Smith: The best video games of 2017

Video Games Will Smith lists his top 20 video games of 2017. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

With so much talent in the video game industry, even the worst gaming years have produced 20 stellar titles worth mentioning.

But the adjective “stellar” isn’t quite big enough to describe the best games of 2017. I haven’t seen a crop of games this impressive for at least a decade. Maybe two.

Here’s my favorite 20 games of 2017.

20) “Gravity Rush 2” released Jan. 20

Other than an expanded world and a few slight modifications, “Gravity Rush 2” isn’t that different from the original.

That’s a compliment, though — not a complaint. Set in a magical world of floating islands that sit high above the clouds, “Gravity Rush 2” does a marvelous job of convincing the player they can fly. All you have to do is reverse the gravity and fall towards the sky, flipping through the air like Superman would if he didn’t have direct control of his body.

The beautiful, cel-shaded graphics do a nice job of distracting you from the repetitive missions, and the main character, Kat, is a boundless ball of energy who manages not to be annoying. It has all the magic of a good Disney film, and if I had kids, this is one of the games I would play with them.

19) “Star Trek: Bridge Crew” released May 30

Much as I feared, the half-formed litany of games for Sony’s VR headset hasn’t performed well — critically for financially. Much like full-motion video games from the early 1990s, VR games have earned more disdain than respect from hardcore gamers.

But somehow, “Star Trek Bridge Crew” manages to do VR right. By limiting the player to the captain’s chair, “Bridge Crew” replicates that authentic “Star Trek” atmosphere, right down to the voice commands that let you say “Engage” to go to warp — Jean-Luc Picard style. Manipulating console controls may not sound exciting, but wait until you’re under fire from four Klingon Birds-of-Prey.

18) “Resident Evil 7” released Jan. 24

There’s nothing better than seeing a beloved franchise resurrected after a horrendous fall.

“Resident Evil” games had been scaring the pants off me for 20 years, until the awful, action-oriented “Resident Evil 6″ was released in 2012. “Resident Evil 7” rights the franchise ship by returning the series to its creepy survival-horror roots, while freshening things up with a first-person perspective and a story that feels like it was ripped from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

In other words, it’s scary as hell.

17) “Blaster Master Zero” released March 9

Perhaps the most overlooked game on this list, “Master Blaster Zero” is retro without feeling stodgy. Originally released for the Nintendo Entertainment system back in 1989, this complete remaster looks 10 times better the original, and more importantly, is about 100 times easier.

Of course, this brand of nostalgia isn’t for everyone. The graphics are still simplistic (though stylishly so), and the game play consists of nothing more than driving around a leaping battle tank from a side-scrolling perspective.

That’s plenty enough for me.

16) “Nier: Automata” released March 7

I could try to describe this weird world of sentient automatons fighting steampunk robots with samurai swords , but I don’t fully understand it myself.

That’s part of the charm. Doused in washed-out sepia tones of color and sporting an epic soundtrack that reminds me of the anime classic “Akira,” “Nier: Automata” is everything that’s cool about Japanese video games. You can even listen to the dialogue in the original Japanese (with subtitles) if you like.

Developed by the same talent responsible for the exceptional “Bayonetta” series, the game is a nearly even mix hack-and-slash action and role-playing mechanics. A unique concoction that hasn’t been replicated by any other game this year.

15) “Metroid: Samus Returns” released Sept. 15

As excited as I was about a completely re-imagined version of the GameBoy classic “Metorid II: Return of Samus,” I feared it wouldn’t be in 3-D. Nintendo has all but abandoned the technology since releasing their 2DS handheld (a cheaper version of the 3DS without the 3D screen), and I expected Metroid would suffer the consequences.

As an eternal pessimist, I love being wrong. “Samus Returns” is presented in its full 3-D glory, and may be the last great title tied to the visual gimmick. The 3-D effect lends the hopping and shooting a depth of field previously unimaginable, turning a great game into something mind-bending.

14) “Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia” released May 19

A medieval fairy tale with the playful heart of an anime and the coldly realistic tone of “Games of Thrones,” this latest entry in the “Fire Emblem” series is actually a remake of the 1992 Nintendo game “Fire Emblem Gaiden.”

Don’t worry — I’d never heard of it, either.

Whatever its origins, “Fire Emblem Echoes” is a near perfect example of melee-based strategy that actually employs tactical thought. It’s also in full 3D, which gives surprising definition to the top-down perspective. The story is as melodramatic and intriguing as a good soap opera, and from a guy who watches pro wrestling, that’s a compliment.

13) “Golf Story” released Sept. 28

When I heard about the recent release of a role-playing-game that focused on golf rather than combat, I initially scoffed.

Ten seconds later, my mind processed the unique concoction, and I was ashamed of my initial reaction. “It’s actually a great idea,” I told myself. “But is the game any good?”

Indeed it is. Despite being a universal sports dunce who has never played golf in real life, I’ve been oddly captivated by video game golf since playing it on my IBM computer in the 1980s.

“Golf Story,” which is designed as a retro, faux 8-bit game that could have easily existed in the era of Nintendo’s late 80s dominance, delivers something even greater than it’s oxymoronic premise. A surprisingly touching story. Witty dialogue. And one of the most addicting golf engines I’ve ever played.

You don’t have to give a whit about golf for “Golf Story” to sweep you away. I certainly don’t.

12) “Horizon Zero Dawn” released Feb. 28

“Horizon Zero Dawn” is a cobbled together concept that could have easily ended in a disastrous mess. With its large overworld and focus on bow hunting, it feels a lot like a “Legend of Zelda” game. Only with robot dinosaurs.

If the game starred a typically bland male hero, this barely congealed experiment likely would have crumbled. But Aloy, a sympathetic heroine raised in an era where old technology is revered as religious script, gives the player plenty reason to care. The writing can be a bit on-the-nose, but Aloy’s charm and determination melt through the stodgy dialogue, adding a layer of personality to an abandoned world teeming with lush, magically colored vegetation.

“Horizon Zero Dawn” doesn’t look like a dream. It plays like one.

11) “Cuphead” released Sept. 29

“Cuphead” is so damn original, so damn beautiful, it could easily qualify as Game of the Year.

If I didn’t suck so bad at it, it may well have been. That’s kind of the whole point. “Cuphead” is a throwback to the overly difficult “bullet-hell” shooters of the 1990s, when bullets from every corner of the screen conspired to blow up your spacecraft.

But “Cuphead” isn’t like the litany of other indie games that emulate that bygone genre. It’s a full blown, animated cartoon that looks like it was ripped straight from the 1920s. Imagine playing the 1928 Disney short film “Steamboat Willie.” Only in color. With giant, adorable plant monsters and a protagonist who has a cup for a head instead of Mickey Mouse.

You don’t have to be interested in video games to enjoy a few seconds of the incredible visuals. There’s simply nothing else like it it.

10) “Xeonoblade Chronicles 2” released Dec. 1

I’m about 30 hours into this game right now, and I don’t want to stop playing it. Ever.

The original “Xenoblade Chronicles” proved to be just as addicting, despite underwhelming characters and a confusing story that didn’t match the quality of the nuanced battle system.

This time around, the series is firing every piston it has straight out of the engine block. The story and dialogue is as cheesy as you’d expect from an anime-influenced RPG. But it’s also epic and compelling, with likeable characters that benefit greatly from the British voice acting.

Then there’s the intentionally convoluted battle system, which is twice as complex as it was in the first game. All battles happen in real time as they would in an online RPG, and the interlocking systems of elemental and combo attacks keep the player pushing buttons like mad through every battle.

Simultaneously managing three characters, each who have three sub-characters attached to them (don’t ask), makes me feel like my head is going to explode. In a good way.

9) “South Park: The Fractured But Whole” released Oct. 17

I’m still kicking myself for not including the prequel to this game — “South Park: The Stick of Truth” — in my top 20 games of 2014. It was by far the funniest game of the year, and somehow, I completely forgot about it.

There’s no forgetting this hilariously filthy sequel. The comedy isn’t just dirty. It’s smart. It’s cutting. Best of all, it recreates the best aspects of childhood, such as fantasy battles with your friends that have to be put on hold every time a car rolls down the street.

The rather simplistic battle mechanics of the first have been rebuffed into a fascinating turn-based system that requires planning and creative thinking. A constant stream of jokes spew from the screen every few seconds, whether you’re in battle or simply walking down the street.

I can’t remember a moment of this game when I wasn’t laughing.

8) “Pyre” released July 25

The only game on this list as original as “Cuphead” and “Golf Story,” Prye” is a near symmetrical mash-up of role playing and soccer-like sports games. Think of it as a cross between rugby and Quidditch from Harry Potter — fitted with a touching story of redemption centered around exiled prisoners who must win this weird hybrid sports game to obtain their freedom.

The games are treated like reverential religious services rather than sporting events, and the beautiful, 2-D artwork and haunting music create an atmosphere akin to the moody “Blade Runner” film series.

“Prye” is so daring and experimental it must be judged on an individual basis. To discover its true merit, you need to play it for yourself.

7) “Sonic Mania” released Aug. 15

As a 10-year-old obsessed with Sega’s seminal platformer “Sonic the Hedgehog,” I never imagined I would be playing a bona fide, two-dimensional sequel three years shy of my 40th birthday.

It’s not just the game’s existence or pedigree that’s noteworthy. It’s the tight gameplay and massive, intricately designed levels. While many gaming historians consider the combined game of “Sonic the Hedgehog 3” and “Sonic and Knuckles” the greatest Sonic game ever made, this retro sequel manages to surpass it.

There’s only one platformer I played this year that was better, and it stars a chunky plumber in a bright red hat.

6) “Super Mario Odyssey” released Oct. 27

Sonic’s eternal rival from the “Super Mario Bros.” franchise never disappoints.

Unlike most Mario games, “Odyssey” doesn’t put its focus on intensely-timed jumping levels. It plays more like an action role-playing game, full of three-dimensional landscapes to explore. This time around, Mario can possess his enemies and use their special skills by throwing his hat at them, which is just as adorable (and useful) as it sounds.

The rewarding level design makes “Super Mario Odyssey” more than a good Mario game. It’s one of the best games in the franchise’s 30-year plus history, sharing the company of its hallowed 8-bit and 16-bit brethren.

5) “Persona 5” released April 4

I swear I didn’t place this 100 hour role-playing-game in the number five spot just because it’s the fifth game of the series.

To be honest, it could easily occupy the No. 1 spot.

Much like the previous entries, “Persona 5” features a quirky, Harry Potter-like story about a group of Japanese high school students fighting evil spirits in an alternate dimension. That alternate dimension is usually someone’s (metaphorical) heart, and the students have to rely on a sassy, talking cat to find their way around the winding hallways of strangers’ dreams.

It isn’t for everyone, but keep an open mind, and you’ll find a game bursting with personality that subverts traditional role-playing mechanics in favor of efficiency — a must for a game this long.

“Persona 5” also has the best soundtrack of the year — if you like Japanese pop music. And I do.

4) “Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle” released Aug. 29

I figured from the get-go I would adore this weird mix up of classic “Super Mario Bros.” characters and turn-based strategy, which is why I pre-ordered it.

But I didn’t foresee it becoming one of my favorite games of the year.

Of course, I’m a sucker for tactical combat games in the vein of “XCOM” and “Final Fantasy Tactics.” “Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle” doesn’t hide the genre’s well-worn conventions, though — it reinvents them. Characters can zip across huge chunks of the playfield by catapulting off their fellow party members, calling into question everything you know about determining range and taking cover.

The top-notch presentation feels like a Pixar film, culminating in my favorite boss battle of the year — a giant, floating rabbit in a tuxedo who continually sings opera music as he reigns terror down upon you.

3) “Yakuza 0” released Jan. 24

I finished “Yakuza 0” nine months ago after a fevered 130-hour marathon that stretched over several consecutive weeks.

Despite the full cycle of seasons that has passed since, the game is still in my head. I was so impressed with this open-world beat-’em-up that I bought a used PlayStation 3 off eBay (I had already given my old one away) just so I could play the prior games in the series.

All the “Yakuza” games tell a connected story of a Japanese gangster with a heart of gold and are packed with quirky mini-games, surreal humor and convoluted “Sopranos”-like plot lines dripping with overwrought melodrama.

“Yakuza 0” is the best in the series so far, barely edging out the remake of the first game, “Yakuza Kiwami,” which released a few months ago. It’s eternally silly (money flies from gangsters like busted pinatas when you beat them), culturally fascinating, and most importantly, addicting as all hell.

2) “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” released March 3

Most gaming critics capped off their Top 10 lists with this game, and for good reason.

Despite my emotional bias toward my No. 1 pick, I can easily qualify this latest Zelda entry as the best game of the year. In fact, it may be the best game of the past 20 years.

Featuring a massive open world that eschews the franchise’s more traditional dungeon design, “Breath of the Wild” continually delighted me in tiny ways. A physics-based puzzle I solved the wrong way but still got credit for. A rainstorm that resulted in a lightning strike because I forgot to put away my metal shield.

Based purely on square mileage, “Breath of the Wild” is the largest game I’ve ever played. But it never feels desolate, and every inch of forest, plains and mountains is designed to reveal hidden surprises and adventure.

This is emergent gameplay at it’s best. An example of what happens when the world’s greatest video game developer has an unlimited budget and half-a-decade of production time.

Game of the Year — “Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice” released Aug. 8

Video games are the soundtrack of my life.

I’ll forever associate the Flood of 2008 with “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.” I was playing “Resident Evil” the week of my first junior high dance.

For much of 2017, my mental record player of video game association was broken, and I feared it might be impossible to fix. Instead, my mental health crisis led to the most personal, emotional experience I’ve ever had with a video game.

Hiding behind a blunt, cliched title, “Hellblade” is ostensibly a third-person action/adventure hack-and-slash game with a viking setting.

But it’s so much more.

The intentionally sparse mechanics and bare bones swordplay disguise a topic most game publishers would stay far away from — mental health.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression on a daily basis, I was intrigued. By the time I finished the game after an all-night marathon, I was inspired.

“Hellblade” didn’t save my life. But it helped me point it in a positive direction.

Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye—a GateHouse Media Company—in Burlington, Iowa. His weekly column is printed in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.