as entirely different person in 2018, it will cease to matter.
Biggest Disappointment - Middle Earth: Shadow of War
Middle Earth: Shadow of War swoops into this category with an aptitude and grace the game itself so desperately lacks. It's hard to know where to begin but never before has a game felt so thoroughly compromised by the excesses of AAA development, positively bulging with redundant systems and ideas.
Playing Shadow of War involves avoiding more content than it does engaging with it. The good bits are spread so thin you barely notice them, whilst the bad bits are remorselessly crammed into every available corner - as though some deranged toddler has filled your shoes with unsolicited peanut butter.
Favourite Game - Culdcept Revolt
Outside of Zelda, my favorite game this year was Culdcept Revolt on the 3DS, partly because Culdcept is always an amazing mix of Magic: The Gathering and Monopoly, and partly because it has the restraint not to embrace microtransations for which it seems ideally suited.
At first, the pace at which you can earn new cards feels frustratingly slow. Had the game offered the option of paying real money for extra card packs, I likely would have directed my anger at the business model. But without a profit motivation there, I can see it was an intentional choice by the designers to encourage me to experiment more with the cards I already have, one that deepened my appreciation of an already fantastic game.
Biggest Surprise - Hidden My Game By Mom
This one actually came out last year, but I was late to the party on this brilliantly simple mobile game. Each level of the game is a room where the protagonist's mom has hidden his handheld game system. Players poke around the screen to have the boy search objects, hoping to find the system before mom catches him. It starts out simply enough (is it in the couch cushions?), but quickly escalates into an absurd series of non-sequiturs and cartoon logic. A Nintendo Switch version of the game launches today, albeit under the decidedly more mundane moniker of Mom Hid My Game.
Biggest Disappointment - Nintendo's mobile games
This one goes collectively to Nintendo's 2017 mobile efforts: Super Mario Run (Android), Fire Emblem Heroes, and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. I had hoped the company would bring its iconic IP to mobile the way it does everything else: in distinctly Nintendo fashion. I expected gameplay that wasn't just new for these brands but new for mobile players. I was also particularly hopeful that the company long critical of mobile gaming's business models would bring some much-needed evolution on that front. Sadly in both cases, the company's approach to the mobile gaming status quo was not one of innovation, but assimilation.