The decade is coming to a close, and what a bizarre decade it’s been. For gaming, especially. Never has there been a decade with so much technical progress, but the medium has arguably only gotten less creative– especially on the AAA side. The big budget console games consumers flock to may be fun, but they’re almost always part of a larger franchise and more intent on pushing copies than making art.
But that’s not the case for every developer, far from it. This decade has seen the medium adopt some nasty practices, but when a game is good, it’s good. Covering one game per year this past decade, the following ten games are exemplary of the 2010s at their mechanical, conceptual, and creative best. The medium is still alive and thriving heading into the 2020s.
So, here are the ten best console, non-major franchise games of the decade, ranked.
10 3D Dot Game Heroes (2010)
Released at the start of the decade, 3D Dot Game Heroes built up a dedicated following, but very quickly faded into obscurity. It left no real impact on the industry, genre, or even the PlayStation 3 which it was exclusive to. It’s a shame, honestly, since 3D Dot Game Heroes essentially predicted the nostalgia boom of the late teens.
Complete with an incredible character creator, 3D Dot Game Heroes is a love letter to the original Legend of Zelda and all those action-adventure games from the Famicom/NES era. It’s modernized considerably well, with a sword system that gives Zelda 1’s simple combat considerable depth. Throw its unique visuals & excellent dungeon design into the mix, and 3D Dot Game Heroes is one title that mustn’t be forgotten.
9 Catherine (2011)
Catherine’s typically lumped with the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise considering it shares several key staff members, but that’s a fairly reductive way of approaching the game. Catherine’s priorities are very different from SMT’s, opting for an emotionally intelligent and mature character drama that holds no punches when it comes to the nuances of love, sexuality, and gender.
Catherine: Full Body, a remake, released this year, but it clutters the original with unnecessary fluff. 2011’s Catherine is a better paced and more thoughtful experience, one that doesn’t pander to its audience like Atlus does today. Blending Qbert esque puzzle platforming into the mix, Catherine remains one of the most unique video game of all time.
8 Journey (2012)
Journey felt like a turning point in 2012 more than it ended up being, but it still stands out as a beautiful work of art– one of the few titles where just about anyone familiar with the medium can agree is art. A silent journey, Journey was one of the first games to capitalize on the inherent interconnectivity of online multiplayer.
Through online, players can connect with strangers and share a singular experience. At the same time, no two journeys are alike, with players needing to say goodbye depending on their pace of play. A friend can come and go, but one’s memories of them are forever. Journey took a mature, thoughtful concept and gave it to a larger audience.
7 The Last Of Us (2013)
When it comes to gameplay, The Last of Us isn’t that special. It’s an above average third person shooter with some decent survivalist elements. That alone is enough to make it a great game, but its story and presentation elevate it to another level entirely. The Last of Us is genuinely mature and commits itself to diving into the nastier and sadder parts of humanity.
The Last of Us is often compared to film, and while it sets a bad precedent for more cinematic games, it uses its gameplay well, nudging players to form a connection with Ellie over the course of their journey. Besides, sometimes it’s just nice to sit down and play through a great story.
6 P.T. (2014)
P.T. was only a demo and not a full game, but any discussion centering itself on the best titles from this decade needs to make mention of P.T. Not just because its potential was squandered and it’s no longer even available for download, but because it managed to be a complete, engaging experience even as just a demo.
Designed as a communal experience, P.T. is one of the scariest and most thought provoking games this generation. As a free demo, it could afford to make use of obscure puzzles on an aggressive level. At the same time, the nature of online communication meant that gamers were looking together and solving all P.T. had to offer within hours.
5 Bloodborne (2015)
Almost universally considered a Souls game, Bloodborne may share some similarities with its Demon’s and Dark brethren, but it is very much its own beast entirely. A Lovecraftian epic that tells a subtle story that comments on the nature of humanity, how we perceive the divine, and the cosmos, few games are as cerebral as Bloodborne.
Or as addicting. Bloodborne is hard, but that core gameplay loop is like candy. Fast paced and frantic, the action never stops. Taking it slow and treating things like Dark Souls leads to almost instant death. With arguably the best set of bosses FromSoft have developed for a game, Bloodborne is the decade’s standout title.
4 Odin Sphere Leifthrasir (2016)
It might seem wrong to include a remake as one of the best games of the decade, but it’s important to recognize that Odin Sphere Leifthrasir was a remake that could only happen because of this decade and its technological achievements. With the power of the PS4 and years of criticism to reflect on, Vanillaware took an already amazing game and made it a masterpiece.
An action RPG, Odin Sphere jumps around between five characters, each one expanding the story. Norse mythology plays a key role in the game, and Richard Wagner’s Die Walkure is almost required viewing to truly appreciate everything Odin Sphere’s story has to offer. With the remake adding genuine depth to the combat, Leifthrasir is one of the best remakes of all time.
3 Nioh (2017)
A game that was stuck in development hell for years, the fact Nioh released at all is a miracle. That it’s more than Souls clone is even better! It managing to tell a great story against the backdrop of a Japan on the brink of change is the cherry on top. Gaming rarely gets as good as Nioh and anyone looking for a great, original action game needs to play it
Equal parts fantastical and historic, Nioh plays with Japan’s history in a fun way. Stages are lush, prioritizing capturing the scope & scale of the country above all else. Enemies and bosses are incredibly fun to fight as well thanks to stances– a combat system that gives players three angles to attack from. Nioh is a modern classic.
2 Octopath Traveler (2018)
Somewhat of a divisive game, Octopath Traveler commits itself to Super Famicom era game design in every sense. That does mean its approach to game design is seemingly outdated (story is important but deemphasized, for instance), but its commitment is what makes Octopath such a great RPG. It exists in its own bubble, one where 2D gaming remained the norm.
It’s also just a great game, overall. The stories are disconnected and loose, but the script is strong & characters all have distinct voices. There’s plenty of customization at play as well, with the game suiting all sorts of playstyles. Throw in the amazing music & visuals, and Octopath is a must play for fans of 2D RPGs.
1 Death Stranding (2019)
Death Stranding may have only released this past month, but it has already proven itself an incredibly important game – one that strives to give AAA gaming its legitimacy back. It’s a big budget title that falls to many of the same pitfalls as other big budget titles, but it’s also slow paced, introspective, incredibly bold, and one of the most creative games ever made.
It’ll still be quite some time before Death Stranding’s impact on the industry is seen (if it even leaves an impact), but it’s a fantastic note to end the decade on nonetheless. A return to form for Hideo Kojima, and a beacon of hope for the medium moving into the 2020s.
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