The Greatest Games of 2018

In real life, there is no reset button
Gaming is one way that I unwind. It's mostly meditative. After a long day of work, when the kiddo is finally asleep, I often find Solace in the plains of Hyrule or caves of Hollownest. Read on to see what games I loved most in 2018.
All other lists are wrong (unless they mirror the exact order and reasoning of this top twenty). You can stop Googling and bookmark this one, at least if you like being objectively correct in all matters all the time.

That's how people read top lists anyway. Like the author is somehow making a final decision on the real value of things and thereby creating some canonical document that excludes and therefore places less value on the things that didn't make the cut. This usually elicits a raging flood of comments demanding to know why "X" game isn't included among the group of recognized champions. So let's be real - this list is just a list. Maybe in 1000 years scholars will look back on this one post as the true and right understanding for what the best games of 2018 were. So if that turns out to be the case, I apologize if I don't get it right. And now I'm wondering what life will be like in a thousand years when we've escaped the confines of space-time. People will be wondering what games were hot in 2018 apparently. 

It's also worth noting that I created this list based on games I that think are sources of creative inspiration. Many of these popped up on a Slack channel here at Underbelly where we share things that are awesome - that wake us up and spark new ideas. Whether the art style, gameplay, storyline, or even menu system, each of these games made me stop and take a moment to be grateful that we live in such a creatively explosive time.

And with that, let's get to the absolute, without-a-doubt, completely correct compilation of the greatest games of 2018.

20. Iconoclasts
Iconoclasts is a 16-bit platformer that passed me completely unnoticed earlier this year. Then it started popping up all over the place on channels of people I really trust. 

Honestly, it's easy to gloss over the visuals for Iconoclasts. The sprites and animations are all gorgeous, but so are a wide variety of other indie games nowadays. The art style doesn't feel particularly unique at first, but the polish in Iconoclasts is what makes this game stand out to me. The gameplay is insanely tight, especially for the wide variety of mechanics involved, and each pixel feels handcrafted for the frame it occupies. This is the type of work where we can see a deep commitment to craft by the developer, and so it makes the list.

19. Red Dead Redemption 2

I can see people being mad that RDR2 is so far up this list at a paltry "19," but I don't care. Make your own list! 

Red Dead is hard for me to judge. On one hand, the attention to detail is absolutely mind-boggling. From the open world weather and environmental realism to the *ahem* horse gonad mechanics, the team at Rockstar seems to have spent years just thinking about any possible way that a player could be jarred out of the world they've built by hitting something unrealistic and making sure they had all of those offenders covered. And for that, they have my utmost respect.

However, I just can't get over how clunky the combat feels most of the time. At first, I thought I just sucked at taking cover, but then I realized that the game sucks at letting me take cover. 

The mission design is also head-scratchingly restrictive for an "open-world" game, which makes completing the story more of a chore than a joy. It almost seems like two teams with two separate visions completed the world and story. 

So, outside gunfighting and the core story missions (so, you know, most of the game) Red Dead 2 is a masterpiece. One that deserves a place on this list and that I'm sure we'll be talking about for at least a decade.

18. Marvel Battle Lines

Mobile games are terrible. Nearly all of them. The exceptions are Sword and Sworcery, Monument Valley, and this little gem- Marvel Battle Lines. 

MBL is like someone took a comic book, Magic the Gathering, and tic-tac-toe and smashed them all together. The result is a logically deep TCG …sorta. I've lost many hours to this polished mobile title while trying to hate it, but I keep coming back.

This is also one of the few mobile titles with microtransactions that somehow doesn't make me utterly furious. You're rewarded handsomely for just playing the game, and buying packs feels like giving the developer a tip rather than an expensive evil required to even enjoy the game.

One of the main reasons Marvel Battle Lines makes the list, besides having an utterly unique style of gameplay, is the consistently incredible art. Three Korean powerhouses, Sujin Jo, Yoon Lee, and Maxx Lim, did the work here and it's some of the best and most honoring renditions of these characters I've ever seen. Just incredible work by the team at Nexon Korea.

17. Dungeon Mayhem

Dungeon Mayhem isn't a video game, it's a fast-paced card game set in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. The art is done by my good friend and SLC local Kyle Ferrin, whose unique style is slightly reminiscent of Bill Watterson in a fantasy world. 

Mayhem is simple enough that my four-year-old can roll but complex enough to keep my wife and I compete with new strategies for weeks on end. The art is really my favorite part of the game though, which is why it makes the list. DnD nerd or not, this game rules and your life will be better for picking it up.

16. Return of the Obra Dinn

I really want to know the series of events that unfolded for this game to exist. I don't need to say much here except to point you to the art style. Just … I can't … it's so wonderful. What a completely unique approach to a game that asks you to enter a world you never knew you needed. I won't spoil anything, just pick it up.

15. Super Smash Ultimate

I missed the Smash craze just like I missed the Pokemon craze. I was too old to get hit by these waves, so Ultimate was my first experience playing a Smash Bros title. And I'll be honest, I only picked it up to play with the rest of the office as Toon Link because Toon Link is the best Link (fight me).

There are a number of very legitimate reasons as to why Smash Ultimate should be on any top list for this year (except the absolutely horrific online and system link offering by Nintendo, which they should be ashamed of), but the main thing I find inspiring is the way Nintendo treats so many characters that are not their own. It's obvious that Nintendo wants to respect and honor each developer who is represented in Ultimate, and I find that to be really encouraging. Some of these characters represent potential competition to Nintendo (my 8 year old self can't believe that Sonic is in a Nintendo game), but each unlockable player is given the same polished treatment that Mario himself is afforded. One of the reasons I love the design community is because most people are so supportive, even to their "competition," and that spirit is alive and well here in Super Smash Bros Ultimate as well.

14. Yoku's Island Express

If you told me last year that one of my favorite games of 2018 was going to be a Metroidvania Pinball Machine, I'd have told you that you were completely bonkers. But here we are a year later, and one of my favorite games of 2018 is a Metroidvania Pinball Machine.

The thing I love about Yoku's is that the devs took major risks. Who in the hell looks at the current gaming landscape and thinks that Metroid in a cutesy cartoon style with major pinball elements is the hot thing that's gonna sell? Villa Gorilla apparently, and thank the lord that they did. Yoku's is a testament to sticking to a creative vision you believe in, even if (or maybe especially if ), it bucks against the norm.

13. The Gardens Between

The Gardens Between drops you into a series of vibrant, dreamlike island gardens where you manipulate time to solve puzzles and illuminate threads of a bittersweet narrative. Each level is like staring into a living masterpiece and experiencing it like God outside of time and space. 

The Gardens Between is like a diamond you hold up to the light. As you twist and rotate the levels back and forth you find new colors, shapes, and feelings you didn't realize were there. The best art makes you feel, and Gardens gave me basically all the feels all the time. It's an absolute masterpiece.

12. Super Mario Party

Put aside all the many technical reasons that Super Mario Party rules. This game is inspirational to me because it brings back couch multiplayer and builds the relationships in your life that matter. The game isn't really the focus here, it's your friendships. And that's why I love Super Mario Party.
That and rowing your couch down a raging river with three other nerds is awesome.

11. Mark of the Ninja Remastered

Mark of the Ninja isn't just one of my favorite games of 2018, it's one of my favorite games ever. It's sad that Klei hasn't come back to Mark of the Ninja to release a completely new installment, but I'll gladly take a remastered version on the Switch that I can play anytime. The only downside of the Switch version is the lack of leaderboards so that I can know that I am objectively better than 99% of the world, but its omission is probably better for my ego anyway. 

This is probably the greatest stealth game ever created. Each level offers players thousands of possible ways to complete each objective. I find myself reloading checkpoints time and time again just so I can get the perfect run like a true master ninja would. 

Mark of the Ninja also has a beautifully executed art style that screams "Klei," which is one of the reasons I find it so inspirational. You know it's a Klei game without having to be told, both in terms of its visuals and quality.

10. Below

Five. Long. Years. That's how long it's been since we got a taste of Capy's new world. And now, at long last (and quite by surprise I might add) the game finally dropped on Xbox One and PC. Below is a game where you arrive on a mysterious island and are presented with a massive cavern of mysteries to solve. The biggest downside is that most of the island wants to kill you, and it absolutely will. When you die for the first time (it was a floor trap wasn't it?), you assume the role of another character who shows up on the island years later. And so-on and so-forth each time you pass into the next life due to some monster or fatal obstacle you didn't deal with appropriately. Below's mood alone makes it one of the greatest games of all time. Every last note in the soundtrack, pixel on the screen, or shadow on the wall is all meant to draw you further into the abyss without a single prodding from an in-game hint or story. Below taps into our innate sense of discovery and adventure to do its job, and that is a thing of utter beauty.

9. Diablo III (Switch Edition)

I played Diablo III when it first came out. I beat the game once, and then never touched it again. Like so many others, I felt like Diablo III completely missed the mark for what I was expecting, especially from a story perspective. Add to that a botched, real-money item market and a lack of compelling reasons to keep playing after the credits roll, and you've got a mediocre game that fans abandon. Which is exactly what happened. 

Fast forward a few years, one expansion, and a myriad of updates later, and Blizzard drops a Switch version. I had a gift card and a plane ride to burn this last October, so I decided the allure of portable Diablo was too good to pass up. 

You know, some accidents are worth the gamble to try something against your better judgment. Diablo III has been transformed from a AAA disappointment into one of the most rewarding hobby games I've ever played. I wish Bungie would take a hint from Diablo's progression system. Destiny can't hold a candle to the wide variety of ways that Blizzard has given players exactly what they want in a way that feels appropriately challenging. The rewards system here is what I find the most inspirational. It takes a lot of work to understand human behavior and systems of work and reward to this degree, and the Diablo team has done a masterful job to that end.

8. Dandara

I don't know many people who have played Dandara, and that is an absolute crime. 
Dandara was made by the Brazilian duo, Long Hat House. I can count the number of games with a black, female protagonist on one hand. That fact alone sets Dandara apart from the crowd.

Then consider that Dandara was made by a two-person team and your brain starts to unravel. This game is proof that incredible things can be created by small teams just as well as large teams. You don't need a huge studio with massive budgets to create something truly unique and inspiring, something we're acutely aware of at Underbelly. And for that reason, Dandara deserves a place high up this list.

7. Sea of Thieves

I've never played a game like Sea of Thieves, and by all logical checkpoints, SoT should not exist. Here's the current AAA gaming landscape - create a game where players have the illusion of choice, but in reality, they are mostly just playing through a nicely produced movie where all the decisions are already made for them. Then make sure you have insane visuals and voice acting so that your game feels like a movie. Then make sure that your game has a long series of progression hurdles for the player to navigate so that each player has to grind through endlessly rehashed content in order to compete with other players. Then charge players loads of extra cash for new content. This is the current landscape of lifestyle AAA games like Assassin's Creed, Destiny, Battlefield, etc etc etc.

Sea of Thieves throws literally all of that out the window. There isn't a linear storyline. In fact, there isn't really a story at all. There are no missions, levels, or traditional progression systems. A player who joins the game today has exactly the same power as someone who has been playing for a year. Everything players unlock is completely cosmetic so that the playing field is the same for everyone. The only thing that set players apart is skill. 

The beauty of Sea of Thieves is in the massive risks the team at Rare took. They saw what was happening to AAA gaming and decided they didn't like it. So they made a game that stands in complete opposition to what every other major studio seems to be preaching nowadays. 

Sea of Thieves is a new experience each time you play. It's up to you and your friends to venture out into the massive world that Rare has created for players to decide what adventures and stories you want to create. Some of the most memorable moments I've ever had in a game have unfolded organically in Sea of Thieves, and that would not be possible if Rare hadn't made a huge gamble with the flagship title for Xbox this year. Sea of Thieves rules, and you are worse off for not having played it yet.

6. God of War

Once upon a time, there was a game franchise so full of toxic masculinity that it stood as the primary bastion of "boys only" gaming culture. Sorry to break it to you gents, but more women play games now than men, and the demographic landscape of game developers is changing as a result. 

Thankfully, the creative team behind the God of War series also underwent a number of important growth experiences recently. The result is the crown jewel in the GoW series and a game that stands in firm opposition to what the franchise has always stood for. Kratos spends the game wrestling with the consequences of his past actions as the king of machismo while coming to grips with how to be a good father. Not exactly the testosterone filled lady-slayer of previous God of War iterations. 

As a recently christened dad myself, this game hit home emotionally, from the first epic battle scene to when the credits rolled. And like Shadow of the Colossus, the immense sense of scale achieved here is consistently awe-inspiring throughout the game's epic, emotional expose on fatherhood. God of War feels like a completely different game from its predecessors, which is why I love it so much.

5. Dead Cells

This game can go to hell and I don't want to talk about it.

But I also ONLY want to talk about it. That's what makes Dead Cells so freaking great. 

I struggle with "rogue-like" games because, to me, it feels like a lazy way to get players to play through the same three levels a thousand times over without having to design a full game. Just make three levels, make the enemies angry, and boot players back to the beginning when they die. Instant game of the year.

But Dead Cells somehow pulls that concept off in a way that doesn't feel cheap. Done right, perma-death can really up the ante for a game in a way that I miss nowadays. Dying should have consequences in most games, but devs are afraid of players getting frustrated so we have checkpoints every three feet or so.

Dead Cells found a way to create a seriously challenging experience that is also inherently rewarding enough that a player (we won't say who) can die 85 times, never actually beat the final boss, and still include the game on their top 20 list for the year. Now that's inspiring.

4. GRIS
My goodness. Where to start with GRIS. I went from not knowing anything about the game, to watching a trailer, to buying the game, to declaring it one of the greatest games ever made. All in the space of about an hour.

GRIS is the first game ever made by Barcelona based developer Nomada Studio. It's hard to explain what makes GRIS so impactful. It has to be seen and experienced. GRIS is an ethereal, relaxing, Metroidvania-like, transcendent masterpiece. It's puzzle and exploration driven with no life-bar or real enemies to defeat. It's a gorgeous and meditative journey through one of the most creative worlds I've seen crafted in any medium. The entire game is hand painted and animated, with a crushingly impressive level of craft on display from start to finish.

Life is challenging. Every person you know has a life that includes heartbreak, drama, love, loss, friendship, enemies, and doubt. GRIS, at its core, is a tapestry encouraging us all to find the voice and inner-will to overcome our most deeply ingrained fears. 

GRIS isn't a game. It's a religious experience. It will change your life for the better.

3. Hollow Knight

Speaking of hand-drawn, religious experiences. Hollow Knight. Hot damn. What a ride. 

I've got to be honest, I never thought a Metroidvania game would ever dethrone Super Metroid in my heart for best game in the genre. After all, how do you dethrone the game that wrote the book on explorative, back-tracking, skill-unlocking, side-scrolling bliss? With a tiny bug warrior and a charming yet disturbing cast of insectoid characters I suppose. I can't describe my feelings for this game. It's worth buying a game system just for this one title. It's worth taking the rest of the day off right now to play through. 

There's a lot I could say about Hollow Knight to describe why it deserves a spot in my top ten favorite games of ALL time, from the insanely tight controls to the beautifully animated sprites to the perfectly spaced progression pacing, but the thing I want to highlight here is the commitment to a realized and consistent vision that few books, games, movies (any of it), actually achieve. Even though the world you explore in Hollow Knight is an obvious work of fiction with very little visual rooting in the real world, you feel like the depths of Hollow Nest are real and that the events you uncover really did happen.

When I finished Hollow Knight for the first time, I put down my Switch and gazed into the heavens, thanking God for breathing into existence a world of such creativity and beauty that we get to experience together as innovatively expressive creatures. I'm dead serious. Hollow Knight drew out that reaction from me. Damn it's good.

2. Celeste

Celeste is hard. Really, really hard. There are singular sections of specific levels that I spent hours and hours trying to complete. Literally hours spent trying to make a sequence of three jumps. 

Celeste demands perfection in execution from the players. And you know why? Because the devs gave us perfection, so the game demands perfection in return.

Celeste changed my life. It came out at a time when I was dealing with some next-level anxiety that was the result of a traumatic accident which took place about two years ago. There was a time period that I would wake up paralyzed every morning, where I was so overwhelmed with anxiety and stress that I began to hallucinate as a laid frozen. No joke. I saw the paint melt off the walls and the world implode around me as I sat sweating through the sheets of my bed, unable to break free from the crippling dread that commanded every waking moment.

So how in the hell does a punishingly difficult game help with that? Doesn't seem like a great way to deal with stress. Sounds like throwing gas on the fire.

And it should have. In all honesty, I'm not entirely sure why Celeste had the impact on my life that it did. But I have some guesses:

First, Celeste is a game about a woman who is also battling panic and anxiety. It's obvious that the people who made Celeste have an intimate, first-hand understanding of what it feels like to have a full-on, physical panic attack. And as you play through the game, you learn with the main character how to grow and develop the tools to deal with this condition. Hell, the game even has you going through breathing exercises at more than one point. The narrative of the game spoke to the struggles I was going through (and still struggle with) and helped me feel like I wasn't alone in this battle. Other people also battle anxiety in the same, very destructive ways that I have, and it somehow helps to know I'm not alone.

Secondly, the game is really hard, but you also know it's possible. You know what else is that way? Life. And Celeste puts the player in a relatively risk-free environment, where failure doesn't have any real-world consequences, and tells us to keep trying. To work harder. To not give up. To work and work until, finally, after a thousand tries, you nail that section with flawless perfection and look back wondering how you ever struggled with that problem.

And that, for some reason, gave me the strength and determination to get out of bed and try again every day, even after failing miserably time and time again.

1. Dungeons and Dragons

I am ashamed to say that when talking about my hobbies and interests, for my entire life, I've usually done so with the caveat, "You know, I'm a nerd, but at I'll never be nerdy enough to play Dungeons and Dragons."

I had no idea how ignorant those words were. Not until this year.

About 6 months ago I read an article on Vox by Carlos Maza and Gina Barton that explained their experience playing DnD in their office. Carlos, their Dungeon Master, had grown up playing while the rest of the diverse group of players had never touched the game. Together they built relationships and created epic stories over the course of many play-sessions. Carlos then explains how public perception of DnD has changed drastically over the years, going from a "demonic faux-pa" feared by parents everywhere to a positive parenting tool that moms and dads all over the world are using to engage their children with math, narrative storytelling, social skills, leadership, problem-solving, and much more.

Then I found Critical Role, thanks to YouTube's on-point suggestion algorithm, and things changed forever. Watching the adventures of Matt Mercer and his Vox Machina band of voice-actors gone vlogger completely shattered my perception of what DnD even IS, who actually plays it, and the value it offers to those brave enough to dive in with all their role-playing soul. 

So I asked Twitter if anyone wanted to fail our way through learning DnD together. The response I got was surprising, to say the least. People were excited. I got responses and direct messages from folks who had either played before and knew the joy we were about to discover, or from folks who were interested in playing and couldn't wait to create a character and get to adventuring. A week later I was inhaling the starter kit and Players Handbook, doing everything I could to become a dungeon master capable of leading our group through our first campaign together.

Fast-forward half a year and we have a core group of dear friends from across the design community who play on a weekly basis. My players just finished tracking down Lolth after having been mystically transported into the Feywild by the Queen of Branchsong in our own homebrew campaign. I spend most of my waking moments outside work and being a dad writing out new portions of campaigns and brain-dumping new puzzles for my group to solve. 

DnD is an enigma in gaming. It really is OUR game, not Wizards of the Coasts'. The world and events are all ours, collectively breathed to life by the imaginations of our group. The rules help to put structure to it all, but my favorite game this year was, for all intents and purposes, created by me and my friends Justin Mezzell, Rogie King, and Matt Scribner. 

Even though the game mechanics were technically released 44 years ago, my friends and I just created our first game this year. And we aren't the only ones -  DnD just had its best year on record from a sales perspective. I don't know any other games that have lasted that long, only to hit their stride in popularity a half a century later. And that's why Dungeons and Dragons is easily number one on my list.
All other lists are wrong.