Here’s our list of the best games of 2019. This is the intro. Feel free to imagine that it discusses whatever trends or themes you think defined the year. That’s what the intros to these kinds of lists typically do, along with hinting at some of the specific entries below in pithy or cloying ways. It always reminds me of that part at the end of Walk Hard where Eddie Vedder introduces Dewey Cox at the awards show and lists all of his generic nicknames—the kind of faux-profound puffery that hopes to impress people but is mostly just a hollow way to look smart while filling space. Did you know that a certain number of games this year shared some similarities, either incidental or fundamental, that are in no way unique to this year or each other, and that that’s enough for me to draw a tenuous and surface level connection between them? Rad. 2019: what a year for games and the people who have to hit word counts about ‘em!
I like many of the games below. If I don’t then my assistant editor, Holly Green, does, or our wayward editor-at-large Cameron Kunzelman does, or at least one of our writers Dia Lacina, Natalie Flores and Dante Douglas (fare thee well, friend—may the Riot winds guide you right) do. Mostly though I’m the one. I’m the one who did the list. I typed numbers in front of names and then pasted the code for image embeds beneath them. I didn’t write all the blurbs but I sure as heck copy-pasted the ones I didn’t write from the reviews we ran throughout the year. This level of detail might seem unnecessary but I believe in being entirely transparent. Trust in the process: the process of ranking games.
Now sit back and let our list do the thinking for you. Thanks for your support and here’s to a bangin’ 2020.—Garrett Martin
30. Mortal Kombat 11
Mortal Kombat 11 goes out of its way to break down the barrier between experts and regular players. It reduces the imperceptible into easy-to-follow, step-by-step chunks that anybody can learn. Of course simply knowing how to count frame data doesn’t mean most players will be able to do it that effectively with any regularity. Also, it’s entirely possible that new meta techniques will be discovered by the fighting game community as they continue to look for advantages, once again leaving most players out of the loop. And perhaps NetherRealm intentionally baked new meta tactics into Mortal Kombat 11, knowing that the most dedicated players would quickly find them and pass them around clandestinely like they once did these other techniques.
For now, though, Mortal Kombat 11 blows up so much of the mystery around fighting games. I’ve been playing Mortal Kombat games for almost 30 years, but this is the first time I’ve really played one the way fighting games are meant to be played these days.—Garrett Martin
29. Dear Reader
For the last two months my nights have all ended the same way: with me staying up way too late playing Dear Reader on my phone. On the hardest setting, Dear Reader turns excerpts from some of the most important works of literature (all in the public domain, naturally) into stressful word puzzles. Blanks need to be filled, words need to be rearranged, letters need to be guessed, and along the way you’ll basically be reading Cliffs Notes on dozens of books you probably should’ve read in high school. The sheer volume is almost overwhelming—not just in terms of books (I’ve currently unlocked 31 volumes, ranging from Moby Dick to the works of Sappho), but also the variety of different types puzzles that become available. I’ve poured dozens of hours into this mobile game, and I still haven’t reached the end of either.—Garrett Martin
28. The Outer Worlds
Obsidian is on to something good with The Outer Worlds. The writing has an irresistible humanity, and the factions, skill system, and dynamic companion interactivity offer a beautifully complicated depth that makes me mourn the loss of Fallout 4 all over again. With it, I don’t have to miss Fallout: New Vegas anymore—I can just enjoy what its core features have become. So far, this new horizon looks promising.—Holly Green
27. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Fallen Order stacks some of the best parts of Metroid, Dark Souls and Uncharted inside a Star Wars trenchcoat, but that isn’t the smartest thing it does. That would be how it squarely centers on the stress and trauma of its characters. PTSD should be rampant in this universe, considering war is all anybody seems to know, and yet within the Star Wars canon it’s rarely been focused on as keenly or depicted as clearly as it is here. Its lead characters aren’t all that likable, for reasons that are both intentional and unintentional, and that is a flaw; still, they feel a bit more human than what you normally see in games and Star Wars stories, and that, combined with the guaranteed to please gameplay formula, makes Fallen Order a Star Wars highlight.—Garrett Martin
26. Neo Cab
Neo Cab let me have some of the most captivating conversations I’ve had in videogames—conversations that delve into philosophy, toxic friendships, justice, beauty standards, and even quantum physics. This is where Neo Cab’s excellent writing shines brightest. Even though the conversations are only as long as a cab ride, Los Ojos and its people quickly feel real. It’s not a long ride, but it’s a unique one that made me feel seen and even healed. Its several systems gracefully combine to create a cog that you want to keep turning until you reach the end. Ultimately, most of us are just cogs in a larger machine operated by those at the top. Neo Cab chooses to see the importance of the little cogs, and that’s why it’ll stick with me.—Natalie Flores
Mutazione tackles several topics in the course of its five-hour experience, particularly the themes of traditional healing, outside interference and the perils of harboring a savior complex. Kai’s grandfather, while well-intentioned, triggers a chain of events that leads to tragedy, disrupting the emotional and spiritual health of the village. His interference is reflected in the slow but devastating disruption to the local ecosystem, a slow decay that isn’t addressed until his illness nearly leaves the town without a healer at all. It is only after Kai surrenders to the traditional wisdom of the elders that order and health are restored. Her grandfather’s method of teaching forces her to figure out the basics on her own, gifting her with an intuition that can only be learned through the trial and error process of hands-on work. In that way, the game is also a metaphor for her growth into adulthood.—Holly Green
Grindstone borrows RPG elements and a few roguelike concepts (although you don’t really lose anything when you die, thankfully) and injects them into a color-matching puzzle game; your character has to slice and dice his way through a grid covered in enemies of different colors, but can only chain together kills with creatures of the same color. If you can kill 10 or more enemies of the same color in a single chain, a special gem will appear on screen, which will let you chain kills from your current color to one other color, opening up the possibility of massive chains that can reshape the entire board in a single move. It has a simple set of rules that it explores in exhaustive detail across 150 different stages, steadily forcing you to rethink your approach as new enemies and new obstacles are regularly introduced into the mix. I can’t think of anything in any other game I’ve played this year as satisfying as running through a massive chain in Grindstone, slashing through 30 or more enemies in a single move while also knocking off some of the stronger special monsters or cracking open a treasure chest along the way. Grindstone is a thoroughly confident game that understands exactly what a certain type of player is looking for from mobile experiences, and then goes above and beyond all expectations to make that a reality.—Garrett Martin
23. Tetris 99
If you always thought Tetris would be better as a brutal war of attrition, pitting you against dozens of other players to see who can emerge from the block-strewn battlefield as the sole victor, well, Nintendo has good news for you. Tetris 99 turns the classic puzzler’s competitive multiplayer mode into a full-fledged battle royale game, with up to 99 different online players competing directly against each other. It plays just like the Tetris you know and remember. Blocks fall from the sky, you can turn them and move them right and left as they fall, and the goal is to use those blocks to form unbroken lines at the bottom of the screen. If you complete two or more lines at a time, you’ll send junk rows over to one of your 98 opponents, cluttering up their field and driving them closer to the end. You can target specific opponents with your junk rows, or anybody who’s close to going bust, or even just random people. (Really, Tetris 99 doesn’t care whose day you ruin.) And at the end there can be only one survivor. It’s like Fortnite or PUBG in puzzle form, wrapped around what’s probably the most famous videogame in the world.—Garrett Martin
22. Type Dreams
Type Dreams is a beautiful and elaborate game, both stylistically breathtaking and thematically enthralling. Featuring all the antique touches of Victorian era filmmaking, from the plinky honky tonk piano soundtrack to the occasional flicker of an ancient video reel, the game pits you against some of the world’s historical fastest typists in various tests of speed and skill. There are several types of modes and contests and competitors to choose from, and each pose a serious challenge even for those who speedtype on a daily basis; personally, I’m not great at it so far but I’m still completely enchanted.—Holly Green11
21. Yoshi’s Crafted World
Yoshi’s Crafted World is almost a kind of therapy for me. It’s like gaming detox. When I was fully overwhelmed by the stress and frustration of Sekiro, a retreat to the warm environs of this beautifully crafted world made all the difference. To use a metaphor that Yoshi’s presumed target audience has to be too young for, Yoshi’s Crafted World is the soothing chaser to the harsh shot that is Sekiro. The two have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are both videogames, but they unintentionally complement each other so well that I can’t really imagine playing one without the other now. And Yoshi’s Crafted World will no doubt have the same palliative effect when combined with any angry, serious violent spurt. It’s a game for all seasons and emotions, and almost entirely because of that glorious grade school aesthetic.—Garrett Martin