1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, Switch/Wii U)
In a lot of ways Breath of the Wild is a standard Zelda title. It’s an action role-playing adventure, following Link as he sets out to kill the evil sorcerer Ganon before this mythic monster can escape an enchanted castle and destroy Hyrule. You battle monsters, level up, collect new weapons and items, slowly gain the strength needed for the final showdown.
But Breath of the Wild is much more than that. Featuring a full-physics system that lets you experiment with a host of interlocking elements, the game teaches you to be creative, attacking enemies and overcoming scenic obstacles in interesting ways. It is also a lesson in modern open-world game design. While other developers use endless collectibles and highly scripted side-quests to encourage player exploration, Nintendo simply provides a beautiful environment filled with secrets and lets you go out and find them. It is possible to play for days – weeks even – without once undertaking an “official” mission or task, instead following your own path through forest, desert and mountain.
Everywhere you go there are eccentric characters, strange subplots and weird configurations of rocks and trees which lead you to new puzzles and surprises. While controversial, the weapon system, which sees items gradually wearing down and breaking, means you have to constantly assess what you carry. Combined with the health and vitality systems (underpinned by a fun cooking element) it means players really have to constantly attune to the environment.
This is a landmark title, not just for Nintendo, not just for the Switch – which many pundits had written off before its launch – but for the whole idea of what a video game can do. It will be played, dissected and discussed for years to come.
2. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo, Switch)
If you want to communicate to someone the sheer joy of playing video games, show them this. The latest 3D adventure for Nintendo’s eternal hero sees him traversing fantastical lands – including the decidedly human New Donk City – to rescue Peach from the insistent claws of old enemy Bowser. As ever, the fun is in mastering a range of platforming moves while exploring a universe stuffed with brilliant ideas and inventions. An utter treat.
3. Horizon Zero Dawn (Sony, Playstation 4)
An action adventure about battling robotic dinosaurs on a post-apocalyptic planet sounds like the most run-of-the-mill sci-fi gaming hokum. But lead character Aloy is engaging and memorable, her struggle to discover her identity giving the well-structured narrative emotional integrity. The world also looks utterly beautiful with incredible lighting, modelling and landscaping. The effect is not just an exciting game but a world you don’t want to leave.
4. What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, PC/PS4/Xbox One)
Like a collection of Angela Carter short stories brought to rich, brooding life, this fascinating work of magical realism is a moving exploration of family and death. The eponymous character returns to her ancestral home, exploring every room and discovering secrets about her unlucky clan. Told through a first-person perspective via connecting vignettes, the game establishes a sense of place, ennui, remorse and regret that utterly transports.
5. Nier: Automata (Square Enix, PC/PS4)
It’s strange that a game entirely about robots should be one of the most human and humane game experiences of the year. The latest title from offbeat Japanese developer Yoko Taro is set on a postapocalyptic vision of Earth where wistful androids carry on a proxy war for their long-departed masters, while pondering the meaning of existence, and indeed the meaning of video games. Surreal, gorgeous, self-referential and incredibly emotional.